( Originally Published 1913 )
STARTING from the point at which our historical elaboration has now arrived, the study of this Transition Age will constitute the object of the rest of our analysis. This will be divided into two series one essentially critical or negative, intended to characterize the gradual demolition of the theological and military system under the growing ascendancy of the metaphysical spirit ; the other, directly organic, relating to the progressive evolution of the various principal elements of the positive system.
Let us first estimate the increasing disorganization of the theological and military system during the course of the five last centuries. The imminent spontaneous disorganization of Catholicism was indicated, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, by grave precursory symptoms, i. e., the general relation of the sacerdotal spirit, and the increasing intensity of heretical tendencies. The violent means then introduced on a grand scale for the extirpation of heresies constituted one of the most unequivocal signs of this insurmountable fatality. In temporal matters, it was then that the de-crease of the feudal constitution gradually became inevitable, its principal military destination being fulfilled.
In order to analyze in a truly scientific manner this immense revolutionary work of five centuries, it must be carefully divided into two successive portions : the one, comprising the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in which the critical movement remains spontaneous and involuntary, without the regular and express participation of any systematic doctrine ; the other, embracing the three following centuries, during which the disorganization becoming more profound and divided, completed itself under the influence of a professedly negative philosophy, gradually extending itself to all social questions of any importance, so as to indicate the tendency of modern society to an entire renovation.
Nothing can be a stronger confirmation of the transitory nature of the Catholic and feudal constitution of the Middle Ages, than the ruin of such an organization by the mere conflict of its principal elements, without any systematic attack, during the two centuries immediately following the time of its greatest splendour. It is unquestionable that the establishment of a Spiritual power distinct from and independent of the Temporal power, indispensable as it was to the accomplishment of the special evolution reserved for the Middle Ages, must in the sequel have become an active principle of decomposition by the incompatibility between the two authorities, from the unfitness of the only philosophy which could then preside over both. Under the true monotheistic rule, in which the separation between the moral and political government became a principal attribute, there exists an inevitable contradiction between such a disposition and the military nature of the corresponding temporal system, considering the tendency to unity of power characteristic of the martial spirit.
As to the spiritual polity, we cannot but see that the Catholic hierarchy, in spite of the superiority of its energetic coordination, contains in its very nature the seeds of an inevitable dissolution, as regards the general relations between the supreme sacerdotal authority and the various national churches. In the country which, according to the just and unanimous estimate of the principal Catholic philosophers, was during the whole Middle Ages a principal support of the ecclesiastical system, the national clergy arrogated to themselves special privileges, in respect to the supreme spiritual authority, which the Popes have often proclaimed to be contradictory to the political existence of Catholicism : and this opposition could certainly not have been less real, though perhaps less distinctly expressed, among the populations more removed from the centre of pontifical power.
Papacy, on the other hand, tended in an inverse direction, but with the same efficiency, to the dissolution of this subordination, by its disposition to an exorbitant centralization, which, being for the exclusive advantage of Italian ambition, justly raised in all other places the most energetic and obstinate national resistance. Such is the twofold and continuous impulse which even prior to any doctrinal schism tended to dissolve the interior unity of Catholicism by decomposing it, contrary to the spirit of its foundation, into independent national churches.
As to the temporal organization, the fundamental antagonism between monarchial central power, and the local powers of various classes of the feudal hierarchy, has been sufficiently indicated by various writers, and especially by Montesquieu, so as to make any new examination of it here unnecessary. Comte regards this decomposition as a truly distinctive character of the feudal and Catholic system, since it was, he thinks, more profoundly marked in it than in any other antecedent system.
Such is the purely provisional destination of theological philosophy that in proportion as it perfects itself morally and intellectually, it becomes less consistent and less durable ; as is clearly proved by a comparative examination of its principal historical phases : for the primitive Fetichism was really more firmly rooted and more stable than Polytheism, which in its turn decidedly surpassed Catholicism both in intrinsic vigour and in actual duration a paradox which our theory nevertheless resolves readily by representing the progress of theological conceptions as necessarily consisting in a continual decrease of intensity.
The critical or revolutionary doctrine evidently contributed much to accelerate and propagate the natural disorganization of the Middle Ages, and, in consequence, of the whole military and theological system of which it constituted the last phase. The development of this doctrine divides itself into two successive phases, separating this memorable historical period of the three last centuries into two nearly equal portions.
In the first phase, comprising Protestantism in its various principal forms, the "right of private judgment," although clearly enunciated, is nevertheless always con-fined within the limits of Christian theology ; hence this anarchial spirit of discussion, ostensibly applied only to theological dogmas, was really applied, in the name of Christianity itself, to ruin the admirable system of Catholic hierarchy which constituted socially its only realization. It is in this that the illogical character inherent in the negative philosophy announces itself most distinctly, by its constant pretension to reform Christianity with means radically destructive of the conditions indispensable to its political existence.
The second phase comprises the various attempts of Deism, vulgarly known as the philosophy of the 18th century : the right of private judgment is there in principle recognized as indefinite ; but the endeavours to restrain metaphysical discussion within the bounds of Monotheism was idle. The intellectual bases of Mono-theism appeared immovable, but they were shaken by a prolongation of the same critical elaboration. The social incompetence of this doctrine becomes felt in the tendency to found political regeneration upon a series of simple negations which could end in nothing but universal anarchy.
Such are the various considerations on the necessary march and concatenation of the different phases of the great movement of radical decomposition, first spontaneous and afterwards systematic, which characterizes the political evolution of modern society during the five last centuries, tending to the entire dissolution of the Catholic and feudal constitution, the last phase of theological and military development.