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Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America
Peter Augustine Lawler
If you attend Mass in the crypt of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, you may be startled to notice, as you walk up to take communion, that your steps take you directly over the final resting place of Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876).
Orestes Brownson was born in Vermont and into poverty. At a young age he moved with his family to Saratoga County, New York. There he was largely self-educated, but he still managed to memorize almost all of the Bible by the age of fourteen. For most of his youth he was an ardent and restless seeker after truth, never attaching himself for long to any one spiritual or political position. By the time of his conversion to Catholicism in 1844, Brownson had been a Presbyterian, a minister in both the Universalist and Unitarian churches, a Transcendentalist, a militant atheist, and a devotee of the form of secular, utopian socialism taught by Robert Owen and Fanny Wright. He worked as a humanitarian political activist, belonged to the New York Workingman's Party, and took to denouncing laissez-faire capitalism as worse than medieval serfdom. Through all his religious and political peregrinations, Brownson wrote prolifically, and, especially prior to his journey to Rome, he was considered one of the leading thinkers in America.
For the young Brownson, orthodox Christianity held little appeal because of its teaching about man's alienation from God. Brownson insisted on identifying the voice of God with the voice of humanity, and he taught that the kingdom of God — which would be perfectly just and free of all oppression — could be established on earth. Almost a decade before the publication of The Communist Manifesto, Brownson's essay "The Laboring Classes" predicted the inevitability of class warfare ending in the advent of heaven on earth.
Brownson did not consider himself a revolutionary, however. As Gregory Butler explains in his fine study of Brownson's ideas (In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson, 1992), Brownson understood his writing to be an "outgrowth of the American tradition." Moreover, "he thought he saw in the American Constitution the germ of the new, perfected organization of mankind." For Brownson, the Jacksonian Democratic party could serve as a vehicle for realizing his ideals, and he made an active effort to direct that party's thought. He even became "President Martin Van Buren's man in Massachusetts" and accepted a patronage job from the government.
Yet these hopes were thoroughly dashed by the presidential election of 1840. The consensus then and now is that Brownson's "The Laboring Classes," which Van Buren's Whig opponents used to charge that the Democrats intended to abolish the wage system, contributed to Van Buren's failure to win reelection. Brownson's uncritical, progressive faith in democracy never recovered. Soon he would describe himself "a conservative in politics." It was a political conversion that served as a prelude to his rapid advance toward religious orthodoxy.
Over the next few years, Brownson would conclude that man's progress in history depends on his communion with, and the continuous action of, a Creator. He also concluded that belief in supernatural revelation and creation was not as incompatible with reason as he had once supposed. Before long, Brownson had decided to convert to Roman Catholicism and was received into the Church by Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick of Boston in 1844.
The American Republic (1866) is Brownson's most comprehensive work of political reflection — which means that it is about much more than politics narrowly understood. Republican — or distinctively and properly political — life cannot be understood simply on its own terms, Brownson argued. It must be placed in the broader context of human life as a whole and its proper relation to the truth about the whole of God's creation.
This cluster of assumptions makes Brownson's work somewhat unique in the history of political thought. Plato and Aristotle, for example, distinguished between the love of wisdom that animates the few and the lies or conventions that characterize political life. They were not opposed to deception when writing for a political audience, and they wondered inconclusively about whether the gods or nature really supported moral aspirations. In contrast, the modern political thinkers who are most influenced by Machiavelli tend to connect truth to effectiveness. They are, in other words, pragmatists. For them, the truth is what enables us to change the world; it is not something to be discovered, but something to be made. As that most radical and influential of pragmatists, Karl Marx, famously wrote, the point of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to transform it.
Later modern thinkers, those influenced by Pascal and Nietzsche, take a darker view of man's relationship to truth. Convinced that Machiavellianism cannot succeed in completely remaking the world, they believe that, in the end, the pragmatic project is an ineffective diversion from the terrible truth — the meaninglessness — that underlies all human projects. We thus have little choice but to face up to the fact that our deepest longings for knowing and loving cannot be satisfied. Only our courage, not our knowledge, can keep us from despair.
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 as it 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 give them 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 about God 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 and not 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, is a 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" in a 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.
While Murray seems at times to differ from Brownson in his affirmation of the rational self-sufficiency of natural law, the two thinkers actually agree that philosophic inquiry, properly employed, will discover its own limits and thus uncover the point at which the natural law reveals itself to the human mind. They also agree that a true understanding of human liberty depends on revelation or belief in a Creator, and that this belief can be affirmed by reason as the best explanation of the mystery of meaning and existence. Revelation leads human beings beyond what they would know by nature alone, teaching "the equality of all men, and the unity of the human race." It is only through revelation that we can know the truth that we are more than political and rational animals, that we are creatures with a duty to the Creator. It is only through revelation, according to Brownson, that we know that natural law is law.
By focusing on the truth and the being who can know it by nature — and, finally, on the dependence of reason on revelation — Murray, whether he knew it or not, followed in Brownson's footsteps. With Brownson and Murray, we can say that there is an American tradition of Thomistic realism that opposes itself to the dominant American tradition of contractualism and pragmatism, while also resolutely affirming the achievement of American constitutionalism. We might add to the American Thomist tradition the great literary artists Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor. Percy, for example, realistically affirmed the truth and goodness of science while also rejecting scientific claims that do not acknowledge the reality of the distinctive excellence, and destiny, of human beings.
Brownson and Murray teach us the important lesson that the beliefs we hold in common as Americans must really be true if our liberty is to be defensible. Where Brownson goes beyond Murray is in his robust defense of the necessarily national or territorial character of democracy. This was arguably his keenest insight — and one that contemporary Catholics, in America and elsewhere, inclined as they are toward skepticism of national sovereignty and admiration of transpolitical institutions, would do well to ponder.
For Brownson, national solidarity is a natural human potential rooted in necessary human dependence. It also accords with the real but limited human powers of knowing and loving one another. The universality of reason and even religion, given our natural possibilities and limitations, cannot be the model for political order. The proper political form is thus the nation, the modern equivalent of the polis. Brownson thought national solidarity perfectly compatible with the solidarity of the human race through reason and faith, as long as the state was properly oriented toward the truth.
Given our need to flourish as social but limited beings, government deserves our love, loyalty, and obedience. "Loyalty," Brownson writes, "is the highest, noblest, and most generous of human virtues, and is the human element of that sublime love or charity which the inspired Apostle tells us is the fulfillment of the law." Loyalty is more specifically human or particular than the supernatural virtue of charity. And charity cannot replace loyalty as a political or national passion. So Christianity elevates "civic virtues to the rank of religious virtues [by] making loyalty a matter of conscience." Brownson even asserts that "he who dies on the battlefield fighting for his country ranks with him who dies at the stake for his faith." More precisely, "Civic virtues are themselves religious virtues, or at least virtues without which there are no religious virtues, since no man who does not love his brother does or can love God." Human beings approach the universal through the particular, and love of the personal Creator cannot be separated from other particular human beings. Human love is never for human beings in general. All men are brothers, but men come to know brotherly love only when they experience political solidarity with their fellow citizens.
Awareness of these truths is lamentably rare today among Catholic thinkers, though there are prominent exceptions. The French Catholic Tocquevillian, Pierre Manent, is one of them. In numerous books and essays, Manent has established himself as one of our most accomplished defenders of the nation in general, and his own French nation in particular. This is all the more remarkable given that France, like most of the rest of Europe, is currently in the process of enthusiastically dissolving its own sovereignty in favor of the transpolitical entity of the European Union.
In a decidedly Brownsonian spirit, Manent notes that in contemporary Europe, the political or republican dimension of human life, genuine concern with the common good, has almost disappeared. Manent affirms with Brownson that "man as a free and rational being cannot fulfill himself outside a political community, with all the consequences (not all of them pleasant) that this entails. It is in the political body, and only in the political body, that we seriously put things in common." Whether described as a nation, city, or polis, the political community is where deliberation over justice occurs; it is thus qualitatively different from the family, and it alone can serve as the model for distinctively human community.
Manent notes that despite its desire for self-sufficiency, even modern democracy needs to be instantiated in a "body." It needs limits, a "territorial framework," that may seem arbitrary from the heights of theological speculation but is indispensable for the existence of political life. The modern European, Manent explains, wants the principle of consent to govern all of life — for everything to be the product of his will, for nothing to be given or providential. The result is a paradox: "The European want[s] only what he himself will[s]; he reject[s] as arbitrary and outdated the nation, the political instrument that allow[s] him, by giving him limits, to exercise his sovereignty or will." Yet the willful escape from limits paradoxically thwarts the exercise of political will: "The European as a citizen finds himself able to accomplish less and less." Hence, republican government — like all government — must be territorial, and loyalty, more than consent, must be the foundation of good government and political life.
The withering away of the state thus comes at the expense of all that human beings rightly regard as good. The truth, as Manent points out, is that people cannot "live long within civilization alone without some sense of political belonging (which is necessarily exclusive), and thus without some definition of what we hold in common." And what we hold in common, in light of what we have inherited from the Greeks, Romans, and Christians, must be partly particular, or exclusive to us as citizens, and partly universal, or an expression of the solidarity of all human beings. The modern nation, with its mixture of the exclusivity of citizenship and openness to universal truth embodied in religion and transnational civilization and culture, mirrors, if only very imperfectly, the complexity within human nature itself.
In some sense, then, Manent's work today serves the same purpose in our time that Brownson's did in his. The political thinker, in Manent's words, "legitimates the [nation] before the Church"; he "affirms the human virtues" and "maintains the legitimacy of human affirmation." He defends the naturalness of political life and the reality of the particular human individual against empty and impotent cosmopolitanism.
But that affirmation must be under God. Manent knows, as Brownson did before him, that the best political thinkers must affirm "the universality of the Church against the particularity of the city" and display "a skepticism toward every human self-assertion that remains particular." That is, they must defend the republic, civilization, and the Church against barbarism. But at the same time, and no less urgently, they must defend the truth — and thus freedom of thought, the individual, and the Church — against the despotism toward which all nations tend when they resist the influence of the truth of revelation.
Peter Augustine Lawler. "Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America." First Things 128 (December 2002): 23-28.
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Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia. This essay is adapted from his introduction to the forthcoming reissue of Orestes A. Brownson's The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, Volume 1 of the series Orestes Brownson: Works In Political Philosophy, edited by Gregory Butler (ISI).
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