"Owen's Harmonies"

A review of =
Robert Owen, Selected Works of Robert Owen
v1 = Early Writings
v2 = The Development of Socialism
v3 = The Book of the New Moral World
v4 = The Life of Robert Owen

Robert Owen was one of the most versatile figures of a diverse and bewildering age. When he started as a school usher, in 1778, aged seven, he had before him a career of eighty years, variously as linen-draper, factory manager, cotton-spinner, benevolent director of New Lanark and, besides all this, as a publicist and projector willing to reassess and replace any social institution from machinery to marriage, or from competition to religion. It was as if the stock of Samuel Smiles [ID] had been crossed with the prophet Elijah to produce a relentless philanthropist who would regenerate mankind. [Some of Owen's writings. The whole corpus runs to more than 1,500 pages and amounts to almost 800,000 words]


His master view was that [human] character is formed by external circumstances. This view, which (perhaps appropriately) was not original, lent itself to two inferences. One was that systems which supposed other sources of character, whether self-formation or original sin, were misleading, and that any institutions founded on them, because out of step with nature, were sources of misery and social division. The second inference was that such institutions should be replaced by ones based upon Owenite principles.

As early as 1813, these positions suggested a revision of religion. "A knowledge of truth on the subject of religion would permanently establish the happiness of man", Owen wrote. At first, this program was stated negatively, denouncing "the Inconsistencies . . . proceeding from the want of this knowledge, which has created, and still creates, a great proportion of the miseries which exist in the world" [...]. [Owen emphasized] the violations of nature by existing Churches. [NB! Owen's distinction between religion as a way of thinking and the church as an institution claiming adminsitrative authority over that way of thinking]

[...] Owen thought, more positively, that "the happiness of man can never be secured, until he shall be trained from Infancy in a knowledge of true religion". True religion Owen found in a grasp of the facts of nature, which suggested that the best worship of God was to do good, and that adults had it in their power to mould children's characters. In other words, Owen's natural religion was an alternative to the positions he disliked and was continuous with his wider opinions. Indeed, its resonances outside purely theological discourse are probably wider. It matched his fundamental assumption that the facts of nature, rightly understood, are harmonious with one another; and the latter view, in its turn, suggested that rightly adjusted human impulses would lend themselves to the social union that Owen longed for and which he saw variously in New Lanark, in co-operation and in the hopefully named New Harmony.

Owen's religion, too, may help us to place him a little more centrally, for his desire to remake both society and religion finds a parallel in Paine [ID], Saint-Simon [ID], Comte [ID] and Fourier [ID], not to mention the milder efforts of J. S. Mill [ID].