Orestes Augustus Brownson 1803-1876

I like the writings of Orestes Augustus Brownson and hope you do too.


The middle class is always a firm champion of equality, when it concerns humbling a class above it; but it is its inveterate foe when it concerns elevating a class below it. Manfully have the British Commoners struggled against the old feudal aristocracy, and so successfully that they now constitute the dominant power in the state. To their struggles against the throne and the nobility is the English nation indebted for the liberty it so loudly boasts, and which’, during the last half of the last century, so enraptured the friends of Humanity throughout Europe. But this class has done nothing for the labouring population, the real proletarii. It has humbled the aristocracy; it has raised itself to dominion, and it is now conservative, -conservative in fact, whether it call itself Whig or Radical.

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Every man who believes Christianity and knows why he believes it, has at some period of his life doubted it. Authority and tradition may answer the wants of the multitude, but there are those who must not only know what they believe, but wherefore they believe. In these men the philosophical element is active. They ask, why do we believe Christianity? What are the grounds for believing it? When they ask this question, they have no thought of doubting, far less of disbelieving. They are honest, but they have a craving to comprehend that faith they have hitherto taken on trust. But when they begin this questioning they are necessarily ignorant, and doubt is the inevitable result.

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“Christianity addresses itself to me as a being endowed with reason. It presupposes me capable of knowing and comprehending. It makes its appeal not to my senses, but to my reason. If then it should begin by denying my right to exercise my reason, which is virtually denying the reason itself, it would leave no reason to respond to its appeal. It is the reason that must pronounce upon its truth or falsity; but if we deny both the right and the competency of the reason to do this, we can never have any grounds for believing Christianity true or false, consequently no reason whatever for feeling ourselves obliged to obey it. Religion can dispense with reason, no better than philosophy can, for reason is its only interpreter and voucher.”

Orestes Brownson by GPA Healy, 1863 (detail).jpg

Orestes Brownson, Stockbridge, Vermont


Mr. Edgerton, a New England Transcendentalist, a thin, spare man, with a large nose, and a cast of Yankee shrewdness in his not unhandsome face, was not favorable to this plan. “I dislike,” he said, “associations. They absorb the individual, and establish social despotism. All set plans of world-reform are bad. Every one must have a theory, a plan, a Morrison’s pill. No one trusts to nature. None are satisfied with wild flowers or native forests. All seek an artificial garden. They will not hear the robin sing unless it is shut up in a cage.

St. Anselm wished to render an account to himself of his faith, and to know and understand the reasons for believing in God. He did not doubt the existence of God; he indeed held that God cannot be thought not to be; he did not seek to know the arguments which prove that God is, that he might believe, but that he might the better know and understand what he already believed. We believe that we may understand, and we cannot understand unless we believe — a great truth which modern speculators do not recognize. They reverse the process, and seek to know that they may believe, and hold that the first step to knowledge is to doubt or to deny.

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The historian of the aberrations of human reason during the last half century will, if I am not much mistaken, find this volume not unworthy of his attention. The accounts I have given of the various sects, schools, and parties with which I came at different times in contact, together with the sketches I have ventured of their founders and chiefs, will be found, I think, devoid neither of interest nor value. These accounts and sketches might have been greatly extended, but I have made it a rule to confine myself to what served to illustrate my own story, and those contemporary movements and individuals that exerted little or no influence upon my own opinions or relations, I have passed over as foreign to my subject.

One day, when I was about nineteen years of age, I was passing by a Presbyterian meeting-house. It was Sunday, and the people were gathering for the service. The thought struck me that I would go in and join with them.

A neighbor put into my hands also a Treatise on the Atonement by Hosea Ballon. Mr. Ballon was a native of New Hampshire, originally a Calvinistic Baptist, but he became a Universalist.

It was never in my nature, any more than it is in that of the human race to take up with a purely negative system. My craving to believe was always strong, and it never was my misfortune to be of a skeptical turn of mind. But if I craved something to believe, it was never for the sake of believing. I wanted the truth, would labor for it, harder than most men perhaps, but never to stop with its mere apprehension or barren contemplation. My disposition was practical rather than speculative, or even meditative, like that of the majority of my countrymen. I sought the truth in order to know what I ought to do, and as the means of realizing some moral or practical end. I wanted it that I might use it.

While my Universalism was escaping me. I had been engaged in acquiring a positive belief of another sort.

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The Cosmists, who present us the latest form of atheism, divide all things into knowable and unknowable. The unknowable they must concede is at least unknown, and consequently all their knowledge or science is confined to the knowable; and according to them the knowable is restricted to the phenomenal. Hence their science is simply the science of the phenomenal, and this is wherefore they assert the relativity of all knowledge. But there is no science of phenomena alone. Science, strictly taken, is the reduction of facts or phenomena to the principle or cause on which they depend, and which explains them. Science, properly speaking, is the science of principles or causes, as defined by Aristotle, and where there are no known causes or principles there is no science. The Cosmists, and even the Positivists, place all principles and causes in the unknowable, and consequently neither have nor can have any science. They therefore have not, and cannot have any scientific truth or principle, as we have already shown, to oppose to Christian theism.

An essay in refutation of atheism, 1882

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