AUGUST COMTE (1798–1857)

The Catechism of Positive Religion

 or Summary Exposition of the Universal Religion in Thirteen Systematic Conversations Between a Woman and a Priest of Humanity

Translated by Richard Congreve.  Third ed., revised and corrected [1891].  Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1973 [First English Translation 1858].  3rd ed. 1891 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company Limited, 1891).


[33] The Woman.—I have often asked myself, my dear father, why you persist in designating as a religion your universal doctrine, though it rejects all supernatural belief…. I ask you to [34] begin your exposition by explaining, in direct and precise language, the radical sense of the word Religion.

           The Priest.—This name, my dear daughter, has, in fact, by its etymology no necessary connection with any of the opinions  that may be used for attaining the end to which it points.  In itself, it expresses the state of perfect unity, which is distinctive of our existence, both individual and social, when all its parts, moral as well as physical, habitually converge towards a common purpose.  Thus the term would be equivalent to the word synthesis, were it not that this last, not by force of its composition, but by nearly universal custom, is now limited entirely to the domain of the intellect, whilst the other embraces all the attributes of man.  Religion, then, consists in regulating each individual nature, and in rallying all the separate individuals; which are but two distinct cases of one problem. For every man, in the successive periods of his life, differs from himself not less than at any one time he differs from others; so that the laws of permanence and participation are identical.

           Such harmony, for the individual or society, not being ever fully attainable, so complicated is our existence, this definition of religion delineates, then the unchanging type to which tends more and more the totality of human effort.  Our happiness and our merit consist, above all, in drawing as near as possible to this unity the gradual development of which is the best measure of real progress towards individual or social perfection….

           The value always set on this synthetical state naturally concentrated attention on the method of attaining it.  Thus men were led, taking the means for the end, to transfer the name of religion to whatever system of [35] opinions it represented.  But however irreconcilable these numerous beliefs at first sight appear, Positivism brings them into essential agreement, by referring each to the purpose it answered in its own time and country.  There is, at bottom, but one religion, at once universal and final, to which all the partial and provisional syntheses more and more pointed, so far as their respective conditions allowed.

           [37] The Woman.—…what are its [religion’s] general conditions.

           The Priest.—A right judgment on this point… follows from a searching examination of the word religion….  To constitute a complete and durable harmony, what is really wanted is to bind together the within by love and to bind it again to the without by faith.  Such, generally stated, is the necessary participation of the heart and the intellect as regards the synthetical state, individual or collective.

[Submitted by James A. Santucci]