The Realization of Something New: The Life of the World to Come - Vladimir Solovyov
If stones and metals had been its only building blocks, the world would not have woken from its deep sleep. It could rely, however, on the life-will of the most basic bacteria. Although life’s first stirrings cannot be traced to its roots, even by foremost minds such as Charles Darwin, one can observe the apparently unreflective attraction of elementary creatures to light and warmth. Higher up in evolution’s chain, animals are driven by a desire for sensation and free movement. They satisfy their hunger and sexual needs when they can and must. Human beings, Nature’s crowning glory, go far beyond other life-forms in their rationality and self-consciousness. We philosophise and dream in ways plants and animals cannot begin to comprehend. Biologists, however, fail to address the most valuable question of all. What is the point of existence? It is, of course, the world’s perfection into the Kingdom of God. Our Saviour showed the way, and history since then has been a series of small achievements and big failures. And it will be when we feel shame about our bestiality, pity for all that lives and reverence for the all-powerful God that we can achieve our destiny: a spiritually perfected existence.
Such is the central argument of the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov’s The Justification of the Moral Good. First published in 1897 and revised in 1899, this work is Solovyov’s magnum opus, combining lengthy discussions of evolution, anthropology, the social sciences, philosophy and ethics. Although it may be a commonplace, it is true to say that many 19th century Russians ranged both widely and deeply. Solovyov, a friend and correspondent of Dostoevsky, wrote his first major work The Crisis of Western Philosophy aged just 21, going on to explore the nature of freedom and responsibility, evil and divine love, aesthetics and ethics in a series of lectures, journal articles and books.
The Justification of the Moral Good is divided into three parts: The Moral Good in Human Nature, The Moral Good from God and the Moral Good through Human History. Part One considers what makes us spiritual beings, focussing on moral feelings. Part Two moves the argument to a divine level, with chapters on the superhuman foundations of our ethics. With unabashed virtuosity, Part Three, constituting more than half of the work, investigates the individual and society, the historical development of personal-social consciousness, the moral norms of society, the national, penal and economic questions from the moral point of view, the meaning of war and, as a grand finale, the moral organisation of humanity as a whole. One can see why Solovyov tends to be praised as one of Russian philosophy’s most ambitious figures.
Solovyov believes, without question, that we are destined to go from primordial slime to eternal being at God’s side. In his view, human beings are endowed with the capacity to feel shame, pity and reverence; it is by exercising these three fundamental moral feelings that we can shed our animal skin and become our better selves. Biological evolution has given us a more reflective and constructive consciousness, but it is morality that gives this meaning and purpose. It is not all about us, however: our blessedness also gives us a responsibility towards the natural world. We must not treat Nature with either disdain or impatience; we have no right to terrorise it. In discourse that is instantly recognisable in today’s world, Solovyov writes that mankind should not exhaust the world’s resources and show kindness to other creatures. He quotes Arthur Schopenhauer:
Boundless compassion for all living creatures is the firmest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct…Whoever is inspired by this feeling will surely injure no-one, will inflict no suffering on anyone, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice and mercy.
Solovyov goes on to argue that such compassion does not exist to make us better people only: it helps and ennobles other creatures also.
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …