24 March 2016

Khomyakov’s Russian Orthodox High Toryism

In my recent review of Dr Susanna Rabow-Edling’s book on the Slavophils, I may have picked some nits with her ‘anarchist’ reading of Herder. I gladly, however, give her a massive amount of credit for her sound, solid and spirited defence of the Slavophils, as a force which is not intrinsically or prejudicially opposed to the West. Indeed, the portrait she paints of Aleksey Khomyakov is one of an unabashed Anglophile, one whose cultural nationalism for all its ‘conservative’ eagerness to take what was best in the age-old national character and constitution was at the same time ‘progressive’ in its social outlook. Both aspects of this intellectual portraiture Rabow-Edling makes of him have distinct merit.

Khomyakov, though committed in his zeal for the Russian Orthodox Church to which he belonged, also kept up a lively and friendly correspondence with Mr William Palmer, an Englishman and defender of the Anglican tradition. (This correspondence is cited in Rabow-Edling’s book, and is also directly available in part in Boris Jakim’s anthology of the Slavophils, On Spiritual Unity.) The Anglican interest in Eastern Orthodox Christianity goes back arguably to the Caroline Divines – in particular Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury, though that interest has been but seldom reciprocated on our part (though the Fellowship of Ss Alban and Sergius has been keeping that intellectual direction open on both sides). However, Khomyakov’s interest in England had a much more specific cultural bent to it – indeed, he was an admirer of the very selfsame cultural and political tradition of English Toryism which arose out of the Cavalier and Jacobite causes, and with which Archbishop Laud after his martyrdom would come to be associated. In Khomyakov’s own words:
The two intellectual forces of the nation were broken asunder, and entered into conflict with one another. The one, organic, living, historical, but weakened by the decline of village community life and by the scepticism of Protestantism, which it had unconsciously admitted, constituted Toryism. The other, individualistic and analytical, not believing in its past, prepared for long previously by the same decline of village community life, and reinforced by the whole of the disintegrating force of Protestantism, constituted Whiggism…

In reality every Englishman is a Tory at heart. There may be differences in the strength of convictions, in tendency of mind; but the inner feeling is the same in all. Exceptions are rare, and are as a rule found only in people who either are altogether carried away by some system of thought or beaten down with poverty or corrupted by the life of the large towns. The history of England is not a mere thing of the past to the Englishman; it lives in all his life, in all his customs, in almost all the details of his existence. And this historical element is Toryism. The Englishman loves to see the beafeaters guarding the Tower in their strange mediaeval costume ... he likes the boys in Christ's Hospital still to wear the blue coats which they wore in the time of Edward VI. He walks through the long aisles of Westminster Abbey, not with the conceited vanity of the Frenchman, nor with the antiquarian delectation of the German, but with a deep, sincere, and ennobling affection. These graves belong to his family, and a great family it is; and I am not speaking now merely of the peer or the professor, but about mechanics and cab-drivers … his sports and games, his Christmas decorations and festivities, the calm and sacred peace of his family circle, all the poetry, all the sweetness of his daily existence. In England every old oak with its spreading branches is a Tory, and so is every ancient church-spire which shoots up into the sky. Under this oak many have enjoyed themselves, and in that ancient church many generations have prayed.
The sympathy of Khomyakov with the Tory philosophy did not simply end with an at-a-distance philosophical appreciation, however! No, Birkbeck, who wrote the introduction to this particular volume of Khomyakov’s correspondence with Palmer, makes it clear that Khomyakov’s entire intellectual-religious-social project of Slavophilism is in fact ‘a great revival of religious self-consciousness in many respects analogous to our Tractarian [read: Anglo-Catholic] movement’, as well as being a project of cultural-national awakening. The two for him go hand-in-hand, for Russia’s structure itself is well-suited to the Tory suspicion of the secular. In addition, Aleksey Khomyakov’s hostility to capitalism and to the ‘paralysing aridity’ and ‘sterility’ of Whiggism which attacks and destroys everything old and home-grown, directly and probably deliberately parallels that deep and abiding English High Tory mistrust of capitalism which finds its expression in the writings of (among others) Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteus, John Strachan, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Oastler, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and George Parkin Grant.

The principle of sobornost’ for which Khomyakov is most renowned, ought not to be construed as something culturally-specific or peculiar to Russia, though naturally it was given a Romantic, cultural-national and distinctly Russian meaning when Khomyakov, Kireevsky and others of the Slavophil school associated it so closely with the Russian obshchina. But it does have distinctly High Tory overtones: the Orthodox sobornost’ ideal is agrarian, paternalistic, monarchical and what most of us Westerners would consider ‘High Church’, but it is also gift-economic and personalistic. It is not and cannot be satisfied with the proceduralism, superficiality, fungibility and alienation of modern market relations, but instead seeks to satisfy the thirsts of the person for genuine meaning through a more ‘organic’ understanding of culture and of the self.

Orthodoxy in Russia has a number of very, very deep resources to draw upon. Perhaps it is the vain imagination of an insufficiently-acclimated Westerner who seeks parallels with Orthodox thinking and the incomparable mind of the Church in his own culture, but I cannot help but see the comparative health and beauty of certain Platonic tendencies in English thought – both theological and social – as something to be appreciated. I’m happy to note that Khomyakov, for one, felt the same way!


  1. That was really interesting. I had read before that some of the Slavophils had an Anglophile tendency, but it was interesting to see this put in some context.

  2. Thanks, Matthew! Glad to be of service on that point.