Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestes Brownson and the American Idea

Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestes Brownson and the American Idea

Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestes Brownson and the American Idea

Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestes Brownson and the American Idea


If, as some physicians of the national malaise claim, the American dream is dead and our history as a nation has reached its end, it seems fitting to reopen the question of what America is - or should be, or what was once thought she ought to be. Although we can hardly expect this to be persuaded any longer by the historic dreams of the new Adam, a review of that century-old challenge to debate, founded in the possibility of an achieved human perfection, can provide us with humane instruction in understanding the present and the future. The author here gives us that review through the eyes of a major nineteenth-century commentator. Orestes Brownson's work is a significant part of American history, especially of its intellectual history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote of Brownson: "one feels the pathos of modernity in this stormy pilgrim. His life still touches contemporary nerves - from the antagonisms of capital and labor to the place of the Catholics in American society,from the nature of American culture to the death of God..." To expect solutions from - to expect agreement with - Brownson is to ask for more than this book intends. Much of his mastery was in the isolation and sharply etched presentation of the question. Clarity and depth of thought are everywhere reflected in his work. Whither that thought leads is clearly the work of ultimate judgment by the reader. By allowing Brownson to speak for himself, and confining critical comments chiefly to footnotes, the author presents him as still vigorously alive and, it is hoped, as a formative influence in America's future.


Amerika, du hast es besser
Als unser Kontinent, das alte,
Hast keine verfallene Schlösser
Und keine Basalte….

—GOETHE, “Den Vereinigten Staaten”

American life in the eighth decade of this century reflects an amount of confusion remarkable even for a country seldom free of turbulence. Its society appears profoundly disturbed not only by disagreement but by a failure of continuity which at best tends to temporary explosions of civic disorder—apparently acceptable disjunctions; the deeper reaches of the problem indicate a terrible, a deadly and corrosive separation. a great variety of topical events provides patent, even numbing, evidence of a social Sturm und Drang; what is more hidden are those elemental faults which could lead to seismic disaster.

It may be too narrow to isolate America as sole possible victim of a cultural earthquake; there are those who see the deeply flawed sub-surfaces of all Western society as being dangerously aggravated by advances long held to be beneficial to mankind. Romano Guardini is one of these; Jacques Ellul, another. Guardini, for instance, in a notably lucid and apparently neglected little gem of a book, finds that modern man, convicted, in a sense, by his own technological progress, has been jailed by his inability to find adequate power to control power—he is, in short, a prisoner of his own impotence. So deeply do the chains bite, Guardini argues, so constricting are the cell conditions, that in his pain modern man has perforce been separated from his past. His lineaments severely contorted, man, as we have known him, can never again appear the same. a new, raw power, its wildness exacerbated by man’s inability in our time to understand and control the works of his own mind and imagination, could destroy not only those works but man himself.

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