by Andre van Loon
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.
Solovyov believes three moral attitudes grow from our shame, pity and reverence: asceticism, altruism and religiosity. Immediately however, there are problems. The broad sweep of history may point us in the right direction, but we continue in a fallen state, suffering from our own inabilities and perversities. The self-denying fanatic can forget common decency and turn cruel; people can forego altruism and view themselves as the centre of the universe (“essentially as absurd”, Solovyov writes, “as to consider oneself a glass bench or the constellation of the Big Dipper”); or people can hold sincere religious views while justifying torture and murder, as in the Spanish Inquisition.
In other words, despite all of our advantages, much has and will go wrong. (Yet, remarkably for a Christian thinker, especially someone close to Dostoevsky, Solovyov has little to say about the demonic. To him, our faults are delimitations of our virtues, rather than deliberate temptations by an evil spirit.) Guided by philosophers, however, and especially Christian ones, mankind can persevere and purge its vices, striving to be self-denying, forgiving and truly religious.
An awareness of real life, with its potential drawbacks and contingencies, underlies Solovyov’s critique of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy. To start with, Solovyov is deeply impressed with Kant’s work. He sees it as a superlative effort to establish ethics as a science, with its argument that the highest ethical principle should be universal and necessary. It is worth stopping to stress this point: Solovyov is profoundly Christian, with many of his arguments ending up far beyond reason, yet he is deeply respectful of and reliant on ethics as a scientific endeavour. That said, Solovyov identifies abstract thought as the potential villain in Kant. Solovyov argues that a true philosopher should have the insight to know that human beings, in real-life situations, might act against a universal principle and yet do what is right and just.
Solovyov’s approach to thinkers like Darwin, Schopenhauer and Kant tends to follow the same pattern. He starts with an engaged discussion of their work, without either negating or subverting them. His essential esteem for and learning from his predecessors is clear. And yet, he sees their most developed arguments as not going far enough. Darwin is right to describe an ever more complex set of organisms, all linked together, yet elides spirituality. Schopenhauer is correct to base his view of human morality on all-inclusive compassion for life, yet ignores that this also ennobles Nature. Kant relies too much on rationality and ignores the ultimate source of virtue:
Just as with physical growth, moral growth can be explained only from a surplus of nutrition…In order to explain this fact…we need to accept the reality of a superhuman environment, which feeds the collective life of humanity.
In other words, the world can only reach perfection through the superhuman divinity from which everything flows and to which everything returns.
Solovyov is likely to take many present-day readers by surprise with his sustained view of the moral good as a socially unifying force. It is unfashionable in today’s world, to say the least, to see religion as anything more than a personal belief system. Churchgoing is something that some people might do, and good for them, as long as they do not attempt to convert others or influence society beyond a few not-too-serious words or deeds. To Solovyov, such a view of religion is too limited, even pointless. Christian morality is not there just to make people feel better about themselves, but to lift up the whole world. Thus, Solovyov explores the ways in which individuals are bound into families, families into communities, communities into nations and nations into the Kingdom of God. To the modern mind, this may be as fascinating as it is alien, even shocking. One must realise, however, that The Justification of the Moral Good predates the 20th century’s totalitarian systems, which destroyed the credibility of grand systematising beliefs. Also, it should be made clear that there is nothing aggressive, even by implication, about Solovyov. Indeed, a strong case could be made that he is in fact otherworldly, a dreamer, full of thoughts of love that do not take into account more brutal ways to organise the world.
Indeed, many readers may reject Solovyov outright on account of his Christianity. He might even attract some mockery, such as when he (a life-lon bachelor) writes about marriage:
In a true marriage, natural sexual intercourse is not eliminated but transubstantiated…The male sees his natural complement, his material other – his wife – not as she appears to external observation and not as outsiders see her. He sees her in her true essence or idea. He sees her as she was intended originally to be, as God saw her from the beginning and as she ultimately should become…
Does this not go to show, a critic might ask, that whatever the strengths of philosophy or religion, its practitioners are naïve at best, and idiotic at worst (a view explored by Dostoevsky in The Idiot, in which Prince Myshkin bears more than a passing resemblance – in his seriousness, hopefulness and social awkwardness – to Solovyov)? Elsewhere, Solovyov is similarly idealistic about economic relations, the social classes, international relations, penal systems and warfare. Everybody should work, but no-one should be taken advantage or seek riches for their own sake; socialism is the same as capitalism in its fixation on money, ignoring Christ’s teaching “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”; one can distrust foreigners, but they suffer the same pains as we do and so they deserve our pity and solidarity; criminals should be imprisoned for as short as possible and then rehabilitated; wars may be necessary to defend one’s nation, but they should be avoided in most instances. It is undeniable that Solovyov has an optimistic trust in Man’s better nature and fails to give credence to greed, jealousy, hatred, vengefulness or bloodlust. Wishing they did not exist is not quite the same as their disappearance from the world.
That said, it is problematic, at least if one retains a measure of respect for Christianity, to ridicule Solovyov. One might as well call Christ Himself beside the point (though many, of course, do exactly that). Indeed, might not Christ have a point when He says: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? There is always the suspicion that there is something in this kind of hopeful, potentially provocative teaching, thus well argued by Christ and His followers like Solovyov.
Thomas Nemeth, the translator of this new, highly readable edition of The Justification of the Moral Good, has used the existing English, French and German translations to inform his own, providing detailed notes about how the text changed over its various re-writes by Solovyov. His new edition is likely to serve as the source text for English language scholars and interested readers for years to come, combining an unfussy style with an expert’s insights into Solovyov’s changing writing and overall worldview.
In the final analysis, it is always evident that Solovyov is a virtuoso: someone who has thought through Western philosophy and much else besides from an early age, but who still idealises human nature and social relations. One senses Solovyov’s temperamental stability, if also frequent melancholy. Reading him is an unique experience: he is full of thoughts and arguments, always ready to start talking about God, unity, love, perfection and all of history coming to an all-enveloping, glorious ending. He agrees with reason, not grudgingly, but in the instinctive recognition that it sets us apart from other creatures. Although it is not inconceivable he might be mocked, it is equally possible to find him to be cleverer, more insightful and spiritual than his detractors. In the end, if Solovyov had not existed, it would be necessary to invent him.
Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good
Edited and translated by Thomas Nemeth
Springer, Cham/Heidelberg/New York 2015.
Hardcover, 435 pages, US$179.00
Andre van Loon reviews literary fiction and biography for publications including Review31, Litro, The London Magazine and We Love This Book. Andre graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Joint Honours) in English Literature & Russian Studies. He lives in London.