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Since the arrival of Columbus, European ideas have played a decisive role in
Latin American intellectual life. After the wars of independence, many Latin
American intellectuals still felt subservient to the residual influence of Medieval
European Scholasticism. As a liberating response, some thinkers would look to
the positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) or Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) for
guidance. It was Comte, however, who would exert the greatest influence with
his system of the three stages of humanity, the third characterized by a call for
order and progress, guided by a hierarchy of poets and artists.
To understand the positivism of Manuel González Prada (1844-1918), it becomes
necessary to examine Comte's system of the three stages through which
humanity must pass. The theological, the first, is characterized by a complete
lack of empirical data. During the theological stage, a series of mythological
beliefs are woven together to elaborate an a priori understanding of life. This
theological stage is itself subdivided into three developmental periods, the
fetishistic, the polytheistic and the most advanced, the monotheistic. After the
theological stage, we find the metaphysical, the second stage of humanity. This
transitional phase begins to admit a few empirical facts, yet fills in the blanks
with theological concepts to complete the world view. The final stage, the a
posteriori positive, is achieved through the complete rejection of theological and
metaphysical notions, the inevitable reaction of increasingly instructive physical
research. Science is the only key to understanding society (Comte V: 158-68).
González Prada echoed Comte by exhorting his countrypersons to support
science (Páginas, 45). Scientific research could serve as an antidote to the
problems which caused Peru to loose the nitrate rich provinces of Tacna and
Arica to Chile (1879-1883). He defined this science as being "Positive Science,"
placing it higher on the evolutionary scale than theology or metaphysics
(Páginas, 45). The preference for "Positive Science" would seem to align
González Prada's thought directly with Comte's system of the three stages. It
would also seem to demonstrate, as Robert G. Mead suggests, González Prada's
predilection for the third stage of humanity, the positive (Perspectivas, 110).
With this philosophical heritage in mind, it is not hard to see how various
commentators of Latin American thought could call González Prada a positivist.
For Leopoldo Zea, González Prada represents the link between Latin American
romanticism and positivism (II: 59). To the mind of Augusto Salazar Bondy,
González Prada lies within the nineteenth-century "positivist and naturalist
conception" of the world (I: 10). Phyllis Rodríguez-Peralta also asserts that
"González Prada adhered to positivist philosophy" (150).
However, among these three critics there arises a seeming contradiction.
Although Zea classifies González Prada as a positivist, he notices an attitude
which rejects Comte (II: 59), even though Comte, as intellectual historian Will
Durant has pointed out, was the "founder of the 'positivist' movement" (265).
Salazar Bondy discusses González Prada's ability to speak about natural reality
in terms of metaphysics, even though he has called him a positivist in the
European tradition (I: 15). And although Rodríguez-Peralta characterizes him
as an adherent of positivism, she also notes that "González Prada's ideology
underwent constant change" (150). As Salazar Bondy explains so well, this
apparent ideological decentering "puts in crisis" the postulates of Comte's rigid
positivism (I: 15).
What then are the parameters of González Prada's thought? And just what
elements of his thought are derived from Comte? And did the Peruvian social
medium also come to bear on that relationship? These are the questions that I
hope to clarify in this study. To begin, we must first look at González Prada=s
view of politics and religion.
González Prada was born during a time of great political and religious upheaval,
resulting from dishonesty and egotism within Peru=s rigid social hierarchy.
These then were two problems which González Prada attacked: corruption and
authoritarianism. When he was very young, his family suffered exile in
Valparaíso, Chile. His father, a partisan of the ex-president, José Rufino
Echenique, had to flee Peru at the election of Ramón Castilla in 1854 (Sánchez,
26-27, 33). González Prada caught the political bug from his father, and as a
young man he associated himself with the intellectual wing of the civilista
political party (Kristal, 144). As Charles Hale points out in The Cambridge
History of Latin America, many of the pensadores of this party were familiar with
the writings of Auguste Comte (Hale, 417). After becoming disillusioned with the
absence of ethics in the civilista party, González Prada helped found a more
moral political party, the Unión Nacional. Later, again because of corruption, he
renounced his ties to the Unión, proclaiming a need for social reform over
political movement. Now, if González Prada renounced politics, did he also
renounce positivism? If he did not, then the nature of his positivism must be
Yet before his relationship to positivism can be adequately ascertained, González
Prada must also be examined within the context of Catholicism. Besides the
abuses of political power which he observed first hand, religious fanaticism
would also influence him negatively. Luis Alberto Sánchez, Prada's biographer,
portrays his home environment as being markedly religious, even fanatical
(Sánchez, 23, 26, 29, 78, 95-6). Powerful politicians were never very far from
priests and bishops. From this background, the young poet came to discern the
temporal aspect of spiritual power. Even at a very early age, the adulteration of
the spiritual by the temporal struck a dissonant chord within him.
As with González Prada's political and temporal life, a central question arises
concerning his spiritual tendencies. He fled from the seminary and spent most of
his life criticizing the Catholic ChurchCsome of the most powerful diatribes
against the Catholic Church ever written in Peru. Was he, then, an atheist? This
is an important question because materialist positivism would seem to lend itself
quite easily to atheism.
One of the principal characteristics of Comte's third stage of society, the
positive, is hierarchy. It is through this hierarchy that order and progress can
achieved. We also know that Comte was something of a closet-Catholic. This fact
is evidenced by the sacerdotal structure of his Religion of Humanity and his love
for the concept of hierarchy. It was precisely the hierarchic nature of
Catholicism that seduced Comte. In fact, in Comte's analysis of history, it was
Catholicism which oriented morality in the proper direction. Comte took the
hierarchy of Catholicism and molded it into an organizing principle of his
positivism. This aspect of Comte=s ideology was completely rejected by
González Prada, who favored an egalitarian approach to society, which was
Although González Prada spent his life criticizing Catholicism, he routinely
praised the first French sociologist. Because Comte admired the Church's
hierarchical structure of earthly power, González Prada's praise of him seems
misguided. This seeming paradox can be resolved if it is understood that
González Prada's particular brand of positivism evoked a meaning entirely
different from Comte's. Yet this is not an easy task: González Prada was never
able to grow out of Comte's terminology. While he called for a "Positive
Science" he could not achieve an empirical posture toward God, maintaining an
agnostic position toward theological precepts such as the immortality of the soul
and the existence of God (Páginas, 191).
This divergence is not limited to the philosophical differences between
agnosticism and scientism. González Prada, in his later years, moved further
away from orthodox positivism, espousing the social theories of anarchism. This
is the very same social tendency that Comte wanted to eradicate with his positive
hierarchy. This anarchy moves González Prada closer to a tradition leading
from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), not Comte. This ambiguity of
tradition can only be resolved by examining González Prada's own
understanding of the sequence of Comte's three stages of humanity.
If Comte thought that the positive stage was just on the horizon in France,
González Prada found Peru to be still in the earliest period of society's
theological stage, the fetishistic (Páginas 29). González Prada believed this to be
true because of retrograde politics (Figuras, 227) and regressive Catholicism
(Páginas, 82). Both the religious and political lacked spiritual elements because
of their mutual corruption. Lacking moral direction, the political and religious
aspects of temporal power worked in tandem (Horas, 346) to repress individual
The problem for González Prada was that there was not yet a division of power
in Peru between the political and religious. For Comte the all-important
separation of power did not come until Jesus Christ (V: 258-259), derived from
the monotheistic axiom, give into Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God,
that which is God's. This change occurs late during the theological stage of
humanity, after the passage from fetichism and polytheism to monotheism. The
fusion of Peruvian political and religious power parallels the polytheistic
religions, which for Comte, had not yet achieved the division between the
temporal and the spiritual. If when judging American Peru by Comte' European
theories, González Prada could not verify the division of power that should
characterize the monotheistic period of the first stage of humanity, it is not hard
to see how, in his frustration, he would exaggerate, locating Peru, not in the
polytheistic period, but in the earliest period of the theological stage, the
González Prada's proposition that Peru had not yet experienced the division of
power put forth by Jesus Christ implies that the Messiah had not yet come to
knock down the temple, embodied in Peru by the Catholic Church. It further
suggests that this "Messiah" would ignore Caesar, represented by the Peruvian
State. Yet Jesus Christ's influence on González Prada does not only come from
Comte's theories. During a trip to France, González Prada studied under Ernest
Renan, while also devoting much time to mastering the anarchist thought of that
period. Among the most influential of those anarchists were Bakunin, Tolstoy,
and the aforementioned Proudhon, all three students of Jesus Christ. Yet it was
Renan's Vie de Jésus which would become a point of departure for much of
González Prada's later thought. Little by little, the anarchists' ideas, coupled
with Renan's anarchist Christ, were exerting influence on González Prada=s
organizational concept of the third stage of humanity. Whereas in Comte society
is organized around a hierarchy which extinguishes intellectual and moral
anarchy (IV: 50, 459, 512-13), in González Prada, theoretical anarchy opposes
the hierarchy of the Peruvian Church and State (Horas, 271; Anarquía, 16, 33).
With this egalitarian view of the third stage, González Prada challenges
Comte=s model.
Anarchy in Comte is perceived as a detriment to the order of society. In
González Prada, it is regarded as freedom from State and Church. This anarchy
provides the highest form of freedom because, as Renan suggests, to be free from
Church and State allows for freedom of the soul (Vie, 122). This was in fact the
condition of Jesus Christ himself, a condition which González Prada praised in
his theories of the individual. With the soul free from the dogmas of Church and
State, the individual can experience sexual and racial equality.
For both Comte and González Prada, behavior in the third stage is guided by a
very "high" morality. Even though both derive morality from science, they
diverge in their understanding of it. Although both believed in a personal
morality, Comte postulated that the hierarchy should define that morality.
González Prada, on the other hand, proposed an interior origin for morality, the
soul. Comte praised the Catholic concept of morality, because it lead to uniform
intellectual moral concepts. The inward morality of González Prada reacted
against the standardized and sometimes formulaic morality of Catholicism.
Comte criticized freedom of the press because it led to anarchy (VI: 73, 91-2).
Conversely, González Prada found himself in favor of freedom of the press
because it promoted knowledge. Not surprisingly, González Prada's personal
presses were repeatedly shut down for publishing his essays. This happened as
early as 1899 when the government of Nicolás de Piérola closed González
Prada's newspaper Germinal. He founded another newspaper, El Independiente
in August of 1899, yet before the end of 1900 it was also suppressed (Sánchez,
151-5). Later the government of Augusto Leguía closed down Los Parias for
publishing González Prada's "Otra vez La Prensa" and "Por mal camino."
These closings demonstrated the power of the hierarchy of the few and the
difficulty in achieving the free flow of ideas.
President Piérola, who made a hobby of censuring González Prada's essays,
represented for González Prada the lack of division between the spiritual and
temporal powers. González Prada knew Piérola personally from his days in the
Seminary at Santo Toribio. He criticized Piérola for investing enormous amount
of public money to refurbish churches (Figures, 191), instead of attending to
temporal matters. This confusion of the two powers caused González Prada to
dub President Piérola as the "Defender of Jesus in Tahuantisuyo" (Figures, 176).
Yet, unlike the original Christ, Piérola=s politico-religious fanaticism impeded
the free flow of ideas. The lack of free speech restricted mental processes which
could, conversely, lead to an increased spirituality. The free flow of information
proposed by González Prada could, and should, be used to stimulate a higher
level of personal growth for the masses. In this way, González Prada stood apart
from Comte and his rigid hierarchy guided by artists and wise persons.
This interior morality of González Prada should not be confused with mysticism
a concept he criticized (Prosa, 59-61). It is derived from pure empirical science
(Páginas, 82). The more the individual learns through science, the higher his or
her intellectual capacity can become, and consequently, the higher the level of
morality achieved. González Prada's attitude is a direct result of both his life
experience in Peru and his French studies. The ideological divergence between
Comte and González Prada stems from the two very different social mediums in
which they lived. Peruvian society was controlled rigidly by the Church and the
State. Comte on the other hand, lived during the time immediately after the
French Revolution and experienced a desire to create order out of chaos. When
comparing the two thinkers, products of two very different social mediums, it is
hard to imagine that they both could conceive the term positivism from the same
The third stage of humanity in González Prada is characterized by the harmony
of all souls, guided by an individual morality, enhanced by intellectual
development through science. This harmony is free from political or religious
hierarchies. It must be called spiritual or moral anarchy. It is the freedom of the
individual, the free flow of ideas, the racial and sexual equality that
characterizes González Prada=s third stage of humanity.
The seeming contradiction between González Prada's use of the term "Positive
Science," which would make him an intellectual heir to Comte and his use of the
term anarchy, which would make him a subconscious opponent to Comte can be
resolved by understanding "Positive Science" as a tool for the empirical
gathering of knowledge. This expansive "Positive Science" opposes Comte=s
restrictive "Positive Philosophy." The term positivism, let loose in the social
medium of Latin America, found its center of meaning modified to agree with a
very different social circumstance.
González Prada was not a positivist, in the sense applied to that term by Comte.
He used theoretical positivism as a weapon against the hierarchy of Catholicism.
This is not atheism, it is anticlericalism. For González Prada, the hierarchy of
Catholicism was the antithesis of spiritual growth. He could not, then, be an
atheist. He was a pantheist. The spirituality he proposed could be a direct cure
for the materialism which caused political and religious corruption. As a
spiritual being González Prada could not be a politician. He employed his
anarchist and radical Christian ideas to delegitimize the State. This is why in
later years he would renounce all connections to his own political party, the
Unión Nacional. What González Prada never admitted, or realized, was that his
neo-Christian anarchy became a battering ram that would destroy many of the
central concepts of his first and foremost influence, Auguste Comte.
Thomas Ward
Loyola College - Maryland
© 1991

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