THE MEANING OF IDEALISM: THE METAPHYSICS OF GENUS AND COUNTENANCE reviewed by Giacomo Sanfilippo

The Meaning of Idealism: The Metaphysics of Genus and Countenance
Pavel Florensky (Boris Jakim, Translator and Editor)
Brooklyn NY: Semantron Press, 2020

The Meaning of Idealism marks the latest testimony to Father Pavel Florensky’s (1882-1937) illimitable intellect to be translated by Boris Jakim. It comprises a series of course lectures on the topic of Platonism at the Moscow Theological Academy (which Jakim, for some reason, calls the Moscow Religious Academy [p.2]), originally published in 1915 when Florensky was 33 years old and four years a priest and father of his first child. In 1908, at age 26, he had been offered a teaching position in the Academy’s Chair of the History of Philosophy immediately upon graduating, but before the completion of his thesis. In September of that year, he delivered his maiden lecture, “The Universal Human Roots of Idealism,” and was thereupon appointed to teach a course entitled Introduction to the History of Ancient Philosophy. The lectures contained in the present volume were delivered several years into his teaching career and just months before his publication date, as his sources date as late as October 1914.

A word about the translator: Florensky studies in the English language would not exist without Boris Jakim. In 1997 he bequeathed Father Pavel Florensky’s magnum opus—The Pillar and Ground of the Truth—to the English-speaking world. This was followed twenty years later by Pavel Florensky: Early Religious Writings 1903-1909. I was delighted to learn of the release of The Meaning of Idealism so soon after Early Religious Writings. In the interim, the indefatigable Jakim went on to translate most of Father Sergius Bulgakov’s major theological works. Jakim never fails to impress with his apparent ease in translating some of the most abstruse texts and complex ideas to come out of Russian religious philosophy. This makes each of his translations as much his own masterpiece as that of the original author.

Those who follow my own academic output on Florensky have come to know his name primarily for his theology of same-sex love, articulated most clearly in the final two chapters of Pillar and Ground, “Friendship” and “Jealousy.” For many, the specific focus of my doctoral research has had the unintended effect of obscuring the enormous breadth of Florensky’s interests and expertise beyond sexuality and gender. A polymath who excelled from early childhood in every field of inquiry that piqued his insatiable curiosity—mathematics, natural and applied sciences, engineering, ancient and modern languages, comparative linguistics, art history, philosophy, theology, et al.—Florensky is widely regarded as “Russia’s da Vinci,” indisputably the 20th century’s most intellectually gifted Orthodox theologian worldwide, and one of the principal religious voices of Russia’s Silver Age (c. 1895-1917) for his seminal contributions to the Russian Religious Renaissance (c. 1880-1950).   

The Silver Age represents a time of remarkable literary creativity, and the Russian Religious Renaissance, of similar activity in theology and religious philosophy. The period was marked by an exodus of “returning intelligentsia” to the Orthodox Church from atheism, agnosticism, other isms, or simple apathy. Deeply immersed in, and earnest to make their uniquely Russian contribution to, the thought world of Western Europe, these sought to articulate their newfound faith in an idiom commensurate with the modernist concerns of their fellow intellectuals. Florensky, from the moment of his embrace of Orthodoxy at the tender age of 21 while a university student, foresaw his lifework at the centre of this mission to “justify God”—and, by extension, Russia’s historic Orthodox faith—to the mind of the Russian skeptic schooled in the ways of rationalist European thought. “Russian religious philosophy” thus occupies a grey zone between theology and philosophy, constituting an innovative movement to bring Orthodox tradition into conversation with the most prominent names and currents in the entire history of Western philosophy.

This engagement between Orthodox theology and Western philosophy which characterizes Russian religious philosophy set the stage on which The Meaning of Idealism made its appearance. In his own irrepressibly poetic words:

Everyone is familiar with the term “Platonism.” Equally familiar is the fact that what this name designates is not only a historical phenomenon but also an abiding expression of the inner life of man. However, in both its historical and its spiritual aspect, Platonism is an extremely complex phenomenon—so complex that, to the present day, historians of thought have not been able to clarify it fully. Platonism is a variegated wreath: the beloved sweet-smelling grasses of our native meadows are intertwined with the mysterious orchids of the East; the blooms of ancient Athens merge with the sacred lotuses of the Nile. Who would be bold enough to undertake the infinitely daunting task of giving a precise definition of Platonism? And if you ask me “What is Platonism?”—I too must answer “Alas, I do not know.” And I am not alone. This unavoidable non liquet (lack of clarity) of mine is something that afflicts all historians of thought and culture. “At the present time,” one such historian remarks, “we have no choice but to agree with the Platonic philosopher Origen that no one fully understands Plato.” (p. 3)

The Meaning of Idealism is a tiny book of ninety-seven pages spread over sixteen chapters of between four and ten pages each. This lends the text extraordinarily well to being read and digested in small increments before the reader proceeds to the next chapter, perhaps later in the day or another day. Jakim describes it as

…a journey—from Plato and Aristotle to Neoplatonism, from Neoplatonism to Medieval theories, from Medieval theories to Orthodox spirituality, from Orthodox spirituality to Vedic mysticism, from Vedic mysticism to astrology, from astrology to modern science—including relativity, the mathematical theory of invariants, and the multidimensional universe. In this journey, Florensky corroborates his theories with etymological discussions [a strategy characteristic of Florensky, regardless of his topic] and analyses of modern art, including the works of Rodin and Picasso. (p. 1)

Jakim’s summary of these lectures underscores perfectly what I consider to be the principal locus wherein Florensky’s genius resides: he possesses the mind of the consummate synthesist. This is not to be confused with a syncretist, who picks and chooses according to his tastes as from a smorgasbord. Florensky’s congenitally synthetic mind finds truth, beauty, and divine grace in all human eras, cultures, philosophies, religions, and “secular” knowledges. (The latter category he would have surely rejected as an unnatural schism between “the sacred” and “the secular”). For Florensky, these diverse, veiled theophanies in every sphere of human life and endeavour point to the fulness of truth, beauty, and divine grace which, he insists, is found alone in the mystical life of the Orthodox Church. In the last sentence of the entire lecture series—lectures in which Christianity and Orthodoxy are scarcely mentioned (but recall that Florensky is speaking to students in one of Russia’s two most prominent Orthodox theological academies)—he quotes from a letter written in 1852 by literary critic, philosopher, and co-founder with Alexei Khomiakov of the Slavophile movement, Ivan Kireevsky:

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity attracts my mind not only because it is the supreme center of the sacred Truths communicated to us by Revelation, but also because, engaged on a work of philosophy, I came to the conclusion that the direction of philosophy depends, in its first principle, on the idea we have of the Holy Trinity. (p. 97)

The sheer inclusiveness of Florensky’s thought will come as a burst of sunshine to some and a rude shock to others in the too often fundamentalist, reactionary, anti-intellectual climate of early 21st-century Orthodoxy. Florensky stands in the annals of modern Russian Orthodox thought as inheritor, developer, and transmitter of Soloviev’s ideas on vseedinstvo (vse-ye-din-stvo, the “oneness of all things”), which Florensky recasts as the consubstantiality of all things created. In this light, the present volume’s near constant turns to the Platonic ideal of hen kai pollathe one and the many—are completely of a piece with his fundamental theological theme in Pillar and Ground and elsewhere. In the present volume, Florensky quotes Plato thus: “[O]ne capable of surveying all things together is a dialectician; a contemplator focuses all scattered things into one idea” (p. 82).  

In her biography of Florensky, A Quiet Genius, Avril Pyman traces her subject’s immersion in Plato to adolescence, when he and his schoolmates read Plato together for his formulation of erotic bonds between peers, and even between teachers and students, of the same gender (p. 15). Plato, among others, occupies a central position in Florensky’s “Friendship.” As I read The Meaning of Idealism, I wondered how far into a sustained study of Plato Florensky would get before he touched, even briefly, on what we now call “Greek homosexuality.” It comes in chapter 14, close to the end of the book, with a long quote from Phaedrus, part of a collection published in 1991 with the subtitle, Plato on Homosexuality:

When an initiate…looks at a divinelike face, with the imprint of great beauty, or when he looks at a beautiful body, he begins to tremble and is embraced by fear…but when he looks more closely, he treats this thing as if it were a god and, if not for his fear he would be like one in ecstasy and would bring sacrifices to this thing of beauty as to a sacred sculpture or god; this vision of beauty produces a change in him through fear, throwing him into a sweat and making an extraordinary warmth flow through his body. Receiving through the organ of sight the radiation of the beautiful, he becomes warm. (pp. 82-83)

 Anyone who has read Lysis, Phaedrus, or Symposium knows without a doubt that the above quote describes with sheer poeticism—and Florensky includes seamlessly and organically in his study of Platonism more broadly construed—the worshipful attitude of men, indeed their physiological arousal, toward the physical beauty of the male body; and specifically, for Plato and his contemporaries, the physical beauty of the younger male body. If it seems a stretch to pious imaginations that Florensky could have intended any such thing in quoting Phaedrus, we do well to recall one of Nicholas Berdiaev’s main criticisms of Florensky: “In him [Florensky], Plato’s ideas acquired an almost sexual character. His theologizing was erotic. This was new in Russia.” (Cited by Evgenii Bershtein in “The Notion of Universal Bisexuality in Russian Religious Philosophy,” Understanding Russianness, p. 219).

For the non-specialist in Plato and the subsequent evolution of Platonism, and more generally because of Florensky’s intellectual superiority to just about everyone, The Meaning of Idealism is perhaps one of the author’s most difficult texts available in English translation to work through, its brevity notwithstanding. Yet this should not deter the generalist reader who has already come to love Father Pavel as a most excellent human being and Orthodox Christian, and as a dearly cherished father, brother, friend, and intercessor in heaven before Christ. There are moments aplenty where his sheer humanity and lyrical prose emerge from his density of thought like a caressing spring rain.  

For the specialist reader, Jakim’s latest effort to bring Florensky to us anglophones sets before us a feast for the mind and soul.  

The Meaning of Idealism can be purchased from Amazon.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is the founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue and a PhD candidate in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. See his MA in Theology thesis on same-sex love, which relies partly on Florensky, and his PhD thesis proposal, devoted entirely to Florensky’s theology thereof. Follow him on Twitter @GiacoSanfilippo.

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