The conservative, by definition, is an opponent of utopia and utopianism. His bedrock is tradition. His thought, though certainly abstract by the practical standards of capitalist democracy, is rooted in history and recognizes that even if it were desirable to lift one foot forward, in order to do it, our second foot must first be firmly planted on solid ground. Yet what is a conservative to do if there is no solid ground? Under such circumstances, he cannot move forward without great risk. Moving backwards presents the same risk. Standing still might seem desirable, but his own weight may sink him. Under such circumstances, he might consider becoming a liberal. A liberal would pave a road over the murky ground in order to go forward. Nevertheless, given that his destination is unknown, hastening to get there may not necessarily end happily for him. On his way, even if he makes haste slowly, he may well tire of the solid ground he has built for himself. He may well look to the side in search of the old, murky ground of his forefathers, that ground which a man could not walk forward on nor stand still on without something rather bizarre happening to him either way—something incalculable, inestimable, unforeseen and thus human.
True, it may well be that nothing about this old, murky ground can be said beyond the fact that those who return to it find themselves eventually buried in it. But do the conservative making haste slowly or the liberals ahead of them fare any better on their paved roads, their solid grounds? The former may well catch up to the latter which, in the meantime have become roadkill. In the end though, the conservative making haste slowly will also end up dead on the road paved by the liberal. Do either of them fare better than those who returned from the paved road to be buried on the old, murky ground? The old ground is neither here nor there. The old ground is no where. It is a utopia. Those who return to it are, therefore, conservative utopians. This designation might be ironic, but Andrzej Walicki is correct to use it (and to take it seriously) when discussing Slavophilism in his masterpiece “In the Circles of Conservative Utopia.” Orthodox Christianity is central to Slavophilism; it is the “old ground” from our opening metaphor. It is also a conservative utopia. To understand Orthodoxy as imagined by the Slavophiles it is necessary to understand what Orthodoxy is not: Catholicism and Protestantism.
Catholic theology is necessarily philosophical because philosophy provides the only means towards religious universalism absent a universally accessible Divine Revelation. Early Christianity was rooted in the phenomenon of the witness. Early Christians discovered Christ as revealed in the words and deeds of the Apostles . Their first test of faith was whether or not to believe the Apostles. Like Lidia, early Christians confronted Christ through the Apostles as the Apostles had confronted the Living God through the Son of Man. We can still confront the Apostles’ words, but the passage of time makes their words remote. The lack of a universally accessible Divine Revelation compels us to employ reason when considering faith. Philosophy, being the loving comportment of reason towards wisdom, matures into theology when faced with God. It is true that individuals spring up who claim access to a subjective Divine Revelation, whose rational faculties are presumably graced with a clairvoyance greater than that of their fellows. Such men become shepherds to flocks which separate themselves from their fellows into little, often competing communities of fervent believers. Those who do not separate remain captives of a tension between faith and reason often described as healthy. This tension, however, inevitably results in faith diluted into trembling scepticism or rationalism elevated into hollow absolutism. A society dominated by these spiritual currents, namely Western society, is bound to decay. There is no remedy for this decay, which is why the Slavophiles want to keep it out of Russia.
Russian Orthodox Christianity is not a remedy to decay, it is the result of a culture spared the encounter with Western rationalism in the form of Platonism and Aristotelianism and subsequently spared the cancer that metastizes out of Catholicism; namely Protestantism. For the Slavophile, Orthodoxy is so clean that it even censors its greatest apologists, like Chomikov, who had to publish in French because the Russian Church considered his ideas dangerous. Chomikov was eventually acknowledged by the Orthodox Church, though his theology appeared in Russian with a forward warning that the authors’ lack of formal theological training was at fault for numerous inaccuracies. This in no way signifies a fault in the Orthodox faith. To argue that it does would signify logic, and that can never lead to anything good. In point of fact, it should always be remembered that the Russian Orthodoxy upheld by its Slavophile apologists is not Orthodoxy as it really existed in their time, nor some idealized vision of the past, but rather it is simply Russian Orthodoxy seen through the eyes of the Slavophiles.
Slavophile eyes, unlike those of Russian conventionalists, have seen the future in the West and wish to save their people from its unbearable burdens. Slavophile eyes, contrary to Russian liberals, are not blindly in love with the West , nor are they infected by the liberal shame that bemoans the barbarism of their own people. The Slavophiles are , in fact, liberals who know the West well enough to reject it for the right reasons in favor of a renewed admiration for the vices of Russia which constitute her greatest virtues and defences. The Slavophiles are of course hated by liberals for intelligently defending the old customs and institutions which the liberal labors to abolish, but they are also misunderstood by the very Russia they love because the cosmopolitanism of the Slavophile, which is the basis of his entire nationalism, is alien and frightening to the Russian soul. The spiritual journey of the Slavophile is one of progress and return. The young Ivan Kireyevski, fascinated with German philosophy and brought up in an aristocratic family who admired British order and hated French philosophizing to the extent of buying up all of the editions of Voltaire in Moscow only to burn them, is a principle example.
In his youth, Kireyevski theorized that by virtue of ommitting Helenism, Russian history developed in a manner totally divergent from European history. Kireyevski expressed hope in the European Enlightenment because by doing away with the European heritage and starting anew, Enlightenment Europe made it possible for Russia to start anew as well. Since the basic premise of revolutionary Enlightenment was the destruction of all previously existing modes and orders, then Russia’s late entry into History would cease to matter. Europe, in pursuit of Enlightenment, would annihilate its history, thereby placing Russia and Europe on an equal plain from which to progress. Kireyevski’s early idealism soon burned out as his philosophical wanderings brought him full circle and away from Europeanism. He gazed with renewed appreciation upon his nation, particularly upon that component most isolated from European currents: the Orthodox religion. This renewed appreciation and turning away from reason was quintessentially Apostolic. Like the Apostles, whose rational faculties failed to comprehend the most important events in their lives, Kireyevski was also saved by women. His mother had been one of the most well-educated of all Russians, but it was his wife whose Christian mysticism and fascination with the teachings of the Orthodox Church fathers, eventually penetrated Kireyevski’s heart and mind.
In an approximation of the Slavophile view of the Orthodox faith, Orthodoxy was an organic continuation of the living faith of the Apostles. Catholicism, as Chomikov argued, was akin to an Islamic Caliphate. The idea of the Islamic Caliphate was predicated on a political authority that was at once a spiritual authority. Chomikov presumed that the Catholic Church had acquired the characteristics of an Islamic Caliphate during the Crusades when it became a political body fighting a Holy War akin to its Islamic enemies. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, remained true to the teaching of Christ to render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s. The Orthodox Church did not seek nor exercise political power, but submitted to the Tsar just as the Apostles submitted to Caeser: without any pretense to worldly power.
Outside observers confuse the total submission and compliance of the Orthodox Church to the Russian state as being akin to the Russian state dictating matters of the spirit through a state sanctioned Church. In point of fact, the Russian state could dictate anything it wanted, because the Tsar governed in accordance to the Russian ideal of “self-government” as expressed by Karamzim. The role of the Christian was to submit, and where the Christian spied a contradiction between the requirement of his Tsar and those of his God, the Christian was free to die. This is the Christian ideal held up by the Slavophile writers as distinctively Orthodox. The Catholic attempt to reconcile the City of God with the City of Mam through Platonism and Aristotelianism resulted, first, in a Papal political authority comparable to an Islamic Caliphate and then spiritual rebellion in the form of Protestantism which, in its negation of the political authority of the Catholic Caliphate also atomized and individualized all matters of the spirit. In Orthodoxy, the people obey the Church in all matters and the Church obeys the Tsar in political matters. If the Tsar is wise, he obeys the Church in matters of the spirit, but it is not the place of men to judge the wisdom of Tsars: this is left to God.
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