William Batchelder Greene, Letter to Orestes Brownson (1849)

From Orestes A. Brownson’s Middle Life from 1845-1855 (1899):

Another Unitarian minister, the son of an old friend, one in whom Brownson had taken a great interest, had his reasonings and speculations submitted to a severe, but not unfriendly criticism, at about the same time as Channing. This was William B. Greene, whose name, however, did not appear as the author of the book to which he refers in the following letter:

BROOKFIELD, MASS., Jan. 24th, 1849.

DEAR SIR:—I Send you herewith a copy of my “Remarks on Science of History, etc.” I requested Mr. Crosby to send you a bound copy, and I know not whether he has done it; but if you see fit to cut up the book, I had rather you would expend your destructive energies on these loose sheets. We are all well here, my wife and two children seem to find the country air agree with them. I like Brookfield very much. By the way, I notice in your last number, page 95, the words: “There is an invincible logic in society which pushes it to the realization of the last consequences of its principles.” Now, how do you reconcile that sentence with the general tenor of your remarks against the logical character of history with which you favored me some time since, in father’s office? Again, you charge the Socialists with endeavoring to reproduce in what should be Christian ages, the heathen religions and morality: it “may or may not” (as you say) be the result of my stupidity, but I really cannot see how the religion and morality you maintain in the article in question, differs from the religion and morality which were known among the heathen, before our Lord came. The doctrine of the authority, supremacy, and infallibility of the church was certainly acknowledged among the ancient corporations of priests; and the theory of liberty and that of the nature of evil, which you set forth on the 113th and the three or four following pages,: seems to me to be identical “in the last analysis” with the views maintained by the stoics—good doctrine, as Leroux says, for a slave, but inapplicable at the present time when there is more freedom among men than there was in former ages. But my criticism may very possibly come from my want of comprehension. As Webster says of Ingersoll: “He has not, as we would say, a screw loose, but is loose all over;”so I am afraid you would say of me that I am not a mere heretic, but heretical all over—for my conscience suggested to me, when I was reading your description of socialism as the ne plus ultra of heresy, that I belonged to the most abandoned wing of the socialist faction. In fact, I am a regular thoroughgoing heretic, for I accept all the doctrines of the church—as I explain them.

Excuse me for writing as I do, but you and I have had so many plain talks in times past, that I cannot speak with you without endeavoring to come to the point. I confess I regret that there is so wide a gulph between us, for there is no one with whom I desire more to labor side by side than with you. We were together once, much to my profit, and I freely confess that I owe more to you, philosophically and theologically, than I do to any other five men living; and I never shall cease to hope that we may come together again. But this letter is too long already. Please give my best respects to your wife and children, with my especial love to Elizabeth, who I think has not forgotten me, and accept my best wishes for your health, strength, and prosperity, according to body, soul, and spirit.

As always, very truly your friend,


Greene’s book was the first metaphysical work that Brownson reviewed after his conversion. Since his refutation of Kant in 1844, he had had very little to say about metaphysics, except so far as applied to theological matters in his Review; but he had been studying in his mind and revising his philosophical system. Under the influence of Pierre Leroux’s writings for two or three years before he became a Catholic, he had been the first to introduce that philosopher to the American public. He was indebted to Leroux for much that was sound and for much that was not sound in his philosophy. It was Leroux that led him to substitute the ontological for the psychological method of philosophizing; and he now found that the former method leads to pantheism, just as the latter leads to egoism or atheism. Each is sophistical; for each starts from a single term of the ideal judgment, and from a single term nothing else can be deduced. Logic is impossible without two terms and their nexus: Omnipotence itself would have no creative power, but would forever remain unproductive unity, unless the principle of multiplicity—first and final cause and the medium of both—the principle, the end, and the mediator—were necessary relations in the very Godhead, of whom, through whom and unto whom are all things.

As almost always happens with those who come to learn the defect of either psychologism or ontologism, that they rush from one extreme to the other, Brownson from 1842 to 1844 should be classed as an ontologist. During the next four years, re-examining his principles, he came to the conclusion that either the psychological principle or the ontological, exclusively taken, is destructive of philosophy which must rest equally on both in their logical, that is, their real relation. He therefore asserts: Being,—real and necessary being, not the abstract being of Rosmini and the ontologists,—creates all that exists. In the review of Greene’s book* the formula is demonstrated to be intuitive, a priori, preceding all judgments a posteriori, and rendering them possible. “It is possible,” he says, “to obtain this synthesis, the adequate philosophical formula, only as it reveals and affirms itself a priori in direct and immediate intuition, in which we ourselves are but simple spectators.” The intuition here described is plainly not empirical, but pure, or ideal, a distinction more clearly set forth and insisted on in later writings.

Another point of importance not explained with sufficient clearness in Brownson’s article “An a priori auto biography” is what he meant by the ideal intuition of being. There are expressions in this and some of the succeeding articles on metaphysics, which would indicate that he asserted intuition of God directly and immediately. Certainly he never intended at any period of his life to teach that man has direct and immediate intuition of God, as God; but he had maintained from the first moment that he began to write on philosophy, that man has intuition of absolute ideas, not derived from experience, of the good, the true, the necessary, and that these are not mere abstractions of the mind operating on concrete objects of experience, which are bad or imperfect, false or contingent, and he further held that these are identified by reflection with God, the true, the good, the necessary, the infinite, and therefore, the intuition of these is virtually, though not formally, intuition of real and necessary being, and that real and necessary being is God.

It was not as a mere speculation of philosophical inquiry, or for the purpose of exhibiting dialectical ability that Brownson wearied over these matters. I very much doubt if a mistake in matter of faith is as fertile in errors as one in the principles of philosophy. Catholics can easily correct dogmatic errors, if they are docile to the decisions of the church; but an error in the very starting point of philosophy may overthrow all belief, and apostasies without end may be traced to the discrepancy between the philosophy and the theology taught for centuries past. Dr. Cummings had devoted much study and great ability to the subject of Catholic education, and the opinion he expresses in a letter given in this chapter that the pantheistic or else egoistic starting point of philosophy taught in our colleges and universities is not only incontrovertibly fatal to the political principles of youth, but equally deplorable for its effect on dogmatic theology, is worthy of serious meditation.