After 1850, as the national economy began to expand, the growth of Brazil’s small and heretofore static urban bourgeoisie created major social stresses that traditionalist groups in control of the nation’s affairs tended to ignore. Their refusal to promote the interests of the growing middle class spurred a rising wave of unrest which reformist leaders vied to harness.1 Among the reformers, the positivists—followers of the teachings of the French philosopher Auguste Comte—soon became prominent. They gained prestige by criticizing the Roman Catholic Church, slavery, and the monarchy as constituting major restraints on national progress. Simultaneously these very institutions began to confront severe problems. First, the Paraguayan War (1864-1870) awakened the conscience of many who had supported the regime. Then, in 1868 a political crisis erupted which symbolized and mobilized the growing disaffection and culminated by unleashing the abolitionist and republican movements. Finally, in the early 1870s, Church and Crown clashed. In this tumultuous atmosphere positivism attracted many with its promise “to end the anarchy” threatening their world and introduced the ideal of progress through order. By the early 1880s, when the Positivist Church of Brazil was founded, Comtian ideas were sweeping through the army and the law schools.2

Early in the 1820s, August Comte initiated the use of the word “positive” to mean nonspeculative or provable knowledge. It served as the basis for a philosophical system which, he believed, being grounded in verifiable facts rather than metaphysical abstractions, could obtain universal approval. Born in 1789, in Montpellier, Comte matured in France’s chaotic and amoral post-revolutionary milieu. It is not surprising that he came to idealize the medieval past for its social cohesiveness and sense of personal peace, nor, in light of his education as an engineer, that he perceived in the promise of modern science and technology the means to create humane conditions to support such a simple society. While Comte berated the Enlightenment’s inability to substitute a new morality for the old social values it had destroyed, he nonetheless felt constrained to criticize such basic institutions as the Roman Catholic Church and monarchy. Comte called for modern counterparts, based not on theological or metaphysical concepts but upon rational and empirical—that is, positive—principles. Observing that man’s attempts to define his relationship to nature became increasingly complex, passing from theological, to metaphysical, and finally to positivistic explanations, Comte concluded that each was a step towards a higher and therefore more nearly complete level of knowledge. This he posited as the so-called Law of Three Stages, which hypothesized that positivism represented the final stage of intellectual evolution. Therein, Comte found his mission in life: to hasten the arrival of the emerging and final positive stage.

Comte approvingly discerned an evolving social complexity. Simple societies, he said, are organized around destructive military objectives. He cited modern industry, with its constructive application of science and technology to man’s basic activities, as proof that the Western World was emerging from what he denoted as the primitive militaristic phase. But the confusion and misery that came in the wake of the Industrial Revolution appalled him. True progress, Comte insisted, is the creation of order. Conversely, he argued, the maintenance of order would allow progress to follow natural laws of evolution. Comte saw corporatist and communitarian social organization, which he deemed natural and therefore desirable, as being undermined by atomism and individualism. In seeking scientific evidence to support this position he found it necessary to devise a new “positive” discipline, which he approached with his usual penchant for organization. Working as always from the simple to the complex, Comte established a hierarchy of the sciences which served as a basis for an ultimate discipline aimed at integrating and tapping the whole of science in order to discover therein the immutable laws of society. He coined the word “sociology” for this new and most complex area of study. Promoting analysis, synthesis, and the relativity of knowledge, and sporting his new tools of the Law of Three Stages and the Hierarchy of the Sciences, Comte began to construct a “counter-reformation” which would cement the social framework of the Middle Ages to the progressive supports of modern science.3

Auguste Comte published the first volume of his magnum opus, the six-volume Course of Positive Polity, in 1830, and completed the set in 1842. The turbulent nine years that followed led to his four-volume System of Positive Polity (1851-1854), in which he developed a concept implicit in his first works: an atheistic Religion of Humanity, based on the worship of the great achievements of mankind.4

Comte’s philosophical system and religion provided the underpinning to support a fully elaborated structure for social planning. His followers often accorded his rather specific reforms the same importance as the philosophical system itself. Comte’s feeling for the urgency of the social problem and his desire to elaborate an intellectual system to deal with it underlay all his efforts. Science was not to be an end in itself, but rather a means to deal with the social problem.

To briefly trace the aspects that most interest us here, Comte sought a corporate Hobbsian state of universal agreement based on love,5 rather than fear. Change would be engendered by an educational system under a positivist priesthood. Such a system, he believed, would create the popular consent necessary to elevate a benevolent dictator—or better, director—to rule for life with the aid of a technocratic elite, his “sociocracy.” The state’s goal was to promote industrial progress as the best means to create the conditions for social well-being in a stratified society. While private enterprise was preferred, public ownership would supplement it to provide necessary but unprofitable services, maintain order, or assist in national development.

Interest in positivism was not limited in Latin America to Brazil. It took root throughout the hemisphere, exerting a profound influence on the life of several nations in the second half of the nineteenth century. Leopoldo Zea has written the best analysis of this development in his The Latin-American Mind,6 but the work suffers from several lapses which deserve examination here. Zea explained positivism’s appeal through cultural and historical developments. Spanish American thinkers, he argued, blamed the failures of independence on the evils of their Spanish inheritance. To wipe out this inadequacy they simply denied the importance of the past, and resolved to make themselves anew; they called for a cultural revolution to recreate their “mentality, habits and customs” in line with modern needs.7 The Latin American intellectuals of the middle of the nineteenth century, whose lives were marked by the sudden introduction of technology, equated modernization with science. To adapt their backward nations to this new reality, they chose the science-based positivist philosophy as a remedy. To Zea, the Spanish Americans’ denial of their historical roots and the concomitant desire to shed their Hispanic nature for a new scientific culture was a revolutionary, if futile, position; citing Hegelian dictates, he insisted that a nation must absorb its past before it can have a future. Zea contrasted the Spanish American revolutionary positivism with Brazilian evolutionary positivism. He found that the orderly Luso-Americans, already at peace with their past, “looked upon positivism as the doctrine most suitable for bringing into focus new realities which arose in their natural evolution.”8

In supporting this interpretaton, Zea not only contradicts himself, but of greater importance, fails to explain adequately the popularity of positivism. Zea declared that Spanish American intellectuals at the middle of the nineteenth century treated their past as foreign and bad—something to be ignored and denied.9 But shortly thereafter he argued that in those same years, while Europe discussed its future, Spanish America discussed its past.10 If discussed, it was not ignored. Nor was it denied. The vast eruption of hagiography and eulogy of the colonial past by authors of the mid-nineteenth century overshadows the work of the few dissenting, though perhaps more interesting, intellectuals chosen by Zea.

Moreover, in his analysis of those dissident pensadores Zea drew a false conclusion. He began by showing that they turned to every available European philosophy for help to guide their national destiny. Spanish American intellectuals, he noted, adopted French traditionalism, eclecticism, Saint-Simonism, the Scottish School, and utilitarianism, all within a few years of their exposition. Zea then pointed out that since positivism had summarized the entire current body of philosophical thought, these ideas had paved the way for acceptance of Comte. Thus, he concluded, “There was nothing surprising about the rapidity with which positivism’s influence was felt in Hispanic America.”11 But to the contrary, it is amazing how long it took for a philosophy by then almost entirely rejected by European thinkers to become popular in Latin America. The interest of European intellectuals in the ideas of the philosopher of Montpellier had begun in the early 1840s. By 1857 he was dead, and on the continent, despite heroic efforts by his followers, philosophers were taking up new paths.

As with other popular European philosophies of that century, positivism immediately attracted a few Latin Americans at home and abroad. Several studied with Comte himself. Yet in Latin America positivism smouldered for some twenty years before it suddenly burst into flame. Zea himself shows that in Argentina it was popularized by the Paraná School, founded only in the late 1870s. In Chile, positivism reached its apogee nearly two decades after José Victorino Lastarria first embraced it in 1868; the Lagarrigue brothers, who established a Positivist Church in Chile in 1883, were born in the 1850s, as was Valentín Letelier, the other major positivist leader there. In Mexico, Zea singles out 1878 as the year it gained importance. In Brazil too, positivism began to grow only in the middle 1870s.

Before examining the significance of its late apogee, it is necessary to note that Zea’s failure to offer a rigid definition allowed him to use the popularity of positivism to support contradictory conclusions: in turbulent Spanish America he found positivism revolutionary; in passive Brazil it was evolutionary. But was Brazil so peaceful, and did her positivists eschew calls for radical change? First, Zea did not have the advantage of recent scholarship, which, focusing on disorder in Brazil’s Empire, has shown the Brazilians to have been much less passive than previously believed. Equally significant, a disproportionately large number of positivists came from the nation’s most turbulent areas, the interior of the Northeast and Rio Grande do Sul. Furthermore, the pre-1889 Brazilian positivist literature shows them to have been as “revolutionary,” or more “revolutionary,” than their Spanish American correligionarios. Although the Brazilian authors did not call for a violent revolution, their political and social pronouncements were what Zea designated as revolutionary; they called for a complete reformation of “mentality, habits, and customs.”12 Yet, while the evidence points to greater similarities in these respects between Brazilian and Spanish American positivism than Zea admitted, the difference he noted is real. The problem is that positivism seems to have appealed to Brazilians as much for its conservative evolutionary nature as for radical or “revolutionary” reasons.13

Although Zea overlooked the Brazilian positivists’ call for basic transformations, he correctly assigned positivism’s conservative nature as the reason for its attraction; its appeal was based as much on continuity as on change. For Gilberto Freyre, order and progress, the positivist motto emblazoned on the Brazilian Republican flag, was not a new sociology applied to government, as the positivists believed, but the way in which the Brazilian government had always functioned. Positivism, he contended, was appealing not because it was revolutionary, but because it urged a desirable change within an acceptable and familiar framework. Perhaps this explains its initial popularity in the generally upper-class law schools at the time that the rising middle class was first becoming vocal.14 The hachareis, trained in consensus politics, saw positivist ideas not only as beneficial to the nation, but as a practical means to incorporate the growing middle class into the national system. As time passed, the elite discarded positivism, leaving it to the middle-class engineers, professors, and military officers.

The rising bourgeoisie embraced positivism precisely because it is a conservative middle-class “philosophy” par excellence. Broad acceptance of Comte in Brazil began in the 1870s, when the middle class first attained sufficient dynamism and numbers to disseminate positivist ideas. Although its proponents promoted the “revolutionary” ideal of moral reform, positivism attracted the Brazilians, as Zea rightly believed, because it mirrored Brazilian culture: both were paternalistic, hierarchical, corporatist, family oriented, and socially conservative. Its concept of social reform was consequently aimed more at conserving the social order than changing it radically. Even in its specific proposed reforms it met the needs of the insecure and dissatisfied middle class, which looked to replace the Emperor with someone who, instead of exclusively protecting the landed interests, would also protect bourgeois interests. In economic matters, positivism was orthodox in monetary procedures but protectionistic for industry, calling for tariffs and statist controls. Politically, within a very conservative mold, it was reformist and progressive. Finally, positivism was nationalistic, and in its Gallic nature seemed less foreign to the francophile Brazilians than Anglo-Saxon or Germanic precepts. If some were attracted by its “revolutionary” aspects, the overall conservative attitude predominated.

The answer to the question of why positivism achieved success in Latin America after having been rejected in Europe will require a new country-by-country study using a systematic analysis, first called for by William Raat.15 In Brazil the answer seems to lie in sociological as well as historical reasons. After enjoying a brief flirtation with the students of the law schools, it found a more serious suitor in the growing middle class.

As the rising bourgeoisie turned to Comte, the Positivist Church of Brazil unsuccessfully attempted to control and direct the movement. Despite the undeniably important contributions of that institution, positivism could never have become significant had it remained tied to the stifling orthodoxy of the Positivist Church.16 Although influential, the Church’s two religious leaders, Miguel Lemos and Raimundo Teixeira Mendes, and its small following of between fifty and two hundred members, did not represent the real force of positivism in Brazil.

Positivism’s strength, as the late Brazilian philosopher Luís Washington Vita noted, was that Comte’s ideas were “used most often as a point of departure” rather than as an orthodox doctrine.17 For confirmation, he cited Miguel Reale’s conclusion that the positivist spirit which animated Brazilian culture after 1870 was more relevant than orthodox positivism.18 The Positivist Church failed to control this impulse. Instead, it was channeled by that considerable group of positivists outside of the Church. Following Comte exclusively, they differed from the dogmatic Church by seeking to develop the “Master’s” ideas realistically to meet Brazilian needs.

These independent positivists represented the vital center of Brazilian Positivism.19 Some followed Comte’s prereligious ideas, while others accepted the whole of his works without any serious reservations. As they did not join the Church, Brazilian authors have previously labeled them as heterodox, lumping together the truly orthodox positivists outside of the Church with those who only partially accepted Comtian doctrine.20 For the sake of accuracy new labels are necessary, and the Positivist Church itself provided acceptable alternatives. It distinguished between Confirmed Positivists—those who had entered the Church in a ceremony of confirmation and who have previously been called orthodox—and Practicing Positivists— those whose knowledge and undivided dedication to the doctrine made them suitable for final instruction by the Church in preparation for confirmation, and who have previously been labeled heterodox. It applied heterodox to those who were attracted to other philosophies as well.

It is pertinent to note that the Church was not quite as orthodox as its reputation, and in some areas its rigid orthodoxy was self-contradictory. The Positivist Church proclaimed that membership was carefully regulated according to Comte’s proscriptions. He had rejected all positions which directly or indirectly promoted any nonpositivist state. While he specifically singled out journalism, teaching, and the military among others, Comte also cautioned his followers against entering politics or even voting.21 In fact, Church members in Brazil included professors, army officers, and state bureaucrats. The Church forbade only political activity, even if antiregime. According to its interpretation of Comte’s teachings, order was best maintained by first creating a consensus among the population before initiating change. Reform was to come from the upward force of a free and united national will. The Practicing Positivists accepted this dictum. But they considered that the need for change was already so great that reform from the top was necessary and desirable as a first step toward creating the freedom and maintaining the order required to promote a positivist state. The Church’s position on this question was as orthodox as it was impractical and self-defeating, and most European positivists, including the Parisian leaders, turned to political action.22 The Brazilian Church remained adamant. It alone would speak for its members on political matters. As a result, when Confirmed Positivists Silva Jardim and Aníbal Falcão refused to give up their campaign against the monarchy, the Church expelled them.

The positivists’ role in the republican movement has not yet undergone scholarly examination, but it appears that they played an important part in its resurgence in 1888.23 While the nation lay exhausted after the success of the abolition movement, and many republicans felt that the time was not auspicious to renew their activities, the positivists stepped up their battle against the monarchy. The historian Oliveira Vianna noted an advantage in their seeking leadership of the republicans, one that would aid them for years to come. The positivists were, he said, the only republicans whose belief in the republican ideal rested on a solid philosophical base.24 Aided by the Practicing Positivists Martins Júnior, Luís Pereira Barreto, and others, Silva Jardim’s provocative speaking tours not only kindled popular enthusiasm, but led to the publication of republican manifestos by republican clubs in a number of provinces. Such documents were penned by the positivists Domingos Teófilo Carvalho Leal and Lauro Sodré, in the rubber-rich states of Amazonas and Pará, Aníbal Falcãao in Pernambuco, Alberto Sales in São Paulo, and Júlio de Castilhos in Rio Grande do Sul.25 All this culminated in the work of another Practicing Positivist, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Constant Botelho de Magalhães, generally referred to as Benjamin Constant, the popular professor at the Military School and leader of the positivist movement in the army. He helped to “orchestrate” the movement in Rio through private meetings and public pronouncements, and finally mobilized the largely positivist cadets before the Ministry of War on the morning of November 15, 1889. Immediately thereafter, Practicing Positivists assumed an active role in establishing state republican regimes throughout the country. Within days they had become governors, albeit briefly in most cases, in seven states: Amazonas, Ceará, Pernambuco, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul.

Subsequent to Pedro IPs overthrow, positivist intellectuals, divorced from the Positivist Church but often guided by its publications, began to elaborate on orthodox positivist ideas and relate them to the nation’s problems. Paradoxically, interest in orthodox positivism began to wane at the same time. Yet it was then that positivists began to plant the very ideas that would root positivism firmly in the nation’s intellectual soil. Between 1890 and 1915, while the bourgeoisie was still in formation and seeking guidance, positivists developed a middleclass program for change for Brazil. Prior to 1889, the followers of Comte had concentrated on writing abolitionist and republican treatises, while advocating abstract or general principles and calling for the use of scientific attitudes and methodology. After the collapse of the empire, forced to deal with new problems, they turned to Comte’s concrete proposals for reform. Scholars have generally held that during the Republic serious interest in reform began only after about 1915.26 Careful examination reveals that the post-1915 ideas were being implemented earlier through the preparatory work of the Practicing Positivists.

Various groups were calling for modernization in Brazil; the positivist’s contribution was to unite current ideas in a systematic way. Backed by the Positivist Church of Brazil, an institution praised for its honesty and intellectual vitality, and lauded by individuals in respected positions of power and with ready access to the public ear, positivism became an excipient to bond together modernizing ideas, giving them its own coloration.

Besides the Positivist Church, two groups of positivists spoke out on current issues. First came the old guard of law school graduates, led by Luís Pereira Barreto, Júlio de Castilhos, and Aníbal Falcão. Second, there emerged a new generation, mostly protégés of Benjamin Constant, which included General Innocêncio Serzedello Corrêa, Cabinet Minister, Deputy, and for many years chairman of the Finance Committee of the Câmara; Lieutenant Colonel Lauro Sodré, governor and leader of the opposition in the Senate; and Colonel Alexandre José Barbosa Lima, governor and one of the most effective orators in the Câmara. From the words and actions of various positivists, but particularly of these last three, who held powerful leadership positions, we can reconstruct the positivist political platform, which dealt directly with the major problems of the day.

As the Republic was called into being, Brazil was still backward and rural. Although after mid-century the cities expanded, in 1889 the nation supported only 600 factories, most of which employed a mere half-dozen workers or less. Much of the Brazilian economy was dominated by foreign interests which drained off scarce capital, thus hindering the development of a national capitalist class.27 Although the politically dominant rural oligarchy favored such a structure, the growing bourgeoisie demanded a share of the wealth. It saw the wedge of expanding industrial opportunities as a means for the educated middle class to gain entry into the landed upper class. However, education was at a premium. Despite the doubling of the educational system over the previous decade, in 1890 barely fourteen percent of the primary school age population attended classes. New pressures were exerted on education by the attraction of large-scale European immigration following the abolition of slavery in 1888. The presence of growing numbers of foreigners also unleashed new and threatening social stresses.

National integration, promotion of industry, and development of education stood in the forefront of the nation’s needs to which the Practicing Positivists offered Comtian solutions. Extremely nationalistic, they encouraged the scientific investigation of the national culture. Some of the earliest scholarly studies of folklore, customs, and society were carried out by positivists such as Celso Magalhães, Basilio Magalhães, Alfredo Varella, Luís Bueno Horta Barbosa, and Edgard Roquette-Pinto. Their work was complemented by others with positivist backgrounds and inchnations such as Euclides da Cunha, Alberto Torres, and Capistrano de Abreu.

Although these contributions to Brazilian scholarship opened the pathway to new ideas, the positivists’ chief effort was directed at merging industrial progress with social harmony. Proposing conservative economic and monetary policies predicated on the defense of private property, they nonetheless challenged prevailing laissez-faire policies as being potentially disruptive and echoed Comte’s condemnation of foreign economic domination, colonialism, and imperialism.28 Serzedello Corrêa, the positivists’ most effective spokesman on economics, took this one step further by tying economic liberalism to colonialism. Laissez-faire practices, he said, “just tie us closer to our foreign owners.”29 He estimated that “about eighty-five percent of the gains of commercial activity here does not belong to us and does not stay in the country.”30 Arguing for greater control over raw materials, Serzedello noted that since Brazil had a virtual monopoly on coffee and rubber, their prices should be controlled in Brazil, not abroad.

By hitching an entire range of positivist concepts to economic nationalism, Serzedello gave these ideas a broader scope. He supported Comte’s call for government intervention in the economy to provide essential services where private capital could not or would not act. Like other positivists, Serzedello appealed for state action under a powerful executive to plan for industrial and economic goals.31 His proposed “general plan for the development of resources” was not fundamentally different from that of Lauro Sodré, who was even more specific when, as governor, he called for and implemented new land and industrial laws, financial aids, protection of workers, and tax reforms.32

To attain these goals, the positivists sought improved and expanded educational opportunities to help create a technocratic elite. As state governors, positivists emphasized education, making tremendous gains, particularly in Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco, and Pará. While educational reform was aimed at stimulating industrial progress, it was not meant to undermine Brazil’s agricultural base nor her social structure. The positivists, on the one hand, favored the old elite keeping control of the land and, on the other hand, supported the use of the labor of ex-slaves on the land rather than encouraging immigration. The Positivist Church was particularly adamant on this point.33 Serzedello insisted that the popular idea of substituting immigrant labor for ex-slaves “denationalizes work itself.”34 Along with several positivist governors, he believed that the former slaves could become effective contributors to Brazil’s rural development.35 While Serzedello concentrated on the national work force, Barbosa Lima considered the role of immigrant labor. As editor of the Jacobin newspaper O Nacional, the latter voiced the positivist belief that the immigrant was desirable only in areas of low population density, and on the conditions that he work his own farm, enter the national culture, and stay out of the cities where his competition with the bourgeoisie might lead to conflict.36 Positivists sought to insure social stability by calling for the incorporation of the proletariat into society through education and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Following Comte’s counsel, they promoted a minimum wage and regulation of hours and working conditions along with protection of working women and children. Governor Júlio de Castilhos, of Rio Grande do Sul, decreed these reforms long before the question of social justice had been raised nationally. Other positivist governors offered their states similar reforms.

The positivists were not mere theorists. Where they had power they acted on their ideas, involving government in planning for development and industrialization, restricting the influence of foreign enterprise, modernizing and reforming agriculture, developing the infrastructure, expanding education, controlling immigration, and offering advanced social legislation. Between 1890 and 1915, eighteen different positivist governors held power in eleven of the twenty states and four different positivists served as mayors of the Federal District. Their overall record is particularly impressive. For example, between 1906 and 1909, as reformist governors, Benedito Leite in Maranhão and João Pinheiro in Minas Gerais added to their already considerable reputations. The Practicing Positivists Bezerril Fontenelle (Governor of Ceará, 1892-1896), José de Mello Carvalho Moniz Freire (who dominated politics in Espírito Santo during the first half of the First Republic), and his crony Graciano dos Santos Neves (who served as governor there from 1892 to 1896) all introduced numerous reforms into their states.37

The most successful were the Practicing Positivist governors in Rio Grande do Sul, Júlio de Castilhos (1893-1898) and, after Castilhos’ premature death in 1904, Antonio Augusto Borges de Medeiros (1898-1907 and 1914–1928). Elsewhere, Lauro Sodré in Pará (1891-1897 and 1917-1921), and in Pernambuco both Alexandre José Barbosa Lima (1892-1896) and Emídio Dantas Barreto (1911-1915) also applied these ideas extensively. Although they did not have the benefit of such long terms in office as the gaúcho governors, their accomplishments parallel those of the most southern state, only on a smaller scale. In Pará, Sodré modernized and greatly expanded education, launched port reform and road construction, and created state monopolies where private enterprise failed to provide sufficiently for public services, while he bought out foreign companies unwilling to comply with state laws. Under state control, rates were held low while services expanded and improved.38 To modernize the state’s agricultural base, Sodré promoted agrarian reform, which he hoped would encourage immigration. To ease some of the difficulties facing the new settlers in competing in a system based on latifundia, Sodré called for agricultural syndicates and mutual assistance programs modeled on those of France, Germany, and Belgium, and agricultural stations patterned after those of the United States.39 As he noted, the answer to declining agricultural output was not to improve customs protection, but to better organize production.40

In Pernambuco, Barbosa Lima attempted to modernize the decadent sugar industry by issuing government bonds to aid the usinas (sugar factories) and the railroads serving them.41 He negotiated contracts with foreign enterprise, establishing tight controls. In the case of England’s Recife Drainage Company, he inserted eighty clauses defining the company’s rights and duties. He also tried to alter the contract of the gas company, another English concern, whose arrival predated his governorship. When these firms failed to comply with regulations, Barbosa Lima took them to court.42 He pioneered innovations in education and oversaw considerable urban reform.43

After the reformist Practicing Positivist General Dantas Barreto took over the government of Pernambuco in 1911, he became the paladin of the local middle class. José Lins do Rego, in his novel Fogo Morto, proclaimed him as the very symbol of good and firm government through the lips of his protagonist, the ascetic artisan, Mestre José.44 He put finances in order, reformed education in line with the positivist ideals of the 1911 national educational reform, stimulated industry through protectionist laws, put public transportation under state control, acquired the water service and established an agricultural school and experimental agricultural stations for sugar and dry farming. Dantas Barreto favored the division of latifundia, which he termed “obstacles to agricultural and industrial expansion,” and called for application of modern scientific methods to industry and agriculture. At the same time he advocated expansion of railroads to open new land for both foreigners and local population groups.45

On the national scene as well, positivism exerted a greater influence in politics during the First Republic than is generally assumed. Many positivists served in the highest levels of government. In Congress, although the followers of Comte never again directed legislation as they had early in the Constituent Assembly, they remained an important minority voice. Following a gradual decline in numbers between 1890 and 1902, from twenty percent to five percent of the Câmara, during the period of 1903 to 1915 they consistently held around ten percent of the 205 seats there. In the Câmara they sought to follow Comte’s directive that legislatures should be solely budgetary bodies and that each representative should become an expert in a determined subject. Each year Major Tomás Cavalcanti pushed through his version of the military budget, while Serzedello Corrêa specialized on economic questions. When President Campos Salles needed someone to mold his policies of economic stabilization and guide them through the Cámara, he relied on Serzedello.46 Such expertise helped to promote positivist ideals. During the first twenty-five years of the Republic, the positivists averaged seven of the sixty-three seats in the Senate, or eleven percent, and Senator Lauro Sodré, as the losing candidate for the presidency in 1898, remained the leader of the opposition for many years thereafter. Sixteen Practicing Positivists held a total of thirty cabinet positions, averaging twenty-seven months of power each, under all but one of the eight presidents between 1890 and 1918. They were especially prominent in the governments of Floriano Peixoto (1892-1894), Nilo Peçanha (1909-1910), and Hermes da Fonseca (1910-1914).

The importance of the positivists in the First Republic has been disputed by Gilberto Freyre, who noted that the major changes in the First Republic were accomplished not by them but by the government. He singled out improved public hygiene in Rio, construction of ports, attraction of European immigrants, rehabilitation of the Indians, and exploitation of rubber as the major federal accomplishments.47 But it is improper to separate these activities from the positivists. As Freyre notes, a large group of positivists did fight against compulsory vaccination in 1904. However, the Practicing Positivist Lauro Müller as the Minister of Public Works was in charge of the overall organization of the program of urban reform, of which vaccination was a small part. Positivist engineers were responsible for designing and executing many of its projects. Moreover, positivist governors were important initiators of port reform and construction in Rio Grande do Sul, Espírito Santo, Pernambuco, Ceará, and Pará. The Confirmed Positivist engineer, Saturnino Brito, designed and built the famous port works at Santos, and the Practicing Positivist Aarão Reis was the supervising engineer in charge of the construction of Belo Horizonte. Positivist governors promoted expanded but controlled immigration under conditions that would benefit their states and the immigrants as well. Except for the special case of coffee-rich São Paulo, the nation’s most successful immigration policies were those of positivist Rio Grande do Sul. While the national government called for a program to protect the Indians, it was the Confirmed Positivist Cândido Rondon who won the right to attempt it. Even though the positivists had only marginal influence in coffee policies, and nothing to do with the Acre rubber question, Lauro Sodré, as governor of Pará, played a major role in stimulating the production of rubber and assuring its rapid movement to foreign ports. Finally, although the Catholics raised the question of social justice, it was ignored by the national government. Only on the state level did it receive any attention and there four positivist governors stood out: Castilhos, Borges de Medeiros, Dantas Barreto, and Lauro Sodré.

Although positivists gained greater influence in politics than has been generally recognized, and helped initiate new policies, their importance nonetheless remained marginal to the power of the traditional rural interests. Even in the states where individual positivists were able to effect immediate and important reforms, their work was generally undercut shortly after they left office. Only Rio Grande do Sul was able to capitalize on positivist ideas by virtue of its governors’ unconstitutional longevity in office.48

Yet the mere presence of positivists on the state and national levels had important long-range repercussions. They were in a position to test their ideas against others in the political arena and to reevaluate or reform their conceptualizations as a result of practical political experience. Moreover, the positions they held brought them respect and afforded them a public platform. Owing to this, the positivist program gained a status it never could have attained had its proponents remained politically inactive and placed the Practicing Positivists in a position to shape the vision and the concerns of the bourgeoisie as it continued to grow and mature.

The middle class’ growing awareness of these ideas was further accentuated by developments in education. Throughout most of the First Republic positivist educational policies predominated. This was certainly true in the army. Early in 1890, Benjamin Constant, as Minister of War, thoroughly reformed the military schools along positivist lines. He staffed them with positivist professors, who in 1891 accounted for over one-quarter of the faculty at the army’s principal school, the Escola Militar at Praia Vermelha. Despite non-positivist curriculum changes, fifteen percent of the staff there was positivist when that school was closed after the 1904 revolt. The remaining students transferred to the even more strongly positivist military school in Porto Alegre. The Rio school reopened in 1908 with its curriculum totally reformed to eliminate positivist influences. But the teaching staff was virtually unchanged.49 By 1915, positivist professors still held ten percent of the positions there. This was one of the factors that helped formal positivism retain its importance in the army long after it had passed the rest of the nation by. As a result, the positivist concepts for national reform received a more sympathetic hearing there than elsewhere.

Soon after his reform of the military schools, Benjamin Constant was made Minister of Education. In that post, he implemented a national reform based on a formula similar to that he had devised for the military schools. The Colégio Nacional (Pedro II) underwent a thorough transformation and officially served as the model for the rest of the country. Its example was especially useful to the positivist governors Lauro Sodré in Pará, Barbosa Lima in Pernambuco, Bezerril Fontenelle in Ceará, Moniz Freire and Graciano Neves in Espirito Santo, and Júlio de Castilhos in Rio Grande do Sul, all of whom greatly expanded and reorganized their states’ educational systems immediately following the reform.50

The numerous critics of Benjamin Constant’s system introduced changes over a period of time to reduce positivist influence in education. By 1910 the nation was calling for a new reform to clarify the resulting hodge-podge. Education fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, and with the election of the gaúcho president Marshal Hermes da Fonseca, Rio Grande do Sul cashed in its chips to place its man in that cabinet position.51

Thus, the Practicing Positivist Rivadávia Corrêa, as Minister of Justice, promulgated his thoroughly positivist reform in 1911. It proved to be a mixture of ill-conceived legislation and farsighted innovation. Along with some doctrinaire proposals such as not requiring a degree to practice medicine, which aroused considerable criticism, it also stimulated expansion through private capital, and included provisions to reward excellence and establish quality education. He also pioneered the “vestibular” (entrance) examinations; the livre docente (at that time, professors without permanent chairs); and final examinations in each course rather than a single examination for the semester’s entire work. Despite numerous improvements, these last three innovations and the doctrinaire reforms yielded to abuse and new problems.

All the critics breathed a sigh of relief when, in 1915, Rivadávia’s successor issued a new education reform. Since that time the 1911 Reforma Rivadávia has been castigated, often uncritically, while the 1915 Reforma Maximiliano has been hailed for eliminating the “positivist errors.”52 However, the positivist bias remained, shorn only of doctrinaire requirements and the impracticalities. In 1914, Rio Grande do Sul had once again controlled the choice of the Minister of Justice and had placed Carlos Maximiliano, another Practicing Positivist, in the position. His reform eliminated Rivadávia’s abuses, while remaining consonant with positivist goals.53

Only after 1928 did the government tamper with the essentially Comtian nature of the educational system. During the intervening seventeen years the provisions in the Reforma Rivadávia, retained in the Reforma Maximiliano, facilitated an unprecedented expansion of education. This was particularly true with higher education, where in 1912 the Practicing Positivist Nilo Cairo da Silva, encouraged by Rivadávia’s reform, founded the University of Paraná. During the first twenty years of the Republic few new schools of higher education had been established. Stimulated by positivist-inspired reforms, between 1915 and 1924 thirty-four private schools of higher learning were founded in sixteen cities, specializing in pharmacy, law, dentistry, medicine, and engineering.54

When Rivadávia promulgated his reform, he recognized that the Federal District served as a model for the whole nation. Seeking an administrator for the capital who would implement his ideas, he appointed Alvaro Batista, a Practicing Positivist. He then installed the Practicing Positivist Francisco Furtado Mendes Vianna, a cousin of Teixeira Mendes, as Director General of Public Education of the Federal District in 1912. Mendes Vianna held the position until 1930, enhancing positivist influence in the capital. During most of this time his own elementary school textbooks were required reading in all public schools in Rio de Janeiro and the state of São Paulo, and were used widely elsewhere. His textbook of children’s stories extolled such positivist attitudes as nationalism and progress through the application of science to industry. He also developed his elementary world history text along Comtian Unes.55

While these books played a role in preparing the youth of the middle class to accept positivist-inspired ideas, their effect was complemented by the positivist professors themselves. Positivist influence at the Colégio Nacional and the engineering schools has often been noted. But they were not unique in this respect. A journalist working on a Roman Catholic newspaper claimed, perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly, that in 1917, when he entered Rio’s Normal School, which trained future primary school teachers, he “suddenly discovered a frankly positivistic ambient.”56 The same held true for São Paulo, where the Escola Normal was termed “the major focus of positivism in the state.”57 Because of the tendency of Rio’s Normal School students to marry officers at the Realengo Military School, the strong current of positivism in the former may have helped strengthen positivist influence as much in the military as in the elementary schools. The total number of positivist professors must have been considerable. One-quarter of the male members of the Positivist Church and eighteen percent of a sample of 300 Practicing Positivists were professors. A small number of these taught exclusively in the military. Some taught in the elementary schools, the Colégio Nacional, and other colégios. But most of the sample group served in the schools of higher education throughout the nation and especially in Rio de Janeiro, often enjoying very favorable reputations. While positivist instructors used their classrooms to transmit their biases, most of them avoided proselytizing, especially after 1910.58

The role of education in diffusing positivist ideas was considerable. No better means could be found to meet Comte’s criterion that positivism should triumph through the force of an informed public opinion.59 But while education aided in diffusing these ideas among the middle class, Practicing Positivists were active in all areas of public life. As Ivan Lins noted, many of them “became professors and teachers, militant journalists, politicians in the Provisional Government and in the state assemblies and governments, [while others] held high posts in the Army and Navy, the bureaucracy, the diplomatic corps, and as judges.”60 He correctly affirmed that without them, “the influence of the [Positivist Church] would have been nil.”61 Yet positivism’s significance in Brazil goes beyond sheer numbers or position. The positivist conception of modernization and social reform exerted a lasting imprint on the nation. Various modernizing concepts, stimulated by the positivist impulse, were considered by the middle class during its formative years. The presence of a corps of adherents to this systematic philosophy gave Comtian ideas an advantage. To this point, the Catholic publicist Jackson de Figueiredo admitted his admiration for positivism’s ability to create “individuals who know their own orientation . . . with clear and defined principles. Positivism knows how to say what it wants for the general good in the midst of this enormous confusion of ideas and egoistical statements.”62

By 1915, the Practicing Positivists had completed the development of their ideas for Brazil. Emphasizing economic nationalism, the nation was to be run by a strong, if not an authoritarian government, aided by a technocratic elite which would regulate and stimulate private and public industrial development. Seeking a more stable social structure, they called on the government to incorporate the working class into society through education, improved wages, and better working conditions; and they sought to forestall the incumbent violence of unionization by calling for a corporate state. The costs were to be paid by the rural upper class, which was to be persuaded to share its political power and some of its wealth. Finally, the middle class, profiting from its training in an improved and expanded educational system, would provide the technocrats to run the nation. These ideas, also developed individually by other European thinkers, were adopted by various Brazilians independent of the influence of positivism. But positivism was the first to link them together in a unique and appealing arrangement, and to demonstrate how these ideas fit Brazil’s and the middle-class’ needs. Subsequently, the intellectual leaders of the second half of the First Republic, including Alberto Torres, Jackson de Figueiredo, Alceu Amoroso Lima, and even Plínio Salgado, echoed and gave new coloring to ideas first explored by Practicing Positivists in the first twenty years of the Republic. To what extent these new leaders’ ideas were positivist-inspired is difficult to assess. But their work must have been facilitated by the intellectual foundations already well established in middleclass thought by the Practicing Positivists.


The term middle class will be used throughout in preference to middle sector, middle income groups, etc. The alternatives pose sufficient problems in themselves besides that of being jargon. It will be understood that middle class will have a purely generic sense, with no assumption that those so labeled formed a true “class,” with class interests or cohesion, except where so noted.


The Positivist Church was founded in 1881 out of a positivist study group first organized in 1878. For information regarding the law schools, see Clóvis Bevilaqua, Philosophia positiva no Brasil (Recife, 1883); and Antônio Luís dos Santos Werneck, O positivismo republicano na academia (São Paulo, 1880); on the army see João Cruz Costa, A History of Ideas in Brazil: The Development of Philosophy in Brazil and the Evolution of National History, Suzette Macedo, trans. (Berkeley, 1964), pp. 143-144.


Walter Simon, European Positivism in the Nineteenth Century: An Essay in Intellectual History (Ithaca, 1963); and D. G. Charlton, Positivist Thought in France During the Second Empire, 1852-1870 (Oxford, 1959). For a broader view and an interesting interpretation of positivism in general, see Leszek Kolankawski, The Alienation of Reason: A History of Positivist Thought, Norbert Guterman, trans. (New York, 1969).


Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, 6 vols. (Paris, 1830-1842); and Système de politique positive, 4 vols. (Paris, 1851-1854). These have been translated into English, though often at considerable expense to the accuracy of the original. The Positive Philosophy, Harriet Martineau, trans., 3 vols. (London, 1896) ; and System of Positive Polity, J. H. Bridges et al., trans., 4 vols. (London, 1875-1877). A more compact view is found in a one-volume summary translation, Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism, J. H. Bridges, trans. (New York, 1957). Outside of these major tomes, Comte wrote relatively little and most of his subsequent publications were abstracted from the two larger works. Typical are his “episodic” works: Auguste Comte, Appeal to Conservatives, T. C. Donkin and Richard Congreve, trans. (London, 1889); and his The Catechism of Positive Religion, Richard Congreve, trans. (London, 1858). The former is written “to the Statesmen of the West” and the latter “for women and the proletariat.” They are aimed at instructing those without the time or ability to get through the larger works.


One of his preferred aphorisms was “Love, Order and Progress,” which in Brazil was shortened to “Order and Progress.”


Leopoldo Zea, The Latin-American Mind, James H. Abbott and Lowell Dunham, trans. (Norman, Oklahoma, 1963).


Ibid., p. 27.




Ibid., pp. 7-8.


Ibid., p. 14.


Ibid., p. 25.


For examples, see Luís Pereira Barreto, As très philosophias (Rio de Janeiro, 1874); and Positivismo e theologia: Uma polêmica (São Paulo, 1880). An excellent analysis is found in Roque Spencer Maciel de Barros, Obras filosóficas de Luís Perdra Barreto, vol. I (São Paulo, 1967). Another of the best examples of pre-Republic positivist tracts is Aníbal Falcão, Fórmula da civilização brasileña (Rio de Janeiro, 1934) which unites a number of his most important works.


Tocary Assis Bastos, O positivismo e a realidade brasileña, Revista Brasileña de Estados Sociais e Políticos, no. 25 (Belo Horizonte, 1965), pp. 118-119; and Joáo Camilo Oliveira Torres, O positivismo no Brasil (Petrópolis, 1943), p. 311.


Nelson Saldanha, História das idéias políticas no Brasil (Recife, 1968), p. 229, says that the elite was attracted by the esteem positivism gave to science, discipline, love of order, the mystical hierarchy and orthodoxy without Catholicism. The “natural” attraction to authoritarian corporate ideas may also have been significant. See Fredrick Pike and Thomas Stritch, eds., The New Corporatism: Social-Political Structures in the Iberian World (Notre Dame, Ind., 1974), chapter 1, esp. pp. 27-28.


William D. Raat, “Leopoldo Zea and Mexican Positivism: A Reappraisal,” HAHR, 48 (Feb. 1968).


Bastos, O positivismo, p. 127. Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda, Raízes do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1936), after studying the publications of the Positivist Church of Brazil concluded that “the Positivists were always paradoxically negators,” and that they “had a secret horror of the Brazilian reality.” p. 120.


Luís Washington Vita, Alberto Sales, Ideólogo da República (São Paulo, 1967), p. 12; and Bastos, O postivismo, which focuses throughout on the action of those inside and outside of the Church.


Vita, Alberto Sales, p. 15.


Robert G. Nachman, “Brazilian Positivism as a Source of Middle Sector Ideology” (Ph.D. Diss., U.C.L.A., 1971). The basis of this work is an analysis of a sample of 400 positivists. One hundred of them were members of the Positivist Church, the others were verified as orthodox in their adherence to Comtian ideas, at least during the period in question (1889-1915). Most of them remained so throughout their Uves.


In Europe Emile Littré, who rejected religious positivism, led the orthodox positivists. The leadership of the heterodox fell to Pierre Laffitte, who promoted Comte’s later ideas, including his Religion of Humanity. It was under the inspiration of Laffitte that Miguel Lemos rejected Littré. He wrote, “Littré’s school has no social consciousness, it is still in scientific academicism. . ..” Miguel Lemos, Cartas de Miguel Lemos a Raimundo Teixeira Mendes (Rio de Janeiro, 1965), p. 13.


The rules were printed in the Church’s yearly circular, the first of which was published in 1881. See Miguel Lemos, Primeira Circular Anual: 1881 (2d ed., Rio de Janeiro, 1900).


Cruz Costa, A History, pp. 127-138. It was on this point that Lemos broke with the French positivist leader, Pierre Laffitte, who was not alone in his activism. Years later, Teixeira Mendes complained in a private letter that “A postwist action group was formed in Paris under the direct inspiration of Dr. Audiffrent. This group constitutes, in our view, a mystification [read revisionism], because it tries to substitute a thorough dissemination of our doctrine for merely political indoctrination.” (His italics.) Letter from Teixeira Mendes to Martín Herrera and Demétrio Mendes, Rio de Janeiro, Feb. 2, 1897, Arquivo da Igreja Positivista, Rio de Janeiro, correspondência da Igreja, 1897. Gilberto Freyre noted that the English positivist Frederick Harrison criticized Lemos and Mendes for their literal interpretation of Comte, which, said Harrison, “was not justified by either the letter or spirit of Comte.” Gilberto Freyre, Order and Progress: Brazil from Monarchy to Republic, Rod. W. Horton, ed. and trans. (New York, 1970), p. 22.


George C. Boehrer, Da monarchia à república, história do Partido Republicano do Brasil, 1870-1889, Berenice Xavier trans. (Rio de Janeiro, 1954), p. 239.


Francisco José Oliveira Vianna, O ocaso do império (2d ed., São Paulo, 1934), p. 114.


Ivan Lins, História do positivismo no Brasil (2d ed., São Paulo, 1967), pp. 141 and 184; Benjamin Sodré, Lauro Sodré: Vida, caráter e sentimento a serviço de um povo (Belém, 1955), p. 12. Copies of these manifestos are in Reynaldo Cameiro Pessoa, A idéia republicana no Brasil, através dos documentos (São Paulo, 1973). Vita, Alberto Sales, notes Sales’ growing heterodoxy as he grew older, inclining more towards Spencer. His republican ideas, too, are more democratic than authoritarian positivists would tolerate, yet, as Vita points out, they were essentially based on Comtian thought. For Castilhos, see Joseph Love, Rio Grande do Sul and Brazilian Regionalism (Stanford, 1971), p. 27.


Carlos Bakota, “Crisis and the Middle Classes: The Ascendency of Brazilian Nationalism, 1914-1922” (Ph.D. Diss., U.C.L.A., 1973), p. 5.


Freyre, Order, cites the figures of 160 of the 201 new corporations established between 1899-1910 as being foreign dominated. p. 227.


Innocêncio Serzedello Corrêa, O problema econômico em 1903 (Rio de Janeiro, 1903).


Ibid., p. 10.




Ibid., p. 12.


Ibid., p. 10; see also Lauro Sodré, As indústrias extrativas: A função do governo (Rio de Janeiro, 1901), pp. 84–86.


Miguel Lemos, A paz e a escraoidão moderna (2d ed., Rio de Janeiro, 1934), p. 36.


Correa, O problema, p. 6.


Ibid.; Lauro Sodré, Atos e palacras (Belém, 1896), pp. 20-24; Carlos de Lima Cavalcanti, ed., Mensagens do Exmo. Sr. Governador Alexandre José Barbosa Lima (Recife, 1931), p. 72; João Neves da Fontoura, Memórias, Borges de Medeiros e seu tempo, vol. I (Porto Alegre, 1969), pp. 56-57; Roque Spencer Maciel de Barros, A evolução do pensamento de Pereira Barreto (São Paulo, 1967), p. 205.


O Nacional (Rio de Janeiro), Jan. 10, 1901.


Lauro Sodré, Mensagem, 1896 (Belém, 1896), pp. 39, 41, 45 and 53; Lima Cavalcanti, Mensagens, pp. 22-26, 64-66, 72, 131, 179, 191-201, 209; Ceará, Govemador, Mensagem do Presidente do Estado, Ten. Cel. Dr. José Freire Bezerril Fontenelle (Fortaleza, 1893); Raimundo Girão, Pequeña História do Ceará (Fortaleza, 1962), pp. 166–169; Francisco de Assis Barbosa, ed., João Pinheiro: Documentário sobre a sua vida (Belo Horizonte, 1966), pp. 143-160 ff; Jerônimo de Viveiros, Benedito Leite: Um verdadeiro republicano (2d ed., Rio de Janeiro, 1960), pp. 223-232.


L. Sodré, Mensagem, pp. 39-41 and 53.


L. Sodré, Palacras, pp. 20-24.


L. Sodré, Crenças, pp. 16 and 78; and L. Sodré, Mensagem, pp. 61 and 84-85. The colonists never came and the syndicates and stations were consequently never established.


Freyre, Order, p. 253; and Flávio Guerra, Historia de Pernambuco, vol. II (Rio de Janeiro, 1966), p. 73.


Lima Cavalcanti, Mensagens, pp. 179 and 209.


Ibid., pp. 77-88.


José Lins do Rego, Fogo Morto (6th ed., Rio de Janeiro, 1965), p. 238.


Pernambuco, Governador, Mensagem do Exmo. Sr. Gen. E. D. Barreto . . . de Março de 1913 (Recife, 1913).


Campos Salles inscribed Serzedello’s copy of his book, Da propaganda à república (São Paulo, 1908), “To Serzedello Corrêa, my dear friend and powerful leader of finances of my Government in the Câmara. . ..”


Freyre, Order, pp. 387-388.


The state constitution allowed reelection of the governor when he obtained three-quarters of the votes cast. The national constitution made no exceptions in denying governors the right to immediate reelection. Because of Rio Grande do Sul’s strategic position, its tendency toward civil war, and the political power of the positivist governors, the federal government played hands-off. Only after a new civil war broke out there in 1923, did the government finally force it to conform to the constitution. In the following election, in 1928, Borges de Medeiros’ party won and his protégé, Getúlio Vargas, became the state’s new governor.


Nachman, “Brazilian Positivism,” p. 136.


L. Sodré, Mensagem, pp. 42-43, makes special note of its advantages for him.


Love, Rio Grande, p. 154.


Love follows this pattern, ibid., p. 168.


Licinio Cardoso, O ensino que nós convêm (Rio de Janeiro, 1926), p. 188.


Ibid., pp. 188-190.


Francisco Furtado Mendes Vianna, Leituras infantis: Apanhados e fotos históricos (5th ed., Rio de Janeiro, 1928); and Pequena história do Brasil (3d ed., Rio de Janeiro, 1931).


Ivan Lins, História, p. 284.


Bastos, O positivismo, p. 166; see also Lins, História, pp. 144-180.


Eulogistic pamphlets were often published upon the retirement or death of professors. In reviewing those dealing with positivists, it is clear that by early in the twentieth century the trend was away from referring to their positivist beliefs expressed in class and rather towards references to their advanced ideas regarding modernization and development. Often ex-students were unaware that their professors had been life-long positivists.


On Comte’s thinking regarding the role of education, see Paul Arbousse-Bastide, La doctrine de l’éducation universelle dans la philosophie d’Auguste Comte, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957).


Lins, História, p. 12.




Vita, Alberto Sales, p. 62.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University.