Charles Fourier Essay - Critical Essays

Jonathan Beecher

Fourier, Charles


Charles Fourier 1772-1837

(Full name François Marie Charles Fourier) French Utopian social philosopher.

Fourier was a French social theorist influenced by the failure of the French Revolution to equalize the distribution of property and wealth and by what he viewed as the negative effects of economic competition. Fourier developed theories of social organization that emphasized the indulgence of human passion as a means of attaining personal and social harmony. He gained a small following during his lifetime and achieved greater recognition in the 1840s, when the study of his work inspired the development of several communal living experiments, including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the North American Phalanx in New Jersey.

Biographical Information

Born in 1772 in Besançon to a middle-class merchant family, Fourier completed his education at the Jesuit Collège de Besançon and in 1789 became an apprentice in a commercial concern in Lyons. In 1793, he invested and lost a small inheritance and was later imprisoned as a result of his association with the counterrevolutionary forces who were defeated during the Siege of Lyons. On his release from prison, Fourier served briefly in the army and later found work as a clerk, a cashier, and a bookkeeper. He began developing his Utopian theories but was unable to devote his full attention to this work due to financial difficulties. Following his mother's death in 1812, he began receiving an annual stipend as well as financial support from followers. One of his early essays, "Harmonie universelle" (1803), briefly outlines his theory of social organization. In 1808 he completed Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, his first thorough examination of the social problems of the time and his proposed solutions. After publishing several other works in an effort to interest people in his theories, Fourier and his disciples founded the journal Le Phalanstère in 1832. The publication was designed to elucidate Fourier's theories for the general public and to generate interest among possible investors. Some of Fourier's disciples, however, charged that Fourier was incapable of presenting his ideas in an accessible, appealing manner. The journal appeared for less than two years. After suffering from failing health for several years, Fourier died in 1837.

Major Works

Throughout his three major works—Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, Traité de l'Association domestique agricole (1822), and Le Nouveau Monde industriel et sociétaire (1829)—Fourier identified and analyzed the twelve human passions and argued that social institutions should provide the opportunity for the development of these passions. Commerce, he maintained, is morally harmful and should be replaced with a cooperative system of economy and life. Arguing for the equality of the sexes, he denounced marriage as a form of slavery and called for the practice of free love. Fourier also divided the development of humanity into a number of stages beginning with the state of Nature and ending with the ideal state, that of Harmony. Fourier identified the current state of humanity as Civilization, contending that while Civilization is full of evils, it contains the necessary forces to produce the ultimate state of Harmony. To achieve this state of Harmony, Fourier wrote, social organization must allow the free play of all of the human passions. Concurrent with the presentation of his theories regarding social organization, Fourier developed theories regarding the earth's physical development. Fourier argued that the planet was passing out of a state of infancy and that after Fourier's plans were adopted by the earth's inhabitants, it would enter into a new period of development in which lions would become servants of humanity and the sea would turn into lemonade.

Critical Reception

Despite the fantastical nature of some of Fourier's ideas, many scholars find matter for serious study in his social theories. While nineteenth-century critics noted the enthusiasm of Fourier's small but devoted following and conceded that the philosopher's influence was strong enough to reach America, they tended to dismiss his ideas as impractical and to decry his disregard for conventional morality. In 1842 one anonymous writer for the Dial argued that Fourier's system "treats man as a plastic thing," and in 1844 another critic from the same journal frowned on the absence of Christianity from Fourier's theories. Some modern critics have concentrated on the comparison of Fourier's theories with those of his socialist contemporaries Robert Owen and Saint-Simon (Claude-Henri de Rouvroy). Other critics, such as Leslie Goldstein, have examined the feminist aspects of Fourier's work. Carl Guarneri argues that even though interest in the community structure that Fourier outlined in his works diminished rapidly after the 1840s, communitarian values continued to be explored into the late nineteenth century through the work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed municipal parks intended to display the harmonious balance between city and country, and novelist Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backward (1888) envisaged the futuristic organization of labor around human desires.

Principal Works

"Harmonie universelle" (essay) 1803

Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales (philosophy) 1808

Traité de l'Association domestique agricole (philosophy) 1822

Le Nouveau Monde industriel et sociétaire (philosophy) 1829

La Fausse Industrie (philosophy) 1835

Oeuvres complètes. 12 vols. (philosophy) 1966-68

Le Nouveau Monde amoureux (philosophy) 1967


The Dial (essay date 1842)

SOURCE: "Fourierism and the Socialists," in The Dial, Vol. III, No. 1, July, 1842, pp. 86-90.

[In the following excerpt, the anonymous critic praises the spirit of Fourier's social theory while expressing scepticism about its practicability.]

The increasing zeal and numbers of the disciples of Fourier, in America and in Europe, entitle them to an attention which their theory and practical projects will justify and reward. In London, a good weekly newspaper (lately changed into a monthly journal) called The Phalanx, devoted to the social doctrines of Charles Fourier, and bearing for its motto, "Association and Colonization," is edited by Hugh Doherty. Mr. Etzler's inventions, as described in the Phalanx, promise to cultivate twenty thousand acres with the aid of four men only and cheap machinery. Thus the laborers are threatened with starvation, if they do not organize themselves into corporations, so that machinery may labor for instead of working against them. It appears that Mr. Young, an Englishman of large property, has purchased the Benedictine Abbey of Citeaux, in the Mont d'Or, in France, with its ample domains, for the purpose of establishing a colony there. We also learn that some members of the sect have bought an estate at Santa Catharina, fifty miles from Rio Janeiro, in a good situation for an agricultural experiment, and one hundred laborers have sailed from Havre to that port, and nineteen hundred more are to follow. On the anniversary of the birthday of Fourier, which occurred in April, public festivals were kept by the Socialists in London, in Paris, and in New York. In the city of New York, the disciples of Fourier have bought a column in the Daily Tribune, Horace Greeley's excellent newspaper, whose daily and weekly circulation exceeds twenty thousand copies, and through that organ are now diffusing their opinions.

We had lately an opportunity of learning something of these Socialists and their theory from the indefatigable apostle of the sect in New York, Albert Brisbane. Mr. Brisbane pushes his doctrine with all the force of memory, talent, honest faith, and importunacy. As we listened to his exposition, it appeared to us the sublime of mechanical philosophy; for the system was the perfection of arrangement and contrivance. The force of arrangement could no farther go. The merit of the plan was that it was a system; that it had not the partiality and hint-and-fragment character of most popular schemes, but was coherent and comprehensive of facts to a wonderful degree. It was not daunted by distance, or magnitude, or remoteness of any sort, but strode about nature with a giant's step, and skipped no fact, but wove its large Ptolemaic web of cycle and epicycle, of phalanx and phalanstery, with laudable assiduity. Mechanics were pushed so far as fairly to meet spiritualism. One could not but be struck with strange coincidences betwixt Fourier and Swedenborg. Genius hitherto has been shamefully misapplied, a mere trifler. It must now set itself to raise the social condition of man, and to redress the disorders of the planet he inhabits. The Desert of Sahara, the Campagna di Roma, the frozen polar circles, which by their pestilential or hot or cold airs poison the temperate regions, accuse man. Society, concert, cooperation, is the secret of the coming Paradise. By reason of the isolation of men at the present day, all work is drudgery. By concert, and the allowing each laborer to choose his own work, it becomes pleasure. "Attractive Industry" would speedily subdue, by adventurous, scientific, and persistent tillage, the pestilential tracts; would equalize temperature; give health to the globe, and cause the earth to yield 'healthy imponderable fluids' to the solar system, as now it yields noxious fluids. The hyaena, the jackal, the gnat, the bug, the flea, were all beneficent parts of the system; the good Fourier knew what those creatures should have been, had not the mould slipped, through the bad state of the atmosphere, caused, no doubt, by these same vicious imponderable fluids. All these shall be redressed by human culture, and the useful...

(The entire section is 1701 words.)

The Dial (essay date 1844)

SOURCE: "Fourierism," in The Dial, Vol. IV, No. IV, April, 1844, pp. 473-83.

[In the following essay, the critic offers a brief analysis of Fourier's philosophy as it was discussed at a convention held in Boston, Massachusetts, in late 1843 and early 1844.]

In the last week of December, 1843, and first week of January, 1844, a Convention was held in Boston, which may be considered as the first publication of Fourierism in this region.

The works of Fourier do not seem to have reached us, and this want of text has been ill supplied by various conjectures respecting them; some of which are more remarkable for the morbid imagination they display than for...

(The entire section is 4128 words.)

E. S. Mason (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "Fourier and Anarchism," in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. XLII, February, 1928, pp. 228-62.

[In the following excerpt, Mason argues that many elements of Fourier's philosophy were "typically anarchist."]

In the writings of Fourier are to be found . . . characteristics of anarchist thought, together with some interesting peculiarities of his own.

He is usually classified as a socialist in the histories of socialist and economic thought. To open a discussion, however, on the similarities and differences between socialism and anarchism, and to attempt to relate the thought of Fourier to various possible definitions of either term,...

(The entire section is 5163 words.)

Russell E. Westmeyer (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Utopian Socialism: The French Utopian Socialists," in Modern Economic and Social Systems, Rinehart & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1940, pp. 27-42.

[In the following excerpt, Westmeyer briefly describes the structure of Fourier's Utopian society.]

As a boy François Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was an excellent student, but he left his school work for a business career and spent practically his entire life in mercantile activities. It is said that Fourier first had his attention called to the defects of the existing economic order when as a child of five he was punished for telling the truth about his father's goods. This was followed by other...

(The entire section is 1809 words.)

Alice Felt Tyler (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Utopian Socialism in America," in Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History to 1860, The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1944, pp. 196-226.

[In the following excerpt, Tyler discusses the formation of Fourierist phalanxes in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s.]


Through a series of articles entitled "What Shall Be Done about Labor?" which he wrote for the New Yorker, Horace Greeley came in touch with Albert Brisbane, who had studied in Paris the theories of the French socialists, Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. Greeley accepted many of Brisbane's ideas, and together they wrote for...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)

G. D. H. Cole (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Fourier and Fourierism," in Socialist Thought: The Forerunners, 1789-1850, Macmillan & Co., 1953, pp. 62-74.

[In the following excerpt, Cole offers a brief outline of Fourier's life and a detailed discussion of his philosophy, arguing that the most convincing aspects of Fourier's doctrine regard the organization of labor and social institutions around human desires.]

No two persons could well be more different in their approach to the social question than Saint-Simon and Fourier, though they were both precursors of Socialism. Saint-Simon loved vast generalisations and was dominated in all his thinking by the conception of unity. His approach was...

(The entire section is 5265 words.)

M. Beer (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The France of Napoleon and the Restoration," in The General History of Socialism and Social Struggles, Vol. I, Russell & Russell, Inc., 1957, pp. 103-33.

[In the following excerpt, Beer discusses Fourier's conception of nature and human history.]


After the execution of Babeuf and Darthé and the banishment of Buonarroti and his comrades, the French socialist revolutionary movement disappeared from the surface of politics for three decades. The Directory repressed all opposition and prepared the way for the rule of Napoleon. In 1799 he overthrew the Directory, and in 1804 he was...

(The entire section is 2181 words.)

Charles R. Crowe (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Fourierism and the Founding of Brook Farm," in The Boston Public Library Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, April, 1960, pp. 79-88.

[In the following essay, Crowe argues that Fourier's socialist ideology influenced the development of Brook Farm from the community's inception in 1841.]

In the summer of 1843 a blaze of enthusiasm for the socialist ideas of Charles Fourier swept through the ranks of American reformers, and one hastily-formed phalanx after another began to appear in the backlands of Pennsylvania and New York. Late in the year when the New York Fourierists met in Boston with representatives of the Brook Farm, Northampton, and Hopedale communities, the...

(The entire section is 2924 words.)

Frank E. Manuel (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Charles Fourier: The Burgeoning of Instinct," in The Prophets of Paris, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962, pp. 197-248.

[In the following excerpt, Manuel examines Fourier's arguments against civilization and the philosophy of his contemporaries.]


Fourier's basic method involved a deliberate total denial of all past philosophical and moralist schools. Ecart absolu, he called it. Its definition came early in the Théorie des quatre mouvements, a methodological addendum to the Cartesian doubt. "I assumed that the most certain means of arriving at useful...

(The entire section is 4277 words.)

Leslie F. Goldstein (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St.-Simonians and Fourier," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, January-March, 1982, pp. 91-108.

[In the following excerpt, Goldstein examines the feminist aspects of Fourier's work while noting the limitations in his theories regarding the role of women in Fourierist communities.]

(The entire section is 4122 words.)

Jonathan Beecher (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Publishing a Journal," in Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 431-53.

[In the following excerpt, Beecher traces the development of the journal created by Fourier and his disciples and comments on the publication's significance.]

The first months of 1832 were a time of great hope and enthusiasm for Fourier and his disciples. The "conspiracy of silence" that had so long impeded the spread of his ideas was at last broken. The lectures and articles of Jules Lechevalier and Abel Transon had made Fourierism known to the world at large, and had also played an important role in bringing about the conversion of a...

(The entire section is 9176 words.)

Carl J. Guarneri (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Fourierist Legacy," in The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America, Cornell, 1991, pp. 384-405.

[In the following excerpt, Guarneri examines the revival of Fourierism that took place during the latter half of the nineteenth century, arguing that by the end of the century, Fourier's "legacy" of communitarian ideals had completely faded.]

Stephen Pearl Andrews bravely announced in 1871 that Fourierism was "not dead, merely sleeping." As the era of the Civil War closed, however, Fourierist phalanxes had ceased to be a vital option for American society. It was not just that such communities had failed or that northerners had rallied with...

(The entire section is 3556 words.)

Further Reading


Pellarin, C. The Life of Charles Fourier. Translated by Francis George Shaw. W. H. Graham, 1848, 236 p.

Comprehensive biography of Fourier from which numerous biographical sketches were drawn by Fourier's disciples in the mid-nineteenth century.


Airman, Elizabeth C. "The Philosophical Bases of Feminism: The Feminist Doctrines of the Saint-Simonians and Charles Fourier." The Philosophical Forum VII, No. 3-4 (Spring-Summer, 1976): 277-93.

Provides a brief examination of Fourier's and Saint-Simon's feminist philosophy, arguing...

(The entire section is 344 words.)