Arrested by Orestes

Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876)Brownson, that is. Been reading The American Republic: Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, in which Brownson, writing right after the Civil War, tries to get his arms around what it means for a nation to constitute a government. He says many amazing things, and, as is true of profound thinkers, says things that remain true today. At the same time, he’s constructing an apologetic for Lincoln, who, in the face of Southern claims of the right to secede, argued that the nation preceded the Constitution – that arguments over government could not be used to destroy the fundamental unity of the nation that constituted that government.

Further, Brownson sort of apologizes at the beginning of the book for not making it scholarly – not identifying all his sources nor following academic rigor in laying out his arguments. While this certainly makes the book more readable, it also obscures somewhat the influence of Fichte and Hegel, which, while not mentioned by name (yet – I’m a little less than halfway through) seem to lurk behind many of the ideas and assumptions.

A couple snippets: first, for those of us afflicted with materialists, Brownson offers pithy observations:

IV. A still more recent class of philosophers, if philosophers they may be called, reject the origin of government in the people individually or collectively. Satisfied that it has never been instituted by a voluntary and deliberate act of the people, and confounding government as a fact with government as authority, maintain that government is a spontaneous development of nature. Nature develops it as the liver secretes bile, as the bee constructs her cell, or the beaver builds his dam. Nature, working by her own laws and inherent energy, develops society, and society develops government. That is all the secret. Questions as to the origin of government or its rights, beyond the simple positive fact, belong to the theological or metaphysical stage of the development of nature, but are left behind when the race has passed beyond that stage, and has reached the epoch of positive science, in which all, except the positive fact, is held to be unreal and non-existent. Government, like every thing else in the universe, is simply a positive development of nature. Science explains the laws and conditions of the development, but disdains to ask for its origin or ground in any order that transcends the changes of the world of space and time.

These philosophers profess to eschew all theory, and yet they only oppose theory to theory. The assertion that reality for the human mind is restricted to the positive facts of the sensible order, is purely theoretic, and is any thing but a positive fact. Principles are as really objects of science as facts, and it is only in the light of principles that facts themselves are intelligible. If the human mind had no science of reality that transcends the sensible order, or the positive fact, it could have no science at all. As things exist only in their principles or causes, so can they be known only in their principles and causes; for things can be known only as they are, or as they really exist. The science that pretends to deduce principles from particular facts, or to rise from the fact by way of reasoning to an order that transcends facts, and in which facts have their origin, is undoubtedly chimerical, and as against that the positivists are unquestionably right. But to maintain that man has no intelligence of any thing beyond the fact, no intuition or intellectual apprehension of its principle or cause, is equally chimerical. The human mind cannot have all science, but it has real science as far as it goes, and real science is the knowledge of things as they are, not as they are not. Sensible facts are not intelligible by themselves, because they do not exist by themselves; and if the human mind could not penetrate beyond the individual fact, beyond the mimetic to the methexic, or transcendental principle, copied or imitated by the individual fact, it could never know the fact itself. The error of modern philosophers, or philosopherlings, is in supposing the principle is deduced or inferred from the fact, and in denying that the human mind has direct and immediate intuition of it.

And, as to ‘nation-building’:

The constitution of the state is not a theory, nor is it drawn up and established in accordance with any preconceived theory. What is theoretic in a constitution is unreal. The constitutions conceived by philosophers in their closets are constitutions only of Utopia or Dreamland. This world is not governed by abstractions, for abstractions are nullities. Only the concrete is real, and only the real or actual has vitality or force. The French people adopted constitution after constitution of the most approved pattern, and amid bonfires, beating of drums, sound of trumpets, roar of musketry, and thunder of artillery, swore, no doubt, sincerely as well as enthusiastically, to observe them, but all to no effect; for they had no authority for the nation, no hold on its affections, and formed no element of its life. The English are great constitution-mongers–for other nations. They fancy that a constitution fashioned after their own will fit any nation that can be persuaded, wheedled, or bullied into trying it on; but, unhappily, all that have tried it on have found it only an embarrassment or encumbrance. The doctor might as well attempt to give an individual a new constitution, or the constitution of another man, as the statesman to give a nation any other constitution than that which it has, and with which it is born.

I wonder what Brownson would have made of post-war Japan? Probably note that, while the form of government was superficially American, day to day power was and is exercised by the 9 great families, just as it was before the war – in other words, the nation as it is itself constituted produces as a government an hereditary aristocracy, whatever formal arrangement the legally-constituted government may take.

Will finish this up and do a review. Within my lifetime, one hopes.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Arrested by Orestes”

  1. Brownson is interred right in the middle of the central aisle of the crypt chapel in the basement of the basilica at Notre Dame. I used to have to step around him when going up to communion at daily mass.

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