The Cost of Utopia
July 29, 2007
written by MARK LILLA
There is a joke about the Russians, sometimes told by Russians. A young man from the provinces, inspired by a local doctor, travels to St. Petersburg because he wants to study “life.” He reads, he writes and eventually he enters medical school. On the first day of class the professor enters the hushed auditorium and announces, “Gentlemen, today we will discuss the pancreas.” The young man leaps from his seat, enraged. “The pancreas? How dare you mention the pancreas! We are not here to study the pancreas, we are here to study … LIFE!”
Dostoyevsky would have laughed. Even his darkest novels contain comic vignettes about young Russians inflamed by grand ideas and oblivious to the obvious. The comedy ends when somebody picks up a hatchet and tries to put those ideas into practice. That has happened often enough in Russian history to raise the question: Is there something special about the Russian relation to ideas? Throughout the 19th century the so-called Westernizers blamed the Russian character, which after centuries of religious orthodoxy and political repression had become lazy, mystical and prone to fantastical dreams. What Russia needed, they thought, was a dose of Western philosophy and science to sweep out the cobwebs and rationalize society. They got nowhere, and many fled to Paris, where they bemoaned la Russie in flawless French.
The anti-Westernizers were a mixed lot. Some were believers in the old rites of the Russian church; others defended aristocratic privilege against the revolutionary mob. The most interesting minds, though, were the Slavophiles, who loathed the growing influence of Western philosophical ideas and romanticized the Slavic mind. Dostoyevsky was sympathetic to them and believed that modern Western thought was breeding a new kind of fanatic — cold, materialistic, indifferent to suffering. The traditional Russian virtues of compassion and spontaneity were disappearing in the face of utilitarianism, nihilism, anarchism and all the other isms spewed out by the West. Understanding the pancreas is all well and good, but when rationalists wearing square hats deny the demands of the soul they turn us into beasts.
Now, understanding the soul is also well and good. But what happens when soulfulness stands in the way of rational philosophy and science? Isn’t there a price to be paid? That is the question Lesley Chamberlain poses in “Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia.” The question is not new, nor are most of her answers. There are very fine studies of 19th-century Russian thought available in English — by Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Frank, E. H. Carr, Martin Malia — and the interested reader will want to turn to those first. But by focusing specifically on how Western philosophical ideas from Descartes through Marx were absorbed into Russian thinking, Chamberlain does complicate the received picture somewhat. As she sees it, the decisive struggle was not simply between Westernizers and anti-Westernizers, but between Russians who stood by the philosophical legacy of France and England, and those who drew sustenance from the far murkier thinkers of modern Germany.
Western philosophy first gained a toehold in 18th-century Russia due to the extraordinary efforts of Catherine the Great, who read Locke and adopted some of his educational reforms, corresponded with Voltaire and encouraged Diderot and D’Alembert in their work on the French Encyclopedia. But after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Russian aristocrats and many intellectuals turned away from the clear, distinct and universal ideas of the Enlightenment, which were now associated with terror and imperialism. This was an enormous mistake, in Chamberlain’s view, because it meant abandoning the subtle equipoise between reason and skepticism that characterized the French and English Enlightenments at their best. Instead, Russia found itself coming of age philosophically just when German Idealism was at its peak and gaining adherents across continental Europe.
What did the Russians learn from the Germans? This is hard to make out from the badly confused accounts of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schelling given by Chamberlain, an English journalist and novelist. The main story, though, she gets about right. What the 19th-century Russian intellectuals found in, and partly projected onto, Germany was a romantic alternative to the supposedly cold, heartless logic of Descartes and his progeny. They were especially drawn to F. W. J. Schelling, whose philosophy of nature, a hash of intuition and metaphysical speculation, was closer to theosophy than to modern science. (Lots about “life,” nothing about the pancreas.) Schelling’s doctrines proved to be infinitely adaptable and unfalsifiable, and thus served as useful defenses against French and English rationalism. Like Napoleon’s troops, the modern ideas of Bacon, Descartes, Locke and Hume were turned back at the gates of Moscow and beat a slow retreat through the snow.
Hostility to the modern Enlightenment is itself a modern phenomenon, though it usually has archaic roots. Chamberlain says surprisingly little about the role of Russian religion, with its noble lineage of mystics and saints, in shaping Russian attitudes toward philosophy. She focuses on another crucial element, nationalism. In the 19th century, Pilate’s question “What is truth?” was transformed into a nationalist question, “What is Russian truth?” Pride and shame motivated the search for a distinctly Russian path through modernity, one where “integral knowledge” would replace Western logic and “organic personality” supplant Western individualism. Yes, Russia might be a backward land of serfs and despots, but by being true to itself it would one day become the leading civilization on earth. That, Chamberlain persuasively suggests, was the operative fantasy.
It is in this light that she considers the history of Marxism, down through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. These are her most engaging pages. Marxism was in fact a late import into Russia and was never philosophically deep; Lenin, we learn in an endnote, did not read Hegel until 1914. And the bogus science of dialectical materialism, though dogmatically imposed in Soviet education right up until the end, did not decisively shape the vision or practice of Soviet communism, Chamberlain maintains. Rather, Marxism permitted a modern expression of old Russian ideas of solidarity, sacrifice, hope and collective redemption. The noble peasant would be transformed through revolution into the noble laborer; the Holy Fool would be reborn as Stakhanov, the mythic Soviet worker who exceeded every daily quota. It was not the stuffed suits of the Kremlin who were the rationalists, it was the dissidents — the Andrei Sakharovs and Elena Bonners — who became physicists and doctors in order to cut through Russian dreaminess and devote themselves to truth.
How is philosophy faring in Russia today? Chamberlain does not say, though based on her reading of history she is not optimistic. “Russian philosophy,” she writes, “can’t begin until it leaves behind the superstitious, prescientific world of the 19th-century peasant community and the Romanticism which replaced it in educated minds. It has to separate values from facts, personalities from truth if it wants to be considered as more than poetry.” But as her book shows, there are deep reasons that people remain attached to prescientific worldviews and romantic dreams, even while living in the midst of modernity.
At its best, Chamberlain’s account sheds light on the complex cultural reaction set off when modern Western ideas wash up on the shores of cultures simultaneously ashamed of their social and scientific backwardness and convinced of their moral superiority. In the 19th century Russia was the small theater in which this drama played out; today, the theater is the entire world. The value of this book is that it offers a small window into the mental universe of underground men everywhere.