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Russian Thought Lecture 1: Petr Chaadaev and the Russian Question

Readings: Petr Chaadaev, “First Philosophical Letter” and “Apologia of a Madman”

Before we get on to Chaadaev, the first question we must address is why he acts as the starting point for our exploration of Russian intellectual history. Chaadaev did not invent Russian philosophy; there was already a significant tradition of philosophical and polemical writing in Russia that developed during the eighteenth century, mainly as a result of Peter the Great’s Westernizing reforms. Alongside advances in science, questions about what “Russia” and “Russian” meant contributed to the development of a number of areas of study. In very broad terms, probably the most significant moments here are the work of Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765) to codify the Russian literary language, and that of Vasilii Trediakovsky (1703-1768) on Russian versification. In the reign of Catherine the Great, and under the influence of Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire, questions about the nature and rights of man gained a specifically Russian slant in debates about serfdom and autocracy. One of the greatest critics of the Russian system of governance in this period was Aleksandr Radishchev (1749-1802), who was arrested and exiled to Siberia for denouncing serfdom in his 1790 work A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow. At the opposite pole was the conservative writer Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826), most famous for his twelve-volume History of the Russian State, who was a vehement apologist for Russian autocracy. Critical views of Europe were also developing during this period, the most famous and elegant being Letters from France (1778) by Denis Fonvizin (1744/5-1792).

Despite this background of debate and reflection on Russian questions and comparisons with Europe, there are good reasons for starting our course with the next generation, and specifically with Petr Chaadaev (1794-1856). This is not simply because his represented one of the first systematic attempts to develop a broader philosophical system within which to contextualize ideas of what Russia and being Russian meant, but also because of the context in which his work appeared. Beginning his writing in the late 1820s, in the aftermath of the failed Decembrist revolt of 1825, and in the early years of Nicholas I’s reign, which saw a crackdown on political activity outside the government, Chaadaev’s work articulated crucial questions about Russia’s position and destiny that resonated within the growing sense of crisis and impotence being experienced Russia’s educated elite. In addition to the political situation in Russia, it tapped into wider philosophical concerns about “nation,” with Romantic Nationalism developing towards the end of the eighteenth century, primarily within German philosophy, including Herder’s idea that a people’s society and culture were influenced by their environment, and Hegel’s notion of the “zeitgeist,” or spirit of the age that was to be found at a particular time in a particular people, enabling them to become an active historical force. Alongside other aspects of European philosophy that were much under discussion, particularly amongst young educated Russians at the time, these ideas formed the backdrop to both Chaadaev’s questioning (and criticism) of Russia’s role, and the response it received.

This, then, was the point when Russian thought gained its specific character in relation to the theme of Russian identity, as Aizlewood has suggested (p. 21-2), and it set the terms of the debate for the next twenty or thirty years, and this relates to another aspect of the context that I think is equally significant: the development of Russian literature. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chaadaev was writing at the same time as Pushkin – the two were friends – or that the main tenets of Russian thought were consolidated in the period when Russian literature was finding its true voice. The inter-relationship between Russian thought and literature is important, because in the absence of other forums for political debate, literature and literary criticism played a major role in enabling that debate to continue, sometimes openly and sometimes in coded form. This is the era of philosophical discussion circles, where people from different intellectual backgrounds would meet to debate the latest developments in and understandings of European philosophy, and its applicability to Russia. And it is also the heyday of so-called “fat journals,” where the latest works of fiction and poetry were published alongside literary criticism, and articles ranging from history and philosophy to the natural sciences. So there is no straightforward dividing line between Russian literature and thought, and this is why, looking ahead, we will be examining novelists such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and critics such as Belinsky, on this course. In the first period we are addressing, a crucial connection can be found in the figure of the “superfluous man,” depicted and discussed in so much literature and criticism; his inability to act and lack of outlet for his talents is in effect one of the results of the dilemma Chaadaev expresses.

Petr Chaadaev, 1794-1856

So who was Petr Chaadaev? He was born in Moscow in 1794 to a noble family, educated at Moscow University but left to join the army and fought in the Napoleonic war of 1812. His friends at both university and in the army included future Decembrists, and as I said he was also a friend of Pushkin’s. He was considered one of the great Russian liberals of the 1820s, and was greatly admired; in 1818 Pushkin addressed the first of four poems to Chaadaev, which I think indicates his admiration for his friend, as well as the ideals they shared: a love of liberty and a notion of duty to Russia, but also a sense of defiance and of the tensions inherent in holding these ideals:

К Чаадаеву
Любви, надежды, тихой славы
Недолго нежил нас обман,
Исчезли юные забавы,
Как сон, как утренний туман;
Но в нас горит еще желанье,
Под гнетом власти роковой
Нетерпеливою душой
Отчизны внемлем призыванье.
Мы ждем с томленьем упованья
Минуты вольности святой,
Как ждет любовник молодой
Минуты верного свиданья.
Пока свободою горим,
Пока сердца для чести живы,
Мой друг, отчизне посвятим
Души прекрасные порывы!
Товарищ, верь: взойдет она,
Звезда пленительного счастья,
Россия вспрянет ото сна,
И на обломках самовластья
Напишут наши имена!

Translations into English are available by Andrey Kneller and A. N. Matyanina.

In 1821 Chaadaev unexpectedly gave up his position in the army in favour of a more contemplative and scholarly life. He spent three years in Europe and was in fact abroad at the time of the failed revolt of 1825, but when he returned in 1826 he was briefly arrested because he knew many of the leading Decembrist figures.

Chaadaev’s time in Europe consolidated his growing religious sensibility, but also confirmed his leanings towards the Roman Catholic church, although he remained within the Orthodox church and never converted to Catholicism (and was very upset by accusations that he was a Catholic). There is nevertheless distinct Catholic influence in his work, mainly coming from the French traditionalists such as Joseph de Maistre and Chateaubriand, and an appreciation of the Catholic church which marks him out from many subsequent Russian thinkers. At the same time, there is also evidence of his engagement with German philosophy, notably Kant (whose concept of reason he reacted against), Schelling (with whom he had considerable sympathy and conducted a correspondence) and Hegel (Dobieszewski classifies Chaadaev as a Hegelian thinker in his conception of history as progress towards the ideal, pp. 28-31).

His main work was his “Philosophical Letters,” written between 1827 and 1831. Philosophical Letters as a genre were often used as a construct to convey new experiences or knowledge or to challenge received ideas (as we see in the use of the form by Voltaire and Montesquieu), and Chaadaev is therefore suggesting that he is seeing Russia with new eyes and rejecting existing interpretations of its current status. Like most Philosophical Letters they were addressed to a specific person, Mme Ekaterina Panova, in response to her request for spiritual guidance. But she never received them, and they were in fact open letters, the public and general in the guise of the private and particular. Some of the letters were circulating in manuscript form from around 1830, and Chaadaev read some of them to friends. Following a mistake by the censorship (neither the first nor the last time this happens in the history of Russian literature and thought), the First Philosophical Letter was published in 1836 in the journal Teleskop. It was immediately declared dangerous to public order, and the editor of the journal, Nikolai Nadezhdin, was exiled to Siberia, while the censor who passed it was dismissed. Chaadaev himself was declared insane and placed under house arrest. He had nothing else published in his lifetime. (The Philosophical Letters and his “Apologia of a Madman,” which he wrote after these events, were published in Paris in 1862.) But the impact of the First Letter was enormous; copies were circulated privately and sold under the counter, and the general view at the time in educated circles was that if something was worth suppressing, it must be worth reading. Alexander Herzen (one of the writers we will be studying later this term) described it as:

a shot that rang out in the dark night; whether it was something foundering that proclaimed its own wreck, whether it was a signal, a cry for help, whether it was news of the dawn or news that there would not be one—it was all the same: one had to wake up. (Herzen, vol. 2, p. 261).

The First Philosophical Letter is paradoxical in its importance for the development of Russian intellectual culture, because its main point is the denial that there is any value whatsoever to be found in Russian culture or history – and it was the crisis implied by this denial that created the impact the letter had. But rather than simply outline Chaadaev’s argument about Russia’s backwardness from the First Letter – we will discuss that in detail in next week’s seminar – I want instead to examine the philosophical background that he used to develop this perspective throughout the series of eight letters (the clearest explanation of which can be found in Walicki, pp. 81-91), as it amounted, as Dobieszewski states (p. 31), to a coherent theory rather than a collection of observations and criticisms, which is not so apparent if you just read the First Letter. In examining this background, I will also show how he relates to (and diverges from) subsequent trends in Russian thought, both about the Russian question and more broadly.

The first thing to note is that Chaadaev’s philosophy is deeply religious, and he was attempting to find a way of integrating philosophy – and the concept of reason it entails – with a thorough-going religion conception. This means that within his schema, everything comes from or is directed from above; as he states as an “absolute principle,” “human reason cannot prescribe a law for itself” (Letter V, p. 58). This is his rejection of Kantian autonomous individual reason – precisely because he believes it cannot be a source of morality – and it has a number of implications, most importantly for his view of the individual. Contrary to the ideals of the Enlightenment, Chaadaev did not see the striving for individual freedom as natural (Letter IV), and in fact he saw human beings as existing in a state of dependence. This meant that the individual has no meaning outside of the context of society, but this relationship is also part of a wider scheme of hierarchies of being that according to Chaadaev has four levels (Walicki, p. 83). At the top is God. The next level is the social sphere, which is seen as a type of collective consciousness (Letter VI, p. 72). The third level is the individual consciousness, by which Chaadaev means those people who are separated from of the wholeness of the social sphere; at this level there is no conception of collective responsibility and no possibility of communality. Finally at the bottom there is nature prior to man.

The crucial concept governing this schema, and the whole of Chaadaev’s thinking, is the universal, “an objective unity, completely outside the reality which we sense” (Letter V, p. 58 – this letter as a whole contains the most detailed examination of what he means by the universal). This is not identical to God, although God is evidently present in or accessible through the universalizing nature of the social sphere: this is where human activity is raised to a higher level, and in Chaadaev’s terms the complete society ultimately fuses with God (Walicki, p. 84). The most significant aspect of the universal for Chaadaev relates to knowledge. He states,

just as a certain plastic and perpetual work of the material elements or atoms, the generation of physical beings, constitutes material nature, so also then a similar work of intellectual elements or ideas, the generation of spirits, constitutes spiritual nature; and just as I conceive of all tangible matter as one whole, then I must also conceive of the succession of intelligences as a single and sole intelligence. (Letter V, pp. 60-1)

He describes this as the universal mind or intelligence, which is “nothing but the sum of all the ideas which live on in man’s memory.” (Letter V, pp. 61-2)

What precisely he means by universal intelligence is not always entirely clear; as Copleston states,

Sometimes Chaadaev writes in such a way as to imply that it is only moral ideas, and ideas of spiritual reality, which were originally communicated by God and transmitted by tradition, and that he is not referring to the universal ideas of natural science. Other statements, however, seem to imply that the so-called “universal intelligence” is the locus of all universal ideas. (Copleston, p. 34)

It is worth noting that universal intelligence includes not only ideas in the intellectual sense, but also, for example, emotional memory:

There are also many ideas which have never been announced before public meetings, have never been sung by rhapsodists, have never been marked either on columns or on parchments; the dates of their appearance have never been ascertained by calculation or by the course of the stars, criticism has never weighed them on its partial balance, but an unknown hand puts them into the interior of souls; the first smile of the mother, the first caress of the father, communicates them to the heart of the newborn. These are the powerful recollections in which the experience of the ages is concentrated: each individual receives them with the air which he breathes. In this milieu, then, all the works of intelligence are completed. (Letter V, p. 62)

It is this universal intelligence, that has its source in memory and in particular collective memory, therefore that raises mankind above the state of being animals, in terms of the development of both reason and spirt, and it is this, therefore, that enables knowledge, for example, of good and evil, and what constitutes justice, so it underlies our moral capabilities as well. And it also plays a crucial role in underpinning Chaadaev’s attitude towards other aspects of his philosophy. History is important because the universal intelligence evolves over time – through the historical process (on this question see in particular Letter VII). This is why Russia’s apparent lack of a history – the absence he perceives of any sense of natural development over time – becomes such a significant factor in forming his critique in the First Philosophical Letter: without a history, no collective consciousness can develop (and vice versa). If, as Chaadaev suggests, it is the mission of both individuals and nations to move towards the universal (Walicki, p. 85), then Europe represents the paradigm of collective consciousness and the development that enables, while Russia, in contrast, is in a parlous condition because it is deprived of that development.

And this also relates to the implications of the universal intelligence for the form religion takes. Downplaying the individual means that the sort of personal self-perfection we will see later in Tolstoi’s thinking has little significance in Chaadaev’s philosophy. Instead, because of the greater significance he ascribes to the social sphere, the church itself is centralized, and, because of the primacy of shared knowledge, he gives an important role to the observance of its rituals and traditions, which discipline the soul (Walicki, p. 84), thereby allowing the individual to participate in the greater whole. But this is not an automatic function of any church; for Chaadaev it is precisely the Roman Catholic church that manifests this unifying mission, with the Papacy acting as a symbol of that unity.

The Orthodox church – Russian or otherwise – is not viewed as having a similar unifying structure. This is largely because of the separation of Orthodoxy from the universal church (a question I will discuss in more detail in my next lecture, on Slavophilism). But it is also because of the emphasis he places on knowledge; the theological tradition in the Catholic church played a major role in the development of philosophy in Europe, gradually branching out into other areas of learning. Theology is not completely absent from Orthodoxy, but it tends to go back to the early Church Fathers, and there is not the same continuous theological tradition (there is indeed an anti-theological side to Orthodoxy, which rejects any form of rationalization of faith). Thus within the Russian tradition itself there are obstacles to participation in knowledge and therefore higher unity. Therefore the Catholic church is in Chaadaev’s terms progressive, while Orthodoxy is regressive. And if this is true in the field of knowledge, then it equally impacts upon the actions he sees coming from the Orthodox church, as his denunciation of serfdom indicates:

What is this terrible ulcer [serfdom] which is destroying us? How does it happen that the most striking trait of Christian society is the very one which the Russian people renounced in the very bosom of Christianity? Why is the effect of this religion reversed in our land? I do not know, but it seems to me that this alone should cause us to doubt the orthodoxy which we boast about. […] You know that even the most stubborn sceptics admit that we are indebted to Christianity for the destruction of serfdom in Europe. […] you know that the clergy set an example everywhere, by freeing their own serfs, and that Roman Popes were the first to call for the destruction of slavery in the world subordinated to their spiritual authority. Then why did Christianity not have the same effects in our land? Why, on the contrary, did the Russian people fall into slavery only after having become Christian, namely in the reign of Godunov and Shuiskii? […] Can [the Orthodox church] explain why it did not raise its motherly voice against the repulsive violence committed by one part of the nation against the other? (Letter II, pp. 35-6)

The violence of serfdom can therefore be seen as the greatest example of the absence of unity in society, and this has been perpetuated by the Orthodox church, leaving people isolated from each other and without access to the social sphere. And this is perhaps the most unusual feature of Chaadaev’s thought. The idea of unity is, as we will see, a recurring theme – perhaps the recurring theme – in Russian thought; as the philosopher Mikhail Epstein has said,

If we try to single out the central trend of Russian philosophy that can be compared with those of “rationalism” in French philosophy or “empiricism” in English philosophy, this would be “totalism.” Such diverse Russian thinkers as Chaadaev and Belinsky, Ivan Kireevsky and Herzen, Vladimir Soloviev and Vasily Rozanov all put forward the category of “integrity,” “wholeness,” “totality” (tsel’nost’, tselostnost‘) or “total-unity” (vseedinstvo), which presupposes, first of all, the unity of knowledge and existence, of reason and faith, intellectual and social life. (Mikhail Epstein, “The Phoenix of Philosophy”)

The paradox of Chaadaev is that he combines this concept of wholeness with a Eurocentric view (Peterson, p. 550). Certainly among the thinkers who immediately followed Chaadaev, unity is a quality that is more usually ascribed to Russia. Likewise, the critique of individualism is something that we encounter frequently elsewhere in the Russian tradition, but thinkers who disagreed on practically everything else generally associated this with “the West” rather than Russia. So Chaadaev’s insistence in the First Letter (and beyond) that unity resides in Europe and individualism in Russia certainly marks him out from Slavophiles, despite their shared religious conception of history, and the Westernizers, despite their common belief that the West was a valid source of knowledge and values.

Nor, beyond his criticism of serfdom and concern for their material welfare, did Chaadaev exhibit the interest iN the narod (the peasantry) and the assumption of their spiritual value – or its communal nature – that came to dominate later schools of thought. When he talks about the social sphere and its fusion with God, he is not thinking of the masses, who merely follow paths that are laid down for them, but of a spiritual elite, who will bring a spiritual force into life, realizing the Kingdom of God on earth (Walicki, pp. 84-5; hence the epigraph to the First Letter, “Thy Kingdom come”). Again, this is very different from discussions of the role of the elite in the works of later writers (when it generally refers to the Europeanized Russian elite and is viewed in a far less positive light).

Nevertheless, while these various factors may reappear in very different guises, the diverging value-judgements, emphases and conclusions of the next generation of thinkers (whom we will be looking at in the next few weeks) all in fact reveal the extent to which they were inspired (or provoked) by Chaadaev’s analysis. By emphasizing, in the first place, what Russia lacks, he placed the question of national identity at the forefront of debate. But concerning his own ideas, the main question that remains is: how his view of Russia developed after the First Philosophical Letter, and why he was apparently able to draw more positive conclusions about Russia’s destiny in his “Apologia of a Madman.” In next week’s seminar, we will be discussing his characterization of Russia in the First Letter, and what – if anything – really changes between that and the “Apologia.”


Philosophical Works of Peter Chaadaev, ed. R. McNally and R. Tempest (Dordrecht, 1991) | Russian text: Философические письма and Апология сумасшедшего

Aizlewood, Robin, “Revisiting Russian Identity in Russian Thought: From Chaadaev to the Early Twentieth Century,” Slavonic and East European Review, 78.1 (2000), 20-43

Copleston, Frederick C., Philosophy in Russia: from Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev (University of Notre Dame, 1986)

Dobieszewski, Janusz, “Petr Chaadaev and the Rise of Modern Russian Philosophy,” Studies in East European Thought, 54 (2002), 25-46

Epstein, Mikhail, “The Phoenix of Philosophy: On the Meaning and Significance of Contemporary Russian Thought,” Symposion: A Journal of Russian Thought, 1 (1996), 35-74 | online

Herzen, Alexander, My Past and Thoughts, trans. Constance Garnett (London, 1927)

Peterson, Dale E., “Civilizing the Race: Chaadaev and the Paradox of Eurocentric Nationalism,” Russian Review, 56 (1997), 550-63

Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1980)

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  1. Alexej Dischenko

     /  October 19, 2012

    Чаадаев был более славянофилом, чем сами славянофилы. Его мысль была более русская по форме, по силе и по гибкости.

    Известно, что Николай I наорал на Чаадаева после его знаменитого “Философического письма”. Но ошибка Николая, и ошибка тяжёлая, ошибка непростительная, заключается не в этом, а в том, что он не принял искренних извинений Чаадаева и не помог ему в его дальнейшей философской деятельности. После высочайшего окрика Чаадаев моментально перестроился и стал говорить об особой, исключительной миссии России, о её культурной самобытности и уникальности. И эти мысли Чаадаева отнюдь не были вымученным компромиссом с совестью, бездарным следствием бездарного испуга. Нет, мысли Чаадаева были ТАК ЖЕ НАПРЯЖЕНЫ, ТАК ЖЕ ИНТЕРЕСНЫ, ТАК ЖЕ ОРИГИНАЛЬНЫ. Тема его ЗРЕЛЫЙ РУССКИЙ УМ не интересовала. Интересовала форма, интерпретация. Тему о бездарности России он взял из-за её своеобычности, оригинальности. Но ему дали другую тему, МЕНЕЕ оригинальную, но он и её сумел ТАК подать, ТАК выправить… Каким же нужно быть политическим недоумком, чтобы не принять нового Чаадаева с распростёртыми объятиями. Если бы ему дали тогда журнал, дали кафедру… да что там, если бы только благосклонно кивнули из Зимнего. И пропали бесценные мысли, забыли так и не запомнив. Мысли, к уровню которых во многом русские подходят только сейчас. И если бы ТОГДА опубликовали и распространили, ну хотя бы это:

    “По отношению к мировой цивилизации мы находимся в совершенно особом положении, ещё не оценённом. Не имея никакой связи с происходящим в Европе, мы, следовательно, более бескорыстны, более сдержанны, более безличны, более беспристрастны по всем предметам спора, нежели европейские люди. Мы являемся в некотором роде законными судьями по всем высшим мировым вопросам. Я убеждён, что нам предназначено разрешить самые великие проблемы мысли и общества, ибо мы свободны от пагубного давления предрассудков и авторитетов, очаровавших умы в Европе. И целиком в нашей власти оставаться настолько независимыми, насколько необходимо, настолько справедливыми, насколько возможно. Они это сделать уже не в силах. Там на них давит огромный груз воспоминаний, привычек, рутины…”

    “Мы стоим, по отношению к Европе, на исторической точке зрения, или, если угодно, мы – публика, а там актёры, нам и принадлежит право судить пьесу…”

    (from http://www.samisdat.com/3/311-904.htm)

  1. Slavery and the Church according to Chaadaev « XIX век

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