"Authority in Matters of Faith, Pt. II" (Brownson critiques the erroneous doctine of Egoism; he offers some parting remarks on American Education)

Authority in Matters of Faith, Pt. II


                This is a letter dated New York, Nov. 16, 1871, and addressed to Rev. Fr. Hecker containing observations on his Aspirations of Nature, and a formal reply to an article in answer to his note to the editor of the Catholic World, which appeared in that Magazine, for November of the same year.  The matter would not specially concern the Review but of the fact that its editor wrote the article to which it professes to be a reply, and the Catholic World, by stating in a recent number that fact, washes its hands of its responsibility and turns the matter over to us.

                With the portion of the Letter that relates to the Aspirations of Nature, we have nothing to do.  We reviewed that book at length when it was first published, and stated frankly, but in no unfriendly spirit, our objections to some of its views.  We believe that nature, though not totally depraved or corrupted, has suffered more by the fall, or Adam’s sin, than does its very reverend author, or than does the learned and able author of the Problems of the Age.  We are of the school of neither, and we are indisposed to say that God could have created man from the beginning such as he is now born, unless we are permitted to add, seclusa ratione peccati et poenae.   Man lost by the fall, or original sin, not only the original justice in which he was constituted, but the integrity of his nature, became captive to Satan, darkened in his understanding, weakened in his will, and disordered in his appetites and passions.  We do not believe that man has actually ever existed in what is called status naturae purae, for we hold that he was originally created and intended for a supernatural destiny, and is never found in a state of pure nature, but always in a state either above it, on the plane of a supernatural destiny, or in a state below it, on the plane, not of natural beatitude, but of a subnatural or infernal destiny.  In other words, he is always either on the plane of heaven, or on the declivity to hell.  He has no natural destiny, but his destiny is either above nature, or by his own fault below it.  Never could man by his natural development or his natural virtues, or without the re-birth by grace and supernatural assistance, attain to the end for which God created him.  The alleged natural beatitude, or beatitude in the natural order, we regard as purely imaginary. 

                But we leave to Father Hecker, should he recover his health, to defend his own publications against Mr. Olmstead or any other opponent, or to the community he has had the most prominent share in founding.  Father Hecker sent us Mr. Olmstead’s reply to his note addressed to that gentleman, with the request that we should answer it.  We did so as best we could, in the Catholic World for November, 1871.  The chief part of the letter addressed to Father Hecker now before us is taken up with a rejoinder to our answer, but on the supposition that it was written by Father hecker himself, as the writer only develops and reasserts the doctrine of his note. 

                We supposed in writing this reply we were replying to a lawyer, who would at least understand and appreciate ordinary legal reasoning; but from his letter we find him, apparently, as far from being a lawyer as he is from being a philosopher.  We misapprehended the real nature of his objection, or rather, though we did not actually misapprehend it, we could not bring ourselves to believe that he meant it.  He denies, in his note to Father Hecker, not only that there can be any rational belief on any intrinsic authority, but that there is or can be any such authority, or that any state, church, or being has or can have any authority outside of one’s own personality, or not derived from it.  “This,” we said, “as far as words go, asserts that God himself has no authority over us, and his word has no authority for our reason or will not dependent on us.  We do not believe he meant this, for he is not divested of the reason common to all men.”  Yet, we learn from his letter that this is what, and precisely what, he does mean. 

                We learn that he holds that the authority is in the subject, the Ego, and he avowedly defends what he calls the Philosophy of Personalism.  Authority, he maintains, resides neither in the object nor in the fact, neither in the court nor in the church, and in nothing extrinsic to the personality, and “is the supreme sanction of the conscient and subjective Ego.”  It is entirely personal.  “The Ego, being subjective and non-objective or phenomenal, fulfils the important condition of a criterion, that is to say, is not open to criticism, as it would be if phenomenal.  If I have rejected the positive philosophy of Sir William Hamilton and his school, the philosophy based on the hypothesis of the reality of the objective world, on the other hand I am forced to oppose the Cartesian philosophy in its relations with the subjective man.  I maintain that the Cogito, ergo sum, is not axiomatic, for the being is not a necessary conclusion of the Ego, that is to say, the person is superior to its being, or its conditions, among which may be counted the mental operations, and perhaps distinguished from it.  If I say I am, I or the person is superior to am:” pp. 19, 20.

                This is enough for our prupose, and proves that the writer we replied to did and does mean the absurdity we charitably supposed he did not.  It would seem that there is no absurdity so great but some learned man may be found to maintain it.  “The I or the person is superior to the am or being, and distinguishable from it:”- prescind am or being, and what or where is the I or personality?  Is not all that is real or subsistent in the Ego, in being?  What says I, if you add not am or exist?  Then, again, does this transcendentalist gone to seed hold that am, in the assertion I am, is a mental operation, that is to say, the Ego creates its own being or existence, that what is not can operate?

                We gather from the passage cited that the author denies the reality of the objective world, and holds that the objective is phenomenal, consequently, that the Ego, or personality, is the only real or substantive existence or being in the universe.  The Ego and its phenomena, or itself, its personality and its modes, affections, and operations are all that are or exist.  It is alone, and beside it there is none other!  This makes the Ego God, and the author might say as Bronson Alcott said to us one day in a transcendental paroxysm, “I am God, I am greater than God.  God is one of my ideas, I contain God.  Greater is the container than the contained.  Therefore I am greater than God.”  The author says the Ego is superior to being, which, since God is being, the one only being, is only saying in other words, “I am greater than God.”  No wonder, then, that he recognizes no authority but that of his own personality, or the subjective Ego; for that is the only being, existence, or reality, included in his philosophy.  Well may the Ego, the personality, is alone real, all else is phenomenal, mere appearance, unsubstantial: in asserting which he out-Fichtes Fichte.  Great philosopher is Mr. Dwight H. Olmstead, and he does well to reject, as we find he does, the philosophy of Common-Sense. 

                But here is a little difficulty in the way of this author’s theory.  The Ego is neither intelligent nor intelligible in itself or himself – the gender is doubtful.  How then does it come to the recognition of itself, or is it able to assert itself, since there is nothing else in existence?  If the Ego knows any thing, it knows that it can know itself only as reflected or mirrored in the object, or that which is not itself.  Perhaps there are depths in the fact of knowledge which our philosopher has not sounded, and which transcend his Ego, or personality.  It so happens that the Ego is not an independent being existing and acting in and by itself alone, but is a dependent existence, and capable of living and acting only in concurrence with a life and activity which are not its own, and which are independent of it.  The author’s theory, which denies all reality but its own personality, denies the possibility of all intellectual activity, and makes all faith, all knowledge, all thought even, impossible.  Such a theory needs no refutation, for it refutes, by contradicting, itself.  This is not undeserving the author’s consideration, as well as the consideration of all those philosophers who represent thought as the sole product of the subject, as do all exclusive psychologists, without the initial and concurrent activity of the object.  Absurd as Mr. Olmstead’s doctrine is, it is only the last word of the psychologism in which the great body of our students of philosophy are indoctrinated, in the majority of modern schools and colleges, and which the Catholic World in a panic would have us accept and hold as the authorized or traditional Catholic philosophy, only not so boldly stated.

                The author, from the fact that the matter of knowledge is presented to the intellect, and is passed upon by our reason, concludes that the authority that sanctions is subjective, our own personality.  But this is to make the Ego its own yardstick, by which he measures truth or the matter presented.  But this is simply to deny that man has any measure or criterion of judgment; and, as what is false is not intelligible, it is only denying, in other words, that man or the Ego has any faculty of intelligence, or vis cognoscendi, either with or without the object.  The author is mistaken in saying that it is the Ego or personality, distinguished, as he distinguishes it, from the mind or reason that is appealed to either in the fact of faith or the fact of reason.  The Ego, distinguished from the mind or reason, is unintelligent, inconscient, incapable of no conscient act.  Reason or mind, again, is not purely personal.  It is not ours nor yours, but is common to us both,  - common to all men, above every one’s personality, and therefore it is that every one is required to yield to reason.  Mr. Olmstead is doing his best,- which is very little, we admit,- to make us yield to his reason or reasons; but even he would recoil from the outrage of attempting to impose upon us his Ego or personality, or pretending that it is authority for us.