One of my very favorite passages in The True and Only Heaven—Christopher Lasch’s masterful assault against progress and the subject of this website’s longest running series–has to do with Orestes Brownson, an American public intellectual in the mid 19th Century whose career provides surprising insight into the state of public discourse today. Here are the relevant passages:
Orestes Brownson’s search for a satisfactory synthesis of politics and religion took him down so many twists and turns, so many false starts and blind alleys, that it almost defies attempts to find a thread of consistency or even to find any pattern at all…
Brownson ran through practically the whole range of Protestant sects–Presbyterianism, Universalism, free thought, Unitarianism–before converting to Catholicism in 1844…
Since Brownson never kept his opinions to himself or thought them over in private before committing them to print, he “gained a sneer,” as he himself noted, for his “versatility and frequent changes of opinions.” He conducted his self-education in public, in the pages of magazines written entirely by himself.
The bolded line has become one of my very favorite sentences, as I think it really accurately describes what it means to be a blogger nowadays. One of the joys of reading history is to discover that not everything is so new as one might think. We think the digital revoltuion has destabilized public debate, torn apart some sort of once-held intellectual cohesion, and given a platform for demagoguery, but here we have the very definition of an ideologically extreme public voice in the 1840s.
It’s important to note that Lasch does not disdain Brownson’s career. To him, Brownson is one of the good guys, a good honest populist critic of progress with ideas worth remembering. His frequent changes of mind and confession may be irksome to the patrician, but they are refreshing to the populist. If one is convinced of something one had better change one’s mind, and if it happens a few times then this is only evidence of a life lived honestly.
If I had to pick a contemporary reincarnation of Brownson, it would have to be the mind-bogglingly prolific conservative blogger Rod Dreher whose own career has taken him down a similar path of political and theological twists and turns. First a conservative Methodist, then Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox, Dreher’s life has taken him from one confession to the next with little compunction to jump denominational lines. Politically, he has always been staunchly socially conservative, but then again severely critical of the GOP. His first book Crunchy Cons is a sympathetic gallery of conservative politics on the fringe or outside of its major party. His other book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is a biographical meditation on his strained relationship with his now late sister after he left behind the religious milieu of the South to “seek,” while she remained rooted in the certainty of its tradition–a dilemma any southern Christian enticed enough by the wideness of the world to leave home knows.
Once a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, he now does most of his regular blogging for the small, impeccably edited online mag The American Conservative. His writing is characterized, to my mind, by an unquenchable intellectual inquisitiveness tethered to a firm Christian faith that has never quite found its perfect traditional expression. He carries that Brownsonite honesty and pugnacity: an openness to chart the state of his own intellectual journey, an attack on all things unthinkingly progressive or dismissive of religion, all with an apparent lack of circumspection before hitting the “publish” button. This latter tendency has caused him to endure many an online troll.
We live in searching times, but ours is not the first. Instead of deriding the insecure footing of searchers, Lasch gives us leave to appreciate the oft-derided intellectual life of people outside the academy. After all, having the guts to publish one’s thoughts is a good way to test them out. It’s a sort of populist education that can easily lead to demagoguery if one is unreflective, but if one is smart, honest, and has a healthy receptivity to criticism, one may achieve a career like Brownson’s or Dreher’s and produce with little other than a sharp mind and a small publication, a real contribution to intellectual history. Sure, one could measure one’s thoughts more thoroughly before declaring oneself, thus saving oneself from a good deal of derision, but not everybody is so settled on one’s own philosophy and tradition as a Ross Douthat or a Jonathan Chait. A “self-education in public” is a great phrase to describe the best of the blogosphere, and provides a useful way to sum up the mission of this very website. Here’s to the publish button!
More posts in the series:
– Part 1, The True and Only Heaven
– Part 2, Progress: A Secular Religion?
– Part 3, Man’s ‘Satiable Habits
– Part 4, Memory Versus Nostalgia
– Part 5, “Community and Society”
– Part 6, The Wages of Sin