Religious aspects of Russia's non-religious philosophy

Theoretical Philosophy and Religion


 The russian philosophical experience included in itself what might be called theoretical philosophies and philosophers. These tended frequently to be materialists or politically oriented, and they were usually anti- or a-religious, rather than religious. There is little doubt, however, that this dimension of philosophy within the russian context did have some sort of contribution to make in the area that concerns this work, namely the relation of philosophy with religion.

 This contribution was often very negative in so far as it was prejudicially anti-religious, and even sometimes un-philosophically so; one only needs to think of the practical implications of the philosophical ideas and the politics of the russian marxists and of communism. There was also a very positive contribution through the radical philosophical change, or using a religious word, the conversion of men like Berdjaev, Bulgakov and Struve.

 One of the problems that occurs in dealing with russian theoretical philosophers is that they often tended to express an interest and make contributions to other dimensions of philosophy, as might be understood from the social dimensions of theoretical philosophers like Chernyshevskij and the aforementioned russian marxists.

 A second important feature to be kept in mind is, that this dimension of russian philosophy was very strongly influenced by western philosophical thought, through the ideas of Schelling, of Hegel and Marx, and thus, it tended to display less originality and creative inspiration in comparison with the cultural and religious philosophers.


 The first philosophers to be considered are the materialists, in particular Nikolaj Chernyshevskij and Dimitrij Pisarev, also making reference to Nikolaj Dobroljubov.


Nikolaj G. Chernyshevskij (1828-89)

 The guiding current in the philosophy of Chernyshevskij is, without any doubt, his materialism, all the other aspects, the epistemological, anthropological, the social and the aesthetic being related to it. For Chernyshevskij, reality is not to be conceived in dualistic terms, it being an organic whole, the essence of which is matter.

 The logical consequence of this in the various dimensions of the thought of Chernyshevskij is that anthropologically, man is material and thus does not have a soul-spirit. Socially, it means, that society can not be looked upon from an idealistic, romantic or theological perspective. One of the interesting aspects of Chernyshevskij's philosophy is the way in which he values matter, an appreciation which can be found in his affirmations that science (which studies matter-reality) is not greater than reality but subordinated to it. So also is the case with philosophy and art, whereby the representation of reality is less valuable than the reality represented. However, the only reliable path to knowledge was conceived as being science alone: the sole and indispensable means to the improvement of society. Autocracy he judged as harmful and useless, with a similar judgment being made upon the Orthodox Church.

 Another interesting development in Chernyshevskij's thought is the ethical aspect: while the actions of man are causal, one can not necessarily judge them as good or bad. However, these terms imply that the actions of one, who seeks a good, either signify an equal good or an equivalent evil for others and for society. Thus, for Chernyshevskij, it appeared necessary to educate people regarding the importance of preforming those actions which bring about good, not just for oneself but also for others, hence, leading to a better society, which he conceived along the same lines as the 'russian socialism' of Herzen.

 The materialism of Chernyshevskij naturally implies a consequential rejection of the transcendental and of metaphysics, which are considered unscientific because they speak of non-material realities which do not exist. Thus, God and theology are meaningless. The Church, without her divine aspect is merely seen as belonging to the enduring institutional dimension of russian society that can have both positive and negative effects even upon the socio-economic aspect of society.

 The russian experience, however, was not looked upon very favorably by Chernyshevskij. The co-rejection of metaphysics and idealism implied an even more radical change in aesthetic evaluation, because in limitting the meaning and value of art to the material sphere, the spiritual significance of the great and popular treasures of russian religious art, especially in the form of iconography, lost its significance and was therefore, given a lesser materialistic meaning.

 Although Chernyshevskij does not show any deep hatred for religion, his philosophy, due to its radical re-conception of reality from the materialistic point of view, was not just a novelty in Russia, due in particular to its impact, but it was also a system that in denying the metaphysical ended up in similarly denying a place to the essence of the Church and religion, an essence which is spiritual and primarily metaphysical.

 Nikolaj A. Dobroljubov (1836-1861)

Although a materialist like Chernyshevskij, Dobroljubov showed quite different personal characteristics be it in his desolate life, in his violent demolishing of his intellectual adversaries or be it in the way he rejected religion.

 While he is not considered to be a philosopher of any great merit, he did invent as it were the 'critic with respect to' various literary works. The basic trend of the philosophy of Dobroljubov was directed against liberalism, a form of politics which he considered to be un-influential, and against which he proposed his ideal of democratic revolution. He forwarded materialistic ideas which he founded upon three elements: implacable realism, the interest concerning man as the measure of all things, and the preoccupation with moral values.

Dimitrij I. Pisarev (1840-1868)

 More important than Dobroljubov was Dimitrij Pisarev, a disciple of Chernyshevskij's, who like Chernyshevskij and Dobroljubov became an adamant materialist, rejecting idealism as well as theories which, in Pisarev's works, similar to Chernyshevskij's, developed into a form of socialism with a philosophy of the 'new man'.

 The 'new man' is considered to be ethically mature in his confrontation with society, work and the economy, an anthropological position also based on the conviction that individualism serves best the betterment of society and social solidarity. The 'new man', which he promoted was to be passionate for work which itself was considered socially useful, and not for works of art which were merely unnecessary luxuries of the few and the rich.

 Pisarev was convinced that egoism includes in itself the greatest love for mankind, whereby in the rational egoist there exists a harmony between the mind and the feelings. This type of conception of the relation man-society has a strong ethical basis. Egoism is not contrary to altruism, in that it helps one to help others for the sake of personal satisfaction and not because of a sense of duty or moral restriction.

 It is the opinion of Pisarev that one can enjoy any pleasure, so long as one remembers that rest and pleasure must serve society. This nihilistic approach of Pisarev to ethics was strongly colored by the idea that freedom is necessary in order that men may be virtuous and, consequently, that society may be improved.

 In the name of freedom and of science, Pisarev strongly attacked not just philosophy which, in his mind, was theoretical, rationalistic and out of touch with reality, but also religion especially through his condemnation of the idealism of the Fathers (one might remember that many of the patristic writers were influenced by neo-platonism, Plato being, in the Pisarevian mind an idealist who wanted to make people into cogs within the machine of society).

 Likewise, he extended a rebuke to the preaching of common moral ideals, which he considered to be a serious form of encroachment upon the liberty of others. He argued that the human being must develop naturally and uninhibited by tradition, prejudice, ethical systems and even aesthetic ideals. Alll of these he considered to becauses of division and struggle within the self, and thus, hindering the full development of the internal personality.

 Pisarev, subsequently, had little esteem for religion and the Church. They, indeed, were contrary to Pisarev's system, in a way similar to that of Chernyshevskij, regarding the metaphysical sphere which was seen as another form of idealism and thus, unreal and useless. Pisarev, in his materialism, could neither tolerate a metaphysics, nor spirituality and dogmas thereupon related.

 However, in one aspect, Pisarev seems to make a slight development beyond that of Chernyshevskij: religious beliefs - that is superstitions and idealistic theories - are not only ridiculous in themselves, but they also are to be condemned because the moral systems which they advance, and the adherence to traditions which they propose, are a basis for the denial of full freedom and the possibility of personal maturation. Consequently, the Church and religion was understood by Pisarev to be essentially ridiculous and fundamentally contrary to the human being and perfect society.

 Accordingly, with Pisarev, the intellectual or philosophical relation to religion and to the Church had gone through a notable change: unlike the earlier critics of religion and superstition, unlike the philosophers who saw the Church as an obstacle to cultural and social development, Pisarev (and one might also suggest Chernyshevskij and Dobroljubov) perceived both the Church and religion as follies based on unreal ideas, and then, not just as hindrances, but rather as enemies of human freedom and of the 'new man', and the new society. No longer, therefore, did the Church and religion have to correct themselves in confrontation with society and scientific knowledge; now they had no place at all.

 Russian Liberalism

 Another phenomenon of the 'theoretical' dimension of Russian philosophy is the liberal, represented by men like Boris Chicherin and Pavel Novgorodtsev.

 Boris N. Chicherin (1828-1904)

 Boris Chicherin, in the view of many, was probably one of the most learned among the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. His major interest was in political philosophy, which he based upon his affiliation to Hegel. His political proposals aimed at establishing a peaceful status quo between the different political forces at play in contempary Russia, advocating, accordingly, a constitutional monarchy, a liberal government and more autonomy for the 'zemstva'. He believed that, with liberal measures and a strong government, a balance and progress in the russian political arena could be achieved.

 From a philosophical point, one might contend that the hegelian concept of the state as the entrance of God into the world was an important influence on Chicherin's philosophy, an opinion that would certainly find support in Herzen's view that Chicherin had substituted faith in God with faith in the state, a claim which, in his earlier days, might have been true but, after his conversion, such an affirmation could not be made. One of the admirable features of Chicherin is the maturity of his perspectivity, in the sense that he was very much aware of the different currents at play in Russia at the time and the influence they were having and could or would have; he certainly was not an illusionist.

 In his anthropology, Chicherin tends towards pure personalism; in man there is present an absolute principle (hegelian) and a super-sensory nature (kantian). Similarly, he admits the existence of the human soul and its immortality, 'man having an absolute significance in himself.'

 In his ethics, Chicherin promotes human freedom. It is in this area, of morality, that Chicherin saw the particular role of the Church, in so far as it has been given a role to guide the religious conscience of the masses and, although he even points to the importance of penance, he asserts that it is necessary to form a free conscience which is not controlled by the little details of the Church. Although he desired a universal Church, he accepted the existence of different rites and traditions as authentic expressions of the human spirit.

 One of the aspects to be noticed in particular regarding Chicherin, is his relation to religion; as in the other aspects of his thought, it is very un-russian. After passing through a period of university atheism, he under went a conversion due to sickness and, while one might suggest that his conversion indicates his spiritual nature, the way he subsequently philosophized about or explained God and religion tended to be greatly influenced by his hegelianism, to the extent that he tried to reconcile the theories of Hegel with the religious conceptions of Russian Orthodoxy.

 His insistance on the human reason as a reflection of the divine mind is not developed in such a way as Hegel's (along the lines of pantheism), so as to identify the two. For Chicherin, the Absolute was transcendental, and this metaphysical concept of the Absolute is identified with God and, accordingly, the definition of the Absolute as the source of all that is, became very easily the doctrine of the Creator and Governor of the world. While Chicherin does not go beyond philosophizing about God, he does try in his work, 'Nauka i religiya' to defend philosophically the doctrines of the Trinity and the Resurrection. Although he reaches a certain transcendentalism, he remained quite rationalistic in so far as God, as the Absolute, is manifested to man in reason, which itself is moved by its striving for the Absolute.

 The philosophical development of Chicherin shows that he had, a wide vision of the multitude in the world, with a similar respect and appreciation for multiplicity. While this tendency might have been due largely to his own personal temperament, there is little doubt that the hegelian concept of the manifestation of the Absolute in history and in the world, with the implication that everything is in some way a manifestation and consequently good, had a strong pull on the mind of Chicherin. Accordingly, in his anthropology, there is a deep reverence for individuality and personalism; in his politics, a respect for various political forces; in his ethics and sociology, an insistence on human freedom.

 With respect to religion, therefore, it would seem that, although religious himself, he placed religion into his philosophical system, giving it a sense of perfection and harmony. His system was certainly not dominated by religion, nor controlled by it, even if it had a certain inspiration-role as regards the manner of interpreting Hegel and especially the 'Absolute'. However, it would seem that his view of the Church and of morality were strongly influenced by other aspects of his philosophy, whereby the Church had a place in society, but not the privileged place which many of its members might have desired; nor did it have the moral role, which it considered very much part of its own nature, in that, for Chicherin, the preaching of morality would, to some extent infringe on the sacrosanct human freedom.

 Therefore, it might be concluded that Chicherin seemingly struck a medium in the relation between philosophy and religion in nineteenth century Russia. He did not attribute to the religious the importance given by authors such as the slavophiles, nor did he totally exclude it as the materialists and radicals did.

 Pavel I. Novgorodtsev (1868-1924)

 While Chicherin was preoccupied with hegelianism, Pavel Novgorodtsev had a contrasting preoccupation with Kant and specifically with his ethics. He sought, in a particular way, to overcome the rigid formalism of the kantian ethics through substituting the imperative category with the law of love and christian charity. In pursuing this philosophical method, Novgorodtsev participated somewhat in the religious rebirth of Russia at the end of last century, he himself becoming more religious later in his life, finding in Christianity the solution for the dilemma which occupied him; the relation between the absolute and the relative. Christianity guarantees man, an absolute ethical standard, for it does not seek to create a mundane absolute.

 Like Chicherin whom he admired, Novgorodtsev tended towards liberalism, promoting equality, not merely an equality before the law, but also an equality of opportunity by which he implied that the various man-created structures and institutions which cause inequality in what ever way at all, by privileging some and prejudicing others ought to be changed, and changed both by forwarding a particular morality and by legal methods.

 Novgorodtsev, being a lawyer, had a particular interest in the importance of law, even more so than Chicherin, who promoted to a greater extent individualism. One must note that there is a certain contrast and tension between individualism and legalism, for in Novgorodtsev's mind social harmony, at least in theory, means the sacrificing of the individual. Accordingly, Novgorodtsev valued the natural law as something eternally valid and a solid base on which to build.

 Novgorodtsev tended to be a realist to the extent that while he saw the need for change he believed that change must be gradual so as to be absorbed properly by society; the process of absorption being synonymous with a preparation of the masses to respect the law. However, due to his christian faith, his realism was somewhat pessimistic concerning the ideal which he had of a perfect society here on earth, for this ideal seemed to be a desire in vain.

 Yet, at the same time he does not despair for in his opinion the possibility for improvement did exist, an improvement which he believed could occur through the development of a pluralistic society, which along with a division of labor and urbanization would lead to the freeing of the individual from authoritarianism.

 For Novgorodtsev, there is little doubt that the means to creating a better society is through morality, the building up of a healthy ethics and the formation of an ethical people. However, a true ethics, which will achieve the best harmony between human liberty and a harmonious society, is essentially christian, which in turn means love and knowledge of God.

 Another interesting aspect of the thought of Novgorodtsev, by which he contrasts with many of the other russian philosophers is that he tends to philosophize, seeking a solution rather than philosophizing about a preconceived answer, or an ideology using whatever system that there might be.

 It would certainly appear that christian ethics and love are a subsequent answer to the preliminary question about improvement of society, and thus, we see a philosophizing towards a christian or religious philosophy, a phenomenon that becomes evident in authors like Vladimir Solovyov and several of the marxists. An other aspect of the religious dimension of Novgorodtsev's thought is that he does not seem to promote the Church as an answer, religion being conceived more in a personal and even somewhat individualistic way.

 Russian marxism

 The final consideration in this chapter concerns russian marxists, to be dealt with under two aspects: the first being their theoretical philosophy and the relation to religion, the second being the interesting phenomenon of the conversion of several marxist philosophers into religious philosophers. At the same time, a treatise on the philosophy of either Marx or Engels will be avoided; rather, it is intended to portray the russian coloring of marxism.The first two authors of interest are Georgij Plekhanov and Vladimir Ilych Lenin.

Georgij V. Plekhanov (1857-1918)

 Plekhanov is considered not only as the founder of russian marxism, but particullarly of orthodox russian marxism; indeed, he felt that it was necessary to protect the true meaning of Marx against the various heterodox interpretations that had emerged. Like some of the other authors already considered, Plekhanov was a convinced materialist: matter comes before spirit and thought, matter being understood as that which acts on our sense-organs. What is of special importance in considering Plekhanov is his attitude to historic determination.

 When the concept of historic development and determination is kept in mind, the typical marxist dialectical approach to history, certainly seems quite similar to the christian concept of Providence. However, in his marxism, Plekhanov does not accept the idea of a divine and intellectual being who is Creator and Governor of the world and its history. For Plekhanov, the developments that take place are due to intrinsic laws, related to the different stages of development and to different circumstances. Consequently he was able to affirm for instance that the artistic works of a particular people are determined by the mentality of the people; the art of the proletariat era will, accordingly, be determined by the proletariat mentality.

 Similarly, moral codes are considered by Plekhanov to be class related: the marxist approach to morality being based on the idea of development. The morality of the previous historical stages are related solely to the particular historical periods in question, and that these various moralities were necessary for the process of development towards the climax of the marxist society.

 Plekhanov was opposed to revolution, which he considered to be in contrast with pure marxism. Revolution and terrorism had the implication of an usurpation of the historical dynamic which was pre-determined to arrive at the marxist stage. The communist period and the social emancipation which it implies must be achieved through the proletariat, which, in turn, must be educated to this end. Plekhanov was, therefore, of the opinion that Russia was not sufficiently mature for socialism; it had not reached the capitalistic stage of history. He certainly believed strongly that the dictate of the proletariat should be one of a majority of the workers and not of a minority, in the form of the Party and leninism. Plekhanov also conceived marxism as having a global view and interest, an interest quite visible in the soviet period.

 With regard to religion, Plekhanov held the opinion that religion and religious ideas are a lower stage in the development of culture; feeling that at the vigil of the communist utopia, the terrestrial heaven, religion would be an obstacle to the development of the self-consciousness of the working class. Similarly, he denies that religious needs are innate, thus rejecting an essential religious dimension to the nature of man.

 Unlike many of his comrades, Plekhanov has a certain reverent or rather cultured tone towards the religious phenomenon: this is understandable in that he does not look upon religion as something to be merely condemned, but rather as a stage in the historical process, which has a value with respect to the determined process of development towards the perfect communist society. However, already in the nineteenth century, religion is to be seen as belonging to the past and as useless. With this logic in mind Plekhanov would have looked on the Church and religious belief as being very out dated and a hindrance in the formation and education of the proletariat.

 Vladimir Ilych Lenin (1870-1924)

 The characteristic of the thought of Lenin, however, is quite different from that of Plekhanov; Lenin being less of a philosopher and more concerned with the purity of his ideological approach to marxism. In this regard, there are two areas of interest, Lenin's defense of the purity of materialism and his conception of the party.

  For Lenin, there was a serious danger to the purity of marxism, which he considered to be completely materialistic, through the introduction of either idealistic or religiously inspired tendencies into the philosophical approach to materialism or the explanation and application of marxism.

 It is not quite clear if Lenin disregarded religion as nonsense on account of his earlier developed materialistic convictions or whether he developed his materialism and atheism as a rejectory reaction to the feelings of repugnance that he had before the religious phenomenon. However, there is no doubt that in Lenin's thought, religion and materialism are diametrically opposed and must be kept apart.

 For Lenin, being is prior to consciousness, and the objective prior to the subjective. Consequently, any attempt to reduce reality to sensations (which are in the subjective realm) or to conceive nature as being a product of the experience of living beings, as was the tendency of Bogdanov and the machian school, meant for Lenin a subordination of materialism to idealism and subjectivism, and the ultimate rejection of the infallible truth of both materialism and the ideas of Marx and Engels. Lenin was convinced that any form of idealism opens up the way to religion. Subsequently, the only philosophy that impedes the way to religion is dialectical materialism. While Kant reduced knowledge, so as to make room for faith and Hegel identified knowledge with God, it is only the true (marxist) materialist who exalts the knowledge of matter and nature in such a way as to convey both God and theology to 'the rubbish pit'.

 The attitude of Lenin to religion can be seen to be twofold: his consideration on the one hand that religion is not objective, as demonstrated with the teachings of creation and eschatology. For Lenin only what is scientific can be considered to be true and objective. Thus, any mixing of science with religion or idealism is a contradiction in itself.

 Secondly, Lenin sees religion in its social perspective: in referring to Catholicism, he says that, while it is a social organization it is not objective but rather it is exploitative of the classes, through its siding with the bourgeois and the wealthy, it lead to a slavery of the working - agricultural class. In this sense, one could imply that Lenin's revolutionary ideas also includes the idea of revolution against such social organizations, affirmed through the strict exclusion of religion from the party and from the government.

 The second noteworthy part of the thought of Lenin concerns his conception of the place or the role of the Party, a role that coincides with the conception of self, proper to the working class, that is, the 'proletariat'. Plekhanov believed that Russia was not sufficiently developed to become a socialist state under the rule of the proletariat: Lenin, believing that this process could be accelerated, had to acknowledge that which Plekhanov was essentially proposing: a working class or proletariat conscience does not exist. The workers are interested in neither revolution nor politics, but only in their own betterment.

 Consequently, for Lenin it was necessary to give a political and revolutionary tendency to their instincts. And this is where the Party assumes its role, becoming the political expression of the un-politically minded proletariat. In his 'Materialism and Empirocriticsm', Lenin establishes his concept of partinost'. The position of the Party must also be assumed by philosophy.

 The Party in Lenin's eyes reflects, to a certain extent, the position of Lavrov, as to the place of the thinking man within society. Likewise, it can be seen to partially reflect both the elective place of the tzar in the previous history of Russia and the place of the hierarchies within the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches, with which Lenin was familiar.

 The position of Lenin as regards the relation of religion to the Party was unbending, each totally excluding the other, and in Lenin's mind both were a contradiction of each other. However, this contradiction is more than an ideological contra-position; it is a contradiction that fits into his revolutionary mentality, whereby the Church is conceived as an enemy of the workers through its affiliation and support of the wealthy and the nobility, an enemy which also threatens the Party because of the political rights and role which it assigns to itself, especially in the way it conceives itself to be greater than the state. And against this enemy it is necessary to fight,

 "We must combat against religion."

 The Legal marxists

 The final point of interest in this chapter regards the 'legal marxists', primarily those who converted, namely, Pyotr B. Struve (1870-1944), Nikolaj A. Berdjaev (1874-1948), Sergej N. Bulgakov (1871-1944) and Simeon L. Frank (1877-1950). What is of interest here is the phenomenon expressed in their common attitude to marxism and their subsequent rejection of the same. The leader of the legal marxists was Pyotr Struve, however, the more famous in theological circles are Sergej Bulgakov and Nikolaj Berdjaev. When each of these philosophers started to turn away from marxism, they did so in different ways, Struve and Frank turned towards a private or moralistic sense of religion, Bulgakov and Berdjaev to Orthodoxy.

 The fundamental difference between the legal marxists and the so-called orthodox marxists, at the root level was the approach to Marx; either Marx was to be accepted as infallible or else there existed the possibility of making improvements and revising his theories. In order to improve marxism, particularly in the russian sense, the legal marxists tended to borrow ideas or elements from other philosophies and philosophers outside the socialist (marxist) school. Lenin as has been shown, thought that this was of danger to marxism, an inclination which must be admitted to be true, when the experience of the legalist marxists is taken into consideration.

 Thus, legal marxism did not limit itself alone to a critique of economics but, in the person of Struve, it brought into its system elements of kantian epistemology in an attempt to improve the marxist realism. Beginning with this proposition, the next step in legal marxism was to admit the need for an ethical contribution to the marxist system, especially under the pretext of its claim to be socialist, a dimension that was felt to be deficient. This deficiency lead to a search for some type of metaphysics which, in Lenin's view, was either idealism or religion and, accordingly, unacceptable to the materialist doctrines and systems.

 The openness to other ideas also admitted that, for instance, in the 'bourgeois' ideas of Kant, there were some independently valid ideas which were not simply bourgeois. Similarly, there was the implication that the pure marxism as found in the works of Lenin and Plekhanov was utopian and, consequently, for its practical application, required elements which were not adequately present in Marx and Engels.

 This aperture towards the ethical and the metaphysical, led the legal marxists to see in Christianity and in God, the answer to the ethical problem, which in any social philosophy is a fundamental aspect. Besides the moral question, another point of conflict with marxism, particularly for Berdjaev, was the fact that the marxist approach tended to subject truth to expediency and to the class struggle, a factor that we have already noticed in Lenin. Although these marxists tended to convert to Christianity or at least to a christian conception of social ethics, they seemingly remained, at the same time, socialist. This indicates especially, that in the practical dimension of Christianity (the Church), there lacked a sufficient social doctrine or religious assessment of the social problems assailing society.

 Although the conversion of these thinkers from marxism can be considered to be of great significance, especially with respect to the type of religious philosophies which they were to produce latter, the incident brings to light major weaknesses in the marxist system. When they sought a solution to the difficulties inherent to the scientific socialism of Marx, they could only leave behind the marxist system and look at the world, man, society and all its dilemas from another philosophical perspective, one which was to be either religious or semi-religious.

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