Fourier, François Marie Charles (1772–1837)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


François Marie Charles Fourier, the French social critic, utopian socialist, and eccentric, was born into a merchant family in Besançon. Except during the French Revolution, Charles Fourier led a quiet and isolated life as a minor business employee and bachelor in Paris, Lyons, Rouen, and elsewhere in France, with occasional trips abroad. Shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, Fourier began to develop his doctrine, publishing his first major work, Théorie des quatres mouvements et des destinées générales, in 1808. He continued throughout his life to elaborate and propagate his views with a single-minded devotion, acquired some followers, and was able to dedicate his last years entirely to his self-appointed task.

After a superficial classical secondary education in a Jesuit school in Besançon, Fourier was entirely self-taught. His reading was confined largely to contemporary periodicals and often apparently to bits of articles or merely to headlines. His views reflect many ideas of the Enlightenment and of the early nineteenth century, with strong Rousseauistic and physiocratic strains.

Fourier believed that, because the world had been created by a benevolent deity and yet wallowed in misery, men had obviously failed to carry out the divine plan. The plan was discovered by Fourier, and it had to be translated into practice. Happiness would then replace misery, unity would replace division, Harmony would replace Civilization. The transformation would occur through the release of man's thirteen passions, instilled by God but repressed in Civilization: the five senses; the four "group," or social, passions of ambition, friendship, love, and family feeling; the three "series," or distributive, passions, that is, the "cabalist," or passion for intrigue, the papillone (butterfly), or passion for diversification, and the "composite," or passion for combining pleasures; and, finally, the passion for harmony, which synthesizes all the others. With the passions released, existence would become intense joy, and a lifetime would seem but a moment.

To accomplish the release of the passions, humanity would have to be organized into phalanxes of about eighteen hundred men, women, and children. In each phalanx different characters and inclinations would be scientifically combined in a complex and finely graded system of groups and series so that each person could give full expression, in his work and in his other activities, to all his passions, tastes, and capacities, and avoid everything that did not suit him. The economies accomplished by communal work and living and by finding the right place for every talent, and the enormous enthusiasms and energies mobilized by the new order, would make phalanxes extremely successful economically as well as in terms of human happiness. Indeed, a single trial phalanx would prove its absolute superiority within a few weeks or, at the most, months and, through imitation, abolish Civilization in a year or two. Moreover, the savages and barbarians who had stubbornly resisted Civilization would eagerly join Harmony. The result would be one world of happy phalanxes, linked vaguely by a hierarchy of monarchs and more effectively by temporary industrial armies for special tasks and similar touring bands of poets, actors, and musicians. Fourier's life became a constant search for the means to establish a trial phalanx, and his political, social, and other preferences were all subordinated to this one great purpose. Fourier believed his main enemies to be the philosophes of all sorts, with their "400,000 false volumes."

Fourier's ideas for transforming society were linked to peculiar views on man's past and to strange cosmological beliefs and "analogical" methods (Fourier argued "by analogy" in dealing with all elements of the cosmos). Because the world was one, the coming of Harmony would lead to new, beneficial creations on earth and would result in the appearance of new satellites, in the regaining of health by our planet, and in more distant desirable cosmic repercussions. At the moment, however, earth remained deplorably behind other planets, and Fourier hoped that sufficiently powerful telescopes would enable men to observe the system of Harmony as practiced by the Solarians or the inhabitants of Jupiter. Fantastic details of many kinds abound in Fourier's writings, and the very form of the writings is frequently bizarre.

In addition to giving rise to Fourierist communal experiments and anticipating cooperatives, Fourier has exercised a broad general influence as social critic, early socialist, and man of many insights, especially psychological ones. Fourier's criticism, appreciated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels among others, is notable for its fundamental character, its incisiveness, its richness, and its lack of compromise or nuance. It ranges from magnificent denunciations of exploitation and sham in family, society, church, and state, through striking discussions of fraudulent business practices (in particular of fraud in commerce, Fourier's bête noire), and of the appalling conditions of the masses, to a listing of dozens of different kinds of cuckoldry. Fourier was a moralist and believed that Harmony would establish truth as well as happiness among men, for truth rather than deception and hypocrisy would then become the profitable and accepted way of life.

Fourier's socialism is sui generis; he would have retained some private property, and he regarded inequality and discord as necessary for the construction of graded series and groups and the exercise of all passions. He stressed gastrosophy (the science of cuisine), opera, and horticulture rather than large-scale agriculture or industry. Far from desiring to mold man to a social purpose, he essayed to create a society where every individual whim would be satisfied. But Fourier did define man in social terms (the natural unit for lions, he said, is the couple, and for man, a phalanx, for only in a phalanx could man truly be man); and he charted an extremely complicated and interdependent socialist society, in which men own property, work, and live in common, in their specially built phalansteries, one for each phalanx.

This vision, together with his criticism of the existing system and many of his specific doctrines, places Fourier as one of the most inspired preachers and prophets of modern socialism. Fourier's remarkable psychological insights, such as his championing of brief sessions and variety in work, his quickness to see oppression no matter how veiled, and his at times penetrating concern with different character formations and problems, link him, for instance, to modern pedagogy, the emancipation of women, and personnel management. Fourier can also be described as a brilliant exponent of the idea of alienation or as a premature theoretician of the affluent society. Especially notable are his emphasis on the repression of passions as the source of all evil, as well as the foundation of Civilization, and his vision of that insane world of repressed passions.

See also Enlightenment; Philosophy of Social Sciences; Social and Political Philosophy; Socialism; Society.


primary works

Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, 2 vols. Lyons, France, 1808.

Théorie de l'unité universelle. Paris, 1822.

Le nouveau monde industriel et societaire. Paris: Bossange, 1829.

La fausse industrie morcelée, répugnante, mensongère, et l'antidote: l'industrie naturelle, combinée, attrayante, véridique, donnant quadruple produit, 2 vols. Paris: Bossange, 18351836.

Oeuvres Complètes de Charles Fourier, 12 vols. Paris: Anthropos, 19661968.

Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier; Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. Translated and edited by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. Boston: Beacon, 1971.

The Theory of the Four Movements. Edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Ian Patterson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

secondary works

Beecher, Jonathan. Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Bourgin, Hubert. Fourier Contribution à l'étude du socialisme français. Paris: Société Nouvelle de Librairie et d'Édition, 1905.

Manuel, Frank E. The Prophets of Paris. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Poulat, Émil. Les cahiers manuscrits de Fourier. Paris: Entente Communautaire, 1957.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. The Teaching of Charles Fourier. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Zilberfarb, I. I. Sotsialnaia Filosofiia Sharlia Fure i Ee Mesto v Istorii Sotsialisticheskoi Mysli Pervoi Poloviny XIX Veka. Moscow, 1964.

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

More From