August Comte 1847

Letter to Madame Comte:
“An affection he will always be proud of”

Source: Correspondance Inédite d'Auguste Comte, fourth series. Paris, au Siège de la Société Positiviste, 1903;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2012.

Translator’s note: Comte’s marriage was a troubled, nay, a disastrous one, as this letter attests. But though he was the philosopher with what was, after perhaps only Herbert Spencer, the most rebarbative of styles, this important letter attests to his romantic side as he confesses to Mme Comte his (unconsummated) eternal love for Clotilde de Vaux. It was his love for this woman abandoned by her ne’er-do-well husband that led him to found his Religion of Humanity. His followers purchased Clotilde’s home at 5, rue Payenne in the Marais as its temple, which it remains to this day. Across its front are the words: “Love as principle, order as the basis, progress as the goal.”

Sunday, January 10, 1847

A fatal marriage, the sole capital error of my entire life, imposes upon me special obligations towards you, which I dare say I have always scrupulously fulfilled. Your overall conduct over the past twenty-two years has finally reduced these to simple pecuniary obligations, on the subject of which I am certain I deserve no reproach. Though the pension I accorded you at the time of our irrevocable separation was obviously exaggerated for my position, I was pained when the material persecution I am now suffering forced me to suppress a third of it. Until now every trimester’s account was precisely paid in advance at one or another rate, and so you should look upon the current delay as the result of insurmountable temporary embarrassments, which I complain of particularly because of their reaction upon you. All of this is caused by the exceptional delay in M. Laville’s monthly payments. I don’t think that you can seriously fear the least indifference or negligence on my part concerning so serious an obligation. The experience of the last twelve years assures me that that periodical revenue will soon once again take its usual course, which will allow me to immediately send you the final trimester of 1846.

Though the resources I have created for myself in order to await the reestablishment of my position at the Polytechnique look like they will soon be sufficient, I will nevertheless be forced, doubtless for a few more trimesters, to not satisfy you in advance, as I did before this crisis. But I count on returning to this usage as soon as my situation allows it. What is more, I cannot believe that after having received for three and a half years an annual pension of 3,000 francs, which was only reduced to 2,000 for the past year, you haven’t amassed savings capable of allowing you to put up with a few delays that are foreseen and even announced.

A definitive though recent split prevents me from keeping M. Lenoir as the intermediary for the sending of money, though he has offered to continue. In all regards I find it better he be replaced by M. Littré if, as you point out, he truly accepts this quarterly mission, in which case I will utilize him starting with the next occasion in the form you desire. But don’t think that this new mode in any way dispenses you of the customary receipts, which I will continue to count on. Any renewal of the strange difficulties in this regard of the first two years of our final situation would only result in my changing the mode of transmission by sending you a simple messenger, who would be unable to deliver anything without a quittance.

The obvious bad faith with which you explain your definitive abandonment of the conjugal roof would suffice to forbid me any vain discussion on this subject, even if I hadn’t closed these pointless debates four years ago. Think or speak in this regard as you wish, attributing to me all the wrongs you'd like, but be sure that the situation is irrevocable and that I will never see you again. You have long misunderstood me, taking for weakness of character an excess of indulgence and magnanimity that were in reality a goodness of heart. Experience must now have taught you that if my determination is at times slow to form, in the end it becomes inflexible.

After you left me for the third serious time in May 1838, when I consented to allow you to return without my having solicited it, I warned you that the fourth time would be eternal. I often repeated this loyal advice, and during the final months of your stay, until the decisive moment of August 1842, I provided you the remonstrances and legal notices that my duty demanded. If your foolish pride at first led you to believe I could never live without you, experience must soon have disabused you. Three months after your departure I had already made clear my final domestic situation almost as publicly as today.

As for your inconceivable threat to return due to financial necessity, beware Madame: any such attempt would only be disastrous for you. I love peace but do not fear war of whatever kind. No pecuniary distress will ever lead me to overcome the too just antipathy that time and reflection increasingly worsen by allowing me to better appreciate all of your wrongs towards me. Peace is my sole domestic good, the very basis of my health, and the indispensable condition of a good philosophical employment of the few energetic years that are left for my elevated social mission. For the past four and a half years I have finally enjoyed this, and I have so appreciated it that I am determined to ensure it by all legitimate means. It is impossible that you regard this return as being advisable, independent of a consent I will never give. In order to better forestall any vain efforts I warn you once and for all that if you make a real attempt to do this I will immediately make a legal demand for separation.

Your husband,
August Comte

Wanting to make sure that you have no illusions concerning the possibility of ever seeing me again, I must seize the very natural occasion you offer me today to reveal to you something M. Lenoir already explained to you last July, though his unheard of weakness prevented him from fulfilling that voluntary office.

No one knows better you than to what extent my true domestic situation would have long-since authorized an exceptional affection, but I dispensed from in any way invoking these unfortunate rights. The simple comparison of a few irrefutable dates would place my conduct above any attack, even if the noble bond that I must inform you of had not preserved until the very end that purity about which I will always be happy and proud.

Two years after our separation, in October 1844, I saw for the first time at her parents’ home, a young woman as irreproachable as she was charming; one who at first excited my particular sympathy because of a domestic destiny too analogous to my own, though even more dire and unjust. With an intelligence less distinguished than yours, her heart infinitely surpassed yours. The virtuous passion I had the happiness to gradually conceive for her will forever constitute the principal phase of my private life. For one unequalled year the profound moral revolution that could only be produced in me by such an influence happily acted on the whole of my new philosophical elaboration, bringing out more clearly and decisively the true sentimental character of Positivism. Though twelve years younger than you, my angelic Clotilde soon granted me the reciprocity of affection I was never able to obtain from you. But after having thus maintained a blessed happiness it wasn’t long until I felt as painfully as possible to what extent I am forever fated to suffer private unhappiness. At the beginning of last Spring I saw that noble and tender victim succumb despite my most ardent care; I was assisted by the active devotion that for eighteen months kept my excellent Sophie alongside the woman whose soul was great enough to treat that eminent domestic as a sister.

Such, Madame, was my only true wife, she who, during the only night I passed under her roof at the beginning of her agony, after receiving the extreme unction, spontaneously characterized my entire private destiny with this touching summary: “You didn’t have a companion for very long!” For nine months I haven’t allowed a single week to pass without visiting her sacred grave to renew the solemn promises that eased her final days. This external cult is in any event but the sign of an even more assiduous internal cult that will last as long as I do, since it constitutes my principal private satisfaction. After six months of incomparable pain I have only been able to take up again my philosophical labors by fulfilling the exceptional dedication promised my eternal colleague, in this way publicly demonstrating the profound gratitude, both personal and social, that her powerful involuntary influence on the fundamental improvement of my second work deserves.

Given the inevitable resultant publicity it was appropriate in all regards, Madame, that you be specially informed of an intimacy which, despite its short duration, will perhaps immortalize, alongside my own, the name of the angel whose life I was unable to save. Though your heart has never understood mine I hope you know me well enough to sense that I felt much sorrow in addressing you this explanation, which has become as indispensable to your repose as to mine. The insufficiency of those who I long ago charged with doing this forced me, dispute my just fear of afflicting you, to see to it myself, seizing one of these necessarily increasingly rare occasions that lead me to write you. In any case, this method was perhaps the one most worthy of a man who has never feared to live in broad daylight, and who even more has no need of either mystery or excuse on the subject of an affection he will always be proud of.