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TRANSCENDENTALISM AND ORESTES A. BROWNSON BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
“For as lighting comes out of the east, and appears even into the west: so also shall the coming of the son of man be.” (Matt. 24:27) "The lonely pursuit of truth, with its worship of unflinching honesty and rigorous logic, was the secret of his failure." - Arthur M. Schlesinger, Orestes A. Brownson - a Pilgrim's Progress
INTRODUCTION TO THE WILD GOD Orestes Brownson was born in 1803 into poverty in Vermont, and died in Detroit in 1876 after a long career as an author, labor activist, and religious propagandist. He is best known today for his association with and rejection of New England Transcendentalism. His father died shortly after he was born. His mother had to separate him from his siblings and send him to live with an old couple in Vermont. She reclaimed him eight years later, and they lived near Albany, New York, where he was exposed to the religious agitation of the day, and Page 1 of 3
was baptized a Presbyterian in 1822. He occupied himself as a Universalist preacher because he thought the Presbyterians were too exclusive, and as a writer and editor. Brownson’s notable contemporaries admired his writing style: He was believed to be the finest thinker in America although he could not hold a candle to the likes of such popular European philosophers as Hegel. He had scant formal education but he loved reading books including the Bible. He was a naturally a studious man: he taught himself French and Latin; that brought him under the spiritual influence of French philosophers such as the romantic Benjamin Constant, the utopian Comte de Saint-Simon, and the eclectic Victor Cousin, his spiritual master for awhile, whose philosophy Brownson as a matter of course eventually contradicted at some length after espousing it. He was not a dogmatic skeptic, someone who believes in nothing at all. Although of a critical temperament, he had to believe in something or the other hence his many conversions. Over the course of his long career Brownson reversed himself so many times that a friend politely remarked that it was unnecessary to correct him since he would correct himself in a couple of years. Indeed, he changed his theosophy so many times during his pilgrim's progress towards the Promised Land that he was called a "wild" man. To begin with, having been raised as a Calvinist Congregationalist, and then becoming a Presbyterian, he rejected that denomination because he believed it was too self-involved, and that its doctrines of original sin and predetermination were malicious, therefore he converted to Universalism. While under the influence of Fanny Wright and Robert Dale Owen, he went from preaching Universalism to preaching radical humanism for the Workingman's Party of New York, only to return to God as a free-lance Unitarian, albeit one with Christian Socialist tendencies. Before he finally became a devout Catholic apologist, he espoused so many sects that he was called a walking index of Christian religion. All along the way, he accepted Jesus as the redeemer of sins and the ultimate mediator between man and God. Virgil G. Michel examined Brownson’s principles in his thesis for Doctor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, published in 1918 as The Critical Principals of Orestes Brownson. Michel admitted, after an extensive study of his works, that many of his own views appeared in the thesis because Brownson himself had never provided an explicit, coherent summary of his principles. Indeed, a careful examination of his writings would reveal many contradictions. “If Brownson had set down for himself a complete set of aesthetic and critical principles and had taken such a system for his point of departure, then he would be indeed accountable for the ideas underlying every critical statement he made, and blameworthy in the greatest degree for any contradictions that statements made at different times might involve. But just these contradictions—they are rather exaggerations of different viewpoints-shows us something of Brownson the man; namely, the absorbing enthusiasm with which he pursued any cause that he thought worth pursuing, and which seemed to control his entire being at such moment.” Michel especially noticed Brownson’s fundamental literary mission, the betterment of human society and the uplifting of workers, and observed that his mission was an artistic, creative Page 2 of 3
project. Brownson certainly did not mince words when it came to denouncing doctrines that he felt were contrary to the public good even though he might have supported them himself on previous occasions. Brownson was a true critic, and an artistic one at that for art raises man to the high enjoyments. He was a critical aesthete devoted to distinguishing good from evil and propagating the former. “Would that all critics, and not only some, could catch the spirit of Brownson, and that all writers would have before their eyes continually the sublime position that real art occupies in the life of man!” Michel concluded. Orestes Brownson was obviously a religious enthusiast. He seems to have been driven to overcompensate for a sense of insecurity, perhaps due to the fact that his father died when he was six-years-old and his mother gave him up for adoption. He strove for superiority by association with the Almighty, learning as he went along, proclaiming his findings to the world at the risk of making a fool of himself. He enjoyed and suffered the energy of one who is subject to enthusiasm in its original sense: he was “god-possessed.” The nature of that subjective god remains a mystery, as must the objective universe. Other than the personal nature of god acceptable to Christians, Jesus the Christ, whose conduct is described in relevant literature, who or what was Brownson’s god? Whom do we love first of all when we love another? Do we not love ourselves so much that we would give ourselves to the other that our worth would be fully appreciated? Whom do Christians love when the love their anointed Jesus? That personal godhead was not Brownson’s alone, for god is a social construct as well as a dynamic personal project inasmuch as a person or human being is the conjunction of individual existence and social being. Social being at its bottom is a mysterious complex to truthful sociologists. The inner nature of a particular, existing individual absent society is absolutely secret. We know one another through each other, by our performances. As for the transcendent god, the Infinite One somehow beyond, yet imminent in finite existence, at least for theologians who will not renounce existence altogether in favor of Nothing, we do not pretend to know anything about the being called the Supreme Being. The ancients spoke of the Unknown, or of an ineffability for which they dared not contrive a name. So when we use the pagan term, “god,” we do not pretend to really know what we are talking about except as the word is variously understood by people, particularly those who capitalize it. We conjecture that the Word or Logos, whatever it is, signifies liberty to Transcendentalists, who are inclined to intuitively know or experience the unknown god. After all, God is absolutely free, uncaused and unlimited, does not even have to think, so it is fair to say that God is untamed, or, in another word, wild. We opine that this sense of wildness, the wildness of the god within, is the essence of Transcendentalism, and that Orestes Brownson, who embraced the Catholic order to save himself from the chaos of perpetual revolution, the tendency of Protestants to protest against all worldly authority, never rid himself of that sense. It is with that in mind that we embark on our exploration of Transcendentalism and Orestes Brownson. -XYXTo Be Continued
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