Claude Henri de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon (1760-1825)

by Naomi J. Andrews
History Department
Santa Clara University

Nobleman of the ancien regime, real estate speculator, "utopian" socialist and theorizer of the bureaucratic state -- all of these descriptors can apply to Claude Henri de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon. In many ways a fitting embodiment of the spirit of the Super-Enlightenment collection, his thought and life bridge temporally, spiritually and intellectually the 18th and 19th centuries. In the span of his career he moved from active support of the anti-clerical French Revolution of 1789, to vociferous criticism of the resurgent Restoration Church to advocacy of his own renewal of Christianity in Nouveau Christianisme (1825). In his economic beliefs he traversed the apparent divide between the "rationalist" 18th century and the "romantic" 19th century. Thus the early 19th century found him publicizing the liberal economics of the haute bourgeoisie, and the end of his life proposing a centralized economy that aimed to satisfy the needs of all members of society, especially the "poorest and most numerous," denouncing all inherited wealth along the way. His legacy was ultimately ensured by the Saint Simonians, led by Prosper Enfantin, who took inspiration from his work and went in directions he would not have recognized.

Saint-Simon's life and career are conventionally divided into two phases, breaking near the end of the Napoleonic era and marked by a profound transition in both his pecuniary and mental stability. He was born in 1760, to a noble family from northern France that was related to the chronicler of Louis XIV's court, the Duc de Saint Simon. In 1779 he entered the Touraine regiment and fought in the American Revolutionary War, most notably at the Battle of Yorktown with George Washingon. Upon his return to France he became an ardent supporter of the revolutionaries in his home territory, simultaneously benefiting from the turmoil of the era by buying Church lands leveraged against the ever-declining value of the paper assignat. His activities as a speculator led him to Paris, where he was briefly imprisoned during the Terror. After Robespierre's fall he was well-placed in Directory circles, establishing a salon that drew bankers, politicians, artists, and scientists, some of whose work he subsidized. The early Napoleonic period saw Saint Simon entering into a brief marriage, with Alexandrine-Sophie Goury de Champgrand, an impoverished but charming woman, well-suited to hosting his salon. A marriage of convenience, it ended in divorce less than a year after it began.

In 1802, while traveling to Geneva to propose to the recently widowed Germaine de Staël, Saint Simon published the earliest of his writings, included in this collection, Lettres d'un habitant de Genève à ses contemporains. Although his ideas evolved significantly over subsequent decades, Saint Simon's longterm interests are already evident. Here he focuses on the role of the scientist, analyzes class conflict from the perspective of property ownership, and emphasizes the central importance of religious belief in a well-ordered society. He also proposed a new religious establishment, the Religion of Newton. Although in many ways a child of the louche Directory and its relatively laissez-faire social and economic practices, Saint Simon was already beginning to formulate a vision of an organic society, within which the libertarian individualism of the era would necessarily take a back seat to the needs of the community as a whole.

During 1812-1813, deep in poverty, Saint Simon fell into a period of mental illness, from which he recovered in 1814 under the treatment of the idéologue psychiatrist, Philippe Pinel. Thereafter his economic situation was ameliorated by a small annuity from his family, ensuring a limited but reliable income to the end of his life. He then began what we might identify as the second, more intellectually ambitious, phase of his career. From this point onward he published frequently, usually with the assistance and collaboration of a secretary. With a seemingly unerring instinct, Saint Simon employed several promising young men in this post, among them future historian, Augustin Thierry, the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte, and the mathematician and future apostle of the Saint Simonians, Olinde Rodrigues. During the period of the Bourbon Restoration Saint Simon's writings were focused on international alliances for universal peace, exalting the modern commercial state over the archaic military one. These views put him in sync with the liberal economic circle of J.B. Say and the heights of the banking elite, both of which helped to position him as one of the promoters of economic liberalism and bourgeois opposition to the restored Bourbons. Through a series of journals beginning with L'Industrie in 1816 and ending with L'Organisateur, 1819-1820, Saint Simon helped to articulate the position of the parliamentary opposition. Ultimately, however, his views were too unorthodox for the partnership to endure, faltering in the end on his view of the resurgent Catholic Church.

In L'Organisateur Saint Simon published the second of the works included in this collection, his Parabole politique (1819). Predicated on the question of the relative value of different castes of society, the Parabole posits the eradicaton of all nobles and bureacrats, asserting that their loss would be minor when compared to that of leading scientists, artists, bankers, and artisans. Emphasizing the productive function of the latter category, Saint Simon identifies the parasitic nature of the aristocracy and of state functionaries. Unfortunately, the publication of the Parabole coincided with the assasination in February 1820 of the Duc de Berry, earning Saint Simon a indictment as « moral instigator » of the assassin Louvel, an accusation of which he was eventually cleared.

The last five years of Saint Simon's life were colored by these incidents, however. Unable to fund his journals, he attempted suicide in 1823. During the last two years of his colorful life Saint Simon was served by Olinde Rodrigues, a young Jewish polytechnicien whose academic life had been abbreviated by the Restoration's restrictions on Jews. During this period the full articulation of Saint Simon's organic social vision came to fruition. Premised on the fundamental assumption that inequality among men is both self-evident and inevitable - here he followed physiologist Xavier Bichat, believing this inequality to be physiologically based - Saint Simon's scheme organized society toward the realization of the fullest potential of each class of men. Here he profoundly differs from the egalitarian philosophies of the 18th century, which emphasized the commonalities among men before their differences. On the contrary, Saint Simon saw in egalitarian society the greatest potential for violence and terror, violence he had witnessed in the pivotal years 1793-4. By contrast, Saint Simon emphasized the differences that each class brought to the larger project of social harmony, without whose contributions society would be severely hampered in its functioning. The classes of men, in this vision, are characterized by their dominant proclivity for the rational, the manual or the sensory. Savants, industriels, artistes, as he put it, these classes divide the world into the scientific, productive and emotional aspects of human life. Saint Simon's emphasis on inborn, physiological characteristics rather than universal commonalities foreshadows the later 19th century sciences of man, although the racial differerences with which those « sciences » would be preoccupied are not prominent features of his theory.

The vision of society that emerges from Saint Simon's later writings is one directed and « administered » rather than governed. Taking as its aim the satisfaction of the material and spiritual needs of all people, the organic coherence of his vision has earned him the moniker « utopian » from some, « totalitarian, » from others. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously designated Saint Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen as « utopian » socialists, by way of contrast with their supposedly more « scientific » approach. In the 20th century, a number of historians and social theorists have read Saint Simon's vision as one predicting an all powerful, bureaucratic state that subordinates all individual needs to those of the « greater good » of society.

At the end of his life, Saint Simon came to emphasize the emotional and spiritual role of the artists over the productive and analytical functions of the other two orders. His final work and the last included in this collection, le Nouveau Christianisme, (1825) is highly critical of the traditional religious authority of the Catholic Church. The work argues that conventional religious authority is unable to evolve to meet the changing needs of a scientifically informed, spiritually hungry age. The work is an attempt to rescue the central value of Christianity, brotherly love in Saint Simon's view, and resituate it in a church structure better suited to the contemporary context.

Le Nouveau Christianisme was in many ways a response to the spiritual needs of its day. In a society riven by decades of warfare and collapsed political authority, the youth of the 1820s were desperately seeking a new framework within which to find emotional, spiritual and intellectual refuge. In fulfilling this need, Le Nouveau Christianisme became the founding document of the Saint Simonian movement. Established by a group of young polytechniciens who were introduced by Rodrigues to the aging « master, » the movement was an important training ground for a generation of socialists and communists, many of whom carried its message into politically and economically influential lives. An odd amalgam of feminism, industrialism and orientalism, the movement found its spiritual head in Prosper Enfantin, a charismatic leader par excellence who was thought to have dabbled in mesmerism. Inspired by Saint Simon's deathbed pronouncement, that the « social individual is the couple, » the Saint Simonian men and women elaborated a doctrine of complementarity of the sexes and liberation from conventional morality that appaled polite society in their day.

Under the July Monarchy active and former Saint Simonians founded feminists journals, national railway systems and early colonizaiton efforts in Algeria, as well as inspiring the building of the Suez Canal and other public works projects. Their influence was considerable under the Second Empire and through them Saint Simon's ideas continued to hold sway through the rest of the 19th century.


Frank Manuel, The Prophets of Paris, Cambridge, 1962.

Sebastien Charlety, L'Histoire du Saint-Simonisme, Paris, 1896.

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