Leontiev: Our Religion

Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev (1831-1891) was a doctor, diplomat and philosopher. One of Russia’s premier conservative thinkers in the second half of the nineteenth century, Leontiev advocated in erudite fashion the principles of faith, authority and hierarchy. The concluding chapter to his work Soloviev vs. Danilevsky provides an excellent reflection of this worldview. Translated by Mark Hackard.

Church, state, cultural type, class and nation – their past is decidedly beyond our control. Yet we (children of the past, living in the present) can nonetheless significantly influence these social groups within the parameters of a model given by the past; we can enable the rise and the fall of their further development or disintegration. And, of course, it is much easier to serve the degradation of the model, the derangement of an organism and even its final destruction, than to serve its ascent and strengthening.

Using the word “easier,” I refer here not to the question of when it is more convenient or safer for individuals to accomplish those deeds leading to the development or disintegration of one or another social organism, whether in the period of a model’s rise or during its downfall and demoralization. This is a very complex affair; every age has had its share of sadness, trouble and dangers, and so it continues. I speak about social organisms the same way that Strakhov speaks about physical organisms. Their systems more easily give way to corruption and disorder than to optimum development and recovery.

To mature from Hugo Capet to Louis XIV, France needed around 500 years, and to debase her sovereignty and cultural model from the time of Napoleon I to the Republic of Thiers, Grévy and Carnot, a little over half a century was sufficient (1815-1871). And our dear Fatherland developed (i.e. underwent differentiation and stratified while uniting at the same time in faith and authority) very slowly. Around 800 years had flowed by from the age of St. Vladimir to that of Emperors Alexander I and Nicholas.

Under St. Vladimir there were first defined those cultural qualities intended to develop (i.e. refine while uniting) in their depths a sovereign and national Russian model. Orthodoxy and patrimonial apanage, which in the natural course of history would be resolved in patrimonial monarchy – here are the essential features, or the unique markers of the future of our historical model, that were already outlined in their first contours 900 years ago.

From Prince Vladimir to Ivan the Great and Ivan the Dread; from the Great and the Dread to Peter; and from Peter to the nineteenth century, Russia’s system became ever more defined, unified, strengthened and grew. In the nineteenth century, after Catherine the Great, it continued to grow, being enriched with new territories and new acquisitions alien to the Russian cultural nucleus; the unity of authority and the dominant faith remained unshakable, but internal stratification ended after Catherine. Under the last two Emperors (not counting the short-lived rule of Paul I), the differentiating process of Russian historical life continued only in the vertical (provincial) direction. If it can be so expressed, the process of horizontal (class) differentiation ceased for more than half a century. Those insignificant changes that were brought into class relations under Nicholas Pavlovich and Alexander I can be overlooked in comparison with such acts or stages of development as Peter’s Table of Ranks or Catherine’s Charter of Nobility. Peter and Catherine’s stratifying measures encompassed all the life of an enormous state with an iron grid of systematic discipline; this discipline, accustoming some to authority and others to obedience, facilitated the development of strong personalities – the passionate and the reserved, refined and integrated, delicate and courageous and rough.

Transitions, transfers and leaps from position to another, frequent changes in lifestyle, quick careers and sudden downfalls – all were rare and difficult. All of this was accessible only to a chosen few, the most rich and pedigreed or the most talented and strong of will (even if for evil purposes). As soon as we name three great representatives of that epoch we can term our historical respite, the three giants of religion, sovereignty and national poetry, Philaret, Nicholas Pavlovich and Pushkin, we have said it all. How much in common they have in fundamentals and what little resemblance they share in their temperaments and types of development! Internal differentiation was halted in the lull after a long struggle with an external enemy (democratic France, which had rejected distinctions once and forever).

Differentiation stopped and bore great fruits in all fields during this lull.

But what shall be next?

Next, I won’t resolve to say what the intelligent and blunt landholder said to Levin in Anna Karenina: “The Emancipation ruined Russia.”

And I won’t say it – not because even our best reactionaries won’t resolve to pronounce these “harsh words,” but because I myself am unsure of the unconditional correctness of this landholder.

What does “ruin” mean in such a case?

To ruin means to hasten by means of dangerous measures the date of the final downfall of a great power, the day of its final subordination to foreigners or its voluntary merger with some neighboring state. It’s impossible to understand the word “death” for the state in any other way.

It stands to reason that any man can see clearly how Russia is not only far from this; to the contrary, she is even entering the twentieth century in a period of multifaceted superiority over others.

This is felt not by us alone, but by those nations we designate both as our political competitors and our teachers in matters of intellectual development.

That much is clear, but what’s also clear is that dominance can be either durable or transitory, longstanding or quickly passing. Degradation and downfall can be quick and unexpected only in the state’s declining years, in which Russia undoubtedly dwells.

We cannot wish our Motherland only an artificial and ephemeral dominance of the kind that France enjoyed under Napoleon III over the course of some twenty years!

From this standpoint, the fate of the ancient Athenian republic is also an unenviable one. Her dominant position lasted only a half century, from the victory at Plataea until the death of Pericles (479-429 B.C.).

Contemporary Germany ascended politically before our eyes and now vainly exerts her last powers to preserve her high international standing.

Behind the magnificent figure of Bismarck, the weaker aspects of his construction went unnoticed. Yet the colossus withdrew, and Germany little by little ceases to be frightening.

We are not speaking of such an ephemeral, and very likely unnecessary, preeminence.

I said clearly that not only is the death of the state far from us, but that Russia is entering the twentieth century in a period of multifaceted dominance over others.

However, from what I, like many others, see as a growing superiority, it does not follow that I have been unconditionally glad over the superiority itself.

For the only desirable outer superiority is that which will further our inner independence from democratic and undoubtedly decaying Europe. External successes and good fortune are needed for what is called the internal “ascent of the spirit.” They are necessary for the reinforcement of our national consciousness, for the restoration of the shaky foundations of internal development, and for our inner discipline.

Neither Athens in the age of Themistocles and Pericles nor France of the two Bonapartes should serve as exemplars for us, but Rome and the previous England that was “making haste ever so slowly.”

Someday we must perish; no earthly social organism can escape from death and destruction, whether it be sovereign, cultural or religious. The Savior foretold the obliteration of Christianity itself on the earth, and those who prophesy a certain unprecedented and complete triumph of the “militant” (earthly) Church in this world are preaching something akin to heresy at odds not only with the teachings of the Orthodox clergy, but with those of the Gospel.

And Russia will perish someday. Even when casting a glance over the whole globe and the entire composition of its population, you’ll see that there is nowhere to expect new and unknown tribes strong in spirit, for there are none left in the environs of an undoubtedly aged humanity. Then one can almost certainly predict that Russia may perish only by dual means – either from the East, by the sword of the roused Chinese, or by a voluntary merger with a European republican federation. (The latter outcome could be tremendously aided by the formation of a liberal, classless society.)

There is a third possible outcome, upon which Europeans hostile to us point with horror and revulsion: “Russia is something like a gigantic Macedon, which by exploiting the conflicts among Western peoples will gradually subject them all to her monarchical authority.”

As far as I know, we haven’t been granted the title of Rome. And at first glance, such Europeans may seem correct. Macedon had neither its own institutions nor its own customs and tastes. She had power alone, a powerful habit for royal authority; in all other facets of her history, we do not see any further characteristics.

Rome, weak and complacent in matters of everyday life, customs and tastes, was strong not so much by personal authority as by her institutions, both native and profound. Thanks to the cultivating influence of these native institutions, autocracy was established in timely fashion and held out in the West for a whole 500 years (from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus). In the East this authority was transferred to Byzantium for another entire millennium. Religion and customs changed, but the laws remained.

We have no such laws and institutions that surpass the surrounding world, and in this sense we cannot teach anyone anything. Our royal authority is enduring (now after leveling reforms) not so much through wise native institutions as through our feelings and vital requirements. In this aspect we are indeed closer to Macedon than to Rome, yet aside from the habit and love for autocracy that has entered the bloodstream of the majority of the Russian people, there is something grand that Macedon did not possess. We have our religion, which may receive a universal purpose with the flow of time.

At the present time, Orthodoxy has by the essence of its teaching only universal meaning; but in our hands, it has not yet expressed that purpose which we would have every basis and right to call truly universal. Neither the Western peoples nor the Asians are crowding to join it.

And we do not know whether they will convert.

But we sense and even know that the time is quickly approaching when two great questions, two mighty currents will seize and captivate humanity, it may be, unto the oblivion of everything else.

“Bread and circuses!” shouted the Roman mobs.

“Bread and faith!” soon will shout all the peoples of Europe, even at the cost of new forms of slavery.

Fortunate and powerful will be the nation whose faith and habit of obedience is stronger than that of others in such times.

Will these qualities be stronger in us by that time than in all others?

There are indications that they shall be, and there are hopes. There are also well-known signs of the opposite.

So many examples are there of one and the other over recent years, that with only a short and matter-fact list of them, one could fill a rather large book.

And if I was asked on conscience what my most intimate and heartfelt, so to speak, conclusion would be from this multitude of conflicting examples, I wouldn’t know what to answer. I say heartfelt because a clear, intellectual conclusion in our time is as impossible as it was impossible, for example, to decisively prophesy in the era of the iconoclasts over whose beliefs would win out – those of Leo III the Isaurian or St. Theodore the Studite. And even my hazy heartfelt conclusion, accessible in our time, is indecisive.

To the question of what, by my heart’s feeling, should emerge victorious in the not too remote future – what I love or what I hate (i.e. faith, authority and inequality of rights or faithlessness, anarchy and equality?), I would answer frankly: “I don’t know!” For a strong love for the ideals of faith, authority and inequality is one matter, while a firm hope for even their incomplete realization in life is another.

“Social organisms are akin to physical organisms…”

To harm an organism is easier than to bring it benefit. It is easier to ruin an organism that to enable the full development of its nature! From 1861 our system has fallen sick with egalitarian liberalism… And now we are treating it…

Shall we cure it?

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