Oct 172019
 

Today is the birthday (1760) of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, often referred to as Henri de Saint-Simon, a French political and economic theorist whose writing played a substantial role in the development of political theory, economics, sociology, and the philosophy of science. He created a political and economic ideology known as Saint-Simonianism that argued that the needs of an “industrial class,” which he also referred to as the working class, needed to be recognized and fulfilled to have an effective society and an efficient economy. Unlike  other theorists analyzing industrializing societies who conceived of the working class as manual laborers alone, Saint-Simon included all people in the class who were engaged in productive work that contributed to society, so that he included businesspeople, managers, scientists, bankers, etc. along with manual laborers and others. Saint-Simon argued that the primary threat to the needs of the industrial class was another class he referred to as the idling class, which included able people who preferred to be parasitic and benefit from the work of others while seeking to avoid doing work themselves. Saint-Simon stressed the need for recognition of the merit of the individual and the need for a hierarchy of merit in society and in the economy, such that society had hierarchical merit-based organizations of managers and scientists who were the decision-makers in government. He strongly criticized any expansion of government intervention into the economy beyond ensuring that there were no hindrances to productive work nor to reducing idleness in society, regarding intervention beyond these as too intrusive.

Saint-Simon is sometimes classed as a utopian socialist, which is unjust, but he did influence many who became such.  He also inspired the likes of John Stuart Mill, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Karl Marx.  It may be legitimately claimed that Saint-Simon founded a science of society (i.e. sociology) by being the first philosopher to recognize society as an entity in its own right, separate and separable from the individuals that make it up, and subject to its own laws and principles.

Saint-Simon’s personal life was strange and convoluted.  He was born in Paris as a French aristocrat. His grandfather’s cousin had been the Duke de Saint-Simon. From his youth he was highly ambitious. He ordered his valet to wake him every morning with, “Remember, monsieur le comte, that you have great things to do.” Among his early schemes was one to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans by a canal, and another to construct a canal from Madrid to the sea. During the American Revolution, Saint-Simon fought for a period for the revolutionaries believing that their revolution signaled the beginning of a new era. At the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, he quickly endorsed the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In the early years of the revolution, he devoted himself to organizing a large industrial structure in order to found a scientific school of improvement. He needed to raise some funds to achieve his objectives, which he did by land speculation. This was only possible in the first few years of the revolution because of the growing instability of the political situation in France, which prevented him from continuing his financial activities and indeed put his life at risk.

Saint-Simon and Talleyrand planned to profiteer during The Terror by buying the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, stripping its roof of metal, and selling the metal for scrap. He was imprisoned on suspicion of engaging in counter-revolution activities. He was released in 1794 at the end of the Reign of Terror. After he recovered his freedom, he discovered he was immensely rich due to currency depreciation, but his fortune was subsequently stolen by his business partner, and he spent most of the rest of his life in dire poverty, being supported sporadically by friends and relatives, and spending some time institutionalized.

In 1823, disappointed by the lack of results of his writing (he had hoped they would guide society towards social improvement), he attempted suicide in despair. Remarkably, he shot himself in the head six times without succeeding in killing himself – only in losing his sight in one eye. Very late in his career, he did link up with a few ardent disciples, but died in 1825. He was buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Marie Antoine (Antonin) Carême was a younger contemporary of Saint-Simon’s and can be claimed to be as much of an innovator in French cuisine as Saint-Simon was in social science. Carême was abandoned by his parents in Paris in 1794 (aged 10) at the height of the French Revolution, and so worked as a kitchen boy at a cheap Parisian chophouse in exchange for room and board. In 1798, he was formally apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous pâtissier with a shop near the Palais-Royal. From there he went from height to height, being celebrated throughout Paris as the greatest pâtissier of all time.  Engravings of his confections are legendary.  Later in life he established culinary rules that eventually became entrenched in French haute cuisine.  Here’s a gallery for you: