ALMOST THERE | ISSUE THREE
The quest for Divine Wisdom
The remarkable life of Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900).
Part Three: A brief outline of Soloviev's main philosophical principles and an assessment of his influence on the development of Russian Symbolism.
I am not afraid to admit that I find Soloviev’s philosophical writings—the few I have looked at—difficult to understand. Though undoubtedly a brilliant and original thinker, he was not always successful in making his ideas accessible to the layman. Take this explanation of how the Divine Sophia fits into the Christian trinity as a case in point:
In the divine organism of Christ, the acting, unifying principle, the principle that expresses the unity of that which absolutely is, is obviously the Word, or Logos. The second kind of unity, the produced unity, is called Sophia in Christian theosophy. If we distinguish in the Absolute in general between the Absolute as such (that which absolutely is) and its content, essence or idea, we will find the former directly expressed in the Logos and the latter directly expressed in Sophia which is thus the expressed or actualized idea.¹
With this in mind I hope you will understand why the following overview errs sharply on the side of brevity.
The Unity of All Things
In 1876 Soloviev returned to Russia from his mystical quest in Egypt. The following year he resigned his teaching positions in Moscow and moved to St Petersburg where he began to teach and work on his doctoral thesis. That year he also made his first public appearance in the capital with Three Powers, a lecture given in response to Russia’s recent declaration of war against Turkey. In Three Powers Soloviev argued that the world had reached a state of spiritual and intellectual stagnation; the root cause of this parlous state being the division of the world into two antagonistic, mutually exclusive spheres of influence: a blind, monolithic East, that suppressed the freedom of the individual, was set against a fragmented, self-serving West, gravitating inevitably towards anarchy and decay. The only way to break this impasse, indeed the only hope for the future, Soloviev contended, was through the intervention of a third element, the Slav peoples, whose unique nature was capable of integrating the two opposites to create something new.
Three Powers articulated an early formulation of Soloviev’s concept of vseedinstvo, usually translated as ‘the unity of all things.’ Vseedinstvo is characterised by the transformation of two opposing principles through the introduction of a third element or ‘power’ acting as kind of transcendental catalyst. This synthesis of opposites creates a completely new entity, yet one which still manages to retain the characteristics of its original parts. As we have seen, in Three Powers the Slav peoples were identified as this unifying principle, but in later writings Soloviev was to propose a number of others.
In Jewry and the Christian Question (1884) he not only accused Russians of unchristian behaviour towards the Jews—hardly a popular standpoint in the Russia of the day—but also suggested the prophetic element of Judaism as the third power necessary for the rejuvenation (and presumably unification) of the Western and Eastern Churches. Towards the end of his life Soloviev wrote a lengthy essay entitled The Life Drama of Plato (1898). A significant part of the essay was devoted to an analysis of Eros, which Soloviev identified as another of these third powers, one capable of bridging the divide between the divine and material worlds. However, perhaps not surprisingly given what we know of Soloviev, the element that appears most consistently in this role of ‘mystical transfigurer’ is the figure of the Divine Sophia.
In January 1878 Soloviev embarked on a series of twelve public lectures entitled Lectures on Divine Humanity. The social and intellectual elite of Russia came to hear him speak, including Lev Tolstoy and his personal friend, Fedor Dostoevsky.
The Lectures comprised a wide-ranging overview of the history of religion, but at their core was the central concept of bogochelovechestvo, Divine Humanity, defined as ‘the ongoing historical process of the interaction between humanity and divinity’. What this meant in practical terms, how it was to be achieved, and how individuals were to apply it to their daily lives remain, for me at least, unclear. There is however, a full English translation of the lectures for those who wish to delve into this further for themselves.²
It was in the seventh lecture of the series that Soloviev refers to the Divine Sophia publicly for the first time, though as we have seen from the extract quoted above, her exact nature remains somewhat difficult to determine. In fact it was to remain so for the rest of Soloviev’s life; he returned to the subject of Sophia time and again in his writings, yet he never succeeded in giving a clear, definitive picture of this shifting, multi-layered, often contradictory concept. From my own personal perspective, my abiding image of the Divine Sophia will always be the one as she appeared to Soloviev in his visions: a beautiful, angelic figure full of wisdom and love, clothed in a radiance of azure and gold. This was the image that was to inspire some of the greatest poets of the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian literature, the Symbolists.
Soloviev and Russian Symbolism
It is generally accepted amongst scholars that Vladimir Soloviev had a seminal influence on the development of Russian Symbolism.³ This assertion does, however, require a certain amount of qualification. Certainly the so-called ‘first generation’ of Symbolist poets, who founded the movement in the 1890’s (Balmont, Briusov, Sologub and Gippius amongst others) had little reason to look upon Soloviev as friend or ally, let alone a source of inspiration. One need not go far to find the reason for this: Soloviev made it quite clear he did not like the new literary movement. He openly criticised the Symbolists for what he saw as their faddish obsession with Nietzsche, published a number of critical reviews of their poetry and even wrote parodies of Symbolist poetry himself!
It was in fact Soloviev’s impact on the early work of the leading lights of the ‘second generation’ of Symbolists, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely and Alexander Blok, upon which his reputation as an inspirational figure rests. Ironically he did not live to see their rise to prominence in the early years of the twentieth century, but the sense of indebtedness they all felt toward the man who, in Ivanov’s words, had “mysteriously baptised” them is beyond doubt.
When Vyacheslav Ivanov split up with his wife Darya Mikhailovna in 1895 he was an unknown academic living and working in Western Europe. Darya Mikhailovna returned to Russia that year and—unbeknownst to her estranged husband—showed some of his poetry to Vladimir Soloviev. Soloviev was so impressed by what he saw he immediately telegraphed Ivanov, offering to place his work in the periodical press. Ivanov was delighted by the offer and went to see Soloviev the next time he was in Russia. The two became close, and Ivanov came to view his friend as something of a mentor and guide. Many of his subsequent theoretical writings on art can be traced back to Soloviev.
Bely’s introduction to Soloviev was, like Ivanov’s, quite providential. When he was fourteen years of age a new family moved into an apartment two floors below his own home. The newcomers turned out to be Mikhail Sergeevich
Soloviev (the philosopher’s brother) his wife and their son Sergei. Bely (or Boris Bugaev as he was still known) became a frequent visitor to the Soloviev household and he and Sergei were to become lifelong friends. The Solovievs encouraged ‘Borya’ Bugaev in his nascent poetic endeavours; indeed it was Mikhail Sergeevich who gave the young poet his nom de plume Andrei Bely. It was also at his friends’ home that Bely first met
Mikhail Sergeevich’s celebrated brother Vladimir.
That Bely’s aesthetic principles were strongly influenced by Soloviev is apparent in the preface to his first published work, The Dramatic Symphony (1902). In it Bely explained how his work aimed to achieve the interpenetration of the mystical and satirical levels of art- a recurrent theme in Soloviev’s own work. He made his closeness to Soloviev even more explicit in the title of his first collection of poetry, Gold in Azure, the colours associated with Soloviev’s visions of the Divine Sophia.
Andrei Bely in 1905
The third of the second generation Symbolists, Alexander Blok, had had no personal contact with Vladimir Soloviev, yet it could be argued that his early work was the most influenced by him. Blok's first collection of poetry, Verses on a Most Beautiful Lady (1905) has a strong mystical undercurrent drawn, in no small part, from Soloviev's writings.
Blok was a great admirer of Soloviev’s poetry, in which he saw confirmation of many of his own views on life as an eternal struggle from darkness towards immutability and light. In his love poems Blok found echoes of his belief that there was a direct link between the love of a human being and reverence for the World Soul.
It is not difficult to see why Soloviev was seen as such an important figure by the poets of the second generation. His aesthetics, his belief in the artist’s exalted, ‘theurgic’ mission, his theories on Platonic love, identifying Eros as a transcendental force, his mystical worldview with the Divine Sophia at its centre, all accorded well with their own beliefs and artistic sensibilities. It is true that as they matured as poets they began to move away from more overtly Solovievian themes, but they never lost a feeling of reverence for the man who had so greatly shaped the course of their artistic development.
Blok aged 23
¹ Extract taken from Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, by Judith Deutsch Kornblatt,
² For example, Vladimir Solovyov, Lectures on Godmanhood, with an introduction by Peter P. Zouboff.
'Godmanhood' is another way of translating bogochelovechestvo.
³ A detailed treatment of this subject can be found in Avril Pyman's magnificent A History of Russian Symbolism,
chapters 7 and 8.