Printer Friendly

Vladimir S. Soloviev: moral philosopher of unity.

The intellectual legacy of Vladimir Sergeievich Soloviev (1853-1900) defies easy description or definition. (1) The range of his influence even while he was alive may be gauged from the categories mentioned upon his induction into the Russian Academy of Sciences: philosophy, commentary on current affairs, and poetry. (2)

By the time Soloviev reached the age of twenty, he had already begun to draw the contours of what would become a lifelong project to bring to light true and false unities in philosophy, religion, and politics. At that young age, he published an article that began to bring into focus the "absolute unity" of divinity, an idea that would later undergo slight transformation into "all-unity" (vseedinstvo)--Soloviev's signature term for Divinity penetrating and unifying all of reality through the God-man Christ. Both of these concepts--absolute unity and all-unity--should have some resonance among Christians, principally because a basis for both these concepts may be found within the New Testament itself, in Paul's proclamation that in the end "God will be all in all." (3)

The context of Soloviev's youthful study of divine unity was not, however, Christianity but rather primitive religion, as its title indicates: "The Mythological Process in Ancient Paganism" (1873). (4) In this piece, the philosopher in the making was searching for the origins of a process that he understood to have been the fragmentation or atomization of an original divine unity and along with it the moral implications of the political and spiritual organizations that human beings had created for themselves since the dawn of civilization. A few years later, he essentially laid out the entire future program for his moral philosophy in his doctoral thesis, "Critique of Abstract Principles" (1880). Much later, in the author's preface to the second edition of what is perhaps his best-known work, Justification of the Good: Moral Philosophy, he encapsulated the purpose of the greater portion of his life's work for his readers, seemingly almost as an afterthought: "to establish in absolute moral principle the intrinsic and multilateral connection between true religion and sound [or 'sensible'] politics." (5)

For many in both East and West, Soloviev remains less well-known for his moral reasoning about the relations of church to state--the proper ordering of life's higher spiritual and more mundane material concerns--than for his friendship with the novelist Fedor Dostoevsky. His association with Dostoevsky at the time that he was working on his thesis would certainly suggest some cross-fertilization of ideas. It is widely believed that Soloviev provided the model for at least one of Dostoevsky's fictional characters, the monastic novitiate Alyosha in the novel, Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), his last before he died in February 1881. Soloviev first eulogized Dostoevsky at his grave site but then also remembered his friend's legacy in three addresses over the course of the next two years. (6) The great writer's affect on the young philosopher's thinking may be found in these addresses, just not entirely as one might have expected. Yes, Soloviev praised Dostoevsky as a man of Christian faith and as the great artist that the world now knew. At the end of the last of these three addresses, though, Soloviev also indirectly brought into question the moral contradictions inherent in a Russian Orthodoxy and a Russian nationalism that were characterized less by Christian universalism and unity--as put forward in the Nicene Creed--and more by anti-Catholicism, anti-Westernism, and anti-Semitism. Of course, by bringing the issue up Soloviev was also implying Dostoevsky's views, for such contradictions may be found in various places throughout the latter's writings. (7)

Then, some two months after Dostoevsky's funeral, Soloviev famously appealed for Christian mercy upon the assassins who had just taken the life of Tsar Alexander II. (8) This first public protest of the death penalty as immoral, however, came with a price. Banned from giving public lectures and now under close scrutiny by the authorities, Soloviev resigned his university post and embarked on a new vocation, as an independent, progressive, Russian voice of liberal religious conscience, attempting to mediate between the hard right and the extreme left wing of his day. He became a tireless advocate for human rights, for religious toleration, for fair treatment of Russia's many minorities, as well as for the defense of the oppressed and vulnerable more generally; and he continued to work as well for Christian reconciliation, the restoration of a truly catholic unity among the churches, East and West. However, he would labor until the end of his days for all these just causes under what he once referred to directly as the "censorship's terror." (9)

Soloviev has commonly been regarded in both East and West as a well-meaning idealist and mystic, and his life's work as consisting of the pursuit of utopian goals, with the restoration of unity among the churches perhaps the most fantastic one among them. As if in anticipation of such dismissive attitudes, Soloviev argued early on that Thomas More's work Utopia had been largely misunderstood:
   More, naming his imaginary island Utopia, that is, no place or not
   a place, had in mind that, just as this island does not have a
   place on the actual earth, the ideal existence of its inhabitants
   also does not have a place in actual society. In this sense, every
   ideal, while it still is not realized, can be called utopia. But in
   society, as consciousness in motion, that which does not have a
   place today can have a place tomorrow, [something] which is usually
   forgotten when one thinks to evade every idea of the future with
   the single word utopia. It is possible to say boldly that utopias
   and utopians have always ruled humanity and so-called practical
   people have always been only their unconscious instruments. (10)

In asserting such a close connection between the empirical and normative realms, Soloviev may have stood apart from most of his contemporaries, but he was clearly in line with the great Christian writers who had preceded him in defending and promoting universal norms of political and economic justice.

At essence, the Christian utopianism that Soloviev elucidated had little in common with collectivistic or individualistic materialist philosophies. Soloviev would continually have in view the process of perfecting the moral individual on the one hand and the enlargement of the common good on the other: "true community" must be "indissolubly linked with true individualism." (11) Neither collectivistic socialism nor plutocratic capitalism could pass the "truth" test of unity, as it were, because these -isms acknowledged the goal of human life to be material prosperity alone. Both these materialist perspectives appeared to him early on to work on the assumption that religion, morality, church, and state all amounted to mere "props" and "defensive instruments of the existing economic order," which could hardly qualify either of them as promoting human freedom or a moral order. (12) With respect to "true individualism" he would some years later announce to a wider European audience that
   moral individuality appertains without distinction to each human
   being. Hence, it follows that no human being can be considered as
   the instrumental means for the achievement of anything whatsoever
   (the production of wealth, for example); rather each human being
   represents intrinsic value, possessing an inalienable right to an
   existence corresponding to one's human dignity. The raison d'etre
   of society in relation to its members is to assure for each not
   solely a material livelihood, but moreover a dignified
   livelihood. (13)

The moral philosopher was profoundly concerned that an acceleration of European progress toward material prosperity at the expense of moral content would lead to what he referred to in another place as an eventual "Sinicization" of Christian values. (14)

In Soloviev's lifetime, Westerners had only begun to imagine with some trepidation a future China on the rise, recovering from its subjugation by the West and positioning itself to turn the tables. Soloviev examined traditional Chinese culture for the political, economic, and spiritual foundations of such fears in an article titled "China and Europe." His conclusions might be understood as carrying a cautionary message for us today, directed as they were not at China, but at a Europe in the process of abandoning its spiritual foundations in exchange for a material prosperity disconnected from a moral context. For Soloviev, the "pernicious effects" of this Sinicization process had already become visible, as European nations adopted the idea "that it is necessary to love only one's own, to value only yours," a frame of reference in which "the ideal of a universal Christianity [was] already denied as an empty utopia." Europeans had rejected the twin notions of universal love and Christian equality in the name of "practical materialism and the cult of force-in-fact," both of these positions being "theoretical falsehood[s]" that were also dangerous in practice. (15) Even so, Soloviev would continue to harbor hope that even the falsehoods of modern nationalism would eventually be overcome by true unity and love. (16)

If the staggering human costs of radical, nondemocratic socialism in the twentieth century seem to echo Soloviev's prophetic warnings about the false unity of materially based collectivistic norms, the twenty-first century still awaits a reckoning of the costs associated with the false unity of plutocratic norms, now applied on a global scale. Because the East has become the indispensable component of all the economic and political processes that appear today under the rubric of "globalization," we in the West should perhaps reexamine Soloviev's reflections on the substance of true unity, not only within humanity but also between human beings and their environment.

At the same time that Soloviev stressed that material progress must include a dignified living for people, Europe had only just begun to face the challenges of a natural environment under relentless assault by industrialization and urbanization. As a proponent of both faithful ecological and economic stewardship, Soloviev deplored the fact that scientific and technological progress--which he understood positively as Christian and European in origin, helping to unify humanity--also carried the threat of environmental destruction that might not be reversible. (17) How had this sad state of affairs come about? Although Christians and unbelievers shared culpability, Soloviev asserted that it was Christians in the medieval period who fell victim to "anti-Christian dogmatism, individualism, and spiritualism," which laid the foundation for future catastrophe by propagating a false view of the natural world and the human place in it. In rejecting nature as an essentially "evil principle," they had unintentionally allowed for the "unbelieving engines of modern science" to later build another false view upon this foundation: that nature was merely "dead substance, a soul-less machine." (18) Soloviev's evaluation should be read in context of the all-unity principle and the "spiritual corporeality" of the universe itself as a reflection of Divinity. (19)

The following excerpt from The Justification of the Good, subtitled "The Moral Organization of Humanity as a Whole," either iterates or assumes the principles of unity that Soloviev had distilled much earlier in his career, with the ultimate purpose of elucidating the multilateral linkage between "true religion and sensible politics." (20) The questions raised and the issues addressed throughout his writings at the end of the nineteenth century have resurfaced in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in even sharper relief against the backdrop of what appears to be accelerating globalization, the presumptive aim of which is, of course, material prosperity. While the enormous material benefits that accrue to elites who manage the processes associated with globalization seem to unite them, the circumstances of the vast majority--most particularly "the least of these"--along with the natural world upon which all depend become more fragmented and uncertain. It is true that humanity does not live by bread alone, but Soloviev reminds us in the excerpt below that neither can humanity live without bread, or for that matter the natural environment from which it is obtained. It is not difficult to imagine the moral philosopher Soloviev questioning the underlying assumptions upon which the globalization processes of today are based, and especially the premise that a human being amounts to little more than homo economicus: What kind of human unity could possibly result from such an assumption?

A few points are in order with respect to my corrected version of Natalie Duddington's translation (1918) as well as about my annotations to the excerpt. I have added a number of supplementary editorial notes in hopes of clarifying what would have been more readily apparent to both Soloviev's and Duddington's audiences but has no doubt become obscure to many modern readers. Additionally, while Soloviev provided summaries for the enumerated sections of each chapter in the book's table of contents, the editors of the Journal of Markets & Morality suggested that these section outlines might be helpful to readers of this excerpt, and so they have been added here but set apart from the main text with reduced font size and margins with a subtitle that I have created for each (in bold above). Soloviev's biblical citations appeared variously either in an older Slavonic form or in more contemporary Russian, both of which I have replaced with the English of the New King James Version (NKJV), again at the suggestion of this journal's editors. Moreover, because he routinely left many of his biblical citations or allusions without attribution, I have appended these within brackets as well (at times with a very brief comment) wherever appropriate in the text. All italics in the text are in the original Russian. Finally, both Soloviev's and Duddington's explanatory notes may be found at the bottom of the page, as well as mine, which are indicated by "Ed. note:" as a preface.

Vladimir Wozniuk

Professor Emeritus, Western New England University

Center Associate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

(1) While his surname has been transliterated from the Cyrillic in numerous ways--Solovyov, Solovyof, Solovyoff, Solov'ev, Solovioff, Solovieff, among them--I employ the spelling that he used in his French and English correspondence.

(2) Son of the well-regarded historian Sergei M. Soloviev and grandson of an Orthodox priest, he was also related to the eighteenth-century Ukrainian philosopher Hrihoriy Skovoroda. Posthumously, he became the inspirational figure for the so-called second generation of Russian Symbolist poets, among them Andrei Bely and Viacheslav Ivanov. For an intellectual and biographical background, see Konstantin Mochul'skii, Vladimir Soloviev: zhizn' i uchenie [Life and Teaching] (Paris: YMCA Press, 1951); also see the introduction to Politics, Law, and Morality: Essays by V. S. Soloviev, ed. and trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), xix-xxix.

(3) See 1 Corinthians 15:28. See also Ephesians 1:10; 4:6 and Colossians 3:11.

(4) V. S. Soloviev, "The Mythological Process in Ancient Paganism," in Enemies from the East? V. S. Soloviev on Paganism, Asian Civilizations, and Islam, ed. and trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 3-23.

(5) Appearing in Russian as Opravdanie dobra, nravstvennaia filosofia (St. Petersburg: 1897/1899), first translated and published in English by Natalie Duddington under the title The Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy (London: Constable, 1918).

(6) See V. S. Soloviev, "Three Addresses in Memory of Dostoevsky," in The Heart of Reality: Essays on Beauty, Love, and Ethics by V. S. Soloviev, ed. and trans. by Vladimir Wozniuk (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 1-28.

(7) Soloviev, "Three Addresses," 27-28.

(8) See Wozniuk, Politics, Law, and Morality, introduction, 301-2.

(9) Wozniuk, Politics, Law, and Morality, 302.

(10) Cited in Vladimir Wozniuk, "In the Shadow of the Anthill: Religious Faith, Individual Freedom, and the Common Good in the Thought of V. S. Solov'ev," Russian Review 67, no. 4 (October 2008): 627.

(11) Wozniuk, "In the Shadow of the Anthill," 628.

(12) Wozniuk, "In the Shadow of the Anthill," 629-30. Italics in original.

(13) V. S. Soloviev, "The Social Question in Europe" [1892], in Politics, Law, and Morality, 32-33.

(14) V. S. Soloviev, "China and Europe" [1890], in Enemies from the East?, 77-79.

(15) Soloviev, "China and Europe," 79.

(16) See, for example, V. S. Soloviev, "Nationality from a Moral Point of View" [1895], in Politics, Law, and Morality, 53.

(17) V. S. Soloviev, "The Jews and the Christian Question" [1884] and "On the Decline of the Medieval Worldview" [1891], both in Freedom, Faith, and Dogma: Essays by V. S. Soloviev on Christiainity and Judaism, ed. and trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 80-83 and 169-70; also see "The Social Question in Europe," in Politics, Law, and Morality, 35-36.

(18) Soloviev, "On the Decline of the Medieval Worldview," in Freedom, Faith and Dogma,, 169.

(19) V. S. Soloviev, "The Meaning of Love" [1892-1894], in The Heart of Reality, 128-33.

(20) In Natalie Duddington's translation, the excerpt is chapter 10 of part 3, 409-69 (chapter 19 in the Russian version).
COPYRIGHT 2013 Acton Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wozniuk, Vladimir
Publication:Journal of Markets & Morality
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 22, 2013
Previous Article:Approximating Prudence: Aristotelian Practical Wisdom and Economic Models of Choice.
Next Article:The moral organization of humanity as a whole (1899).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters