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Orestes Brownson's Influence

Part IV of a Five-Part Series

On Marxism, Agrarianism, Consumerism, and Spiritualism

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Brownson’s thought is his perceptiveness. Although he concentrated on contemporary American issues, writing what is known as “periodical literature,” the truths and conclusions he pulled from the contemporary scene transcend the era. Perhaps more interestingly, he pointed out looming problems, particularly problems about modern life, decades before others even noticed what was happening.

He was, for instance, the first person to condemn Marxism as a Christian heresy, a position that would be echoed throughout the twentieth century in the writings of Arnold Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, and others. He also adumbrated the church-state teachings of John Courtney Murray that would play a major role in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, holding that all religions not contra bonos mores (not incompatible with the public peace) are equal before the state and entitled to full protection: a “free church in a free state implies the liberty of false religions no less than the true one, the freedom of error no less than the freedom of truth.”[i]

He also predicted that Catholics and Southerners would find a common interest in opposing the plagues from the North: urban industrialism, big business, and centralized central government. About fifty years later, both the South (through the Agrarian Movement) and the Catholic Church (through distributists like Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton) would wage intellectual battles against those plagues.[ii]

He was also concerned about America’s preoccupation with material progress and its exploitation of natural resources, warning that America was placing a disproportionate amount of effort into building new railroads and canals. Progress, he taught, shouldn’t be equated with material growth, but rather with moral growth, and America was neglecting the latter in favor of the former.[iii] It’s a problem that has come to a serious head today as science plunges into areas where it ought to tread with great caution, but, because its development has been wholly one-sided — concerned solely with what it can do (ability) as opposed to what it ought to do (morality) — it lacks the tools to discern which areas are dangerous. Almost one hundred years after Brownson, Arthur Koestler would describe this disproportionate growth as a “monstrously one-sided mutation — as if moles were growing to the size of whales, but retaining the instincts of moles.”[iv]

Brownson also lamented the rise of a consumption-obsessed culture in America, pointing out that “happiness is not in proportion to what one is able to consume” and that “human happiness is not augmented by multiplying human wants.”[v] Though he wasn’t the first thinker to point out this problem (Tocqueville had written about it in Democracy in America), his thoughts on the topic presage Pope John II’s later condemnation of “consumerism” and the “artificial new needs” of mass society.

Other examples of his foresight include an early denouncement of spiritualism and the occult (although the phenomenon had started just six years earlier, in 1848, Brownson found the movement sufficiently disturbing to devote an entire book, The Spirit Rapper, to it in 1854), and his accurate observation that the social contract theory of the origin of societies is unfounded.

Mistakes and Shortfalls

Despite his prescience, it cannot be denied that Brownson’s thought had shortfalls. His contemporaries and biographers have both referred to him as a “weathercock” because he changed his opinions frequently.[vi] Although admittedly he frequently changed his views, it is a misleading label. He didn’t modify his ideas in response to the winds of public opinion (a weathercock would not have converted in the bigoted firelight of burning Catholic churches and orphanages). He changed them because he relentlessly pursued truth and was willing to change his mind — and put it on paper — when his perception of the truth changed.

Moreover, most of the allegations about Brownson’s inconsistencies stem from his pre-conversion years when he moved from Calvinism to Universalism to Unitarianism to Catholicism and flirted with radical politics. After his conversion, his intellectual diversions were far less frequent and less momentous, and he never deviated from the bedrock truths taught by the Church. Most of his changes in later years were minor when contrasted with changes before his conversion.

His most significant changes came in the decade from 1854 to 1864, when he seemed to shift to the left in his thinking. It’s called his “liberal period,” and during this period he spoke favorably about the merits of democracy, downplaying his previous criticism of writers who believed that the electorate’s majority vote is the equivalent of divine law. He also adopted a softer tone toward his Protestant brethren, abandoning such statements like “Satan was the first Protestant” in favor of gentler rhetoric. But even during this period he didn’t change his opinions as much as he shifted his emphasis.[vii] On the political end he was trying to give due credit to the merits of democracy, even though he never denied that it can get carried away and become tyrannical. On the religious end, he was trying to make Catholicism more palatable to Protestants in order to strengthen the Church and win more converts.[viii]

It also shouldn’t be denied that Brownson arguably made mistakes and didn’t always see the American situation clearly. His esteem for the U.S. Constitution and its possibilities when combined with the Catholic Church, for instance, were too lofty. He wrote in The American Republic about the United States’ “continental destiny,” saying the United States would absorb the entire northern and southern hemispheres into a massive country, the other countries being inexorably drawn to the United States and voluntarily requesting annexation.

He also over-stated the compatibility of Catholicism and American life. Not only did he naively entertain the belief that all of America would eventually be converted to Catholicism, he was also unable to see that certain aspects of Americanism are incompatible with Catholicism. “There is, as far as we know, nothing in American self-reliance, activity, energy, hurry, and bustle, however repugnant to our old-world notions, that a Catholic may not reconcile with Catholic faith and morals.”[ix] These words are somewhat startling. Most of those American characteristics are precisely the things that are inconsistent with Catholicism, especially its spirituality. But Brownson had an insufficient understanding of the spiritual life,[x] and in his zeal to prove that America and the Church are compatible, he overlooked that the Catholic Church and America often define “the good life” differently.

[i] Ryan, p. 639.

[ii] The Catholic convert, Dorothy Day, was warmly sympathetic to agrarianism. The agrarian, Allen Tate, was a convert. For an account of southern agrarianism and Catholic distributism in the twentieth century, see Allan Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, New Brunswick, NY: Transaction Publishers, 2000.

[iii] Power, p. 73.

[iv] Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, New York: Arkana, 1989, p. 357.

[v] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, October 1864 (see Ed. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Reader, New York: Penguin Books, 1982, p. 279).

[vi] See Brownson, Essays and Reviews Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism, p. ix.

[vii] Ryan, p. 516.

[viii] Ryan, p. 599

[ix] Ryan, p. 536.

[x] “Though pious, he was hardly attuned to the higher reaches of spirituality, contemptuous of ‘mysticism’ as self-serving sentimentality bonded to undisciplined flights of imagination.” Herrera, p. xv.