June 24, 2012


The Big Life of Brownson: a review of Orestes A. Brownson: A Definitive Biography by Thomas R. Ryan, C.PP.S. (Robert Emmet Moffit, University Bookman)

Ryan's subject was himself something of the stereotyped American folk hero, a fitting symbol of what was good and true in the Jacksonian vision of the, unspoiled "natural man." No product of urbane culture or sophisticated schooling, Orestes Brownson was born of pioneer parents struggling to eke out a meager existence in the primitive back country of Vermont. With less than a few months of formal education, he eventually emerged into national--and international--prominence as one of the most notable of American journalists, the editor of the Boston Quarterly Review. Teaching himself to read Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian, he broadened his horizons and became an intellectual innovator in his own right, to the joy, shock, or dismay of the sundry parties, sects, or factions with which he was variously associated throughout his long and colorful public career. Consecutively, he was an itinerant preacher of liberal Protestantism, an atheist, the inventor of a proletarian radicalism astonishingly similar to the later speculations of Marx, a leader of the illustrious Boston Transcendentalists, and a convert to Calhoun's constitutionalism. These early mental excursions rendered him all the more profound in his mature days as an aggressive champion of conservatism in politics and Roman Catholicism in religion.

An acquaintance, friend, or correspondent of many of the leading men of his age, Brownson's forceful style inspired respect, admiration, and even trepidation. The controversies which swirled around him, into which he plunged with such martial enthusiasm, were nothing less than the primary issues composing our national history: slavery and states' rights, industrial expansion and labor disputes, the Civil War and Reconstruction, women's rights agitation and humanitarian socialism, as well as the broader trends of relativism in philosophy and the onslaught of materialistic atheism.

In tracing Brownson's response to the intellectual, social, and political crises of his turbulent age, Father Ryan has accomplished more than an elaborate chronicle of the man's intellectual dynamics in time and space. The author has penetrated the intriguing character of the man himself, revealing the immense complexity of his personality. Possessed of a clear, logical, and vigorous English style, a talent which won him considerable notoriety, we learn that Brownson was enormously combative and self-confident in the fray. As Ryan makes clear, his conversion to Roman Catholicism and political conservatism in 1844 changed the "radical style" of his youthful militance not a whit:

Brownson was now moving along in his forty-second year. His giant, muscular six feet, two inch frame, just beginning to put on weight, was becoming even more formidable in appearance. His great shock of hair, brushed straight back from his high sloping forehead, balanced by a full spreading beard, giving him something of the appearance of a biblical prophet, was already streaked with gray. Under shaggy brows his eyes looked out through small gold-rimmed spectacles that rested on a slightly beaked nose. Ruddy in complexion, his whole appearance was leonine. And like the lion, he was ready for any battle. The battles he had passed through had only served to prepare him for those ahead, and his greatest battles by far lay in the future. He fed on battles and seemed to bid Armageddon welcome. His sword was the pen he held in his long, graceful fingers. His countenance wore the mien of a no-nonsense man. And he was utterly without fear. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has said, "He was not a man to be intimidated by all the devils in hell when he thought he was right."

Once one of the most powerful foes of orthodoxy in politics, religion, and philosophy, Brownson was to become the scourge of socialism, anarchism, atheism, sentimental humanitarianism, relativism, or any political doctrines at variance with the peculiar genius of the American constitutional order. But his pugnacity in defense of his principles was surely not the whole of his personality. Such a complicated man, nigh inscrutable, he eluded simplistic classification. Easily moved to tears by the beauty of a poem, he could be sincerely tender and laudatory of the qualities of those who differed with him on questions of philosophy. Frightfully independent, he was equally humble in the presence of legitimate authority. An engaging conversationalist on weighty matters, he was not above innocent expressions of pride for his beloved rose garden, which he cultivated devoutly. Ryan's book is tastefully spiced with anecdotes, mostly humorous, concerning the badinage he enjoyed with friends and opponents alike.

Orestes Brownson on Catholicism and Republicanism (Jude P. Dougherty Fall 2003, First Principles)
For Brownson, a proper understanding of America begins with an appreciation for the contrast between democracy and republicanism. The roots of this political analysis can be seen in his response to the Nativist critique of Catholicism in America.17 The Nativist sees foreigners as holding views that are undemocratic, and therefore un-American, and therefore antithetical to the common good. Brownson's view of the American political order and its founding principles casts doubt on the cogency of these Nativist sentiments, both in their rejection of Catholicism and in their attachment to what he considers an exaggeratedly democratic interpretation of the America experiment.

Brownson maintains that America is the product of a combination of religious--or, more precisely, Christian--and secular influences, as he suggests in an essay on the relationship between the institutions of church and state. The northern colonies were settled by strict religious believers (establishing a "theocracy" or "clerocracy"), while in the southern colonies the tendency was "to establish the supremacy of the civil order, and to make the church a function of the state."18 The resulting combination of these two "tendencies" was the assertion of "the Christian idea, or the union and distinction under the law of God, of the two orders."

The uneasiness of the marriage between secular and Christian elements in America can be seen, Brownson argues, in the divergent understandings of natural rights, which he calls the "real, unwritten, providential constitution" in America.19 The secularist understands natural rights to be unconnected with anything transcendent: in effect, autonomous. But the truth about the American experiment is that the nation's founding documents acknowledge the necessary dependence of any system of natural rights on a divine creator; natural rights are ultimately grounded in, and derived from, the rights and authority of God. Thus, for Brownson, within the American order, consent alone cannot be the basis of legitimate government.20 Popular sovereignty is limited by the sovereignty of God.

The strength of the American republic, then, lies not in its individualism or in its unbridled democracy, but in its maintenance of an orderly hierarchical society, and this is where the fundamental necessity of Catholicism arises. The people, freed from a class of political masters over whom they exercise no control, are now in the seat of power; they are "sovereign." Yet the people themselves "need governing, and must be governed. . . .They must have a master."21 In contrast to the Nativist claim, Brownson holds that Catholicism "is necessary to sustain popular liberty, because popular liberty can be sustained only by a religion free from popular control, above the people, speaking from above and able to command them--and such a religion is the Roman Catholic."22 This being the case, the Nativists undermine their stated interest in sustaining the American form of government through their opposition to the one institution that would be adequate to the task, thus revealing that their animus is not really pro-American but only anti-Catholic, and especially anti-Irish.23

Opposition to Nativism, or the "Know-Nothings," was of course also voiced by non-Catholics on political grounds, either because of the secrecy of the movement or because of its rejection of the founding principles of America's constitutional order. As Abraham Lincoln famously put it in 1855:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy. 24

Brownson's view, again, is that Catholicism is necessary for America. As he put it in 1859, "Catholicism recognizes and confirms the law of nature, that is to say, natural justice, denied by the stricter forms of Protestantism, and therefore recognizes the equality of all men before the natural law, the true basis of liberty."25 Against the charge that Catholic principles are at odds with the fundamental American principles, Brownson echoes Augustine, noting that Catholicism is not hostile to any particular political order, save despotism. The Church provides the remedy for defective orders where there are no checks upon arbitrary power by imposing moral restraints on its use, and where such checks do exist the Church "hallows them and renders them inviolable."26 In a republic, on the other hand, the Church restrains popular passions, subjects the people to the law of God, and "disposes them to the practice of those public virtues which render a republic secure."27

While he had earlier held out great hope for the future of America, and thus was unstinting in his support for America's cause (and the Union's cause, during the Civil War), by 1875 Brownson had grown less sanguine than formerly: "Let the American people become truly Catholic and submissive children of the Holy Father, and their republic is safe; let them refuse and seek safety for the secular order in sectarianism or secularism, and nothing can save it from destruction."28 The real threat to the American way of life comes in the ascendancy of human pride, emboldened by a false, extremist claim of equality and freedom. Republican government cannot countenance such selfish immoderation: "It must be based on love; not on the determination to defend your own rights and interests, but on the fear to encroach on the rights and interests of others. . . . It is only in the bosom of the Catholic Church that this sublime charity has ever been found or can be found."29 After about 1875, while Brownson will still defend the American form of government, he will do so only insofar as democracy is understood in the qualified manner in which he articulates it; the difficulty, he notes, is that practically speaking, no one else understands it that way.

The second fundamental principle at the heart of Brownson's thought on religion and America is the "givenness" of Catholic Christianity's confidence, and thus its self-assurance concerning the promulgation of its doctrines and dogmas, as well as in its missionary endeavors. As we have seen, for Brownson the Catholic message is exactly what republicanism needs to heed, for without it the political order will be lost on the shoals of anarchic democracy: "A republic can stand only as it rests upon the virtues of the people; and these not the mere natural virtues of worldly prudence and social decency, but those loftier virtues which are possible to human nature only as elevated above itself by the infused habit of supernatural grace."31 The political or earthly success of the American system will itself depend upon recognizing and sustaining the elements of civil society that promote the life of substantive, real virtue, not simply the calculative, self-interested "virtue" capitalized on by the band of devils famously employed by Kant.32

The teaching of Catholicism, as Brownson repeatedly stresses, is not at odds with the notion of political or civil liberty. Instead, it is the very ground of such liberty.

Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America (Peter Augustine Lawler, December 2002, First Things)
Against all of these views, Christian thought proposes something very different: namely, that human beings have been made to know the truth, and that the truth is fundamentally Good News. Brownson should grab our attention, then, because he adopts a philosophic stance on political life that is neither pragmatic nor existentialist. And neither does he point back to Greece in an effort to bypass the Christians, as many twentieth-century political theorists have done. Rather, in a broadly Thomistic way, he views natural reason and supernatural theology as complementary human goods-and he rejects the easy dichotomies that permeate so much of the history of political philosophy. We need not choose Athens or Jerusalem, rational self-sufficiency or humble submission to authority. We ought to follow reason, but we ought also to recognize its limits-and what those limits imply about the centrality of revelation. As Brownson writes, "Let philosophy go as far asit can, but let the philosopher never for a moment imagine that human reason will ever be able to understand itself." Most crucially, the philosopher will never be able to answer, through reason alone, the most pressing question of all: Why did rational, finite beings come into existence in the first place?

We could not have figured out simply by using reason and analyzing the natural facts available to us that the world was, and continues to be, created by a providential God. But once we learn of this fact through revelation, we know that it is the most reasonable account of the origin and perpetuation of all things. Theology thus aids human reason in making sense of the facts it perceives about nature: "In this sense, tradition, both as to the natural and as to the supernatural, renders an important service in the development of reason, and in conducting us to philosophic truth." Biblical revelation in general and Christianity in particular are indispensable for philosophy's development. The dogmatic denial of the possibility of the truth of revelation leads to philosophical shipwreck (as the self-destructive history of philosophy in the twentieth century so clearly demonstrates). It is for this reason that Brownson distinguishes between two kinds or modes of philosophical reflection: "philosophy in the sense of unbelief and irreligion" and "philosophy in the sense of the rational exercise of the faculty of the human mind on the divine and human things, aided by the light of revelation."

When Brownson turns to politics itself, he draws striking conclusions from his insights into the harmony between reason and revelation. For example, he informs us that it is appropriate to view the influence of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence on the United States with a degree of ambivalence. While Brownson affirms the political conclusions of the document, he rejects the Jeffersonian or Lockean way of reaching them. It is certainly true, he argues, that "under the law of nature, all men are equal, or have equal rights as men." But the reason that "one man . . . can have in himself no right to govern another" is that a "man is never absolutely his own, but always and everywhere belongs to his Creator." That is, we can reasonably affirm that the natural law originates with a Creator, and that we are dependent on Him for all that is and all that we are. It is this affirmation-the virtual antithesis of the Lockean principle of self-ownership-that provides the proper foundation of human equality, or the doctrine that we have "equal rights as men." All governments that truly protect individual rights depend on the assumption that man is not God. Likewise, all despotism originates in the "sophism," "error," and "sin" that in some sense man is God. Hence only the Catholic or Thomistic understanding of the relationship between reason and revelation, or nature and the Creator, can make sense of America's founding principles.

Brownson also affirms Aquinas' view that what human beings can know through natural reason is largely available only to "the elite of the race."For "the bulk of mankind a revelation is necessary to givethem an adequate knowledge even of the precepts of natural law," although"in some men it can be known through reason alone." That is, some men need revelation more than others in order to come to correct conclusions aboutGod and His law. But Brownson rejects the view of the classical philosophers, who hold that a few men do not need revelation at all. The wisest of men, in fact, should most clearly see the need for revelation, because they are most aware of the limits of human reason. Those who know the natural law best should also know best that its origin and legal character are not really explicable without what we know about the Creator through revelation. They know, in particular, that God Himself could not possibly be bound by natural law:"To pretend, as some do, that God is tied up by the so-called laws of nature,or is bound in His free action by them, is to mistake entirely the relation of Creator and creature."

Yet Brownson, despite his acknowledgment of the inequality of men's rational faculties, was convinced that the Catholic Church's defense of the truth in America should proceed mainly by argument. He opposed the Church when it distrusted reason or disparaged science, and he was a critic of the American Catholic education of his time, insofar as it did not make a place for both philosophy and theology. He complained that "we have found no epoch in which the directors of the Catholic world seem to have so great a dread of intellect as our own." To him, the Church seemed animated by "the conviction expressed by Rousseau that 'the man who thinks is a depraved animal.'" In Brownson's own experience, nothing could be further from the truth than the common churchman's conviction that a man must choose between being smart and thoughtful or pious and orthodox.

Christopher Lasch has observed with admiration the extent to which Brownson aimed to provoke argument in America over the truth of religious doctrine. Brownson's concern with that truth led him to attack the insipid idea that an American civil religion that suppressed doctrinal differences should be promulgated. Teaching a vague, general faith that denies the importance of human differences regarding fundamental questions amounts to a form of tyranny. Hence, he saw in the work of Horace Mann-as he would have seen in the pragmatism of John Dewey and Richard Rorty-a thoughtless conformism that privileges comfort and control over truth. Brownson also rejected the deeper Hobbesian doctrine behind pragmatism, which holds that peace is more important than truth and justice. Because he preferred truth to comfort, Brownson's thought is nobly antibourgeois; the people can and should be better than hedonistic middle-class materialists. Like Tocqueville, Brownson understood that metaphysics and theology tend to lose ground in democracies, and he wrote, at least in part, to fend off that degradation in America.

Brownson's insights into the character of American political life have exerted precious little influence. A handful of pre-Vatican II American Catholic scholars, sensing the superiority of his political thought to secular and Protestant liberalism, took him seriously (among them Stanley Parry of the University of Notre Dame). But there have not been many such scholars, and their books and articles are today largely forgotten. None of them had the combination of depth of thought and literary talent required to establish Brownson as a major figure in American political thought-or to locate Brownson in critical relation to the dominant secular, natural-rights, humanitarian, and progressivist tendencies in American thought.

If anything, things became worse after Vatican II, when Brownson almost disappeared from view, even among American Catholic scholars. Only a very few studies since then have taken his claims seriously.Non-Catholic scholars, when they have found something to admire in Brownson,have usually pointed to his passionate devotion to the search for truth andnot to what he actually thought he found at the end of that quest. One outstanding exception to this rule was Lasch, who both admired what Brownson had to say about truth being the moral foundation of democracy and applauded his refusal to separate completely politics and religion.

But far more than Lasch, it is Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., who can serve as the best touchstone for understanding Brownson's thought today. Murray, of course, is the author of the classic work of American Catholic political philosophy, We Hold These Truths . It was Murray, more than anyone else, who was responsible for the character of Vatican II's statement on religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae ). As far as I know, Murray never acknowledged a debt to Brownson, but the similarities between their thought have been noticed more than once. There exists an obvious and deep intellectual kinship between the two that arguably points to certain core truths about the relationship between Catholicism and the American nation.

Murray, like Brownson, claims that the American founders built better than they knew because they were providentially dependent on the Catholic tradition of natural law. What Murray considers "providential"is "the evident coincidence of the principles which inspired the American Republic with the principles which are structural to the Western Christian political tradition." The founders built better than they knew, but they also left their accomplishment vulnerable to erosion by choosing to describe their work in terms derived from John Locke, whose political theory is ultimately destructive of all government, order, and liberty.

The founding must thus be reinterpreted in a better light than the one in which the founders viewed it themselves. As it was for Lincoln, Murray maintains that the Declaration of Independence must be used to illuminate the Constitution-and this illumination requires deviating to some extent from Jefferson's intentions and self-understanding in writing it. For Murray, the Declaration, a "landmark of Western political theory," put "this nation under God." Like Lincoln, Murray believes that the only way to save the Constitution from the moral superficiality or excessive selfishness of secularism is to constitutionalize the Declaration. Brownson might have objected to this project on the grounds that the Declaration, with its theoretical and Lockean presuppositions, is actually more dangerously atheistic than the Constitution's pedestrian and narrowly political "We the people of the United States." That is why Brownson preferred to refer to America's"unwritten," but no less real, constitution that was embodied in its customs and tradition. Murray, in response, may well have pointed out that in the years since Lincoln's death it has become all but impossible to defend a correct understanding of the American order based entirely on an "unwritten constitution." America, Murray might have followed Lincoln in saying, isa country "dedicated to a proposition," not (at least consciously) to received wisdom.

The part of the American proposition that is most imperiled in our time is the belief that the principles we hold in common are true-that is, that they actually correspond to the created nature of human beings. If this faith in a "realist epistemology is denied," then "the American proposition is eviscerated . . . in one stroke." Murray's realism holds that human beings are oriented by nature toward the discovery of truth. That view now seems to be denied everywhere, and one main reason for the denial is that the contract theory of Locke was itself based on the denial of realism. Locke and his successors(including, to some extent, Jefferson) believed that social and political reality is created out of nothing by sovereign human beings. According to Murray, we can most effectively defend our principles by abandoning Locke in favor of the realist St. Thomas. Echoing Brownson, he asserts that our founders' belief in Locke's teaching concerning the state of nature is no longer credible. Their "serene, and often naive, certainties of the eighteenth century" sound like nonsense to our ears. The deconstruction of Lockeanism, then, points the way to a realism that would truly make sense of the American proposition.

More even than Brownson, Murray contends that Americans now need to employ reason to become conscious of their purpose. With the waning of Lockeanism, our ability to appeal to our political "fathers" for guidance is quite limited. The problem of human freedom "stands revealed to us" ina way it was not to our fathers, because we, not they, are in a position to see the "naked essence," the nihilistic individualism, at the core of the modern experiment to which they contributed. We have no choice but to confront what they did not have to confront.

Following the path opened up by Brownson, Murray contends that the modern idea of freedom has been primarily destructive. It has left human beings dissatisfied with all traditional, natural, or "given" answers to the question, "What is man?" We no longer know why being human is good at all. In The American Republic, Brownson articulates fears about the Rousseauian theories that inform radical humanitarianism-fears that appear to be confirmed by Murray's reflections almost a century later. Communism, Murray claims, was "political modernity carried to its logical conclusion," by which he means that the anthropocentric thrust "that is implicit or unintentional in modernity" became "explicit or deliberate in the Communist system."

Well before the revolution of 1989, Murray knew that communism was the end of modern history, but not the end of history itself. Hope for history's end has always been a misanthropic "mirage." At the end of this destructive modern era, human beings feel, in Murray's words, a "spiritual vacuum . . . at the heart of human existence." Murray observes that "postmodern" man cannot help but engage in "anxious reflection" about how our "hollow emptiness[should] be filled." We have no choice but to confront "the nature and structure of reality itself," and by so doing make "a metaphysical decision about the nature of man." In a way, we are better situated in our time than Brownson was in his to see the futility of the modern ambition to cut man off from the divine. We now know that we cannot do without metaphysical and theological reflection; despite the best efforts of its children, the modern era simply failed to destroy the thoughtful and anxious human individual. It is now up to this individual to choose to recognize the truth about being and human being-a truth embodied in natural law-and to reject the ideological lies and Lockean abstractions that were devised to distract us from it.

Posted by at June 24, 2012 6:15 AM

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