Charles Fourier Introduction - Essay

Jonathan Beecher


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.