'This One Thing I Do.' John Brown of Broughton Place. -XI
Two years passed before John Brown was able to publish anything else, and then the work was really just a reprint of two articles he had originally written for the denominational magazine on The Plans and Publications of Robert Owen of New Lanark.
New Lanark is a World Heritage site today, and a tourist attraction. In the early nineteenth century it was the location of a remarkable social experiment. The cotton mills, founded in 1786 by David Dale, had been taken over in 1800 by Robert Owen. Owen was a socialist and something of a utopian. At the mills he put many of his ideas into practice, introducing education for the children of New Lanark. Unfortunately Owen was not a Christian, but held some bizarre views of man and of God. In Owen's opinion man was the victim of circumstances, his character was not formed by him, but by those circumstance, and therefore that a man's character is neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy. Men, he said, were basically neutral, and could be moulded into good men by the proper education and environment. Owen made self-interest the primary motive for human activity and public good the great principle of morality.
John Brown took up these two points in his articles. First of all he noted that those who made self-interest the great mainspring of human activity forgot that we are not purely rational creatures. They failed to factor in the effects of our appetites and passions. For example, it is really in our self interest not to drink alcohol to excess, because so over-indulging damages the body. But people still DO drink to excess because they enjoy the sensation of drunkenness.
'The Public good' is really too vague a concept to supply a cast-iron basis for morality. We observe the truth of this statement. Who decides what the public good is, after all? Whereas a transcendent morality founded on the Word of God is another matter. THERE the unchanging character of god Himself is the basis of morality, and justice may be done, whilst great crimes have been concealed and gone unpunished in the name of 'the public good'.
Owen's view of human character, Brown went on to observe, was extremely simplistic. Men are not merely plastic in the hands of fate, they have wills and desires. Education, Owen's great panacea for all the ills of the world, was good, but it could only show the way, not lead a man to walk in that way.
Was he then opposed to all Owen was doing? Certainly not! The abuse of the labouring poor was a scandal, and Owen's work at New Lanark to establish better conditions for them was excellent. But his success was not really based on his own eccentric views but on morality and political economy informed by the Bible.
After 1817 Owen became increasingly revolutionary and Socialist, his teachings overthrowing property, the family and the Christian religion. He was able to put these views into effect in the community of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1826. After two years the experiment failed utterly. Human nature defeated Owen. Despite everything, men refused to act as Owen's theories said they should. His only lasting monument was the Co-Operative movement. In his later years he drifted into Spiritism, claiming that he could communicate with great minds of the past by means of electricity.
God willing, next time we shall see how John Brown's more theological writings fared.
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