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 defined.

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 multiracial.

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 freedom.

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 fetishistic.

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 perspective.

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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González Prada, Manuel. Anarquía. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Ercilla, 1940.

--- . Páginas libres and Horas de lucha. Ed. Luis Alberto Sánchez. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1976.

---. Prosa menuda. Ed. Alfredo González Prada. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Imán, 1941.

---. Figuras y figurones. Ed. Alfredo González Prada. París: Tipografía de Louis Bellenand et Fils, 1937.

Hale, Charles A. 'Political and Social Ideas in Latin America, 1870-1930." The Cambridge History of Latin America. Ed. Leslie Bethell. 5 vols. Cambridge, 1986. IV: 367-441.

Kristal, Efraín. "Problemas filógicos e históricos en Páginas libres de González Prada." Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana 23 (1986): 141-150.

Mead Jr., Robert G. Perspectivas interamericanas: Literatura y libertad. New York: Las Américas Publishing Company, 1967.

Renan, Ernest. Vie de Jésus. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, Libraires Editeurs, 1864.

Rodríguez-Peralta, Phyllis. "González Prada's Social and Political Thought." Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía 30.2 (1980): 148-156.

Salazar Bondy, Augusto. Historia de las ideas en el Perú contemporáneo. 2 tomes. Lima: Francisco Moncloa Editores, 1967:I: 10-37.

Sánchez, Luis Alberto. Don Manuel. Fourth Edition. Lima: Populibros Peruanos, n/d.

Zea, Leopoldo. El pensamiento latinoamericano. 2 tomes. México: Editorial Pormaca, 1965: 54-63.

The author at the tomb of Manuel González Prada

To return to González Prada's Home Page.

To return to Archivo Bibliográfico "González Prada".

To communicate with Thomas Ward.

1A preliminary version of this paper was first presented at the Mid-America Conference on Hispanic Literature, November 9-11, 1989, The University of Kansas, Lawrence. An intermediate version appeared in the Revista Hispánica Moderna, vol. XVIL, n. 2 (Diciembre 1991): 274-279. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Hispanic Institute, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA.