Charles Fourier

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Fourier was one of the founding fathers of nineteenth century Utopian socialism. Although the few experiments in building a model community based upon his theories proved short-lived, Fourier’s writings have continued to attract interest.

Early Life

François-Marie-Charles Fourrier (he stopped using the second r apparently when he was eighteen) was born on April 7, 1772, at Besançon, France, a town near the Swiss border, the fifth child and only son of a prosperous cloth merchant. In 1781, his father died, leaving him a substantial inheritance. He attended the local Collège de Besançon, where he received a solid if uninspiring classical education. His ambition appears to have been to study military engineering at the École de Génie Militaire, but he lacked the noble status requisite for admission. He was apprenticed to a cloth merchant around 1790, first at Rouen, then at Lyons. He was ill-suited for, and unhappy in, the world of business.

Fourier was involved in the savagely suppressed 1793 counterrevolutionary uprising in Lyons against the Convention (central government). As a result, he was imprisoned and narrowly escaped execution. In 1794, he was called for military service; he was discharged two years later. Although the details remain unclear, he lost the bulk of his inheritance. He thereafter worked as a traveling salesman and then as an unlicensed broker. He also began writing short articles and poems, which appeared in the Lyons newspapers starting in 1801. He set forth an outline of his developing ideas in two papers written in late 1803, “Harmonie universelle” and “Lettre au Grand-Juge.” In 1808, he published—anonymously and with a false place of publication to protect himself against prosecution by the authorities—his first major work, Théorie des quatre mouvements and des destinées générales (The Social Destiny of Man: Or, Theory of the Four Movements, 1857). In 1812, Fourier’s mother died, leaving him a modest lifetime annuity. The money allowed him to devote himself full-time to elaborating his ideas in a projected Grand Traité (great treatise). Although he never finished this great treatise he did publish in 1822 his two-volume Traité de l’association domestique-agricole (later retitled Théorie de l’unité universelle; Social Science: The Theory of Universal Unity, 185?). A briefer and more accessible statement of his position would appear in his Le Nouveau Monde industriel et sociétaire: Ou, Invention du procédé d’industrie attrayante et naturelle distribuée en series passionées (1829).

Fourier never married, appears to have had no lasting romantic attachment, and lived most of his life in cheap lodging houses and hotels. He was a deeply neurotic personality—what the French call a maniaque (crank). There is even evidence that he seriously thought himself to be the son of God. As he grew older, he became increasingly paranoid about his supposed persecution by his enemies. His jealousy of rival would-be saviors of humanity resulted in an 1831 pamphlet, Pièges et charlatanisme des deux sectes Saint-Simon et Owen, qui promettent l’association et le progrès (traps and charlatanism of the Saint-Simonian and Owen sects, who promise association and progress). The last of his major writings to be published during his lifetime was the two-volume La Fausse Industrie morcelée, répugnante, mensongère, et l’antidote, l’industrie naturelle, combinée, attrayante, veridique, donnant quadruple produit et perfection extrème en tous qualités (1835-1836). A manuscript entitled Le Nouveau Monde amoureux—written around 1817-1818 and demonstrating the central place in his thinking of his vision of a sexual revolution—was not published until 1967.

Life’s Work

Fourier’s starting point was his repudiation of the eighteenth century philosophes, who had enthroned reason as mankind’s guide. He dismissed reason as a weak force compared to the passions, or instinctual drives. He postulated the existence of twelve fundamental human passions. These in turn fell into three major categories. There were the so-called luxurious passions (the desires of the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch); the four group, or affective, passions (ambition, friendship, love, and family feeling or parenthood); and the serial, or distributive, passions (the “cabalist” desire for intrigue, the “butterfly” yearning for variety, and the “composite,” or desire for the simultaneous satisfaction of more than a single passion). Fourier held that since all the passions were created by God, they were naturally good and harmonious. Thus, they should be allowed the freest and fullest expression. He preached that mankind had achieved sufficient mastery over the forces of the natural world to make possible the satisfaction of all human wants.

The trouble was that in capitalist society—which Fourier in his sixteen-stage scheme of human history termed civilization—most people found their passions repressed or, even worse, so distorted as to become vices. What was required was a new social order that would channel the passions in salutary directions. His ideal world—which he called Harmony—was a paradise of sensuous enjoyments: a continuous round of eating, drinking, and lovemaking. The prerequisite for its attainment was a properly designed community, or phalanx, which would constitute the basic social unit. Each phalanx would consist of sixteen hundred to two thousand persons. This number would allow inclusion within the phalanx of the full range of different individual personality types and thus of potential combinations of passions. There were, he...

(The entire section is 2383 words.)