In surveying the contemporary world as it appears to us in the daily media, in academic papers, and in our own personal observations, we find much cause for concern about conditions and unsustainable trends on Planet Earth, whether we are considering the health (in all senses of the word) of human populations or the sources of nutritious food, clean water, and affordable housing—or even the quality and character of our thoughts. Freedom together with “good government” (however these are defined) are often short-lived and in limited supply around the globe. The level of discourse in the public square often seems vulgar. The character of public education at all levels often seems unrelated to the actual needs of many people, and the cost, beyond their ability to pay. Nor is it designed to form young people in warm-hearted humanity, which used to be fruit and flower of a kind of Christian humanism in Western civilization. There are, of course, reasons for public education being structured as it is. Education (or training) delivery systems seem designed to serve the interests of corporate entities around the globe, without regard to the telos of human being.
None of these observations or concerns is new. They all, however, derive from who we understand ourselves to be and, consequently, from what we have done to ourselves and to our planet. What, then, is the human being? How shall we understand humankind in the largest possible sense?
Sergey S. Horujy [Хоружий] is a contemporary Russian philosopher whose “Synergic Anthropology” offers both a critique of philosophical anthropology in Western philosophical tradition and also a positive account of the human being based on his knowledge of modern Russian religious philosophy, as well as—and especially—on hesychastic thought and practice. One of Horujy’s most stimulating conversation partners in recent years has been the Confucian scholar, Tu Weiming, of Harvard and Peking University.
As I read him, a central concern in Horujy has been whether or not the human being can be said to have an “essence.” He suggests that, throughout the history of Western philosophy since Aristotle, there has been an assumption that the human does have an essence; therefore, the task of philosophy (or philosophical anthropology) is to specify what that essence is or what it entails. It has come to be Horujy’s conviction that the human does not have an essence but is, rather, formed by “practices of the self.” In this he generally agrees with the perspective of the late French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Horujy also admires Kierkegaard as one who understood the choice one has to form oneself. Failure to take the choice (to take care and responsibility) allows our automatic behaviors (practices) to move us toward a human “Exit.” All the occasions for concern alluded to in the first paragraph above can be said to be paths toward a human Exit.
None of this should be in any way remarkable, given a Christian understanding of the human being as made in the image of God and invited into the likeness of God. Although, in theology following on St. Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Gregory Palamas, God’s energies are distinguishable from God’s essence, God’s essence is nevertheless incomprehensible. Similarly, the human has a telos (ultimate aim)—this is to say that the human was made to reflect or transmit (as clearly and as brightly as possible) the Glory of God—but this escapes (transcends) definition in human language. There is nothing mechanical about this and there is no guarantee—except insofar as it is certain that, in eternity, the Greatest Love unfailingly achieves its end. The human is incomprehensible as God is incomprehensible. This is to say that human reality transcends (or is capable of transcending) every description (delimiting identity). Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games” as formative of human identity fits with this understanding. This is the context of practices of the self, or the rationale for cultivating spiritual practice.
This is where the concept of “synergy” comes in. Using hesychastic practice as paradigmatic instance of spiritual practice (or practices of self-formation), Horujy notes that in hesychia, there is an energetic exchange (synergia) between the self and what he calls the Other-Beyond-There. For Horujy, the human person is constituted by his or her “borders”—Ontological Border, Ontic Border, and Virtual Border. With some qualifications, conscious spiritual practice forms the Ontological Border. In conditions of what George Gurdjieff referred to as “sleep,” the unconscious (automatic) reactions form along an Ontic Border. (Consider also the negative references to “sleep” in the Gospels.) The Virtual Border is formed of those virtual (incompletely realized) practices via the Internet, etc. It is the practices of depersonalization (fragmentation) that enable the possibility of the human Exit to which Horujy refers.
Aside from some short videos, the work of Sergey Horujy is accessible in the English-speaking world through his book, Practices of the Self and Spiritual Practices: Michel Foucault and the Eastern Christian Discourse, edited by Kristina Stoeckl and translated by Boris Jakim. A number of his papers are also available online in English translation at the Institute of Synergetic Anthropology based in Moscow.
What I have found most valuable about the work of Horujy is his attention to the energetics of human formation. He does this in a way that is cognizant of modern Russian religious thought. It is his view that hesychastic practice is philosophically relevant—so much so that it can be used as a foundation for critique of the entire Western philosophical tradition insofar as it has attended to the human being.
In my recent book, The Anthropocosmic Vision: For a New Dialogic Civilization (2017), I make substantial reference to the work of Sergey Horujy within a larger concern with the present situation in Western civilization more generally. Beyond Horujy, the reflections in this book also touch on the work of St. Maximus the Confessor and Mikhail Bakhtin. The book is written as a companion to my earlier study, From Glory to Glory: The Sophianic Vision of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (2016). Whereas Horujy distances himself from Bulgakov’s sophiology due to its presentation in terms of German Idealism, I have suggested two things: first, that sophiology can be restated (or re-presented) in terms other than those sourced in German Idealism; and second, as has been argued by Professor Bruce Foltz, that German Idealism was itself adapted and modified in Silver Age Russian philosophy. It is my view that, in the present context and in the foreseeable future, the mothering and engendering work of Holy Wisdom will continue to be brought to the fore due to the great need.
It is for this reason that the appearance, in the English-speaking world, of Christian Wisdom schools is to be applauded and encouraged.
Sergey S. Horujy is also a contributing author at The Philosophical Salon, where he is described as “a Russian philosopher and theologian, theoretical physicist, specialist in James Joyce’s work, and translator of his novel Ulysses into Russian. […] He is the founder and director of the Institute of Synergic Anthropology in Moscow and an honorary professor of the UNESCO.”
Robert F. Thompson holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Memphis and an MAR in Theology from Memphis Theological Seminary. He is Episcopalian and has a long-standing interest in world religions, especially in their perennial contemplative and transformational traditions. His current writing project is concerned with the later works of the French phenomenologist, Michel Henry, and a poetics of divine-humanity. He lives in Memphis where he leads a weekly meditation group in the tradition of Fr. John Main, OSB.