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Onward Christian soldiers

Russian philosophy was brought to the public eye by the recently deceased Sir Isaiah Berlin. In this article, David Limond explains the thinking of a philosopher who married political thinking and Christianity in a particularly Russian way.

Pliny famously thought that there was always something new out of Africa and the Chinese are said to believe it’s a curse to live in interesting times. Slouching as we are towards the end of the twentieth century and with the ice of the Cold War melted, it increasingly seems that there’s always something new out of the erstwhile Soviet Union and that much of what’s new from there is ‘interesting’ indeed – a euphemism which surely covers a multitude of sins. Strange politics and stranger religions are breeding fast in the confused and often febrile post-Communist vacuum. Despite decades of misreading, misjudging and misunderstanding the nature of life and politics in the USSR and its Socialist Commonwealth of associated states, clutches of selfprofessed experts in universities, think-tanks such as the US’s RAND Corporation and in government departments still produce reams of foreign policy advice for North-Western politicians. But what can philosophy offer in the search for an understanding of possible futures involving Russia and the more or less willing countries which make up its residual empire? One service which it can provide is reviving debate on pre-Revolutionary Russian philosophers especially those from whom contemporary Russian thinkers, writers and – most importantly – political actors claim to draw inspiration. First in line for reconsideration must surely be Vladimir Solovyev [1853-1900].

Solovyev (whose name can alternatively be transliterated as Soloviev, Solovev or Solovyof) is hardly well known outside his native Russia but his influence is significant and increasing. Contemporary figures such as returned exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the controversial Vladimir Zhirinovsky both cite him as an influence, even a source of inspiration, and if we are to understand them we must surely understand him first. I’ll return to the details of Solzhenitsyn and Zhirinovsky presently but first I have to explain Solovyev (my preferred spelling) and his philosophy in the context of his time.

Applying a term which I have used before (Philosophy Now Issue 10) Solovyev can be characterised as a Partisan of Wrath – someone for whom there was a positive merit in violence, war and social disruption. Along with figures such as poet Alexander Blok [1880-1921], Solovyev considered turn of the century Russia to be a weak, decadent materialist society which could only be redeemed by embracing both mystical Christian wisdom and violence. What little is written in English about Solovyev and his associates concentrates on his role in developing a variety of Christian mysticism which, with its central personified figure of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, was much influenced by Jewish Wisdom Literature such the book known to Christians as the ‘apocryphal’ Ecclesiasticus1. Much less has been said about their role in the promotion of violence as a social good. It is to this that I now turn.

Solovyev’s short book War and Christianity: The Russian Point of View (trans. and published in English 1903) takes the form of an extended dialogue or drama set around a Russian dinner table – a reference perhaps to the Symposium one of the best known of Plato’s dialogues which takes its name direct from the Greek for ‘dinner’. The cast of characters in War and Christianity is as follows: the Prince, the Politician, the Politician’s Wife (like Noah’s Wife she has no identity other than by association with her husband), the General and Mr Z. It is through Mr Z that Solovyev himself speaks. One other character is mentioned but does not appear – “one of [Mr Z’s] … fellow students in the academy who afterwards became a monk … Pan Sophia and wrote The Universal Way to Peace and Prosperity.” 2 [Pan Sophia should not be confused with the female Sophia of the Ecclesiasticus] Using each of the other characters as foils, Mr Z proceeds to dispose of several common theories as to the nature of war, its causes and effects.

The General is first into action, sallying forth with an argument that:

for centuries … every military man [has] had a clear conscience [because] he knew and felt he was serving a good and important end … [War] … was not merely something useful, as for instance sanitation or laundry work, but in the highest sense, something fine, noble, honourable.

The General knows that, in common with sanitation and laundry, war is a dirty business, but believes it has extrinsic worth – it is ‘something useful’ – in that it defends and/or expands the state, and brings wealth, power and security to ruler and ruled. But, thinks the General, war attains intrinsic value too, a degree of worth which is emergent from the satisfaction of its primary role of being useful.

Now Mr Z hasn’t come to bury this soldier of the Tsar but nor has he come to dinner with a mind to praise him. The General’s argument is fine – and noble and honourable – as far as it goes but it does not go far enough. Z’s conflict with the General is less marked than those which he has with the Politician and the Prince but it does still exist. It is not enough for him to say that the higher value of war derives from the lower – in fact there must be merit in war even if it is not useful, even when it is counterproductive and self-destructive. I shall return to the precise details of his objection to the General’s argument presently; in the meantime, what has Z to say to Prince and the Politician?

The Prince is a thinly veiled version of (Count) Leo Tolstoy [1828-1910] whose preference for peace over war in accordance with his strict, if unorthodox, Christianity is well known. The Prince takes his stand on the ground of absolute, Christian pacifism – with which Mr Z will have no truck.

PRINCE: Do you mean to say you have any doubt that war and military business is anything but an unconditional and extreme evil from which humanity has got to get itself free absolutely and as soon as it can? …

[Because] my conscience… is… definite and expresses itself [thus:] Thou Shalt Not Kill – that is the whole answer [to war].

But to all that the Prince can say Mr Z replies only “I am absolutely convinced to the contrary.”

In his turn the Politician is less sanguine (bloodthirsty?) than the General but also less pacific than the Prince. So far as he is concerned there is no merit in war but nor is it the ‘unconditional evil’ which the Prince imagines. It is simply a fact that war exists as a result of the interaction of socio-economic and political systems but “when it is understood that … [it] is useless, become unprofitable, then the military period of history must end.” Thus, in completing the set, the Politician gives a succinct summation of another classic belief as to the nature of and need for military conflict. The General represents those who have been called Defencists with a tendency towards being willing to accept the ethic of Crusading. War for him is either a slightly dirty business to be accepted for its extrinsic worth or even welcomed in some measure because it can acquire intrinsic worth with an air of sanctity attaching to it. The Prince is of course a Pacifist but the Politician falls somewhere between the two of them as a Pacificist – one who would rather have peace to war and who believes that (most likely on economic grounds) it will someday come to pass.3

But none of this will do for Mr Z as he makes clear when he describes the ideas of his erstwhile academic colleague who has taken the monastic name Pan Sophia. Z believes that in choosing to write The Universal Way and in setting himself against war, Pan Sophia has set himself against God Himself.4 “He believes in God, but, in the depths of his soul, he involuntarily and unconsciously preferred himself to Him.” This then is the essence of the Solovyev’s argument. War arises from human failing and even to imagine that it can be brought to an end except by act of Divine Grace is hubris in the extreme. In quietism and acceptance of the perpetual human will to war lies the only way of life which is not in defiance of God’s will. All wars, each war, civil war, international war, war won, war lost, just war, every war except the contradictory ‘war to end war’ for which a politically minded Pacificist might yearn (as they did in their droves less than a decade and a half after Solovyev’s death) … these are the scourges of God. Whom the pagan gods would destroy they might first make mad but whom God would destroy, destroy He will and the only madness is to think that this can – or should – be doubted, challenged or changed. Put out more flags, sound the trumpet, beat the drums, this way something Holy comes. Thus, the General does not go far enough in his willingness to live with war and death and the Prince, the Politician and Pan Sophia all alike go too far in their opposition to life and death struggle. (And the Politician’s wife, perhaps true to type, stands by her man and says nothing which might move the argument on one way or another, having only the odd speech and that always to bridge parts of the dialogue.)

But to return to an earlier point, what is to be gained from the knowledge of generally forgotten Russian philosophers such as Solovyev? Well, to repeat, many contemporary figures who can be lumped together as Russian Particularists and who constitute what is surely the most alarming faction or tendency in today’s Russia are much influenced by Solovyev. Russian Particularism is the belief that Russia has a special destiny to be accounted both great and good in the world. Though Solzhenitsyn has publicly distanced himself from Zhirinovsky, they are the most visible faces of Particularism. Zhirinovsky is plainly more muscular in his Particularism than Solzhenitsyn, but neither is necessarily its most extreme advocate.5 It is worth saying that Solovyev himself was not strictly speaking a Particularist but in the hands of a philosopher such as Solzhenitsyn, who is, it is not impossible that his Christian quietist relish for war could be influential in provoking or prolonging conflicts in and around Russia’s borders. Further, while Zhirinovsky is surely no philosopher, his version of Particularism leaves him spoiling for war and while he may need no more incentive to seek conflict than that of territorial acquisitiveness and a desire for masculine self-assertion writ large, the influence of Solovyev can only fuel his already fevered imagination by seeming to provide yet further warrant for warfare.

The consolation of philosophy may be just a little forewarning that there are more and new troubles yet to come out of Russia.

[1] More correctly known as The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach; composed in the late 2nd or early 3rd century BC and the only biblical book by an author whose identity is not in dispute. Typically Wisdom is personified thus: “The lord sitting on his throne … created her…She is with all flesh according to his gift” [1, viii-x].
[2] Very possibly a title which echoes that of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace which argues for the establishment and perpetuation of peace in Europe with a typically precise timetable of steps.
[3] I have taken this classification system from Martin Ceadel’s Thinking about Peace and War and used it previously in Philosophy Now Issue 10 where I no doubt explained it somewhat better.
[4] Unfortunately, unlike another well known fictional book within a book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein which Orwell allows Winston Smith to ‘read’ in 1984 (and which he uses as a fast-track route to describing the political and social devices which make Party control possible), Solovyev doesn’t ‘quote’ from Pan Sophia’s work. We are thus left to guess quite what arguments he would have put into the mouth/mind of his Kant-like anti-war activist but we may assume them to be a mix of the Pacificism of Kant and the Politician and the out-and-out Pacifism of the Prince/Tolstoy.
[5] For an example of Solzhenitsyn’s recent political writings, see Rebuilding Russia (1991, trans. A. Klimoff). Extracts from Zhirinovsky’s controversial book A Last Bid for the South – which is an explicitly Particularist manifesto – were re-printed in Index on Censorship vol 23 May/June 1994 (trans. M. Grieves) and material from speeches and other works appears in Zhirinovsky; The Little Black Book (1994, trans. G. Frazer and G. Lancelle). For a fictional, but fascinating depiction of how Russia might be under some future Particularist government, see Vladimir Voinovich’s semi-satirical novel Moscow 2042 (1988, trans. R. Lourie).

© David Limond 1998

David Limond studied Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and now writes and teaches at Nene College, Northampton

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