Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de (1760–1825)

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The French social philosopher, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, the founder of French socialism, was the eldest son of an impoverished nobleman. He was educated privately by tutors, among them the encyclopedist Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. Beginning a military career at the age of seventeen, he took part in the American Revolution and was wounded at the naval battle of Saintes in 1782. Despite subsequent disclaimers, Saint-Simon actively supported some of the measures introduced by the French Revolution of 1789. He renounced his title; he also drew up the cahier of his locality for the Estates General and presided at the meeting at which his commune elected a mayor. Although his revolutionary zeal earned him two certificates of civisme, his activities were not wholly disinterested. He took advantage of the sale at low prices of church and émigré property by making considerable purchases. He was arrested in 1793, but since it transpired that a mistake had been made, he was released the following year. He was active in political life under the Directory, among other things participating in the peace negotiations with the English at Lille.

Saint-Simon finally retired from governmental and financial activity and embarked on the career of writer and prophet that continued until the end of his life. He first studied physics for three years, at the same time forming friendships with a number of leading scientists and writers whom he helped to support. Later he traveled extensively, especially in Germany, England, and Switzerland. It was not until 1814, however, when he found an able and enthusiastic collaborator and disciple in the future historian Augustin Thierry, that his writings began to reach a wide public, particularly among the managers and businessmen who had risen to positions of influence during the Napoleonic era. The list of subscribers for his publication L'industrie, the first number of which appeared in 1816, included various prominent industrialists and bankers. The next year Saint-Simon's partnership with Thierry ended, and he began an association with Auguste Comtean event of considerable significance, for it was in Comte's later work that some of Saint-Simon's fundamental conceptions were given more systematic and trenchant expression than their originator had been able to achieve. The collaboration between these two forceful personalities lasted for seven years but was finally broken by a quarrel in 1824, the year before Saint-Simon's death.

Ideals and Reality

"The philosophy of the eighteenth century has been critical and revolutionary: that of the nineteenth century will be inventive and destructive" (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. XV, p. 92). This remark accurately reflects the position that Saint-Simon envisaged himself as occupying in the history of political and social ideas. He in no way wished to underestimate the achievements of his Enlightenment predecessors the philosophes, who by their bold attacks upon the traditional frameworks of thought and their criticisms of existing institutions had prepared the way for the vast upheaval of the French Revolution. Saint-Simon saw in the writings of such men as Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and the Marquis de Condorcet anticipations of his own belief that human affairs should be approached in a scientific, Newtonian spirit of inquiry, and he sympathized with their contention that religious dogmas had over the centuries become the means by which the mass of the people had been held in ignorant and superstitious servitude to their rulers. He also shared the humanitarian and internationalist ideals that had inspired the work of his predecessors. (His subscription to these ideals, apparent in all his main publications, was perhaps most distinctively expressed in Nouveau Christianisme [Paris, 1825], an essay that appeared at the very end of his life.)

On the other hand, Saint-Simon's work also pointed forward to the quite new ways of conceptualizing and interpreting social relations that were later to gain wide currency through the writings of Karl Marx. In particular, Saint-Simon exhibited a far firmer grasp of the conditions that determine and mold historical change than had earlier thinkers, and this profoundly affected the form taken by his own practical recommendations. Sincerely held utopian ideals, even when carefully worked out in detailed political programs, were by themselves quite useless, he held, if they did not take account of these conditions. Utopian changes, if put into effect, were likely to result in a vacuum that would eventually be filled by forces as undesirable as those which had been expelled. The destruction of outdated institutions was one thing; their replacement by others of lasting validity, adapted to the technological, economic, and social requirements of the time, was another. This was surely the lesson of the French Revolution. Had not the high hopes and aspirations that marked its beginning ultimately foundered in atrocities, suffering, and tyranny?

Historical Change

Despite the importance he assigned to it, Saint-Simon never set out his conception of historical change and development in a precise or systematic form. Like his other contributions to social theory, it was put forward in a somewhat disjointed and piecemeal fashion. Nevertheless, an outline of his view can be extracted from various works, notably from his writings in the periodical L'organisateur (Paris, 18191820). Saint-Simon spoke as if he had discovered a necessary law of evolution valid for all societies at all times, but the kernel of what he had to say was actually based upon a single instance, the transformation that had overtaken European society since the feudal period. The chief originality and importance of his analysis of how this change came about lay in his recognition of the role played by the emergence and conflict of classes and of the way in which such conflict issues in new forms of political organization and of ideology adapted to the interests of the socially and economically dominant class. The institutions and beliefs of the Middle Ages fulfilled a perfectly intelligible, and indeed necessary, function from the point of view of the stage of development society had at that time reached (it is notable that Saint-Simon's approach to medieval history was considerably more sympathetic than that of either his Enlightenment predecessors or his liberal contemporaries).

Only later, with the enfranchisement of the communes, the emergence of a class of independent producers, and the subsequent growth of an industrial system of production under the impact of scientific and technological advances, did feudal organization become evidently anachronistic. Then the very features of the framework that had provided medieval society with the protection and unity of purpose it required impeded the free development of the new forces germinating within it. Thus, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the culmination of two major developments. On the one hand, there were increasingly effective attacks by the commons against privileges and institutions that had outgrown their social utility; on the other, the doctrines of the church, which during the Middle Ages had performed valuable services but which had been rendered obsolete by scientific discoveries, were subjected to a series of unanswerable criticisms. The net result was "the ruin of the old system in its parts and as a whole" (Oeuvres complètes, Vol. XX, p. 104).

Economic and Political Program

The lessons Saint-Simon drew from previous developments for his own time were far-reaching. Although the old order was in a general condition of dissolution, it had still not been wholly superseded. Many of the chief centers of power and influence remained in the hands of "more or less incapable bureaucrats" (ibid., pp. 1726), idlers, and ignoramuses who owed their positions to the accident of birth or inherited wealth and who were in effect no better than destructive parasites. To a considerable extent "men still allow themselves to be governed by violence and ruse" (ibid.). In order to remedy this state of affairs, Saint-Simon appealed directly to the leaders of the new class of industriels, claiming that the hour had arrived for them to take into their own hands the management of society and thereby complete the revolution that had been maturing for so long. Only if this were done could society be reorganized in a way that would ensure its direction by efficient administrators, men who would see that those who could make a genuinely productive contribution to its advance and prosperity were no longer ignored or exploited and received, instead, their appropriate reward.

Yet despite his insistence on the need for social justice, Saint-Simon had little faith in political democracy. He envisaged a hierarchical system, characterized by equality of opportunity rather than equality of wealth and run on explicitly elitist lines. The central administration of the community would consist of three chambersthe chamber of invention, the chamber of examination, and the chamber of deputies. Of these the first was to consist of artists and engineers who would propose plans, the second of scientists who would critically assess the proposals and also control education, and the third of captains of industry whose function would be executive and who (Saint-Simon somewhat optimistically assumed) would give just consideration to the interests of all members of the industrial class, workers and managers alike. Saint-Simon appears to have thought that in the type of society he had in mind, which would be rationally planned in a manner advantageous to all, there would be little or no need for the use of force to compel obedience to law and that government in the traditional sense would no longer be required. There is a clear anticipation of the Marxian conception of the withering away of the state.

Ethics and Religion

Saint-Simon was always conscious of the importance of moral and social ideals in helping to promote harmony and a sense of purpose in human communities. In medieval times the Christian religion had performed this role, and he thought that there was a place for a comparable system of beliefs, adapted to contemporary knowledge and interests, in any viable modern society. For the creation of such a system he initially looked to philosophy, but in his later years he recommended a return to the fundamental tenets of Christian teaching. The ethical doctrines of Christianity, he held, retained their validity even if the theological and metaphysical dogmas associated with them are no longer acceptable.


It is impossible in a short space to do justice to the fertility and originality of Saint-Simon's thinking on what he called social physiology. An untidy, impatient, and inelegant expositor of his own ideas, he nonetheless understood the central issues of his time better than many of his contemporaries and exhibited a keener insight into the economic and technical realities that lie beneath the surface of political arrangements and change. Marx indisputably owed a significant debt to him, but Marx was only one among a host of nineteenth-century thinkers who profited in one way or another from Saint-Simon's perceptive and imaginative mind.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Comte, Auguste; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Condorcet, Marquis de; Enlightenment; Marx, Karl; Social and Political Philosophy.


works by saint-simon

Oeuvres complétes de Saint-Simon et Enfantin, 47 vols. Paris, 18651876.

Lettres d'un habitant de Genève à ses contemporains. Edited by A. Pereire. Paris, 1925. Written in 1803.

Textes choisis. Edited by J. Dautry. Paris, 1951.

Selected Writings. Translated, with an introduction, by F. M. H. Markham. Oxford: Blackwell, 1952.

Henri Saint-Simon (17601825): Selected Writings on Science, Industry and Social Organisation. Translated and edited by Keith Taylor. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975.

The Political Thought of Saint-Simon. Edited by Ghita Ionescu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

works on saint-simon

Berlin, Isaiah. "Saint-Simon." In Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Carlisle, R. B. The Proffered Crown. Saint-Simonianism and the Doctrine of Hope. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Dondo, M. M. The French Faust, Henri de Saint-Simon. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.

Durkheim, Émile. Le socialisme. Edited by Marcel Mauss. Paris: Alcan, 1928. Translated by Charlotte Sattler as Socialism and Saint-Simon. Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch Press, 1958.

Ferrarotti, Franco. "Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon." In An Invitation to Classical Sociology: Meditations on Some Great Social Thinkers. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2003.

Iggers, Georg G. The Cult of Authority; The Political Philosophy of the Saint-Simonians, 2nd ed. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970.

Manuel, F. E. The New World of Henri de Saint-Simon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Plamenatz, J. P. Man and Society. London: Longmans, 1963. Vol. II, Ch. 2.

Patrick Gardiner (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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