Leont'ev's Genuinely Religious Politics

Modern European consciousness has been characterized by the way it opposes spiritual independence to the powerful state. When classifying Schopenhauer as ‘a total solitary’, Nietzsche wrote of how ‘wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated; for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart’.[i] Within a Soviet context, Orlando Figes has noted, the satire of the ‘omnipresent bureaucratic state’ in the Strugatskie brothers’ fiction Predatory Things of the Century (1965) centred precisely on how the people have become ‘spiritually dead’, because under technology’s rule ‘there is no longer any need for work or independent thought’.[ii] Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) foregrounds the argument – advanced in that novel by the character Naphta – that Enlightenment secularization resulted in the grounding of ‘“all human conflict”’ in ‘“the clash between the interests of the individual and of society”’; Settembrini resists this as an ‘“insinuation that the modern state dooms the individual to the hell of slavery”’.[iii]  
The thinking of the Russian conservative romantic Konstantin Leont’ev (1831-91) was distinctive in that it paired spiritual independence with an unfree society positively. ‘Parliamentarism is powerless to elevate by itself a nation that has become spiritually impoverished, whereas the historical periods that were full of life and creativity were great even without free institutions.’ Leont’ev argued that in fact political unfreedom could be a boon. He thought that (as Stephen Lukashevich has put it) ‘the true freedom of the individual, which was the freedom to express creatively one’s own personality, was more current in times and places where political freedom was unknown’.[iv] The state’s power was held by Leont’ev to be enabled by the fusion of its unfreedom with personal freedom – a freedom which is seen to be possible even within a coercive society.

‘The state does not maintain itself by freedom alone or by restrictions and severity, but by the yet hard-to-grasp harmony between, on the one hand, the discipline of faith, authority, laws, traditions and customs, and, on the other hand, the real freedom of the individual, which is possible even in China, where torture exists.’[v]

The first aspect of Leont’ev’s alignment of spiritual independence with an unfree society which I want to draw out here, relates to his views on authority and law. It is helpful to view Leont’ev as representative of the sort of Russian philosophical tradition to which Lesley Chamberlain was referring when she wrote that ‘the tradition exists, of a culture which above all things wishes to be moral by preserving the integrity of the world and the integrity of others – not their right to be fully fledged individuals so much as their right to be private souls’.[vi] Some people fail to fledge, or lack the options to become fully fledged. Particularly for a member of an excluded or economically inactive social grouping therefore, cultivation of a spiritual life can become of greater importance than democratic, right-bearing activity or the entitled pursuit of a career; this is all the more the case in a society where democracy is illusory or career options plainly unrewarding. The contrast that Chamberlain poses between ‘fully fledged individuals’ and ‘private souls’, is thus another formulation of Leont’ev’s distinction between ‘the individual’s legal freedom and the personality’s real development – one that can occur even in a state of slavery’. Nikolai Berdiaev identified Leont’ev himself as ‘an example of a “personality”, of “an individuality’s living development”, as distinct from a mere individual, content with an abstract “freedom of his person”’.[vii]  

Leont’ev’s suspicion of abstract legal freedom articulates what Berdiaev called Leont’ev’s thought’s ‘very Russian motif’ of exposing ‘the wrongness of external law’ – a motif Berdiaev also notes in Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880).[viii] The wariness of legal emancipatory claims reappeared in Leont’ev’s remark that ‘the divine truth of the Gospel held out no promise of earthly happiness, preached no legal freedom, but only an ethical, spiritual freedom attainable in conditions of the worst slavery’.[ix] Berdiaev glosses Leont’ev’s attitude here in his comment that ‘In his mind a state of Christian slavery was more desirable than state Christian freedom’.[x] Leont’ev’s clear advocacy of spiritual freedom over legal or state freedom, makes Berdiaev’s assessment that ‘as distinct from the Slavophils he [Leont’ev] entirely disbelieved in the freedom of the spirit’ difficult to understand – as indeed does Berdiaev’s judgement that Leont’ev ‘had an extraordinary freedom of mind, greater perhaps than that of most Russian intellects’.[xi]

Leont’ev contended that ‘our [Russian] people loves and understands authority better than laws. […] A constitution, which would undermine Russian authority, would not have time to teach the people a devotion such as the English have for their legislature.’ For Leont’ev it was instead Byzantinism which was - in Lukashevich’s words - ‘the inner Idea of the Russian state which gave the state its form and its inner balance’. Lukashevich quotes Leont’ev defining Byzantinism: ‘We know, for instance, that Byzantinism in a state means autocracy. In religion, it means a Christianity with distinctive traits, which make it different from the Western Churches’.[xii] The connection between the Russian evolution of religiosity and coercive government was made by Leont’ev in a passage cited by Berdiaev.

‘For the Russian people to become truly a “godly” one, it is necessary for it to be confined, held down, paternally and conscientiously constrained. It must not be deprived of its external limitations and curbs, which have for so long affirmed and inculcated humility and obedience in it. These qualities constituted its psychic character, and have made of it a truly great and exemplary people.’[xiii]

For Leont’ev what he elsewhere calls the ‘lawful and sacred right of coercion over our will’, really stands in a dialectical relation to a (supposedly) weak or submissive character: despotism affirms weakness, but is also rendered necessary by it. ‘Out of affection for Russia, I often think that all our mean personal defects are very useful from the cultural standpoint, for they create the necessity of despotism, of inequality and of forceful spiritual and physical discipline.’[xiv]

Leont’ev’s theory of the dynamics of evolution rested on a notion of coercive cohesion. ‘The highest level of evolution, not only of the organic matter, but in general, of all the organic phenomena, is the highest degree of complexity held together by a certain inner and despotic cohesiveness.’ As Lukashevich notes, with his complexifying stratification of society Peter the Great ‘created in Russia the conditions that Leontev deemed ideal for the vitality of the state, namely a maximum of inner diversity knit together by the despotism of the state form and a leading social force – the gentry’. Evolution driven by what Lukashevich calls ‘an intransigent organic law (the “Idea” of the organism)’, had for Leont’ev an innately aesthetic quality – Lukashevich pointed to Leont’ev’s concept of ‘the “Form” which reflected the vigour, the personality, the beauty and the “Idea” of the organism’. That is, for Leont’ev the vitality indebted to discipline was intrinsically aesthetic. As Lukashevich writes, it is not just that Leont’ev’s evolutionary theory is applicable to ‘art, philosophy and historical change’; for Leont’ev, awareness of the dynamics of evolution ‘would permit men to improve their personal, social and historical life by inducing them to cultivate esthetics’.

‘[…] Leontev indicated that in nature equality, freedom and loss of form […] were the destroyers of life, which demanded inequality, discipline and a unique self-expression. By the same token “freedom,” equality and loss of form were negating the sense of beauty or esthetics, which was the outward expression of vitality’.[xv]

Leont’ev’s privileging of coercive cohesion explains why he was not a populist or nationalist thinker. Berdiaev saw how according to Leont’ev ‘a great nation survived and prospered by virtue of the coercive idea dominating its foundation, rather than by virtue of any autonomous force’. Leont’ev, Berdiaev noted, found ‘truth and beauty in the universal and organizing principles of the Church and the State, in objective ideas, that is, rather than in the popular genius or in the principle of nationality as an independent value’. But really, as Berdiaev goes on to explain, Byzantine Orthodoxy and autocracy do not possess equal status in Leont’ev’s view, insofar as a State remains a national element, and Leont’ev (Chaadaev-like) exalts the objective or religious idea above the national idea. His politics is an essentially religious politics. ‘Leontiev did not believe that a State could survive without mystical foundations.’ Berdiaev quotes in this connection:

Personal morality and even personal valour have in themselves no organizing or governmental principle. The organizing quality is not the outcome of a personal virtue or of a subjective feeling of honour, but of external and objective ideas, of which religion is the principal one.’[xvi]

Leont’ev’s foregrounding of universal principles and objectivities manifested too in his view of spiritual life. ‘The flowering of culture is brought about by transcendental principles and the objective value of ideas.’ For universal principles discipline and, as Berdiaev puts it, Leont’ev’s ‘morality justified slavery, coercion and despotism, in return for political and national power, flowering culture, originality of spirit’.[xvii] Thus the second aspect of Leont’ev’s alignment of spiritual independence with an unfree society which I want to emphasize, concerns his views on the development of individuals. In Berdiaev’s words, Leont’ev ‘did not love man’s individualities for their own sake, but he did respect original and powerful individualities, - “the exclusive, distinct, powerful and expressive development of characters”’. ‘Individualism and autonomism’, by contrast, he thought were ‘hostile to such a development of characters or individualities’; as Leont’ev put it, ‘Egalitarian individualism has destroyed the individuality of characters.’[xviii]  

Leont’ev’s own individual spiritual make-up led him to conclude, as Berdiaev has written, that ‘there was no salvation for him in this world, that the world was too great a temptation for him, and he turned to salvation in the other world, in monasticism’. For Berdiaev this attitude of Leont’ev’s means that ‘he could not discover the way to live his religious experience in the world’. In the same way, Leont’ev’s political thinking is defined by Berdiaev as being characterized by a separation of spiritual experience from worldly life. ‘In the sphere of political thought he was the author of a profound conception in which the relation of Christianity to society was posed in a complex and dualistic manner.’[xix] Leont’ev certainly opposed Christianity – his own Christian pessimism – to an ameliorist social liberalism built around ideas of democracy and progress. ‘True Christianity is […] the strongest opponent of […] petty bourgeois individualism which, by freeing all in an equal measure and by subjecting all to the same norms, wants to transform everybody into equally worthy and equally happy people.’[xx] I would argue however, contrary to Berdiaev, that precisely through its opposition of Christianity to bourgeois individualism, Leont’ev’s thought opens into a genuinely religious politics – rather than a politics which remains separated from religious experience. 


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. 139.
[ii] Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (London: Penguin Books, 2003; first publ. 2002), p. 515.
[iii] Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain: A Novel, trans. by John E. Woods (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2005), p. 473.
[iv] Stephen Lukashevich, Konstantin Leontev (1831-1891): A Study in Russian ‘Heroic Vitalism’ (New York: Pageant Press, 1967), p. 123 (quoting Leont’ev).  
[v] Leont’ev quoted in Lukashevich, p. 113.
[vi] Lesley Chamberlain, Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia (New York: Rookery Press, 2007; first publ. [London(?)]: [n. pub.], 2004), p. 280.
[vii] Nicolas Berdyaev, Leontiev, trans. by George Reavy (Orono: Academic International, 1968; first publ. London: [n. pub.], 1940), p. 69 (quoting Leont’ev).
[viii] Nikolai Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, trans. by R. M. French, rev. edn (Hudson: Lindisfarne Press, 1992; first publ. London: Bles, 1947), p. 169.
[ix] Leont’ev quoted in Leontiev, p. 78.
[x] Leontiev, pp. 55-56.
[xi] Russian, p. 85; Leontiev, p. 69.
[xii] Leont’ev quoted in Leontiev, pp. 187-88; Lukashevich, p. 137 (quoting Leont’ev).
[xiii] Leont’ev quoted in Leontiev, p. 176.
[xiv] Leont’ev quoted in Leontiev, pp. 92, 178-79.
[xv] Leont’ev quoted in Lukashevich, p. 87; Lukashevich, pp. 143, 88, 89.
[xvi] Leontiev, pp. 162-63, 162, 180 (quoting Leont’ev).
[xvii] Leont’ev quoted in Leontiev, p. 165; Leontiev, p. 93.
[xviii] Leontiev, p. 97 (quoting Leont’ev); Leont’ev quoted in Lukashevich, p. 123.
[xix] Leontiev, pp. 197, 227, 133.
[xx] Leont’ev quoted in Lukashevich, p. 114.


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