If a democracy drifts into unlimited notions of freedom, the best course of action is not to strip citizens of freedom, but rather to educate them, so that they can correct any constitutional abuses that contributed or led the way to the abyss of nihilism.


This essay will revisit the age-old concern with the relationship between person and society, as well as this relationship’s impact on democratic governments, particularly that of the United States of America. The focus will be on the nineteenth-century American writer Orestes Brownson, a prominent thinker of that time who is often overlooked in contemporary discourse. For Brownson, it was natural law that rooted freedom in reason to prevent freedom from transmogrifying into license. Freedom uprooted from reason too easily drifts into the Nietzschean abyss, an abyss that gazes back into those who stare into it too long. Brownson’s limits on freedom by way of reason prevents society from running amuck in a realm of irrationality that lacks the moorings of transcendent moral order.

In short, society is not made up of closed-off individuals but, rather, persons who are produced through education. Society is prior to the person. The individual, closed off from greater society by freedom uprooted from natural law, a law in which reason is an essential factor, is not in actuality free. On the contrary, this individual is a prisoner of his or her own making. As John Donne famously put it, “No man is an island,” unless, of course, a man chooses to lock himself into the hell of solitary confinement.

In similar fashion, a democratic government must be limited in its scope. If society is to produce persons who are responsible for electing government representatives, it is government’s responsibility to protect society from ideologies advocated by various factions of said democratic society. As will be shown, in bearing witness to the American Civil War, Orestes Brownson understood that the outcome of that struggle defeated the notion of anarchic individualism forwarded by Southern ideology. He also noted, however, that the abolitionists of the Union mistakenly took the outcome of the war to be a victory for their progressive ideology. For Brownson, anarchic individualism and civic despotism were two sides of the same coin. Both were divorced from natural law—thus, authentic reason—and both, therefore, were irrational and led to licentiousness rather than freedom. The necessary outcome of this brand of license is nihilism, in which each individual’s freedom trumps that of his neighbor.


John C. Murray, following Brownson, in his 1960 work We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections of the American Proposition, grounded human nature in the natural law. Murray explicated four premises of natural law that individuals have the potential to grasp, provided that the proper environment is in play. The provisio of creating a proper environment is the moral obligation of the parents and family of the child. Later it falls to educational institutions of society at large to teach the child until he or she becomes a young adult. These institutions can be academic, religious, or a combination thereof. Finally, the young adult may choose to further his or her education at community college, trade school, or university. Sooner or later, however, the education must come to an end and the student, to borrow from Heidegger, must take a stand on being.[1] At this juncture, through the exercise of reason and choice, the decision is made to become a lawyer, a priest, a farmer, or a stonemason, so that the student can take his or her place as a person in society. Simply put, then, society is prior to personhood when in accordance with the natural law. It is the principal function of a democratic government to nurture and protect this process.

In America, academic education falls into the categories of public and private. It is the duty in both spheres, if not always the practice, to create and maintain proper academic balance so that, as the student’s ability to reason matures, they are able to “grasp the sociability, rationality, dignity and freedom of the human person.”[2] Murray goes into some detail concerning the four premises of natural law, and it will befit this inquiry to quote him at length:

Natural law supposes a realist epistemology, that asserts the real to be the measure of knowledge, and also asserts the possibility of reaching the real, i.e., the nature of things—in this case, the nature of man as a unitary and constant concept beneath all individual differences. Secondly, it supposes a metaphysics of nature, especially that nature is a teleological concept […] that there is a natural inclination in man to become what in nature and destination he is—to achieve the fullness of his own being. Thirdly, it supposes a natural theology, asserting that there is a God, Who is eternal Reason, Nous, at the summit of the order of being, Who is the author of all nature, and Who wills that the order of nature be fulfilled in its purposes, as these are inherent in the natures found in the order. Finally, it supposes a morality, especially the principle that for man, a rational being, the order of nature is not an order of necessity, to be fulfilled blindly, but an order of reason and therefore freedom.[3]

Murray succinctly, whether intentionally or not, here disposes with Sartre’s infamous, “existence before essence,” Kant’s assertion that we can never know the noumenon, the thing-in-itself, and Nietzsche’s view that “there are no truths, only interpretations,” where morality is purely subjective. In short order, he demolishes the prison in which modern and postmodern man has condemned himself, a condemnation that, in proportion, is on par with original sin in that human beings become the measure of all things, including good and evil.

Murray’s conclusions are based upon reason and experience, and in the following argument I will concur with Murray on the above points and in doing so avoid the confusion inherent in the postmodern obsession with the concept of freedom bracketed off from the reality of natural law. In keeping with Murray, freedom must be rooted in reason if it is to remain viable. The postmodern conception of freedom is obsessed with a subjective determination of the term in the guise of progress. This, in turn, has uprooted freedom from reason. As noted above, abject subjectivity (i.e. relativity) is intrinsically nihilistic. Nihilism is ultimately devoid of reason because where there is no meaning there can be no reason, only power.

“Hell,” narrates Charlies Sheen’s character early in Oliver Stone film Platoon, “is the impossibility of reason.”[4] Postmodern man—especially in the United States, where issues such as transgender, transsexuality, and transhumanism are popular topics in mainstream society—has constructed for himself a hell of subjectivism that is ultimately as superficial and irrational as calling a dog a cat and then acting as if this designation is legitimate by feeding the dog cat food, offering it catnip, and setting up a scratching post for the dog to sharpen its claws. It is an old problem, one that has its roots in ancient Greece with the sophist Protagoras’ declaration that “Man is the measure of all things.” If man is the measure of all things, there can be no God. Man cannot measure the infinite.

This same dichotomy played itself out in America well before the current crisis of relativism run amuck, and Orestes Brownson, who Peter Lawler claimed was “almost certainly the greatest American Catholic thinker of the nineteenth century,”[5] warned against it prior to and after the American Civil War. Before converting the Catholicism in 1844, Brownson was, among other things, a Transcendentalist. In that period, he was friendly with another great mind of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Transcendentalism is a nineteenth-century philosophy that promotes individual intuition over and above tradition. Brownson would come to reject Transcendentalism on the grounds of its radical individualism, the ultimate expression of a Protestantism which Emerson himself, ironically, rejected.[6]

The United States was founded upon the assertion, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence—along with the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution, known collectively as the Charters of Freedom—is considered instrumental to the founding and philosophy of the United States. Here special emphasis must be given to “endowed by their Creator.” Simply put, the founders believed in God the Creator and, by implication, understood that civil government has limits and cannot infringe on rights that are God-given, natural, and inviolable. The United States, in other words, was founded upon an implicit understanding of natural law.

Brownson lived through a civil war that threatened to tear his country into pieces. His experiences as Congregationalist, a Calvinist, a Unitarian, for a time an atheist, an advocate of the “Religion of Humanity,” a Transcendentalist, and finally a Catholic[7] allowed him to place philosophy in two schools, that of “philosophy in the sense of unbelief and irreligion” and “philosophy in the sense of the rational exercise of the faculty of the human mind on the divine and human things, aided by the light of revelation.”[8] Considering himself to be of the latter school, Brownson sought ultimate happiness not in material goods but in the contemplation of truth, which must ultimately be contemplation of the Good or God. In this, he was following a tradition that can be traced back to ancient Greece in the philosophies of Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle.[9] Because Brownson’s democratic realism (see below) was derived from Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions, it stressed human creatureliness as opposed to divinity, rational and natural order, and the fact that humans are not fully at home in the world.

In his essay, “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Prose,” Brownson asserted that Emerson’s experience with Protestantism shut him off from the universal, caused him to reject Christianity as a whole, and, along with it, Catholicism, before he had the opportunity to study the Roman tradition in any depth.[10] It is in this rejection of Protestantism as, “narrow, hollow, unreal, a sham, a humbug,”[11] that Emerson rejected all religions “except what may be found in them that accords with the soul or the natural reason of all men.”[12] Natural reason must correspond to natural law. If Emerson thoroughly understood and applied this fundamental principle, he would have been equipped to anticipate all four points of natural law as explicated by Murray a century later. However, he somehow missed this point and in doing so uprooted natural reason from natural law. Because he rejected tradition, Emerson’s thought drifted in and out of the licentiousness of radical individualism that too easily leads to nihilism.

Brownson’s Democratic Realism

Brownson democratic realism demanded that he reject the social contract theory of government. He believed that a written constitution reflecting a historically-developed human community was the best method of protecting liberty. In other words, in “shielding their traditions, habits, and way of life,”[13] a written constitution ensured that liberty, as conceived by a particular community, was best protected from tyranny. The written constitution, however, in Brownson’s view, was beholden to an unwritten constitution that reflected the historical inheritance of a community. In other words, human communities were not merely chaos until a written constitution was formed. Communities developed in particular places and in particular ways. Governments did not suddenly appear with written constitutions; constitutions were based on the unwritten constitutions carried in the historical consciousness of the community.[14]

The social contract theories of Locke and Rousseau were idealistic rather than realistic in the fact that they assumed a “State of Nature” as a state of perfect liberty. For Rousseau this meant that so long as an individual could provide all their own needs, there was a state of innocence, almost a state of bliss. For Locke, this perfect liberty was pre-political but not pre-moral, where

the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests and plans, free from interference, and, because of the Law of Nature and the restrictions that it imposes upon persons, it is relatively peaceful.[15]

Hobbes argued not for a perfect state of liberty in which there was peace but, rather, all-out war, all-against-all, and in this he was projecting yet another all-or-nothing scenario, a violent idealism that stripped human persons of their intrinsic dignity.

Brownson called this perfect state of nature into question by granting primacy to natural law:

That there is, or ever was, a state of nature such as the theory assumes, may be questioned. Certainly nothing proves that it is, or ever was, a real state. That there is a law of nature is undeniable. All authorities in philosophy, morals, politics, and jurisprudence assert it; the state assumes it as its own immediate basis, and the codes of all nations are founded on it; universal jurisprudence, the jus qentium of the Romans, embodies it, and the courts recognize and administer it. It is the reason and conscience of civil society, and every state acknowledges its authority. But the law of nature is as much in force in civil society as out of it. Civil law does not abrogate or supersede natural law, but presupposes it, and supports itself on it as its own ground and reason.[16]

Though Locke acknowledges the law of nature, it is not the natural law to which he referred. For Locke, civil society somehow superseded the law of nature through a social contract that appeared out of nowhere. Brownson grasped that civil society, to function, must remain rooted in natural law, and, if it is to remain civil, freedom must be limited by reason.

Murray’s four premises of natural law, written almost a century after Brownson’s American Republic, reiterates the primacy of natural law in relation to civil law, even if by Murray’s time every state no longer acknowledged its authority and not all courts administered it.[17] Brownson warned that thinkers like Emerson “fail to provide democratic society with a vison of the common good.”[18] In human society the common good emerges form a realist epistemology, a metaphysics of teleology, and a transcendent moral order based on a natural theology. When a democracy, such as that found in contemporary America, neglects or forgets the common good, it violates natural law which presupposes, as Murray noted, morality, especially in man, a rational being who lives not in a world of necessity but one of reason and therefore freedom. Authentic freedom is limited by natural law.

Martin Luther King Jr., drawing from the Catholic tradition through Augustine and Aquinas, famously argued, “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”[19] Lex iniusta non est lex, an unjust law is no law at all, can be seen as a timeless legal proverb, as the unjust law is irrational. It follows that a rootless freedom becomes license and is, therefore, both unjust and irrational. Freedom uprooted from reason, though maintaining the beauty of its blossom for a time, is like William Blake’s The Sick Rose, where the rose is democracy and the invisible worm is freedom transmogrified into license:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.[20]

The blossom must wither and die before producing the seed that will be the flower of the next generation. In human terms, the seed is reason and the reality of natural law the soil in which it grows.

To repeat, the democracy of the United States was founded upon the notion of natural law in that the authors of the Charters of Freedom explicitly placed the nation under and not above God. Gregory S. Butler points out in his study on Brownson:

No civil government or established constitution can exist for long where every individual is free to disobey its orders whenever they do not square with one’s private convictions concerning the higher law. By asserting the right of the individual to judge this law and by denying any outside authority competent to declare and define that law, people voluntarily place themselves in the position that they have no alternative but to oscillate between anarchic radicalism on the one hand and civil despotism on the other. These two tendencies, says Brownson, characterize not only America but the entire modern West and are but two poles of the same principle.[21]

The rose of American democracy has become infected with both radical individualism and progressivism on the brink of civil despotism, which are two sides of the same coin. Brownson predicted as much. After the Civil War he noted that the radical individualist ideology of the South had been defeated, and the progressive ideology of the Union abolitionists mistakenly took the defeat of the South as their own victory. In Brownson’s view the war was “waged by and on behalf of true American democrats,” and it was a war between a territorial democracy and both forms of personal democracy, that of the individualist and the progressive. Slavery, for Brownson, was only incidentally involved in the conflict, a pawn in a larger game.[22] In The American Republic, Brownson put it plainly, “The great body of the [American] people instinctively felt that pure socialism was as incompatible with American democracy as pure individualism.”[23]

Territorial democracy for Brownson is based upon democratic realism. As a Catholic, Brownson had faith in God; it was this faith that made him a realist, rather than an idealist, about American democracy. After his conversion to Catholicism, he rejected the ideology of the Transcendentalists that he had once embraced:

After his conversion to Catholicism in 1844, Orestes Brownson became a strenuous critic of transcendentalism, particularly for its tendencies toward individualism and pantheism and its valorization of a form of ‘democratic faith.’ By contrast, Brownson commended a form of ‘democratic realism’ derived from Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions that particularly recognized the need for mediation for human creatures that could not be fully at home in the world.[24]

Abraham Lincoln, too, was a realist and, in his inaugural address of 1861, declared that it was his duty to preserve the Union, and by this it is apparent he meant the territorial Union, not the ideological one of Southern individualism or the progressive ideology of the abolitionists to the north. In the address he made it known that he had no intention of ending slavery where it was already established or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Law.[25] In Lincoln’s words, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”[26] At the outset of the war, then, Brownson and Lincoln were on the same page: slavery was only incidentally involved in the war. The war was about preserving the territorial Union and not about promoting one ideology over the other. Both men were realistic about the human condition.

It is in Brownson’s relationship with Emerson that we can find a microcosmic view of the dangers Brownson saw stalking American democracy:

We presume that when Mr. Emerson tells us to obey ourselves, to obey the laws of our soul, to follow out instincts, he means that we shall be true to our higher nature, that we are to obey our higher instincts, and not our base properties. […] But how shall we determine which are our higher instincts and which are our lower instincts?[27]

For Emerson, one would not determine our higher instincts from the experience and wisdom of our forefathers. In his introduction to “Nature,” he observed,

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should we not enjoy an original relation the universe? Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not a history of theirs. […] Let us demand our own works, and laws, and worship.[28]

Emerson’s, obviously, is not a vision shaped by tradition. On the contrary, he would reject the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas that shaped Brownson’s democratic realism. Whereas Brownson follows tradition and sees man in his creatureliness not fully at home in this world, Emerson places his full faith in the individual. One could go so far as to argue that Emerson teeters at the edge of the Nietzschean abyss in conflating the finite with the infinite, man with God. Brownson saw a contradiction lurking in the corpus of Emerson’s work between radical individualism cut off from tradition and pantheism where all is One. In Emerson’s rejection of history and tradition for the sake of the individual, it is suggested that history and tradition are not a part of this One. If they are not part of the One, ironically, the One is no longer One but Many. Brownson, the democratic realist, avoided such a paradox.

The ideological progressive, according to Brownson, ran the risk of focusing on a backdrop behind individuals where

he sees humanity, superior to individuals, superior to states, governments, laws, and hold that he may trample on them all or give them to the winds at the call of humanity or the ‘higher law.’ The principle on which he acts is as indefensible as the personal or egotistical democracy of the slaveholders and their sympathizers.[29]

On the one hand, in rejecting tradition Emerson adopted the stance of the ideological individualism that relies on intuition and personal experience. On the other hand, Emerson appealed to a “higher law” than that of the individual: “A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us, that a higher law than that of our will regulates events,”[30] thus coming full circle to show that radical individualists and humanitarian or progressive democrats are not so far apart as they may seem at first glance. They are two sides of the same coin.

Brownson’s democratic realism locates humans in a transcendent moral order that does not end with man but has man governing a society of persons who are formed by that society through education in tradition and reason. It is a democratic government’s primary function to nurture and protect this process. This is not a radical position to take. In fact, it is as pragmatic as it is profound. In Brownson’s mind, the American Constitution is unique in its ability to hold a middle-ground between the extremes of individualistic anarchy and civic despotism which he saw as dominating the Western world.[31]


Thomas Jefferson observed,

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.[32]

If the education of the people Jefferson refers to is not grounded in the tradition of the natural law, it too easily veers into the irrational.

Reed College, one of the most liberal colleges in the United States, is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to this issue. Students at Reed College have recently been protesting an introductory humanities course on the grounds that reading Plato and Aristotle is somehow racist.[33] This is but one example in a trend that has become all too common on college campuses and in the streets of America today. In a society that is obsessed with individual freedom to the point of anarchism and, at the same time, humanitarian/progressive causes that are greater than any individual, educational institution, government, or religion, then a democratic society based on natural law is in peril. Void of a transcendent moral order, democracy falls prey to anarchic individualism and civic despotism, where, to borrow from Yeats, “the center cannot hold.”[34] In a democracy, in particular, those like our American democracy, the center is the function and the function is to safeguard and nurture society so that it is able to produce authentic persons by means of a traditional liberal education, where “liberal” means liberation from ignorance.

Following the Thomistic tradition, Brownson saw man as a political and social being who cannot be found outside the community of his fellows. Furthermore, he argued that civil power has its ultimate origin in the divine will via human nature.[35] As such, he saw government as a necessity that would,

render effective the solidarity of the individuals of a nation, and to render the nation an organism, not a mere organization—to combine men in one living body, and to strengthen all with the strength of each, and each with the strength of all—to develop, strengthen, and sustain individual liberty, and to utilize and direct it to the promotion of the common weal—to be a social providence, imitating in its order and degree the action of divine providence, and, while it provides for the common good of all, to protect each, the lowest and the meanest, with the whole force and majesty of society.[36]

For Jefferson, when and If a democracy drifts into unlimited notions of freedom, the best course of action is not to strip citizens of freedom, but rather to educate them, so that they, as authentic persons, can correct any constitutional abuses that contributed or led the way to the abyss of nihilism. Is this possible today? Only if serious educational reform were to take place in a timely fashion. This, in turn, would require the American democratic system to acknowledge that democracy, to hold center and blossom, must be anchored in natural law.

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  1. Mark A. Wrathall, A Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 52.
  2. John Witte Jr. and Frank S. Alexander, The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism: On Law, Politics, & Human Nature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 186
  3. , 186-187
  4. Platoon, Prod. Arnold Kopelson. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and Charlie Sheen. Hemdale Film Corporation, 1986. Film.
  5. Peter Lawler, “Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America,” First Things (December 2002).
  6. Orestes Brownson, “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Prose,” Orestes Brownson Society. Accessed October 12, 2017.
  7. Gregory S. Butler, In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson (Southern Illinois University Press, 1992).
  8. Marc D. Guerra, “Orestes Brownson Revisited,” Perspectives on Political Science (Winter 2008, Volume 37, Number 1), 5.
  9. Jacqeline A. Laing and Russel Wilcox (eds.), The Natural Law Reader (Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 11-65.
  10. Orestes Brownson, “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Prose,” Orestes Brownson Society. Accessed October 12, 2017.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Orestes Brownson, “The Origin of Government,” The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny (New York, 1866) Project Gutenburg. Accessed Sept. 27, 2017.
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Social Contract Theory,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource. Accessed Nov. 1, 2017.
  16. Orestes Brownson, “The Origin of Government,” The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny.
  17. John Witte Jr. and Frank S. Alexander, The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism: On Law, Politics, & Human Nature, 186-187.
  18. William H. Desoto, “Orestes Brownson’s Quarrel with American Individualism,” The Catholic Social Review, 21 (2016) 72.
  19. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania. Accessed October 28, 2017.
  20. William Blake, “The Sick Rose,” The Poetry Foundation, Accessed Oct 29, 2017.
  21. Gregory S. Butler, In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson, 166.
  22. Ibid., 196.
  23. Orestes Brownson, The American Republic, in Works, 18:181.
  24. Patrick Deenan, “Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson versus Emerson,” Perspectives on Political Science (Vol 37, Issue 1, 2008), 8-16.
  25. Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861). Accessed Nov. 21, 2017.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Orestes Brownson, “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Prose,” Orestes Brownson Society.
  28. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” American Transcendentalism Web Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism. Accessed Oct 12, 2017. 2017.
  29. Gregory S. Butler, In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson, 196.
  30. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Spiritual Laws,” American Transcendentalism Web Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism. Accessed Oct 12, 2017. 2017.
  31. Gregory S. Butler, In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson, 197.
  32. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors (Washington, D.C., 1903-04). Accessed Nov. 2, 2017.
  33. Chris Bodenner, “The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country,” The Atlantic (Nov. 2, 2017).
  34. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” The Poetry Foundation, Accessed Dec. 1, 2017.
  35. Gregory S. Butler, In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson, 173.
  36. Orestes Brownson, The American Republic, in Works, 18:14, 15.

The featured image is an oil on canvas painted by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1863 and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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