Before his conversion to Catholicism in 1844, Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876) was a supporter of the socialist ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais, and many of their disciples. These included Pierre Leroux, whose work Brownson during his socialist phase greatly admired. (Butler, In Search of the American Spirit, op. cit., 88-89.) No one in the United States, therefore, was more alert to the dangers of all forms of socialism, or their seductive power over the minds of people, than he. (Ibid., 116-162.)
|Orestes Brownson in his younger days.|
Brownson began his investigations into philosophy by reading the massive, five-volume De la Réligion Considérée dan sa Source, ses Formes et ses Développement (1824-1831) by political philosopher Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830). Constant’s thesis was an evolutionary, historic approach that called both the meaning and role of Christianity, and the future of religion itself, into question. (Strube, “Socialism and Esotericism in July Monarchy France,” op. cit., 11.)
After reading Constant, Brownson made a more serious study of Saint-Simon with whose writings he already had a brief acquaintance. (Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004, 38.) Saint-Simon’s ideas had reached New England as early as 1829; the Saint-Simonians viewed America as the perfect place to realize their ideas. (Butler, In Search of the American Spirit, op. cit., 68-69.)
Saint-Simonianism was well known in the early 1830s among intellectual circles within which Brownson moved. (Ibid., 47.) By 1832 Brownson thought he had discovered in Nouveau Christianisme the answers he sought. (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress. New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1963, 32-33.)
|Henri de Saint-Simon|
In the June 1834 issue of The Unitarian, Brownson published an essay summarizing Saint-Simon’s life and work, Orestes Brownson, “Memoir of Saint-Simon.” 1834. Another essay, Christianity, Society, and the Church (1836) is, to all intents and purposes, a Saint-Simonian tract. (Butler, In Search of the American Spirit, op. cit., 68.)
Brownson, however, thought Saint-Simon erred in describing his thought as “Christian.” As he believed Saint-Simon’s ideas went far beyond traditional concepts of Christianity, Brownson considered Saint-Simonianism a new religion, a gospel of social reform. (Theodore Maynard, Orestes Brownson: Yankee, Radical, Catholic. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1943, Maynard, Orestes Brownson, op. cit., 128.)
Brownson later claimed that he imbibed no errors from the Saint-Simonians. (Ibid., 82.) That, however, could be the result of his refusal to accept even as a socialist the principle that all things, including the natural law, must be subject to the goal of social betterment.
Given a commitment to truth that eventually led him into the Catholic Church, Brownson does not appear to have been a socialist in the strictest sense of the term. He may have been genuinely incapable of accepting any system, especially “democratic religion,” that subordinated the natural law — God — to anything.
Brownson’s understanding of democracy precluded the freedom to choose falsehood that characterizes socialism, modernism, and New Age thought. Thus, even while he identified himself as a socialist, Brownson was adamant that private property is a natural right, and must not be infringed. Interestingly, as a socialist, Brownson insisted that private property is a natural right, but the right of inheritance is merely a social convention. (Maynard, Orestes Brownson, op. cit., 92-93.)
There appears to be no evidence that Brownson came across the work of Taparelli or the natural law revival, at least at this time. He seems to have developed his ideas independently; most of Brownson’s reading was in the German and French thinkers.
Fourierism had little influence on Brownson, although at first, after reading Fourier’s book that he borrowed from Brisbane, he admitted it might have a place in a reform program. As Brownson wrote in an 1843 letter to Parke Godwin (1816-1904) of the New York Evening Post, a leading Fourierist, “I require in my theory, four terms, the Church, the State, the Phalanx or Community and the Family.” (Brownson to Godwin, May 9, 1843, Greeley-Godwin Papers, cited in Schlesinger, Orestes A. Brownson, op. cit., 167; cf. Orestes Brownson, “Social Evils and Their Remedy,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1841.) Nevertheless, Brownson rejected Fourier’s rigid social planning (Leonard Gilhooley, Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestest Brownson and the American Idea. New York: Fordham University Press, 1972, 67), and the belief that people had to make a radical break with existing society. (Carey, Orestes A. Brownson, op. cit., 129.)
Brook Farm’s conversion to a Fourierist community seems to have triggered Brownson’s outright condemnation of Fourierism, coming as it did during the final phase of his conversion to Catholicism. In “Fourierism Repugnant to Christianity,” Brownson declared Fourierism, even Albert Brisbane’s bowdlerized version, false and anti-Christian. (Orestes Brownson, “Church Unity and Social Amelioration,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1844.) This was in large measure due to Fourier’s assumption of the natural perfection of the human person without God or the Church. (Gilhooley, Contradiction and Dilemma: op. cit.,, 104-105.)
Brownson came across de Lamennais’s writings soon after the latter’s break with the Catholic Church. De Lamennais’s defense of democracy, despite its unsound philosophical underpinnings, appealed strongly to Brownson’s sense of truth and of justice. In 1836, as editor of The Boston Reformer, a socialist weekly, he translated some of the articles that de Lamennais later published as De l’Esclavage Moderne (1839).
After founding The Boston Quarterly in December 1837, Brownson reviewed a number of de Lamennais’s works for its pages. These included Les Paroles d’un Croyant and Les Affaires de Rome. Brownson’s interest was not de Lamennais’s attacks on Church and State, but the rhetoric in support of democracy, however poorly conceived.
Brownson synthesized the concepts he derived from these and other New Christians and Neo-Catholics into a “Church of the Future.” This would abolish the priesthood and unite all religions in an invisible church regulated by the government and bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. (Hugh Marshall, Orestes Brownson and the American Republic, An Historical Perspective. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1971, 15-26; also, Schlesinger, Orestes A. Brownson, op. cit., 130.)#30#