Religious aspects of Russia's non-religious philosophy

Culture and Religion


 In the late thirties and earlier forties of the last century, due to the famous letters of Pyotr Chaadaev, in which both Russia and its cultural history were severely criticized with respect to the contrasting and in Chaadaev's mind, more developed western (european) culture, there arose a strong philosophical evolution. This development was due to the debate which occurred between those of the Chaadaevian view, the so-called 'occidentalists' who tended to be very much influenced by the philosophies of Hegel and of Schelling, and the so-called 'slavophiles' who in defiance of Chaadaev and in defense of the russian patrimony produced what might be considered a philosophy of the slavic (and sometimes the russian), cultural and racial identity.

 The course of this chapter will consist in examining the relation of the slavophiles and the panslavists to religion paying special heed to philosophical concepts developed by Chomjakov and Kireevskij. One of the factors to be noticed, according to Zenkovskij, is that the slavophiles (and the latter panslavists) tended to be of the same basic tendencies, in their strong defense of Orthodoxy, the exaltation of the russian past and the criticisms of the petrine reforms. The occidentalists, however, were very varied among themselves due to the fact that they differed greatly in their interpretations of hegelian philosophy.
In one sense this chapter should also examine the philosophical conceptions of culture held by the occidentalists, as this is certainly of great relevance to the fuller view of the nineteenth century philosophies of culture in Russia. However, we have already looked at three of the major occidentalists from other perspectives, namely Chaadaev, Belinskij and Bakunin and have considered their attitudes to religion as is essential to the course of this work.

 Alexander I. Herzen (1812-1870)

 There is one other occidentalist of major importance, Alexander Herzen. Not to include him would seem to be a great deficency in any work concerning last century's russian philosophers. However, he does not have any important novelties to say about religion, and consequently to examine his silence or lack of interest in religion would be tantamount to a repetition of what has already been said before, with regard to the influence of western thought on the mind of a russian thinker, and the consequent shift in the anthropological and sociological dimension of the russian world-view as witnessed by a particular author.

 The slavophiles

 From among the slavophilic philosophers, there are two who have merited renown, Ivan Kireevskij and Aleksej Chomjakov, both of whom made valuable contributions to philosophy (and theology) through their doctrines of tselnost’ and sobornost’ respectively, which although according to some authors are influenced by german romantic philosophy, such as that of Schlegel, or by the raison de coeur of Pascal, demonstrate a level of originality and philosophical development deserving of esteem.

 Ivan V. Kireevskij (1806-1856)

 Ivan Kireevskij, as a slavophile, went to the opposite extreme of Chaadaev through his strenuous exaltation of the russian cultural patrimony and through his harsh condemnations of western culture, which through the influence of roman (and thus, latin and catholic) legalism and subsequent rationalism (most vivid in Protestantism) had been corrupted; it is not something to be praised nor something on which, in the kireevskian opinion, Russia should be modeled upon. Kireevskij was of the conviction that the russian monasteries had passed on through their translations of patristic texts the true spirit of the greek Fathers, something which marks the grandeur of the identity of Russia's cultural inheritance and religion.

 Kireevskij, however, did admit that russian culture was somewhat retarded in its development, a situation which he blamed upon religious factors. The Church, he considered, had done serious harm to the growth within this cultural context through the separation of the hierarchy from the people, through the condemnation of the Old Believers and through its opposition to liturgical change in the time of Patriarch Nikon. He thought, consequently, that the Church had confused the external forms of cult with the interior, it had confused the less important with the more important. Subsequently, he suggested that russian spirituality needs to discover the purity of its origin, for which it does not need western ideas, nor the trends of western cultural.

 The tselnost' concept developed by Kireevskij is also worth special attention. By this concept he means an integral conscience. He proposed this concept as a solution to the abstract rationalism of the West which destroyed european civilization. For Kireevskij, rationalism as a philosophical tendency limits itself to establishing logical relations between abstract concepts; it is a philosophy that does not promote integrality; the rationalistic tendency causes a divorce from reality.

 Accordingly, Kireevskij promotes a philosophy of integrality, of the whole man, by which, the act of understanding also involves the heart, the senses, the emotions, in short, a collaboration of all one's human faculties.

 Continuing the framework of his philosophy, Kireevskij then extended the concept of tselnost' to all human relationships, considering even inter-class relations in society and the relation of church and state. The hope of Kireevskij was that the tselnost' philosophy might lead to the development of an authentic christian vision of the world and to a union of conscience and intention in society.

 Kireevskij, thus, presents a particular anthropological and new cosmo-sociological vision of the human being and of society. His criticism of western rationalism clearly demonstrates a difference in anthropological principles, whereas his criticism of Orthodoxy shows a similar shift away from other cosmo-sociological manners of conception, common in the precedent russian religious and cultural realms.

 His critique of the West, of latin and of catholic legalism and rationalism is founded in reality. In western Europe the main philosophical streams tended towards rationalism, the inheritance of the previous centuries from Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, the illuminists and encyclopedists, the materialists, and the empiricists, all of whom presented one form or another of rationalism, of theoretical and ideological thought. In catholic circles it was either Descartes or scholasticism that dominated, with the insistence on the importance of thought, the intellect, knowledge, and the subsequent devaluation of the other dimensions of the human person, that is of the heart, the feelings and the senses.

 In contrast with this situation, that which is to be found within the Russian Orthodox tradition, where the intellect and rational knowledge were significantly less valued, with a simultaneously greater evaluation of other human faculties, especially that of the heart, is a more human and integral philosophy. In this context it is very easy to understand the dynamics at play within the kireevskian mind, and the subsequent option for russian anthropology and epistemological values, which did not belong solely to Orthodoxy but were also to be conceived as being very russian due to the link between culture, nation and religion in the slavophilic mentality.

 The second aspect to be noticed in Kireevskij is his cosmo-sociological approach. His critique of the Church's contribution to the retardation of russian culture has a very strong sociological coloring. He feels that this contribution arose through two incidents, firstly, in the way in which the Old Believers were treated and, secondly, the opposition to the attempted liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon. The failure of the Church to grow through these two dilemmas, in the sense of trying to grasp novelties and differences, meant that it was holding entirely onto the past and was denying itself a future with its own proper characteristics. It was denying its own variety-possibility.

 The concept of tselnost' includes for Kireevskij the idea of legitimate difference and variety, categories that in themselves are essential for the richness of a culture.

 Here, one can notice a similar criticism to that made by Chaadaev. But the reasoning behind the two attitudes are very different. Chaadaev did not value the past, nor Russia's cultural and religious legacy, Kireevskij, however, did and, accordingly, in presenting an historical problem, he does not have the characteristic of Chaadaev to disregard that history. For Kireevskij, the Church and religion is very much linked to the history and culture of Russia, so that when the Church handled these situations incompetently, she actually hindered a fuller development of the culture and history of Russia. The tselnost' of Kireevskij, thus, includes within itself the totality of history, past present and future, it includes in itself the totality that should be found among the different dimensions of the Church.

 Aleksej S. Chomjakov (1804-1860)

 Aleksej Chomjakov developed another concept, that of sobornost', meaning collegiality or a union of love within the Church and among Christians, which would allow all members of the Church, laity and the government (through the synod) included, to take part in the decisions of the Church.

 Sobornost', for him, was to be found uniquely within the context of Orthodoxy. In the Catholic Church there was a lack of sobornost' due to the kind of unity attained through the papacy which hindered liberty. Protestantism also failed in sobornost' due to its character of liberty exercized at the expense of unity. Consequently it is only within Orthodoxy that one finds the spirit of liberty and creativity expressive of the sobornij character of the Church of Christ, of pure Christianity.

 Sobornost', thus, included the concept of participation and a sense of unity in multiplicity. For Gino Piovesana, Chomjakov, in proposing this new concept, partially gnoseological, partially sociological, was able to philosophize with the help of this model also about civil affairs and about political life, in particular. Thus, Chomjakov, for instance, was able to look upon the Tzar in a paternalistic way, seeing the Tzar as protector of the Church. However, his tzar-model was pre-petrine.

 Although Chomjakov presents himself as a right wing Orthodox, he is, at the same time quite radical. He believed in a type of ecclesiastical union of love which would allow every dimension of the Church to participate in her government. He was promoting a multiplicity in the Church, by means of this sobornost' which was something not part of preceeding ecclesiastical experience. In fact it would seem that he was proposing a democratization of the Church, a philosophy which would remind one of the political forces (of democracy) at play in the West. At the same time, however, Chomjakov does not propose a democratization of society for his politics were very tzarophilic, as has already been mentioned.

 When advancing the logic of Chomjakov it appears that he does not conceive the Church as a society within a society; he does not conceive it as another society, essentially independent of the civil society within which it exists. The Church is rather presented as a part of civil society, as the religious institution of society, of Russia. Accordingly, the secular dimensions of Russia, the Tzar included, have a right to have a place in the government of the Church. The tendency of Chomjakov in this respect seems to be a little romantic and idealistic in so far as this society-church relation depends on a communion of love, an ideal, which in practice is difficult to achieve, even on a limited level, let alone on the universal level. There is little doubt that Chomjakov like many of the other philosophers conceived the place of the Church with respect to society and russian culture in a way based upon the historical ambient into which he was born.

 Although Chomjakov proposes a type of universal sobornost', he does not treat of the problematics arising from this proposed idea of (international) sobornost', of the communion of love between the Christians of various cultures, races and nations, being grounded within and under various and even radical different political systems, which according to Chomjakov's logic should also have a role in the governing of the Church, within their own political sphere, and maybe even internationally.

 One of the weaknesses of the philosophies of both Kireevskij and Chomjakov lies in their incapacity to extend the concepts of tselnost' and sobornost' on a more universal plain. One might even have an impression that the rather strict identification of these two words with the russian and slavic milieu is somewhat contradictory, in the sense that, for instance, a full cultural integrality should include those cultural and religious phenomena which are foreign to the russian world. The failure to see Russia, its culture and religion as part of a wider integrality and communion through the presentation of the russian model as the perfect and possibly final one, would seem to have hindered developments towards a greater and more universally appealing philosophical and theological development.

 While, in agreement with Kireevskij and Chomjakov, both the tselnost' and sobornost' concepts tend to be very russian and orthodox by nature, it would however, seem that the authors are more disposed to be on the defensive rather than the explorative side of philosophy.

  The Panslavists

 Subsequent to main stream slavophilism emerged another trend in the philosophy of culture, namely, 'panslavism', which in many aspects resembles slavophilism. Panslavism has part of its origin in the mentality of both pan-germanism and the French Revolution as well as in the outcome of the Crimean war. While slavophilism was a particularly russian intellectual movement, panslavism was directed towards reawakening the national conscience of the slavic peoples.

 Aleksej Chomjakov

 In a particular way, it was Chomjakov who gave animation to the russian dimension of panslavism with his poem 'To Russia', in which Russia is given a divine calling to free the slavs on the other side of the Danube.

 Ivan S. Aksakov (1823-1886)

 Similar to Chomjakov, the slavophile, Ivan Aksakov acted as an intermediary between slavophilism and russian panslavism. In his earlier years, he expressed his conviction that the russian political system was superior to that which is found in the West because it consented to the fullest expansion of popular freedom along side an unlimited state power. In his 'confession' (1849), he greatly praised Orthodoxy as the savior of Russia from the ideological conceptions of Europe. Aksakov, however, rejected panslavism, due to his slavophile opinion that there could never be a reconciliation between orthodox and catholic slavs.

 The slavophile idea took on the form of russian panslavism with three important authors, Danilevskij, Leont’ev and Strakhov, in whom the conception of race and nation became panslavic, and the role of Russia and the russian social, cultural and political ambient was given a prophetic role therein.

 Nikolaj Y. Danilevskij (1822-1885)

 Nikolaj Danilevskij was considered to be the spenglerian precursor due to his conviction that the West was approaching its end. His philosophy is quite totalitarian, with a strong promotion of russian pride and of the international role which he conceived to be proper to Russia, through 'the fight against the West'.

 Danilevskij, a natural scientist by education, developed his philosophy on two important principles: that there is a fundamental unity which binds nature, society and its elements together and, the law of historical development, considered by him to be similar to the law which governs nature. Consequently, Danilevskij tended to abandon the romanticism of his slavophilic predecessors and began to consider the historical and cultural questions at hand through the framework of biological laws.

 Danilevskij believed that Europe considered Russia to be alien and thus, not a part of Europe, but he was also of the opinion that Russia also not belong to Europe, neither historically nor culturally. This conviction can be understood from the basis of his idea that history is always the history of an individual peoples. These individual historical-types, whether stronger or weaker, are not transmittable to other peoples.

 Based on such premises, the panslavism of Danilevskij takes the basic form of the belief that Russia and the slavs (alone) are capable of realizing the development of all the aspects of a mature race and with a mature history; these motives, (religious, cultural, social or political) are factors of a pure and developed culture which other nations and races - the Europeans included - have only partially been able to realize. A practical consequence of such a belief is the criticism launched at the european (habsburgian) attempts to preserve a status quo in eastern Europe, where many orthodox slavs lived under the burden of the Ottoman Empire, a criticism which shows the difference, in Danilevskij's mind, between Europe and the Slavs.

 Although Danilevskij may have nothing unique to say about religion, nonetheless, one might conclude that for him, religion or Orthodoxy is essential for the harmonic realization of the mature (panslavic) culture, and while it is not the essence nor the nucleus of this culture, it belongs to the harmonious totality of such.

 In the danilevskian mind, it would therefore seem correct to conclude that the preoccupation with religion is primarily theoretical and subordinated to culture within the structure of his philosophization; he is not interested in the practical dimensions of religion or the Church nor does he seem to try to propose any evaluations of, nor directions for the Church within the context of society.

 Nikolaj N. Strakhov (1828-1896)

 The second panslavist of interest is Nikolaj Strakhov, a man involved in many of the cultural-political debates of the 1880s. Gino Piovesana presents him as the representative of a mature slavism, in that he examines the present with eyes focused on the future. He was a philosopher who was influenced greatly by the hegelian school. He was one who used the arms of philosophy to counter the evident europeanization of the intelligence of the left. Although Strakhov did not produce any brilliant ideas, he did tend to underline, from a conservative view-point, the characteristics of russian culture with respect to the greater socio-cultural problems of his time.

The philosophy of Strakhov certainly has a spiritual coloring, but evidently it is more idealistic than orthodox-christian. Although Strakhov had certainly been under the influence of Orthodoxy, especially through his years in the seminary, he neither rejected the faith nor was dominated by it; he was in fact very much of the tolstojian mentality and heterodoxy (with a special conviction for the tolstojian ethical approach), due on the one hand to his tendency towards a type of german idealistic mysticism, and on the other to his negative evaluation of the sacramental dimension of the Church.

 The spiritual perspective took its form predominantly in his hegelianism: Strakhov claims that the Russian radicals did not understand the spiritual motivation of Hegel, for whom the spirit expresses itself in history, doing so successively in the different nations. While for Strakhov, Hegel was a pantheist, he himself believed that the spirit is greater than matter, thus supposing an hierarchical order in reality, in which man was the center, man who brings everything else to God in whom we exist, move and live. It is the spirit who thus governs and moves peoples and nations, the spirit being better and greater than any human efforts and consequently the strakhovian form of panslavism: Russia must have an independent development process and can not depend on European standards of measure and progression.

 The anthropology of Strakhov is also noteworthy: man is the hierarchical crown of nature, and its living center, who reveals the world's enigma and mystery, the key to which is only to be found in the Absolute. The central position of man must be interpreted religiously so as to avoid a dissolution of man in nature; science is not able to perform such a task of anthropological interpretation. One can see here an anthropological novelty within the russian philosophical context, in the form of an anthro-centrism. It would appear than while there might be a certain judeo-christian influence concerning the value of man and his metaphysical worth with respect to the rest of the universe, Strakhov's anthropological evaluation is based more on tolstojian and schopenhauerian ideas than on the thought of Hegel.

 Strakhov tended therefore to promote panslavism with a deep interest in the european philosophers, evaluating in a critical way the effects of their ideas in Russia rather than simply rejecting such ideas.

 Konstantin N. Leont’ev (1831-1891)

 The final philosopher of particular interest in this section is Konstantin Leont’ev, a man of many contrasts, a doctor, a soldier, a diplomat, a monk, an amoral aesthetic, a lover of all that is byzantine.

 One of the interesting aspects of the works of Leont’ev, besides his pessimism are his anti-democratic and his anti-equalitarian anti-liberal ideas, which, with the exception of his typically russian politics and religion, would remind one very much of Nietzsche.

Leont’ev suggested that in life there is an aesthetic and organic process which is the expression of the national-history of the existence of peoples. For him the panslavists, such as Aksakov and Danilevskij were mere illusionists without any point of doctrinal unity; they needed a center as is found in the papacy, so as to build upon the sobornost' of Chomjakov.

Leont’ev elaborated a philosophy of culture and history different from that of the panslavists, centered upon the byzantine world as its historico-cultural type. The russian form of being byzantine differs socially, politically, religiously and culturally from the slavic world, partly due to the long periods of political independence it had enjoyed. In the Leont’evian system the russian strenght and identity, from both slavophilic and panslavists positions, are based upon their byzantine origin.

 In his work, 'Bizantizm and Slavyanstvo', he argues that the essence of the byzantine nature of Russia is to be found in the tzardom and in Orthodoxy. Similar to the Roman Empire and to Byzantium, Russia also had, through her tzars and the great princes of her earlier years of Christianity, that political structure which enabled her to be byzantine. In fact, the very nature of real religion is, for Leont’ev, Orthodoxy which in itself is essentially byzantine, its proper name being, 'the Greek-Russian Orthodox Church', and accordingly the byzantine nature of Russia, a land, a culture and a history which for Leont’ev can not be conceived of without its Orthodox essence.

"What is a family without religion? What are religions without Christianity? What is Christianity in Russia without Orthodox forms, rules and customs, that is, without the byzantine?"

 Leont’ev believed in a very personal type of salvation in contrast to a conception of universal salvation, and accordingly he even once could define his own religiosity as 'transcendental egoism'. Politically, this was to be expressed as an extreme form of nationalism and fanatic reactionism.

 The religious convictions and tendencies of Leont’ev, not only tend to a promotion of the byzantine, but they also seem to be in themselves christian, in a xyzantine way: the strict theology and hierarchical structure proper to the byzantine Church, the weaker sense of the universality of the Church and the importance of the personal dimension of sanctification, all of which contrast with western thought, were bound to express themselves in the leont’evian philosophy as a strong non-appreciation for democracy and freedom on a political level, as an exaltation of a particular historical inheritance over others on the cultural level, and on the spiritual level, as a strong tendency to individualism.

 Leont’ev similarly made a strong critique of the new types of Christianity, be they the Tolstojs, who profess faith in an exclusively human morality, or the Dostoevskijs for their excesicely philanthropic and sentimental Christianity.


 Although panslavism, in its russian form, tends to be somewhat unsystematic, following diverse trends in various authors, it certainly had a positive value in the arena of philosophical development in Russia. Possibly with the exception of Leont’ev, the panslavists tended to valorize the slavic race and patrimony, recognizing positive and praiseworthy elements within the cultural and racial dimensions. At the same time, the slavic perfection was still seen as somewhat underdeveloped and awaiting full evolution.

 In the context of the development and evolution process of the slavic model, Russia was given the primary and impulse role. There is little doubt that Russia was the most mature of the slavic nations, a fact attributed to the imperial nature of her history and her political maturity with respect to the other slavic nations. With this in mind, it is easy to conceive the importance attributed to byzantine culture by Leont’ev, it having been an imperial culture which reached its own maturity and which was a model, historically speaking, that was of fundamental importance to Russia.

  Religion, that is Orthodoxy, of course had an essential and undeniable role in the cultural progression of the imperial culture, whether of Byzantium or Russia, and accordingly, great importance was attributed to the further role to be played by Orthodox Christianity in the future evolution of the slavic world and race.

 The final remark to be made concerns the relation between religion and panslavism. Based upon the reflection of these authors, it would seem that while, for the panslavists, religion and Orthodoxy was conceived as an intrinsic part of the slavic, the slavic itself (within the cultural, racial and political panorama) was more important than Orthodoxy or religion. Religion seems to be proper to something greater or more important, as the blood in the veins are to the whole human person. However, although in this area of russian philosophy, Orthodox Christianity is somewhat subordinated to the slavic, the slavic race, culture and history are themselves dependent on Orthodoxy in a most essential way.

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