The Russian Enlightenment (Pt. I)

Ivan Vasilievich Kireevsky (1806-1856) was a 19th century Russian religious philosopher, literary critic, publicist, and one of the principle theorists of the Slavophile movement. The following is the first part of a letter he wrote to his friend Count E. E. Komarovsky, entitled, “On the Character of the European Enlightenment and its Relationship to the Russian Enlightenment” (1852). Translated by Katia Shtefan.


During our last meeting, we spoke a great deal about the character of the European Enlightenment and its differences from the character of the Enlightenment that belonged to Russia in ancient times and whose traces are still perceived to this day not only in the morals, customs, and ways of thought of the simple people, but permeate, so to speak, the entire soul, the entire cast of mind, the entire, if it may be said, internal composition of the Russian man, unaltered as of yet by Western upbringing.  You demanded that I set forth my thoughts on the subject on paper. But I could not grant your wish at that time. Now, when I must write an article on the same subject for the Moscow Collection, I ask permission to give this article the form of a letter to you: the notion that I am speaking with you will inspire and enliven my cabinet meditations.

Of course, there are few questions that in the present time would be more important than this question of the relationship of the Russian Enlightenment to the Western one. On how this question is resolved depends not only the prevailing direction of our literature, but also perhaps the direction of all our intellectual activity, the meaning of our personal life, and the character of communal relations. However, it was not very long ago that this question was almost impossible, or in any case was answered so easily that it was not worth posing. Common opinion held that the difference between Europe’s Enlightenment and Russia’s was only in degree, not in character and less still in spirit or basic educational principles. Before, they would say at that time, we had only barbarism; our scholarship began the minute we began to emulate Europe, which has infinitely surpassed us in intellectual development. There the sciences flourished when we did not even have them; there they have matured, whereas here they are only beginning to bloom. Thus, that is where the teachers are, and we are the students; nonetheless, they would usually add with self-satisfaction, we are rather clever students, adapting so quickly that we will likely surpass our teachers.

“Who would have thought, fellows,” said Peter in 1714 in Riga, draining a glass on a newly launched ship, “Who would have thought 30 years ago that you, Russians, would be with me here on the Baltic Sea, building ships and feasting in German dress?” “Historians,” he added, “believe the ancient seat of the sciences to be in Greece, from there they moved to Italy and spread throughout all the lands of Europe. But the ignorance* of our ancestors impeded them from reaching farther than Poland, although the Poles used to be in the same darkness as all the Germans were at first and in which we live to this day, and only thanks to the efforts of their leaders were they finally able to open their eyes and assimilate European knowledge, art and ways of life. I compare this movement of the sciences on the Earth with the blood’s circulation in man; and it seems to me that they will again leave their residence in England, France, and Germany and will change to our side for a few centuries, only to later return again to their homeland, Greece.”

*Peter used the word Die Unart (Germ). Compiler’s note.

These words explain the enthusiasm with which Peter acted and in many respects justify his extremes. Love for enlightenment was his passion. Only in this did he see Russia’s salvation, and he saw its source in Europe alone. But his conviction outlived him by an entire century in the educated class of his nation, or to be more precise, the class reeducated by him; and 30 years ago it was hardly possible to meet an intellectual person who would grasp the possibility of another enlightenment aside from that which was borrowed from Western Europe.

Since that time, there has been a change in the Western European Enlightenment and in the Russian European Enlightenment.

In the second half of the 19th century, the European Enlightenment reached such a fullness of development that its particular meaning was expressed with evident clarity even for only slightly observant minds. But the result of this fullness of development, of this clarity of conclusions, was an almost all-encompassing feeling of dissatisfaction and deceived hope.

The Western Enlightenment did not turn unsatisfactory because the sciences had lost their vitality; on the contrary, they were apparently flourishing more than ever before; not because one or another form of outward life weighed upon people’s relationships or hindered the development of their prevailing tendency; on the contrary, wrestling with an outward hindrance could have only strengthened their predilection for the beloved tendency, and never, it seems, did outward life arrange itself more obediently and concordantly with their intellectual demands. But a feeling of discontent and cheerless emptiness fell upon the hearts of people whose thoughts were not limited to a narrow circle of transitory interests, precisely because the triumph of the European mind displayed the narrowness of its basic aspirations: because in spite of all the wealth, in spite of all the, shall we say, greatness of particular discoveries and successes in science, the general conclusion drawn from the totality of knowledge offered only a negative significance for the internal consciousness of man; because despite the splendor, despite all the comforts of life’s external improvements, life itself was deprived of its essential meaning, for, not permeated with any general strong conviction, it could neither be adorned with high hope nor warmed with deep sympathy.

A century’s worth of cold analysis destroyed all the foundation upon which the European Enlightenment stood from the very beginning of its development, so that the basic principles out of which it grew became strange and foreign to it, contradicting its latest results, while its direct property turned out to be the very same analysis that had destroyed its roots, that self-propelling knife of reason, that abstract syllogism that recognized nothing but itself and its personal experience, that autocratic intellect—or how else can we call that logical activity, removed from  all of man’s other cognitive abilities except for the crudest and most primordial sensual qualities, building on these alone their airy dialectical constructions?

However, it is important to recall that the feeling of dissatisfaction and hopelessness were not suddenly found in Western man at the first clear triumph of his destructive rationality. Overturning his centuries-old convictions, he trusted all the more in the omnipotence of his abstract mind, the larger, firmer and more comprehensive those convictions were. During the initial success, his happiness was not only unmixed with regret, but on the contrary the rapture of his self-sufficiency would reach some kind of poetic exaltation. He believed that with his own abstract mind he could at once create for himself a new rational life and establish heavenly bliss on Earth, as reeducated by him.

Terrible, bloody experiments did not frighten him; great failures did not dampen his hopes; individual sufferings only placed a crown of martyrdom on his blinded head; perhaps an entire eternity of unsuccessful attempts would have only fatigued, but not disillusioned his self-assurance, unless that same abstract reason in which he trusted had not by the force of its own development reached an awareness of its narrowness.

This latest result of European scholarship, while still far from being universal, is evidently beginning to dominate among the foremost Western thinkers and belongs to the newest and likely the ultimate epoch of abstract philosophical thought. But philosophical opinions do not remain the property of scholarly faculties for long. That which today is the conclusion of theoretical thinking, will tomorrow be the conviction of the masses, because for a man estranged from all other beliefs except for a belief in rational science and who recognizes no other source of truth but the conclusions of his own reason, the fate of philosophy becomes the fate of all intellectual life.

Not only do all the sciences and all of life’s relationships come together in this and are tied into one knot of common awareness, but also from this knot, from this common awareness, there issue forth ruling strings into all the sciences and all of life’s relationships, giving them meaning and connection and forming them according to their direction. That is why we have not infrequently seen how in some corner of Europe there ripens a barely noticed thought in the head of some toiler of science, whose very face is barely noticeable to the crowd around him, and in twenty years that unnoticed thought of that unnoticed face rules the minds and will of that very same crowd, appearing before it in some bright historical event. Not because some theoretical thinker could actually control history by his arbitrary will from his smoky corner, but rather because history, passing through his system, is developed to its self-awareness. He only notices and brings to one general conclusion the totality of the prevailing results, and any arbitrariness in the movement of his thought takes away all its influence on reality, for only that system prevails which is itself the necessary conclusion of the convictions that prevailed before it.

Thus, in the organism of peoples who base their convictions solely on their personal understandings, the head of the philosopher is an indispensable natural organ, through which passes all the circulation of life’s forces, from external events ascending to internal consciousness and from internal consciousness again returning to the sphere of evident historical activity. From this we can say that it was not that Western thinkers became convinced of the narrowness of logical reason, but rather European logical reason itself, having reached its highest level of development, came to be aware of its limited nature, and clarifying the laws of its own activity, became convinced that the entire scope of its self-propelled force did not reach farther than the negative side of human knowledge; that its speculative coupling of inferential concepts required a foundation derived from other sources of cognition; that the mind’s loftiest truths, its vivid visions, its essential convictions—all lie outside the abstract circle of its dialectical process, and while they do not contradict its laws, they cannot, however, be deduced from them and cannot even be attained by the activity of this process, cut off from its original participation in the common work of the other abilities of the human spirit.

Thus Western man, who through the exclusive development of his abstract reason has lost faith in all convictions which due not proceed from abstract reason alone, has as a consequence of the development of this reason lost his last faith in its omnipotence. In this way, he was forced to either be content with the condition of half-bestial indifference to all that was above sensual interests and commercial calculations (many acted thus, but many could not because they were developed by the remaining vestiges of Europe’s former life), or had to return again to the rejected convictions that had inspired the West before the final development of abstract reason—some acted thus; others were unable to because these convictions, as they were formed in the historical evolution of Western Europe, were already permeated with the harmful influence of abstract reason, and therefore passed from their primeval sphere, from autonomous fullness and independence, to the level of a rational system and consequently appeared to the consciousness of Western man as the narrowness of reason, rather than its loftiest, vivifying origin.

What was there left to do for intellectual Europe? To go further back to the initial purity of these fundamental convictions, in which they remained before the influence of Western European rationality? To return to these principles as they were before the very beginning of Western development? This would be an almost impossible pursuit for minds surrounded and permeated by the delusions and prejudices of Western scholarship. This is perhaps why the majority of European thinkers, tolerating neither a narrowly egotistical life limited by sensual goals and personal understandings, nor a unilaterally intellectual life directly contradicting the fullness of their mental awareness, in order to not be left without any convictions or fall into admittedly untruthful ones, turned to the following escape: each in his head began to create himself new, general principles of life and truth, finding them in the personal interplay of his pensive considerations, mixing the new with the old, the impossible with the possible, giving in to undoubtedly the most unlimited hopes, with each contradicting the other and each demanding the others’ general recognition. Everyone became Columbus, everyone set off to discover new Americas within their mind, to search for Earth’s other hemisphere upon the limitless sea of impossible hopes, personal suppositions and strictly syllogistic conclusions.

In Russia, this European state of mind had an effect contrary to that which it subsequently had in in the West. Only a few people, perhaps, and those only for a minute, could have been carried away by the outward splendor of these reckless systems or fooled by the artificial attractiveness of their putrid beauty, but the majority of those who kept an eye on the events of Western thought became convinced of the inadequacy of Western scholarship and turned their attention to those particular Enlightenment principles that were not valued by the European mind, according to which Russia used to live and which are still visible in it despite European influence.

Then there began vivid historical investigations, comparisons, and publications. Particularly beneficent in this case were the actions of our government, which made discoveries in the solitude of monasteries, in the dust of forgotten archives, making public so many precious monuments of antiquity. Then Russian scientists, perhaps for the first time in half a century, turned their impartial, searching glance within themselves and their homeland, and finding there elements of intellectual life that were new to them, they were struck by a strange phenomenon: they saw with amazement that in almost everything that regards Russia, her history, peoples, faith, the basic foundations of her enlightenment and the clear, still warm traces of that enlightenment in former Russian life, in the character and mind of its people—in almost everything, I say, they had until now been fooled; not because someone had purposely wanted to fool them, but because an unconditional predilection for Western scholarship and an unconscious presupposition against Russian barbarism hid from them the ability to understand Russia. Perhaps they themselves, under the influence of the same prejudices, had previously abetted the spread of that very same blindness. But the spell was so strong that it hid from them the most evident objects that stood, so to speak, before their eyes; but then the awakening takes place so quickly that it surprises us with its unexpectedness.

Every day we see people who share a Western orientation, and not infrequently we see among them people belonging to the ranks of the most enlightened minds and the firmest dispositions and who completely change their way of thought, solely because they impartially and profoundly turn their attention inward, to themselves and their fatherland, studying within it the basic principles on which the peculiarity of Russian life was formed, discovering within themselves those essential parts of the spirit which found neither home nor nourishment in the Western development of the mind.

Nonetheless, understanding and expressing these basic principles, from which the peculiarity of Russian life was formed, is not as simple as some may think. For the root principles of Russia’s enlightenment were not revealed in its experience with the same palpability as that reached by the principles of the Western enlightenment in its history. In order to find them, it is necessary to search; they do not catch your eye as European scholarship does. Europe has expressed itself completely. In the 19th century, we can say, it finished the circle of its development, which began in the 9th century. Although during the first centuries of its historical life Russia was no less educated than the West, yet as a consequence of foreign and apparently fortuitous obstacles, it was constantly stopped on the path of its enlightenment. Thus, it was able to preserve for the present day not a complete and finished expression of that enlightenment, but only some allusions, shall we say, to its true meaning, only its first principles and their mark on the mind and life of Russian man.

What do these principles of the Russian Enlightenment consist of? In what ways do they differ from the principles out of which the Western Enlightenment developed? And is their further development possible? And if it is possible, what do they promise for Russia’s intellectual life? What can they bring to Europe’s intellectual life? For after the co-permeation of Russia and Europe that has taken place, it is no longer possible to contemplate the development of intellectual life in Russia without regard to Europe, nor the development of intellectual life in Europe without regard to Russia.

The principles of the Russian Enlightenment are completely different from those on which the enlightenment of the European nations was formed. Of course, each European nation has something particular in the character of its scholarship, but these private, tribal, governmental or historical peculiarities do not prevent them from forming together a spiritual unity, where each part enters as a living limb into one personal body. That is why, amidst all the historical accidents, they have always developed in a narrow and sympathetic correlation.

Russia, having separated itself from the West in spirit, lived its life apart from it as well. An Englishman, a Frenchman, an Italian, and a German never ceased to be European, always maintaining at the same time his national peculiarity. For a Russian man, on the contrary, it was almost necessary to destroy his national identity in order to get used to Western scholarship, for both his external appearance and his internal cast of mind, which explained and supported each other, were in him the result of a completely different life, flowing from completely different sources.

Apart from tribal differences, three other historical features gave a distinctive character to the entire development of the Enlightenment in the West: the particular form in which Christianity permeated it, the particular way in which it inherited the scholarship of the Ancient Greek world, and finally the particular elements from which its state system was composed.

Christianity was the soul of intellectual life among the peoples of the West, just as it was in Russia. But it penetrated Western Europe solely through the Roman church.

Of course, each patriarchate, each race, each country in the Christian world did not cease to preserve its personal peculiarity, participating at the same time in the common unity of the entire Church. Each nation, which as a result of local, tribal or historical fortuities had predominantly developed one side of its intellectual activity, must have in its spiritual life and the writings of its theologians naturally retained that same peculiar character, its innate physiognomy, so to speak, while illumined by a higher awareness. Thus, the theological writers of the Syrian lands paid greater attention, it seems, to the interior, contemplative life of a man detached from the world. The Roman theologians busied themselves particularly with the aspect of practical activity and the logical link between concepts. The spiritual writers of enlightened Byzantium, more than others, it seems, bore in mind the relationship of Christianity to the sciences, which had flourished around it and had at first been at odds with it, but later submitted to it. The Alexandrian theologians, finding themselves in a twofold struggle with paganism and Judaism, surrounded by philosophical, theosophical, and Gnostic schools, turned their attention primarily to the speculative side of Christian teaching. Different paths led to the same goal, so long as those following them did not deviate from the common goal.

There were particular heresies everywhere, which always had a close connection to the prevailing tendency of the nations where they appeared, but they were always destroyed by the like-mindedness of the Universal Church, which united all the particular Churches into one holy accord. There were times when the danger of deviation threatened entire patriarchates, when a teaching discordant with that of the Universal Church agreed, nonetheless, with the prevailing tendency and the intellectual peculiarity of the peoples making up a particular Church. But in these times of trial, when a particular Church had to make a decisive choice, either to break away from the Universal Church or to sacrifice its own opinion, God saved His Churches through the unanimity of the entire Orthodox world.

At that time, the distinctive features of each particular Church could only have enticed it away into schism if it were to separate itself from the Inheritance and from communication with the other Churches. But, remaining true to the common Inheritance and the common accord of love, each particular Church, through the distinctive character of its spiritual activity, only increased the common wealth and fullness of the spiritual life of all Christendom. So too the Roman church had its lawful peculiarity, so to speak, before separating from the Universal Church, but after separation, it naturally had to turn this particular feature into the exclusive form through which Christian teaching could penetrate the minds of its subjects.

The scholarship of the ancient pre-Christian world—the second element from which the European Enlightenment developed—was known to the West until the middle of the 15th century almost exclusively in the special form that it took in the life of ancient, pagan Rome, but its other side, Greek and Asian scholarship, barely penetrated Europe in its pure form almost until the conquest of Constantinople. Meanwhile, Rome, as it is known, was by no means representative of the entire pagan enlightenment: it held only material supremacy over the world, whereas intellectual supremacy belonged to the language and scholarship of the Greeks. Therefore, to take all the experience of the human mind, all the possessions it gained over the course of 1,600 years of effort, to take this only in the form which it received through Roman scholarship meant taking a completely narrow version and inevitably exposing oneself to the danger of imparting this narrowness to the character of one’s own scholarship. And this truly happened to Europe. When Greek exiles travelled to the West in the 15th century with their precious manuscripts, it was too late. European scholarship revived, it is true, but its meaning remained the same: the cast of the mind and of life was already set. Greek science widened the circle of knowledge and taste, it awakened the thoughts, it gave the mind flight and motion, but it could no longer change the prevailing tendency of the spirit.


One thought on “The Russian Enlightenment (Pt. I)

  1. Kireevsky’s words are more relevant today than ever before. Everyone should be reading the early (and later) Slavophiles if they want to understand the world today. Thanks for bringing this to a wider audience!

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