The dark not light enough

June 26, 1998

DOSTOEVSKY AND SOLOVIEV. The art of integral vision. By Marina Kostalevsky. 224pp. Yale University Press. Pounds 21. - 0 300 06096 3.

One might say that the paramount concern of Russian philosophy is to do justice to human nature. This translates into that passionate examination of human ethical potential we know from the work of the great novelists, and, among the thinkers, indicates where the Marxist and non-Marxist traditions cross over. Russian philosophy is generally called "thought" in the West, precisely because it has always been so ready to step into the neighbouring territories of art, religion, sociology and politics. In practice, the Russian thing is as much philosophy as "Continental" philosophy of the past three decades has been, and any book which helps to introduce it into general debate is to be welcomed. In this original book, Marina Kostalevsky has set the ideas of the man considered the first "real" Russian philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev, alongside those of Dostoevsky. The effect is to begin to give some body to a wispy subject with only a tiny and specialized Western following.

Dostoevsky (1821-81) and Soloviev (1853- 1900) were friends, and their work weaves a tapestry of mutual influences. Both were visionaries who wrestled with the problems of good and evil and the just society. Both were enamoured of the idea of Christ and the spiritual possibility He offered. Both understood that art and beauty had special work to do in making goodness immediate in the world. And though Soloviev began as an optimist with a Christian-Hegelian view of progress, by the end of their lives both men feared the Devil. Where they parted company was in the philosophical detail and the politics. Dostoevsky not only believed in the universality of the highly developed ethical personality, but thought it was by historical destiny Russian, and thus that the West should accept the emergence of the superior mode. Soloviev, who lectured, among others, on Kant and was obviously aware of Hume and the empirical tradition, was a disciplined thinker with some real claim to be a friend of the truth. In work published after his friend's death, Soloviev spoke of Dostoevsky's inconsistencies and deep-seated prejudices, not least the manic Slavo-philism which drove him to envisage Russian possession of Constantinople. Soloviev wrote: "The fate of Russia depends not on Constantinople or anything of the kind, but on the outcome of the inner moral struggle between the elements of light and dark within herself."

Besides being a philosopher, Soloviev was also a poet and critic and a mystic, whose life was dominated by religious visions and idealistic relations with women, the consummation of which was never clear, at least not to his friends. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky seems to have used him as a model for Alyosha (the monk) and also for Ivan (the rationalist), such was the breadth of his nature. Soloviev's early vision (in the British Museum Reading Room) was of Sophia, the Bride of Christ and Christian spirit incarnate. The late nightmare was of Antichrist sweeping the world. Soloviev pursued all his talents and intuitions, while respecting academic boundaries and methodology. A superbly sober observer, he reminded Russians: "You may remember that 'patriot' rhymes with 'idiot'."

Dostoevsky and Soloviev: The art of integral vision is an interesting book which might have been a very good one, of general interest, had the ideas and the contexts within it been allowed to breathe. They seem strangulated by the act of thesis-writing, but it is still a useful introduction to the fundamentally anti-Cartesian nature of Russian philosophy.

Rationalism has always had a rough ride in Russia. Soloviev had an interesting precursor in the 1820s in Prince Odoevsky, a Russian disciple of Schelling who gathered around himself friends called "the Lovers of Wisdom". But the more passionate anti-rationalists, spurred by their general anti-Western feeling, were the Slavophiles like Aleksei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky after him. Their contact with German idealism led to a craving for Romantic synthesis, such that they envisaged a particular complementary task for Russia to fulfil in the history of East-West civilization. One might well choke on the messianic content of all this anti-philosophy surrounding Soloviev historically and in his own day. Yet it is interesting evidence of the way that Russian philosophy has been prepared to take risks not compatible with the modest matching of risk to benefit more familiarly associated in the West with "reason". Russian philosophy has been either utterly sceptical, demanding certainty and falling into the abyss of nihilism, or utterly idealistic; and there is an obvious correlation between these tendencies of thought and political authoritarianism and utopianism.

Against this background, then, Soloviev began his career typically by attacking the perceived one-sidedness of rationality in The Crisis of Western Philosophy (1874), only to continue it with a unique Christian humanist account of man as simultaneously thinker, believer and maker. This development made him quite original, and gave him something to offer the West besides peevish criticism. His argument, set out in such later major works as The Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge and A Critique of Abstract Principles, restored religion to its central place in philosophy, and, glorying in the German Romantic lesson that art and philosophy were parallel transcendent endeavours, two ladders side by side, it incorporated creativity as an essential human activity. For Soloviev, man was at his most receptive and perceptive when he was an artist, responding in kind to the artistry of a God who had made him that way.

The pivotal function of Christ (or Love) makes Soloviev's thinking Christological. As followers of Christ, we are not only compassionate and merciful beings but also we have His dual nature, and are ourselves the link between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. Because of the way we are made, we see no disjunction between them. Soloviev's Christology sweeps aside many of the great problems of Western epistemology, and ethics is what Kostalevsky nicely calls "an intuition for matter". The equally attractive and equally rare moral vision this rare Russian argues for is "a just social environment in which human freedom, achieved through sacrifice, is limited for the sake of love". To use the terminology he shared with Dostoevsky, Soloviev saw each human being as a potential God-Man. He was aware of the opposite, godless, wholly materialistic Man-God who seemed implicit in mid-nineteenth-century Feuerbachian thinking, and he died with apocalypse in mind. But Soloviev never imagined to what degree the Man-God would become the model for the super-rationalist Marxist-Leninists who took over Russian culture less than twenty years after his death.

Marina Kostalevsky identifies "the contemporary mindset's" fear of the idea of unity and singles out postmodernism (diversity without unity) and semiotics (excessive "intrasystemic unity") for attack. One wants to agree with her that Soloviev has much to offer as a counterpoint to contemporary thinking. This is the case despite a residual Hegelian terminology, and an initial tendency to sound like only another New Age prophet. Soloviev is a rich source for thinking about reconciliation and voluntary goodness. The re-spiritualization of art, the sense of the good as a present but unprovable entity, the role of love in the perception of reality, and the ethics of knowledge, would all be on a neo-Solovievian agenda that many would recognize as simultaneously Platonic.

The first editions of his work since the Revolution began appearing in 1989, and we may expect new Russian interpreters of Soloviev to emerge. Western curiosity should at least be whetted.

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