Cults and love: The curious backstory of altruism

We are all familiar with the concept of altruism, that humans have always praised as a virtue of uncontested ethical value. It is a pretty universal idea that you can find in the credo of any religion, state and household, and is implemented in a kid’s life as early as when their parents force them to share their toys with their siblings. 

And yet, when looking up the definition and doing some research around it, I found out that the term “altruism” is actually a contemporary concept of the 19th Century that doesn’t mean exactly what you would think. Not only does it bring some food for thought on how we think about altruism, it also comes with an extremely curious backstory of cults, love and bizarre philosophy. It was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte, who went so far in his altruistic philosophy that most of his peers considered it a descent into madness.

Comte is today better known as the founder of Positivism, which he developed as an attempted remedy for the social disorder caused by the French Revolution of 1789. Despite often being omitted from the history books, his movement had a significant amount of followers all over the globe, and is even the origin of the Brazilian national motto “Ordem e Progresso”. The most curious aspect of his philosophy, that I will explain in an instant, is that there is a clear scission between two periods of his life: the “Good Comte” era and the “Bad Comte” era. His early studies were recognised for their work on the importance of the sciences, their classification, and an interesting historical theory called the law of three stages. He started losing credibility with his later works that aimed to build a Utopical and certainly unrealistic new form of society centered around the importance of art, love and religion. The reason for this variation? The beautiful Frenchwoman Clotilde de Vaux, who made him question everything he knew about the place of love, beauty and compassion in society. 

But let’s start from the beginning. Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, France in 1798. A brilliant student, he pursued scientific studies at the Ecole Polytechnique of Paris and developed a strong passion for sciences that shows in most of his works. He worked as a secretary for Henry de Saint-Simon, which allowed him to get involved in politics and publish some very successful articles. In 1824, he married Caroline Massin, whom he later divorced. He lead a troublesome life of constant rejections from the academic world, got interned for a nervous breakdown in 1826 and attempted suicide in 1827. His work was still recognised by scholars and revealed to be particularly popular in England. However, Comte affirmed that his “second career” started in 1844, when he met the married woman Clotilde de Vaux. Followed a “year like no other” during which they exchanged passionate letters, but never consummated their love due to Clotilde’s strong religious beliefs. Her premature death in April 1846 drove Comte to idolize her and build an entire religion around her, the “Religion of Humanity”, of which she was the new holy Mary. He was undoubtedly the type of boyfriend who would put Romeo to shame. 

Image: Clotilde and Auguste, as depicted by David Lebreure

It is by his work around his new religion that Compte truly started to consider altruism as a necessary pillar of society. The scholar’s disillusion with his current society led him to work on a “Utopian project” that was based on three major concepts: sociocracy, altruism, and the Religion of Humanity. Sociocracy was the “governance by people who know each other, friends or allies”. Altruism, on the other end, was “a theory of conduct that regards the good of others as the end of moral action.”. His “Religion of Humanity” was principally based on altruism, and followed the motto “Vivre pour autrui” (“Live for others”). 

This belief in the importance of altruism and what Comte called “the continuous dominance of the heart” is mostly part of the “Bad Comte” period. He didn’t consider that the mind was destined to rule the heart anymore, but rather to serve it. Love was a central aspect of human activity, and it should be channelled towards one element in particular: Humanity. 

And here is where it gets interesting. Comte theorised that men have love and passion to give, so they should direct it to mankind as a whole in order to celebrate and acknowledge civilisation. Altruism is therefore not just a disposition to help others, but rather a profound love for humanity. 

And how do you channel love? Through religion. Comte considered that it would be impossible for any intelligent person to believe in god in the modern world. The ancient texts and doctrines that supported religion had been written according to the needs of the people of Judea, which were far from being the same as the ones of the modern man and woman. (Please note that he principally referred to Christianism when he spoke about religion. He was a white European man from the 19th century, diversity wasn’t really his thing.) His solution was to create a new religion that was adapted to its own society, so that it could shape it accordingly. In his ideal view, the Religion of Humanity would be built around a few central points:

  • It would have three principal pillars: altruism, progress and order. 
  • It would follow a precise calendar of celebrations, where each month is dedicated to a human activity (science, agriculture, art…) and every day to a person with important contributions in that sector. The equivalent today would basically be celebrating an Elon Musk day or a Beyonce day.
  • Clotilde would be a central figure of the Church and a modern representation of the virgin mother. The Church would celebrate St Clotilde day and the Day of Holy Women, and portraits of Clotilde would be hung everywhere so that anyone with sorrows could go to her for consolation. 
  • Bankers would pay to fund the religious temples and their marble busts would be put at the entrance of the buildings. These infrastructures would become places of celebration, discussion and culture.
  • Since the religion celebrated humanity, and most of humanity had already lived, there was a reverence for death and dead people. As Comte macabrely puts it, les vivants sont nécessairement et de plus en plus gouvernés par les morts. (Living people are necessarily and increasingly governed by the dead.)
  • Of course, Comte would be the highest figure in the Church, a “high priest of Humanity” who would live off the charity of his followers.

Believe it or not, you can find two temples dedicated to this religion today in Brasil and Paris.

Image: The front of la chapelle de l’Humanité in Paris

Overall, even if I made fun of him here and there, Comte’s contribution to fields such as politics, sociology, the classification of sciences, the philosophy of altruism and positivism are truly remarkable. Furthermore, the fact that altruism was first born as a love for humanity, and not mere selflessness, brings more to the table when considering why we should help others. In this optic, people who are considered altruistic are those who do good for the service of humanity out of love. That would then exclude:

  • Anyone who is helping individuals, and not humanity as a whole. If you help your friend, you are doing it out of love for them as people, and not as love for humanity. If you save 10 kids with a donation without ever knowing their names or faces, you are not doing it for the individuals since you don’t have any link to them, but you are doing it for the concept of humanity, which is what makes it altruism.
  • Anyone who is not helping out of love. If you do any good action for humanity that is driven by something else – a need to feel good about yourself, a coincidence, a need for distraction – you are then not altruistic in Comte’s philosophy.

Would you agree with this view of altruism? Or do you consider it as crazy as founding a new religion for your dead ex-girlfriend? Either way, I invite you to check out our resources page if you are interested in doing good, and I’ll leave you with another one of Comte’s aphorisms (a normal one this time, I swear):

‘We tire of thinking and even of acting; we never tire of loving’

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