Religious aspects of Russia's non-religious philosophy

The Period Before the Nineteenth Century


 The centuries preceding the philosophical age in Russia were not only colored by religion but, the cultural ambient of Russia was certainly a semi-religious one. The interplay between religion and philosophy, or rather, philosophical development, throughout the pre-nineteenth century history of Russia, is not only of great interest, but it is also of great importance for a better understanding or grasp of the posterior philosophical phenomenon.

 Historical Preview

 Concerning this relationship, this interplay, contrasting views are to be found: for some religion was a forestaller of philosophical development, while for others it was a cause of the same. As in most instances, there is truth to be found in both of these view points.

 This tension is to be found throughout the centuries following the baptism of the Rus'; as the Rus' started to become christian, so also did its culture begin to develop slowly, aided by what it had inherited from Byzantium in the form of various christian traditions.

 This process of becoming christian is portrayed in a limited number of literary works dated to be from between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries: The Life of Saints Boris and Gleb, The Chronicle of Nestor and the homily of the Metropolitan Hilarion, On Law and Grace. These works not only demonstrate to us the process of christian evolution in the Rus', but they also were part of that process, and in the eyes of some helped in the formation of a basis for future intellectual and philosophical activity in Russia. Similarly the reception of writings from abroad, especially, in the form of several of the works of Saint John Damascene, aided this intellectual development in the history of Russia. However, it must be noted, that in this pre-philosophical era, no renowned theological or dogmatic treatises were produced.

 While, on the one hand, religion figures as an initiator of intellectual activity (philosophy), it also can be considered as having been an obstacle to the same.

The Byzantine Church demonstrated strong opposition to profane philosophy, a trait that is apparent in the condemnation of various forms of platonism during the Lental Synodikon, in the attitude of Simeon the New Theologian and in the controversy between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian, 'a user of helenist wisdom'. Although, on the secular and imperial level, Byzantium did not forget her ancient philosophical legacy, her monasteries were always opposed to it, an opposition demonstrated by the fact that it was only in the eleventh century that the formation of ecclesiastics and the teaching of religious culture was institutionalized.

The most influential of religious groups throughout russian history has, without any doubt, been the monasteries and their monks (from whom the bishops were chosen), who had a strong anti-intellectual tendency, an attitude inherited from Byzantium. Unlike their counterparts in the West the monasteries of Russia never became centers of culture; therein a lowly place was assigned to teaching and the love of reading was often looked upon as being a temptation from the devil. In fact very few people were praised for their wisdom and learning in the early centuries of the newly baptized Rus'. Consequently, as Russia received her faith from Byzantium, she clearly did not inherit the hellenist philosophical mind, as is evident in both the pre-philosophical and the philosophical eras of the history of Russia.

 Philosophical evolution

However, throughout the centuries certain developments did take place, such as the different translations of biblical texts and writings of some of the church Fathers, as well as the publication of catechetical works.

 After the half way mark of the millennium, Orthodoxy found itself in need of religious knowledge on the practical level so as to defend the true faith against catholic and calvinist threats, and thus, the production of catechetical works. Similarly, the Raskol and the different local heresies, as well as controversies within the Church, caused a certain stimulation of the mind, but not to the point of producing any great intellectuals nor intellectual works.

 A latter phenomenon, which certainly had a major contribution to the subsequent philosophical age, were the academies which started to appear in the first half of the seventeenth century, the first being the Kievian, founded by Pyotr Mogila in 1632.

 The importance of the Kievian Theological Academy lies in the fact that it introduced latin ideas of Roman Catholicism origin into the orthodox world. The tendency of the Theological Academy was towards scholasticism and nominalism; the influence of its professors extended beyond metaphysics and theology into areas of politics mathematics, astronomy and zoology.

 One of the principle fruits of the academies, besides the increase in publications, was that in the eighteenth century it was only the ecclesiastical academies that were capable of imparting a general humanistic formation, a fact proven by the large number of professors and bureaucrats who came from clerical families.

 The academies did not have any originality and were only capable of trying to assimilate the culture that was offered to them, through the influence of the polish jesuits in the first years or, after the educational reforms of Catherine the Great through protestant thinkers such as Feofan Prokopovich and german philosophers such as C. Wolff and F. Baumeister.

It would appear that, although, the educational-cultural dynamic of western monasticism did not have a reflection in russian monasticism, the academies began to fulfill the same fundamental role in Russia as the monastic schools of the West had done centuries before.

 Imperial educational reforms and Orthodox reactions

 The educational reforms of Peter and Catherine the Great, produced a consequential Orthodox reaction: the introduction, through these reforms, of western ideas, founded not just in Catholicism, but also in Protestantism, and most particularly in atheistic and heterodox philosophies was clearly perceived by Orthodoxy as a danger to the true faith and also to Russian culture and its ancient customs. This orthodox fear, which was a very real one, led to attempts to control independent and 'dangerous' thinkers, a prime example being in the confiscation by the Holy Synod of the translation by Prince Kantemir (1708-1744) of Fontenelle's Conversations upon the plurality of worlds, an example that foreshadowed the tension that was to come in the following century.


 Another phenomenon of the latter pre-philosophical era in Russia, was what Piovesana calls anti-clericalism, but which went beyond the criticism of the clerical dimension of the Church, to the criticism of the religious faith, traditions and practices of the simple believers.

 By the eighteenth century the influence of western thought was becoming visible in russian society, especially among the elite and the educated. This influence, of an illuministic and some-times protestant coloring, inspired by thinkers such as Voltaire and Freemasonry, sparked a new type of evaluation of religion, which, although not rejecting religion as such, was very critical of certain religious elements.

 Innokentij Gisel'

 This type of new critique had its precursor in people like Innokentij Gisel' (1600-83), a professor of protestant tendencies, at the Kievian Theological Academy, who criticized the necessity of strict fasts for those involved in hard labor, affirming, that what is of human precept need not be observed when it contradicts reason. Similarly, the sins of the clergy and those bearing social responsibility fell prey to his negative judgments.

 Tatishevev and Lomonosov

 The main representatives of this phenomenon in the eighteenth century were Vladimir V. Tatisheev (1686-1750), who although a believer and having a strong conviction for religious tolerance and laicalism, was strongly critical of superstitions, so common to russian society, and M. V. Lomonosov (1711-1765) who nurtured a certain abhorrence for religion along with anti-clerical views and condemnations of ignorance and superstition. At the same time however, he used for his poetic works certain religious themes based principally on the Old Testament. Likewise, he had a deep respect for scientists who had a belief in God, for example Newton, while having little sympathy for the type of anti-clericalism common to the french writers.


 In concluding the sketch of the pre-philosophical era, a few aspects of the development of the russian religious-philosophical milieu are worth noticing. Although the direct relation between religion and philosophy in this era is limited to a few literary works, the academies' needs for 'intellectual' catechetical defense of the faith, some translations, and a serious of religious condemnations of both Russian and western 'heresies', there is, however, a deeper and less visible relation and dynamic at play throughout these centuries, that penetrates through future russian history.

 One of the major factors for the retardation in the development of philosophy in Russia was quite clearly the lack of a steady and constant political situation. The disunited local political entities in the first centuries of russian Christianity, the Mongol yoke from the thirteenth century and the insecurity caused by often radically different personalities in the tzarstvo hindered the social development that allowed for and sought intellectual growth in philosophy.

 Similarly, the role filled by western monasticism in education, was to a certain degree dependent on the political situation in which it arose; in Russia neither the situation, nor the politics were capable of giving or demanding such a role from the monasteries, the Church or other sectors of society.

 It was, however, Christianity in its russified form that gave an national identity to the divided cities and states which made up her land mass. Religion was, similarly, a very important factor in continuing that identity once the political identity began to suffer under the Tartars. Not only did Orthodoxy form Russian culture and bear it through many centuries, but it also became identified with it.

 This identity, of course, meant a close relationship between religion and politics, the Church and the state, by which the Church was much more controlled by the tzarist regime than vica versa; one need only think of the abolishment of the Patriarcate by Peter the Great as the prime example.

 In this context there is little doubt that religion was controlled and often willingly so by the various political philosophies and the plans of the ruling forces that were. Part of the reason for such submission was no doubt due to the lack of a religious intelligentsia which could have influenced the religious politics through the centuries, as well as have contributed to different political and social needs and evaluations.

 There were, however, a few examples of religion touching upon political or social areas, that are worth mentioning. The heated dispute between Nil Sorskij and Joseph Volokolamsk concerning Church wealth meant an affirmation of the socio-political role of the Church, an affirmation that the Church and the monasteries were part of society with a role in it and a political identity in the same.

 Juraj Krizhanich

 A second contributor to the russian political scene, was the catholic priest from Croatia, Juraj Krizhanich, many of whose ideas formed the basis of many reforms actuated by Peter the Great. Krizhanich proposed that all the slavic peoples find refuge in the protection of the Tzar. Similarly, he promoted schools of medicine, engineering and military science. Philosophy, he held to be necessary so as to avoid error and it was, in his view, one of the duties of governments to eliminate error.

 Another major religious-political aspect of russian history was the question of the union of the Little Russia (Ukraine) with the Greater Russia, a debate linked to the academies, in people such as Lazar Baranovich (1620-93) and Ionnakij Galjatovskij (+1698) who promoted the union of all the Slavs in a crusadal form against the Turks, with the aim of freeing the Holy Places, a form of slavophilism which had both political and religious motivations. Although there were opponents to these ideas of union, of one country and one Church, the realization of this idea seemed inevitable to such thinkers.

 Without penetrating this particular question, that which is of interest here is the close tie between the conception of one's religious identity and that of cultural (national) identity and its penetration into the political sphere.

 Another aspect of this era, one that reveals an underlining dynamic at play was the reaction of the Church to dissenters, be they of a dogmatic or a secular type. Although religion in this context can be accredited with inspiring indirectly such thinkers, as an Avraam of Smolensk, or a Prince Kantemir, the reaction of the Church seems to base itself on a secularized form of the monastic ideal: only the inheritance from the christian faith and tradition is considered to be necessary, and is all that should be allowed within the Church and society. This reaction and rejection goes far deeper than an attitude to heterodox ideas, it goes rather to the heart of the conception of human life and of the world. Under the influence of the monastic inheritance the Orthodox concentrated on the importance of the spiritual, the reality of God in their lives, and the future eternity to be awaited. This conception of the meaning of existence was to find itself very much at home in the russian culture and state.

 The new ideas that penetrated, especially those influenced and sparked by western thinkers, were founded on a materialistic, deistic or pietist conception of reality. We can only know the things of this world, and irrational faith and superstitions are therefore, to be rejected.

 It was not just the faith and russian epistemology which were in danger, but also the very foundation of the russian identity and culture so very marked by religion, maybe even irreversibly so, as witnessed by the conviction of the russian people, was also in danger. Hence, the religious reaction was more than understandable as it had for those concerned conotations of religio-cultural self-survival.

 However, neither the Church, nor religion sought to defend itself philosophically, nor could she do so by using the deistic and materialistic philosophies or by using some form of developed christian philosophy, for she was not sufficiently formed within these disciplines. Unfortunately there was a certain tendency to equivocate certain positive fruits of the West, especially in scientific fields, with the 'dangerous' philosophies which accompanied them, or which at times might have been the inspiration behind such findings.

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