What do the towns of Stockbridge, Vermont, Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Detroit, Michigan have in common? They all remember the presence of a 19th-century man named Orestes Brownson: the first for his birth, the second for his life, and the third for his death.
This man from Vermont was primarily a writer. The volume of his prose that he shared with the patient public of his time is astounding. He wrote about politics, religion, culture, and the dynamic intersection between the three. Brownson (pronounced “bron-sun”) wrote as a man in the world, habitually ordering the state of things in his own age to a time gone by that might not have existed in the past, but could exist, at least mentally, in the present.
Brownson did not subscribe to a naïve idealism that sought to abstract the goodness of reality. On the contrary, he engaged with the truth of reality, no matter the consequences. He claims, for example, in his book The American Republic that “man is never a creator; he can only develop and continue, because he is himself a creature, and only a second cause.” By apparently lowering our status from that of creator to receiver, Brownson seems to insult the human impulse toward ingenuity and our modern predilection for entrepreneurship. On the contrary, Brownson is embracing the identity of the human race as a species worthy to perpetuate and participate in God’s gift of creation. In this way, Brownson understood the role of human persons in salvation history and in the political order to be deeply intertwined.
This vision, which was at once religious and political, also engaged with the larger cultural trends of his time. Earlier in his professional life Brownson interacted with the Transcendentalists of his age, Emerson and Thoreau among them. His flirtation with this sort of natural transcendence via metaphor matured into a deeper supernatural allegiance to Christian orthodoxy in general, and eventually the Catholic faith in particular.
The fidelity that he professed manifested itself in a deep admiration for institutions that offer physical and spiritual refuge for both the faithful and their friends on earth. He knew Mount St. Mary’s and recognized it as “this venerable college, already so rich in classic associations, so hallowed by the memory of saintly virtues, and so dear to every American Catholic heart for the eminent servants of the church of God it has nurtured.” Brownson was as unrestrained in this profession of respect for the institutional vocation of the Mount in his “Oration on Liberal Studies,” which he delivered as our commencement speaker in 1853.
In this address, Brownson does not catalog the precepts of an education rooted in the liberal arts or encourage the graduates to integrate their liberal learning into their professional lives. Instead, he outlines, in a patient and descriptive manner, the nearly universal opportunities for education and the simultaneous obligations impressed upon the educated. He says that “the practical part of our education is never received within the school room, but at home, in the streets, in the saloons, from associates, and the general habits, manners, customs, and tone of the society.” For Brownson the value of a liberal education was always inherently tied to the benefit it could confer upon the community. He would also likely question the project of an entirely secular education, given his claim that “not natural training but grace alone can elevate our fallen nature to genuine virtue.” Brownson came to understand human action, and by extension political and communal action, not to be a mere response to material circumstances, but to be a participation in a spiritual conflict.
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In our age, the secular-religious divide within the public sphere is, maybe more than ever before, regarded as sacrosanct. Indeed, Brownson’s theologically informed approach to issues of national importance would today likely be rejected as ‘problematic’ at the least. The contemporary tendency therefore is to appeal to neutral political values, devoid of all the messiness of religious dogma and the particularism they entail. Even the well-intentioned Catholic often finds himself with such a disposition. How often do we see the faith used as a mere secondary justification for support of a secular position that just so happens to be the prevailing trend of the day?
For Brownson this road was simply insufficient. Rather, the issues must always be analyzed and diagnosed in accordance with revelation and the power of Christian reason. In reflecting on the state of the 19th-century political economy he writes that the “political economists consider man only as a producing, distributing, and consuming machine, and seek only to get the greatest possible supply with the greatest possible demand. I look upon man as having a sentient, intellectual, and moral nature, and I seek for him the greatest possible sum of virtue and happiness.”
Brownson’s Catholicism did not simply bolster his already held support for workers’ rights and dignified labor, for example. Rather it was directly because of his faith, and the anthropology it encompasses, that he came to such a position. At The Brownson Record we find it necessary to proceed in the same direction. It is only in light of our efforts to glorify God and honor our commitments to Him here on earth that we support any such stance, never divorcing our belief in the Gospel from any social or political proposition. Such an approach is by no means as straightforward or efficient as the contrary, yet it is precisely what is demanded of the Catholic intellectual if he is to see his fellow man flourish as a result of his work.
Given this, we have come to view our vocation and subsequent mission as a journal to identify the true, the good, and the beautiful on our campus and to further understand the Mount’s institutional vocation as a university at once Catholic and American. The motto that we’ve chosen to encapsulate this mission is the Latin phrase virtutem forma decorat, which can be translated to mean “beauty decorates virtue.” In this sense, “beauty” can be thought of as form, figure, or appearance; “decorates” as adorns, glorifies, or embellishes; and “virtue” as character, excellence, or worth. To us, these alternate translations emphasize all the more that the notion of beauty decorating virtue is a Brownsonian idea and one that speaks to the identity of our university.
The phrase can be found on the reverse side of Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, which is displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This painting is the only one of da Vinci’s in the Americas and it portrays on one side the image of a young woman named Ginerva posing for a portrait at the time of her engagement, and on the other side the inscription virtutem forma decorat with a wreath of laurel, palm, and juniper surrounding it. The National Gallery explains that the “sprig of juniper (in Italian, ginepro) suggests Ginevra’s name, while the encircling laurel and palm symbolize her intellectual and moral virtue.” Juniper traditionally serves as an image of protection or shelter from external threats seeking to harm that which the leaves envelop. In da Vinci’s presentation, it is clear that the juniper is itself surrounded by the laurel and palm.
We have come to think of the Mount as this juniper leaf, our worth decorated by our beauty. Our position of shelter underneath the juniper is one of enormous privilege. For us, the best way to show our gratitude for this gift is through a mutual encouragement toward the intellectual and moral character that we more frequently hope for than know.
Through editorials thoughtfully composed by students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni, carefully reviewed by a small but capable editorial board, and patiently advised by exceptional faculty, we hope to contribute to a culture of productive and serious dialogue about the political, cultural, and religious questions of our day. Our focus is proudly local and will therefore demand writing produced by the people of the Mount, for the people of the Mount.
In that spirit, we embark on a path that has already been set for us. Inspired by the people who have preceded us and encouraged by those who will follow us, we hope to recognize all that is true, good, and beautiful about our Mountain Home and think, speak, and act as those with such a pleasant recognition.