A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images. — Albert Camus


Auguste Comte's (1798-1857) positive philosophy, which rejected the idea of divine creation and providence, exerted a significant influence on the development of Thomas Hardy's views of religion, history, society and morality. Hardy studied Comte frequently and critically and had close contacts with English Positivists, but he never became a declared Positivist himself, although he employed various Positivist terminology and ideas in his novels and poetry.

Auguste Comte's positive philosophy

Auguste Comte formulated a highly influential philosophy and ideology of Positivism, which also attracted a number of intellectuals in Victorian England. He argued in his lengthy major work, Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842), that society has evolved through three stages: .

  1. Theological
  2. Metaphysical
  3. Scientific (positive)

The theological stage, which lasted until the Enlightenment, was characterised by the predominant impact of religion on social life. The metaphysical stage, initiated by the French Revolution, produced the justification that universal human rights, such as freedom and equality, were superior to any divine or individual human authority. The third stage, the scientific or positive one, denies the validity of religious or abstract speculations and maintains that scientific laws are the only criterion of human knowledge.

In his second major work, Systeme de politique positive: ou, Traité de sociologie, instituant la religion de l'humanité (1851-1854), translated into English by J. H. Bridges and others as The System of Positive Polity, or Treatise on Sociology, Instituting the Religion of Humanity (1875-1877), Comte transformed his positive philosophy into what he called the Religion of Humanity and proclaimed himself its High Priest. He made detailed plans for a Positivist Church, a Catechism of Positive Religion with secular sacraments and celebrations, and a Positivist Calendar commemorating the great figures from the history of science and human progress. Many of his followers and disciples rejected this transformation of Comtism, and John Stuart Mill, one of his close associates, made a distinction between a 'good' Comte (the author of the Course) and a 'bad' Comte (the author of the System) (Fadul and Estoque 3).

Positivism in England

Positive philosophy was popularised in England after 1853 by Harriet Martineau, who 'freely translated and condensed' to two volumes Comte's six-volume Cours de philosophie positive as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. In the Preface she proclaimed:

We find ourselves suddenly living and moving in the midst of the universe, — as a part of it, and not as its aim and object We find ourselves living, not under capricious and arbitrary conditions, unconnected with the constitution and movements of the whole, but under great, general, invariable laws, which operate on us as a part of the whole. [xiv]

Martineau's translation, which was more readable than Comte's original work, contributed to the spread of the knowledge of positive philosophy in England. Two other important adherents and popularisers of Positivism were George Henry Lewes, who published in 1853 Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences and in 1867 The History of Philosophy from Thales to Comte, and John Stuart Mill, who published in 1865 Auguste Comte and Positivism. Martineau, like Lewes and Mill. later rejected many of Comte's ideas, particularly, his views on the role of women, liberty, and his reactionary political views (Hill and Hoecker-Drysdale 173)

In the 1850s, Comte's works exerted a great influence on a group of students at Wadham College, Oxford, who were engaged in theological debates. They included Frederic Harrison, Edward Spencer Beesley, and John Henry Bridges, who formed a debating club, known as the Confederacy of the Scholars of Wadham, where they discussed social, political and religious questions. Their tutor and mentor was Richard Congreve (1818-1899), whom Comte called in a letter “my eminent disciple" (Bryson 347). In 1854, Congreve resigned as Fellow and Tutor of Wadham and devoted himself to preaching Comte's Religion of Humanity in England. Soon Harrison followed his tutor's path and went to Paris where he met Comte, who induced him to study physical sciences so that he could better understand tenets of positive philosophy. After Comte's death in 1857, Congreve, Harrison, and others continued to spread positive philosophy in England.

Bridges translated A General View of Positivism (1865), Congreve translated The Catechism of the Positive Religion (1858), and Bridges, Harrison, and others translated The System of Positive Polity (1875-1877). In 1867, Congreve and Harrison founded the London Positivist Society to discuss social, economic, and political questions from the standpoint of Positivism. In 1870, Congreve opened a Positivist School at 9 Chapel Street, in Holborn, London. In 1878, Congreve and a small group of his followers set up The Church of Humanity in the former school at Chapel Street. In 1881, a splinter group, led by Harrison, created a separate Positivist Committee at Newton Hall in Fetter Lane and began the publication of a monthly journal, The Positivist Review, which remained under this name until 1924, when it changed its title to Humanity.

Some adherents of Comte's positive philosophy were converted to his Religion of Humanity, described in The System of Positive Polity, which promised to offer a substitute of Christianity to many agnostics and atheists who looked for new, secular dogmas and rituals. The possibility of replacing Christianity with an alternative religion based on scientific principles and humanist values, might have been attractive to Hardy. However, his intellectual mentor, Thomas Henry Huxley, nicknamed 'Darwin's Bulldog', made a sweeping critique of Comte's theory as early as 1869:

In so far as my study of what specially characterises the Positive Philosophy has led me, I find therein little or nothing of any scientific value, and a great deal, which is as thoroughly antagonistic to the very essence of science as anything in ultramontane Catholicism. In fact, M. Comte's philosophy in practice might be compendiously described as Catholicism minus Christianity. [141]

Hardy met Huxley in London a few times and spoke of him with admiration: “as a man who united a fearless mind with the warmest of hearts and the most modest of manners” (124). Having in mind Huxley's scathing remark about Comte's philosophy, Hardy probably approached it with some reservation.

Thomas Hardy's tragic vision and Comtean Positivism

G. W. Sherman claims that “Hardy's philosophy was a curious amalgam of Darwin and Comte” (432). Hardy first came under the influence of Positivism when his friend and mentor, Horace Moule, gave him a copy of Comte's A General View of Positivism with Frederic Harrison's Preface. It was a revised and abridged account of Cours de Philosophie Positive, which appeared in complete English translation in 1896 as The Course of Positive Philosophy. The book outlined the epistemological tenets of Positivism, indicated ways of implementing Comte's philosophy or doctrine into society, and finally, introduced the secular Religion of Humanity, founded on the principle of 'love, order and progress', which was to replace Christian religion as the object of spiritual worship. “Though Hardy could not share Comte's evolutionary optimism, during this idealistic phase of his life Comte was a special influence upon him, and probably assisted the gradual erosion of his religious belief” (Harvey 15).

Hardy, it seems, discovered in Comte's writings ethical alternatives to Christianity, which might have prompted him to develop his own philosophy of 'evolutionary meliorism', although he was rather skeptical about the Religion of Humanity. Like Comte, Hardy was hostile to the Christian doctrine of salvation. He appreciated Comte's philosophy due to the fact that it offered a non-religious morality based on scientific foundations. Besides, Comte's positive philosophy included the notion of determinism which was one of Hardy's most important philosophical tenets. Due to Comte's inspiration, Hardy used in his fiction and poetry some terms and motifs derived from positive philosophy. As Lennart A. Björk notes, “The Life reveals that Hardy read Comte’s Positive Philosophy ‘and writings of that school’ so extensively in the early 1870s that his own vocabulary acquired Positivists overtones” (44) The Literary Notebooks of Thomas Hardy contain a lot of references and annotations to Comte and English Positivists, Harriet Martineau, Leslie Stephen, George Lewes, J. H. Bridges, Edward Spencer Beesley, John Morley and Frederic Harrison. When in London, Hardy occasionally attended Positivist lectures at Newton Hall.

Several Hardy characters can be described as Positivists and some terms and ideas of Comte's positive philosophy can be found in all Hardy's major novels. The most characteristic influence was Comte's ethical doctrine of altruism. Hardy employed tenets of altruistic ethics in his major fiction. According to George Wotton:

We find his altruistic views contained in his belief in evolutionary meliorism and in his 'doctrine' of the Universe growing 'sympathetic', a belief reinforced by the law of evolution, which, he wrote, 'shifted the centre of altruism from humanity to the whole conscious world collectively'. [6]

Similarly, Suzanne Keen points out that Hardy contributed to the dissemination of Comte's concept of altruism which has led to the formation of the modern idea of empathy, i.e. the capacity to share or recognise emotions or feelings experienced by another person, real or fictional.

Hardy’s use of the word altruism to describe what we would call empathy emphasizes an important Victorian source of what twentieth-century psychology calls the empathy-altruism hypothesis: Victorian psychology’s response to Positivism. [Keen]

In his fiction Hardy skillfully contrasted human empathy with divine insensitivity. (Maynard 153) His narrative strategy prompted readers to empatise with the tragic characters, such as Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Wye, Wildeve and Thomasin (The Return of the Native), Henchard (The Mayor of Casterbridge), Tess and Angel Clare (Tess of the d'Urbervilles), Sue Bridehead and Jude Fawley (Jude the Obscure).

Thomas Hardy, like a number of Victorian intellectuals and writers who abandoned their religious faith, was attracted by the Positivist ideas of Auguste Comte. He was particularly influenced by his theory of ethical evolution and social dynamics (social change). However, Comte's utopian and bizarre plan for a perfect Positivist society did not appeal to Hardy. His pessimistic vision of human existence dominates his novels and poetry, overshadowing occasional glimpses of Comte's scientific optimism. Comte's concept of altruism seems to be the most evident and durable influence in Hardy's novels.

References and Further Reading

Bailey, J. O. “Evolutionary Meliorism in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy,” Studies in Philology, 60(3), 1963, 569-587.

Björk, Lennart. Psychological Vision and Social Criticism in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.

Butler, Lance St. John, ed. Thomas Hardy After Fifty Years. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1977.

Brennecke, Ernest Jr. Thomas Hardy's Universe: A Study of a Poet's Mind. Boston: Small Maynard and Company, 1924.

Jacquette, Dale, ed. Schopenhauer, Philosophy and the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Duffin, H.C. Thomas Hardy: A Study of the Wessex Novels, The Poems and The Dynasts. Manchester: University Press, 1964.

Gossin, Pamela. Thomas Hardy's Novel Universe: Astronomy, Cosmology, and Gender in the Post-Darwinian World. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007.

Hardy, Evelyn. Thomas Hardy. London: Hogarth Press, 1954.

Hyman, Virginia R. Ethical Perspective in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. Port Washington: N.Y.: National University Publishers, 1975.

Karl, Frederick R. “The Mayor of Casterbridge, A New Fiction Defined,” Modern Fiction Studies, VI(3), 1960, 195-213.

Kramer, Dale, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Mallett, Phillip, ed. Thomas Hardy in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Newton, K. M. Modern Literature and the Tragic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Pite, Ralph. Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin Books, 2006.

Weber, Carl J. Hardy of Wessex, His Life and Literary Career. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

Last modified 6 September 2014