Paul Johnson on Auguste Comte’s prose style

Comte . . . has some claims to be considered the worst writer who ever lived, and his works read just as badly, if not more so, in French as in translation. In 1824, in reply to criticism, he insisted that style was of no importance. He said he wrote ‘scientifically’. Later, however, he laid down rules of style: no sentence longer than five lines of print; each paragraph to have no more than seven sentences; all books to have seven chapters; each chapter to have three parts and each part seven sections; each section must have a lead paragraph of seven sentences, followed by three paragraphs of five sentences each.

—Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern

Here, over a century before the New Criticism was ever thought of, we see the ultimate and sterile issue of the ‘sentence cult’. Once you consider a book merely as a ‘text’ made up of syntactic units, rather than a story or discourse made up of incidents and ideas, the idea will irresistibly suggest itself that literature consists solely of the manipulation of syntax, and has nothing to do with content.

A perfect book, according to Comte’s rules, contains exactly seven chapters, 21 ‘parts’, 147 ‘sections’, 588 paragraphs, 3,234 sentences, and therefore, not more than 16,170 lines of print. It need not be about anything at all. Indeed, it will help if it is not: for if you actually had something to say, you might be tempted to use an incorrect number of sentences to say it.


  1. Sounds like a case of OCD.

    • Everything about Comte sounds like a case of OCD. His entire reputation as an intellectual rests on his being so obsessive-compulsive that he had to tell the whole world how to be perfectly neat and tidy.

  2. Stephen J. says

    I could almost see the appeal, in the sense of a formal challenge. Like writing a sestina, except a googleplex times harder.

    But then again, the only sestina I ever wrote wasn’t particularly good either — though don’t tell that to the ex I wrote it for.

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