In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson

In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson

In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson

In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson

Synopsis

This incisive new book offers a critical analysis of the political thought of the nineteenth-century American philosopher, journalist, and social critic Orestes Brownson. Gregory S. Butler examines Brownson's work by drawing on the theoretical perspective of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. According to Voegelin, every civilization seeks to interpret itself through the creation and utilization of symbols and myths, or what he defines as the representation of a "transcendent order". Butler, through Brownson's works, identifies the symbols that aid both in expressing the meaning of the American experiment and in illustrating the current debate about the failures of the human experience in a secular society. Butler became interested in Brownson through a series of studies in ethics and morality in American politics. He found his own views compatible with those of Brownson, who not only disputed the prevalent theory that morality has no place in politics but argued that morality is an integral part of the political process. Extensively utilizing Brownson's lesser-known writings, Butler examines, in chronological order, the phases of Brownson's personal and spiritual development, thereby assessing the importance and contemporary relevance of his thought. He gives special attention to Brownson's belief that the moral interpretation assigned to American political symbols - Liberty, Equality, the Rights of Man - are derived from the American understanding of the nature and destiny of the human soul. Brownson eventually came to believe that humankind can only progress by finding inspiration in the divine and that the American political order must be based in the Christian, especially theRoman Catholic, moral tradition. Butler's work offers at once the most complete picture of Orestes Brownson's political thought along with a distinctive view of American history and politics from a Voegelinian perspective.

Excerpt

My initial attraction to Orestes Brownson happened quite by accident. I developed an interest in his work as a result of a series of studies in a much larger subject, that of ethics and morality in American politics. My particular focus within this vast area of study happened to stem from a basic disagreement with the opinion that questions concerning morality and the good for humanity are the private concern of individuals and have little to do with the exercise of political power. in the popular press, one is continually faced with the view that the creation of political order is simply a matter of creating the proper institutional structures. I was uncomfortable not only with this opinion but with its cousin as well: that the political scientist should refrain from getting involved in questions about values and should be concerned with perfecting processes, institutions, bureaucratic techniques, and the like. Moreover, I did not think that my discomfort was necessarily groundless, because, as a matter of historical fact, the exercise of American political power could practically be defined by an almost relentless pursuit of transcendent political good. Weren't there any number of instances in which that power had mixed itself with values of one sort or another and at times quite dramatically? Indeed, it struck me as quite unrealistic to expect the natural human craving for transcendent good in any society to confine itself purely to the private realm of existence. It would seem that social life is intimately tied to our humanity; human beings are everywhere found in social and political existence, and the order of that existence always has a bearing on the development . . .

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