04 August 2017

Bunakov, history and the limits of politics

The Seven Holy Maccabean Martyrs

First, a warning. I am attempting to approach this essay in a humble frame of mind. I’m approaching the thought of a blessed saint of the Church as regards Our Lord Jesus Christ, in light of questions of sæcular and philosophical import. It would be very easy for me to stray, to digress into my own prideful assumptions, to begin speculating and fall victim to certain forms of idolatry.

At the same time, what will follow will be – and should be – a series of historical and theological viewpoints that shock and disorient. The primary target of this disorientation, of course, is to be those in the West (including some Orthodox Christians) who hold to the idea, rather crudely put forward of late in Poland, that Christianity is a project ideologically-tied to the Western, Westphalian nation-state and the civilisational model that it implies. But it should also be discomfiting to those who more broadly hold to a rigourist or scholastic view of Church and culture, and also to those who hold to postmodernist view that invests the Ur-West with a ‘primal’, metahistorical meaning.

In my previous essay on Saint Ilya (Fondaminsky)’s philosophy of history, I put forward in the bare bones his thesis that ‘Christianity is the response of the awakened East to spiritual enslavement by the West’, and his belief that the East (broadly stated, including the civilisational centres of Iran, India and China) must continue its own spiritual concentration and renewal. It would be remarkably naïve to suggest – given that Saint Ilya was, at first, a Jew – that his theology of history is motivated by nationalist concerns. ‘Russia is not a special country,’ Saint Ilya writes, partially-refuting his Slavophil tutors and referring to the historical patterns on which Russia had built herself. ‘The ways of Russia are not special ways.’ He relegates Russia itself to a historically-subordinate position, being culturally-indebted to the Persianate civilisation that inhabited the Black Sea coast prior to the Rus’, religiously-indebted to the Hellenic-Roman civilisation that baptised the Rus’, and legally-indebted to the Scandinavian barbarians who ruled the Rus’. In fact, it might be more appropriate to say that Saint Ilya’s views were shaped by the contemporary tensions in Russian and European Jewry between localist-urban doyikayt and nationalist Zionism. The fact that Saint Ilya (like his close friend and fellow-martyr Mother Maria) never really left the narodniki, and also never embraced materialism and never embraced Zionism, seems to indicate that he was deeply averse to such false dichotomies – but that he was deeply committed to the practice of dialectic.

One sees this commitment in his historiography. Saint Ilya touches on the Axial sources of Greek, Persian, Indian and Chinese thought, but doesn’t really begin his analysis until they come into contact with each other. He isn’t actually that interested in the Hellenic civilisation at the start, which has an illusory and untenable conception of itself as an ‘all-human’ civilisation with everything outside being relegated to various forms ‘barbarian’ lack of civilisation. The ancient world, Saint Ilya says, was a ‘province of the Greek mind’. But it’s when it comes into contact with Persia that things begin to get interesting: and they get interesting in that the greatest practical triumph of Aristotle’s triumphal-universalist philosophy – the kingdom of Alexander the Great – marked the beginning of the classical West’s exhaustion and decline in world-historical terms. The Hellenic influence also mobilised the spiritual energies of the East in its own defence. One sees this in the Parthians retaking Iran from the decadent and abusive Seleucid kings; and – more relevantly for Christianity – in the Maccabees (whose founding martyrs’ memory we commemorate on 1 August) reconquering the Holy Land from the same and establishing the Hasmonean kingdom. Here the Eastern victory against the West in the realm of politics was short-lived. The Roman state reconquered this small outpost of free Iranian spirituality and installed a puppet dictator there, one who (adding insult to injury) adorned the palace with the statuary of the Roman state and gods.

A brief caveat. In these early «Пути России» historical essays, Saint Ilya (at this point in his life still a sæcular Jew, though one well on his way to becoming Christian) is not necessarily as interested in Christ himself, as in the civilisational consequences of His life and death. But it’s worthwhile dwelling briefly anyway on the role of Christ in the sketch of world history that Saint Ilya lays before us, and in the political context of His own time.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was a manual labourer from a rural backwater in the occupied hinterlands of Roman-occupied Judæa. He supported the religious-political programme of Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John, which stood in the venerable Jewish tradition of Isaiah, appealed in the Jewish imagination to the Exodus (which in the Christian imagination then became a type or foreshadowing of the salvation from death achieved by Christ). In this sense, John and Jesus Christ both adhere strongly to what Khomyakov and Saint Ilya would term ‘Iranian’ spiritual principles, over-against the Roman-inflected Hellenism of the Herodean state. The Sadducees gleefully accommodated themselves in the ideological-religious debates of the time to Roman preferences: they were the domestic defenders of propertarian Roman civil law. The Pharisees and Essenes, on the other hand, did appeal to the elder Iranian spirituality, though they articulated it in different ways. And of course the Kana’im (or Sicarii) appealed atavistically to the violence and terror inflicted by the Maccabees on the Hellenised Seleucids.

It was broadly expected, even by His own followers, that Christ would lead a political restoration of the Hasmonean kingdom. The age of Jewish freedom was only forty years past at the time of Christ’s birth, and remained in living memory throughout His life. Of course, the liberation Christ delivered was of a vastly different, infinitely more expansive kind – an ontological deliverance from death and all its works. And intellectually, He accomplished in His own person what David Lindsay calls – speaking for the Roman Catholic West in its traditional view – ‘the recapitulation… of all three of the Old Israel, Hellenism and the Roman Empire’.

Still – what a recapitulation! Of what a peculiar kind! Saint Ilya saw clearly what the effect was, in civilisational terms, of Christ’s death and resurrection, and his language was singularly unsparing. Speaking of Christ’s legacy in civilisational terms, the saintly and martyrly Christ-haunted Jewish revolutionary writes:
Even more terrible was the revenge of the East on the inner treasures of the West. The East [through Christianity] penetrated into the ‘universal’ Hellenistic culture and blew it apart spiritually. The last centuries of the Roman Empire were an era of internal degradation of Hellenism and spiritual subordination to the East. After the era of the Hellenisation of the East, the era of Orientalisation came. All aspects of life – the state, the œconomy, the spiritual culture – are saturated with Eastern influence, and reconstituted according to Eastern models.
The language of violence and revenge in the mouth of a saint who ultimately died a nonviolent martyr’s death may seem especially shocking. But it was indeed a ‘revenge’. As governor, Pontius Pilate embodied every whit of the hauteur and the one-sided dominion of Roman life. Pilate – and no other save Cæsar himself – was the penultimate embodiment of polytheism and the ‘religion of necessity’ to the defeated and humiliated people of Judæa. The Apostle and Evangelist John even portrays Pilate as something of a parody of the disinterested, dispassionate virtues of the Stoics: the ‘neutral’, unflappable public statesman, rising above the wild Oriental passions of the nameless Jewish mob, mouthing pseudosocratic elenchticisms and attempted aporiæ in his interrogation of Christ (‘what is truth?’). And of course, the punishment meted out to Christ was the penultimate expression of pagan Roman dominion over the conquered Jews (and especially over the deliberately prisca-Hasmonean Kana’im): death on the Cross.

In life, Our Lord Jesus Christ had called for a new and radically different kind of politics from what had prevailed previously. But something transcending politics is hinted at. Christ’s resurrection from such a death was the final, ultimate insult that a Jew could offer, either to the Seleucids, or to their Roman spiritual successors. His resurrection sounds the death-knell of the religion of necessity, and also fundamentally reconfigures the reality in which politics is done. Saint Ilya does not dwell at all on this (at least, not in this entry of «Пути России»), but instead goes on to describe, in mostly-admiring terms, the civilisational impact Rome’s defeat at the hands of Christianity actually had. The transmutation was total:
The Roman Emperor becomes an absolute monarch, surprisingly reminiscent of the Eastern Sultan. Its courtyard is built on the model of the Persian court, with all its Eastern luxury, attire and ceremonies… Free Roman citizens are made subjects of autocratic power. The population is compulsorily united in tax-paying guilds responsible for the correct receipt of taxes, and each is attached to a place and a profession. The œconomic life is in the hands of the state or [at least] regulated by it…

The same process occurs in the field of spiritual culture. Art becomes semi-Eastern. Planar ornamentation replaces the Hellenic relief. The all-consuming Eastern dome crushes the Hellenistic column. Rationalistic Hellenistic philosophy is imbued with Eastern mysticism and is approaching theology… But the main blow that the East inflicts on the West is in the religious sphere… In this struggle, Christianity won.
The deep, fundamental flaw in what I’ll call, for the moment, ‘Warsaw-thinking’ about Christianity and civilisation, is precisely the problem Saint Ilya takes such pains to highlight, and precisely the problem that the inconvenient existence of Orthodoxy confronts the West with: that Christianity is not Western and never has been. (Of course, it isn’t anti-Western either, but given that we’re not dealing in false dichotomies here, that’s a separate question.) Even the ‘revenge’ of Christianity was not bloody; the ‘victory’ of Christianity, if it can be called so, was not first-order political – even though it did have certain political implications.

Saint Ilya paints Christianity as a religion of the margins and peripheries, thriving in the interstices between states and between expressions of conventional politics. Indeed, he points out that one of the lasting political effects of Christianity was to explode the Roman Empire into three pieces: the Western ‘Roman’ Empire, the Eastern ‘Roman’ Empire and the Persian (later Arabic) dominions. This may be why Saint Ilya is so unremittingly sceptical of both the globalism, the ‘all-human’ civilisation of the pagan Greeks and Romans, and the self-enclosed nationalism of the ‘barbarians’ who surrounded them. And this may be why he never could fully let go of narodnichestvo (and drift instead toward Jewish localism or nationalism as so many of his fellow radicals did) even as he rejected many of its more terroristic political manifestations. He writes:
History is familiar with attempts to subordinate all cultures of the world to a ‘single’, ‘universal’ civilisation. In the end, all of these attempts fail. Defeated civilisations come back to life, rebel and go on the offensive. And, if one day it is determined that a single universal civilisation is to be created, it will not be born out of the victory of one culture over others. We need the flowering of all the great civilisations of the world, their spiritual rapprochement, their mutual interpenetration.
It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that a Christ-haunted Jewish revolutionary like Saint Ilya Fondaminsky would take such a tragic view of history and highlight the broad limits of politics, particularly in the wake of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. That was the trial in which ‘Warsaw-thinking’ demonstrably failed, along multiple fault-lines. Although (as a Defencist SR) he supported both with some reluctance, he could not see in either event any such civilisational triumph, and under the Bolsheviks the unique flowering of Russian social thought Bunakov had so valued had been prematurely trampled. As a man himself who devoted much of his life to direct emancipatory action, who fought for the rights of peasants and workers and for a fœderalised and constitutional Russia, Bunakov ultimately finds that politics cannot be neatly disentangled from history. Still less can naked struggle on the field of politics and war be mistaken for the metaphysical (or metahistorical) basis, for any personalism worthy of the name.

Perhaps it is best to allow Saint Ilya’s close friend, comrade and fellow-sufferer-in-Christ Mother Maria (Skobtsova) – whose thought tended in many of the same directions as his – to have the last word on the subject of the limits of politics:
Occasionally we come across a very uncertain expression of extremely general and diffused idealistic hopes, somewhat in the style of Dostoevsky’s ‘sympathy with everything beautiful and lofty’—but it is all rather vague. They say, ‘We’re defending the right cause, we’re fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the fœderal organisation of Europe, or for democracy.’ These are all very valuable things, but they are not enough. Test yourselves. Imagine that you must immediately give your life for one of these goals of struggle. Try to imagine a real death. And you will understand that your own life, however modestly you evaluate its significance, is in some ultimate metaphysical sense greater than any national minorities, or paid vacations, or universal suffrage. Your life is greater and your death is greater.


  1. I think I'll have to read this several times to get my head around this, but at first sight it looks very interesting.

  2. " And of course, the punishment meted out to Christ was the penultimate expression of pagan Roman dominion over the conquered Jews."

    As I recall, Pilate resisted the crucification of Christ. It was the Sanhedrin who insisted on his death, because they felt that His interpretation of scripture was a threat to their power and, not incidentally, income. And it is on this point, on materialism, wherein, I find, lies a convergence with Eastern theology. Hindus' reject materialism to an extent that is reminiscent of the Russian hermit monks, who, as the Enlightenment took hold in Western Europe, saved Orthodoxy from its own. worst monarchical impulses.

    One of my favorite passages in the Old Testament is when Samuel tells the Jews who are clamoring for a king "like the other great nations"; You shall cry out in that day because of your king who you have chosen, and the Lord will not hear you in that day." Democracy, based on equality before the law, is a very Jewish idea. Choosing leaders, based on merit, is a very Jewish idea. The great addition of the Christ, Who was no respecter of "persons" was his "lowliness": his rejection of material wealth as a reward for virtue. And it is on that very point where the most enlightened spirits of the West meet those of the East.