11/30 – The Truth, the Goodness, and the Beauty: Integral Essence of Russian Philosophy

August-November 2016 / Feature Articles

Alexander Malakhov

 

Alexander Malakhov

Alexander Malakhov

Translated from Russian by Eugene Pustoshkin

The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and, in many ways, contemporary Russia have been uniquely distinctive spaces, only partially included into other civilizational projects. The collective spirit of these spaces is rarely understood by foreigners and, in fact, not always grasped by the very inhabitants of these territories. Intellectually, spiritually, and in part physically, this is still an undescribed land, terra incognita, which is often seen both as a holy abode of God, Holy Russia, and Gardarika—a magnificent “land of cities”—and as a lifeless ice-cold desert, inhabited by white walkers.

This is also true for those great thinkers who lived in these lands: most of them remain unknown outside of Russia; and even within the country itself their glory and fame is much less than what they deserve. Many generations (be it in the Czar times or during the Soviet regime) had to flee their motherland in order to save their lives; and thousands of philosophers, scientists, priests—not to mention millions of common people—who weren’t able or refused to flee, died as a result of repressions. True, Russia is still recovering from its casualties and the cataclysms that it suffered from, which can be specifically seen in terms of the current condition of philosophy and humanities. Nevertheless, in the contemporary situation, when Russia, temporarily, is not among intellectual leaders of the world, this should not deceive us, as this land has much to offer to the upcoming era.

If one were to look at it through the prism of Western modernist philosophy, Russian philosophy has always been on the edge of a “fault,” it cannot be typologized, it cannot be fit into some specific frames, and it breaks rules. Russian philosophy frustrates one with its un-tameness. Nonconventionality is a universal attribute of Russian thinkers—not just progressives, but also conservatives. The exemplar of a thinker in Russia is seen not in a university professor, but in a passionate activist, podvizhnik, and “conscience of the people,” whether in the form of a holy fool, yurodivy, a sage, staretz, or a revolutionary. It is the one who sees things the way they are and knows how they should be, the one who is fearless and a little bit crazy, the one who challenges evil and often dies for his or her convictions. The last characteristic is perceived as existential evidence of this person’s rightness and his or her belonging to the long-suffering Russian people—as the Soviet poet Vladimir Visotsky remarked about this: “who suffered, those Russified” (“пострадавшие, а значит обрусевшие”).

Even though the history of Russian thought stems for more than a thousand years, up until 18th century it had a Church-based character: almost all authors belonged to clergy, and their interests lied primarily in the salvation of the soul rather than speculative philosophy. This period, however, was not at all fruitless. On the one hand, philosophical issues can be witnessed in the earliest authors such as Hilarion of Kiev (11th century) and Kliment Smoliatich (12th century). Educated populations knew of the existence of Ancient philosophy, even if their attitude towards it was ambivalent. On the other hand, this period gave birth to many spiritual geniuses, such as Sergius of Radonezh (1322–1392) and Nil Sorsky (1433–1508), whose legacy is still of interest to this very day.

Old Russia ended with the enthronement of Peter the Great (1672–1725), who organized radical reforms (but it should be remembered that many of these reforms, essentially, were began by his predecessors) in an attempt to “westernize” and, particularly, secularize the country. All successive 18th-century rulers generally continued Peter the Great’s politics, so one should not be surprised about the fact that cultural life of Russia had been increasingly experiencing Western influence, especially during the period of “Russian Enlightenment.” Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765) is considered to be the major intellectual of this period. He was a polymath: his interests ranged from philosophy, history, and rhetoric to astronomy, geology, and engineering. Moscow University is named after him. Lomonosov’s contemporary was Grigoriy Skovoroda (1722–1794), a wandering philosopher whose treatises reflect an intensive interior experience and influences of Stoic philosophers, German theosophists, and Christian Orthodox theologians. This period is also marked by the entering of secret societies—Freemasons and Rosicrucians—to the country, and propagation of esoteric and occult teachings, which quickly found high popularity amongst the upper class.

However intense 18th century was, the birth of Russian philosophy as an original and autonomous phenomenon, by common estimates, happened in the 19th century. Traditionally, one speaks of the existence of two trends in Russian philosophy: “westerners” (zapadniki), who oriented their thinking towards the countries of Western Europe, and “slavophiles” (slavyanofily), who argued for a specific character of Russia and Russian consciousness. However, it seems just to acknowledge that it is the latter to whom Russia owes the existence of its specific style of philosophizing, which, without any exaggeration, can be called Integral.

Slavophiles are often criticized for being reactionary and nationalistic, but it is more correct to speak about an alternative project of “Enlightenment,” which took into account mistakes and extremities that took place in the West. Slavophilism’s major representatives admired what the Western civilization achieved; they thoroughly studied the works of European philosophers and were fully aware of how much and in how many spheres Russia was lagging behind. At the same time they saw the dark side of modernity, which was in negation of its own roots, ultra-rationalism, oblivion of spiritual reality, and cruelest social cataclysms.

Ivan Kireyevskiy (1806–1856) and Aleksey Khomyakov (1804–1860) were the brightest of Slavophiles. Kireyevskiy, who received an excellent education and studied philosophy from the earliest years of his life, already at the age of 17 became a co-founder of the Moscow “Society of the Love of Wisdom” (Obshestvo lyubomudriya)—an unofficial (or one should rather say underground) seminar whose participants were undertaking an in-depth study of philosophy. During his time in Germany he was personally present on the lectures of Schelling and Hegel, and later on he thought that surpassing their genius was to be the task of Russian philosophers. In 1832 Kireyevskiy began to publish the journal titled The European (Evropeets), which was almost instantaneously closed by the state officials, and led Kireyevskiy to disgrace in their eyes. During the following years Kireyevsky discovered Orthodox Christianity; he started to closely communicate with the sages of Optina Pustyn. It is then that he formulated a mature version of his worldview. Kireyevsky sees the problem of the West in the disruption between the heart and the mind, in atomization of society, in the loss of orienting values. The emergence of these problems was not accidental; in fact its preconditions can be observed in the Ancient Rome, the legacy of which was inherited by the Catholic Church. Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, was free from such internal fragmentation, and it is in it that one should seek resolution of the contemporary crisis. Kireyevsky though that an “integral consciousness” (tselostnoye soznanie), attained in personal transformation, transcends conflicts and contrapositions. The understanding of faith can be attained through “spiritual seeing” (dukhovnoye zreniye)—mystical intuition which emerges as a result of one’s moral development and unification of all spiritual powers of human being.

Khomyakov is justly considered as the second founding father of the Slavophiles movement. He was a person of extraordinary versatility, philosopher, scientist, poet, and artist. At the age of 17 he earned his PhD (kandidatskaya stepen’) in mathematics at the Moscow University; he left a multifaceted legacy after himself, ranging from poems and tragedies to a comparative Russian-Sanskrit dictionary. Furthermore, Khomyakov is known as the creator of the teaching of sobornost—an organic integral wholeness of society that transcends the gap between the individual and the collective. Just as Kireyevskiy, he was not able to create a philosophy system by the time he passed away, but, jointly, they sketched the outlines or contours in which, subsequently, Russian philosophy was evolving.

When one considers the most interesting thinkers of that time, one could not avoid mentioning Nikolay Fyodorov (1829–1903), the founder of the “Russian cosmism.” His philosophy anticipated what later emerged as the ideas of noosphere, conscious evolution, and transhumanism. Being a profoundly religious thinker, Fyodorov believed that the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, has His creative power, and has a moral responsibility for the fate of the whole world, so that he can and must strive for its radical improvement. His most extravagant idea was about attaining immortality and, furthermore, resurrection of all people who have ever lived through the advancement of science.

The most famous amongst the Russian philosophers is Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900), who was a true visionary and founder of the philosophy of All-Unity (or Total-Unity, vseedinstvo). The All-Unity philosophy is one of the most impressive examples of synthesis in the history of human thought. Even in his childhood Solovyov happened to experience mystical visions and precognitive dreams, and at the age of 19 he experienced a mystical vision of Sophia—a feminine manifestation of Divine Wisdom. Solovyov wrote the work The Crisis of Western Philosophy, after which he was given academic rank of associate professor and started to teach at the St. Petersburg University. Next year, he went to Europe where studied treatises on Indian philosophy, mysticism, Spiritism, occultism, Kabbalah, and—“driven by Sophia’s calling”—he suddenly made a trip to Egypt. At the peak of his career, in 1881, the philosopher decided to resign; and, with an exception of several short-term periods, he never returned to teaching. Before that he had read a lecture on the topic of capital punishment, in which he asked Emperor Alexander III to forgive the murderers of his father (who was killed a few days prior to that) and not punish them. Solovyov was never married—even though he sincerely fell in love from time to time—and he never had his own place of residence, he gave away all his earnings, till the last day of his life, remaining a wanderer in this world.

Solovyov’s philosophy has an explicitly mystical, often esoteric character, and it stems from his very personal spiritual experience, and Sophia is at the center of it. Sophia is the soul of the world, as well as an image of perfect humanity, God-humankind (Bogochelovechestvo), in which fullness of being is realized. For Solovyov, there is not just an inseparable connection among metaphysics, ethics, and arts, but, at the very deepest level, they—“The Truth, the Goodness, and the Beauty”—are one. For many years Solovyov had been calling for unification of the Christian churches and had strong sympathy towards Catholicism, but, to an extent we can judge about that, got disappointed in the ecumenical project towards the end of his life. Being knowledgeable about various religions, he found important insights in each of them, but he did not consider them to be equal and was convinced that it is Christianity that deserves to be thought of as the spiritual summit of humanity, while other religions and teachings, particularly Buddhism and Platonism, are “necessary transitional steps of universal consciousness.”

With Solovyov, the golden era of Russian philosophy began. It was represented by dozens of prominent thinkers, and about each of them one could talk for hours. Many of them were influenced by Solovyov, remaining open to mystical experience, seeking integral transrational knowledge and sharing the idea of All-Unity. One could remember Trobetzkoy brothers: Sergey (1862–1905), who developed an original integral epistemology, which unites empiricism, rationalism, and mysticism; and Evgeniy (1863–1920), who creatively developed Solovyov’s ideas. Or Russian personalists, of which the brightest representatives were Aleksey Kozlov (1831–1901), who created a fascinating panpsychic philosophy of infinite Self, and Lev Lopatin (1855–1922), who founded the system of “monistic spiritualism.” There were numerous other philosophers who were able to compete with the most brilliant minds of Europe. In short, Russia entered the 20th century as one of the strongest countries in the world, not just in political, but also in spiritual terms.

At the same time it would be incorrect to say that original Russian philosophy had unquestioned authority in Russia itself. In parallel to it there existed groups of thinkers who represented European philosophy: Hegelians, neo-Kantians, positivists, and, of course, Marxism, which found fertile ground in Russia. In this context an important milestone was set by publishing of the anthology Problems of Idealism (Problemy idealizma) in 1902, which reflected the tendency of a part of intelligentsia to turn away from Marxism and positivism and towards religion and Idealism. Among its authors one sees, for example, ex-Marxists who were to become great religious philosophers: Sergey Bulgakov (1871–1944), Nikolay Berdyaev (1874–1948), and Semyon Frank (1877–1950). The work that began in Problems of Idealism was continued in the anthologies Milestones (Vekhi, 1909) and De Profundis (Iz glubiny, 1918). Since it was Vekhi (Milestones) that generated the greatest resonance in society, the program that was formulated in this anthology was called vekhovstvo (“milestoning”). In parallel to vekhovstvo a movement of “God-seekers” (bogoiskatel’stvo) emerged. Its central tenet was in the emergence of a “new religious consciousness,” while its primary aim was to renew Christianity. In addition to “milestoners” (vekhovtsy) such as Bulgakov and Berdyaev, among God-seekers one can find Vasily Rozanov (1856–1919), Dmitriy Merezhkovskiy (1865–1941), and Nikolay Minskiy (1855–1937).

The revolution of 1917 and the rise of Bolsheviks to power changed everything. Religion became prohibited, and philosophers, who did not share Marxists views, were fired, arrested, killed, or, in the best case, exiled from the country (these events are known now as “philosophers’ ship”—filosofskiy parokhod). With few exceptions, over the course of the following seven decades Russian philosophy became synonymous to that of the philosophers in exile. In Russia in its place came Soviet philosophy which was under total control of the Communist regime. Still, it managed to give the world a few prominent philosophers. Among the proponents of the new regime one could find the most interest in Alexander Bogdanov (1873–1928), a philosopher and scientist who wanted to create an integral science of “tectology,” which in retrospect is seen as a precursor of cybernetics and systems theory. Bogdanov died during one of his self-experiments in blood transfusion.

 

Illustration: “Saint Sophia The Almighty Wisdom” by Nicholas Roerich (1932). Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, USA

“Saint Sophia The Almighty Wisdom” by Nicholas Roerich (1932). Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, USA

Recommendations for Further Reading (for English-Speaking Audiences)

In English there are several peer-reviewed journals devoted to the philosophic legacy of Russia. Among them of especial value are Russian Studies in Philosophy, which publishes translations of Russian academic philosophers, and Studies in East European Thought and Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, which are focused on intellectual history.

Best introductions into Russian philosophy of pre-revolutionary period are still Nikolay Losskiy’s The History of Russian Philosophy (Istoriya russkoy filosofii) and Vasiliy Zenkovskiy’s book under the same title. A classical review of the development of Russian Orthodox theology was done by Georgiy Florovskiy in his work The Ways of Russian Theology (Puti russkogo bogosloviya).

In terms of a contemporary introduction, one could recommend Andrzej Walicki’s The Flow of Ideas: Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to the Religious-Philosophical Renaissance (Peter Lang, 2015), and the anthology A History of Russian Philosophy 1830-1930: Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Especially worthy of readers’ attention is Alyssa DeBlasio’s The End of Russian Philosophy: Tradition and Transition at the Turn of the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Cosmism is studied in detail in George M. Young’s monograph The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (Oxford University Press, 2012). Soviet thought is studied in a few dozens of volumes of Springer’s Sovietica series which was published from 1959 till 1997. There is also a number of works that specifically studies particular Russian philosophers: Solovyov, Florovskiy, the Roerich family, Bogdanov, and others.

About the Author

Alexander Malakhov, M.S.W., is an integral scholar-practitioner & PhD Researcher at Pacific National University (Khabarovsk, Russia). His main interests include Integral Theory, world philosophy, relationship between religion and science, altered states of consciousness, and human liberation. He is the founder of “Quadrants: Integral Lab” and an Associate Editor of Eros & Kosmos (see: http://eroskosmos.org/english). Contact email: alex@malakhov.link

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