Philosophy and Theology,
Vol 18: No. 1 (2006), pp. 121 - 142
The Resurrection of Nature: Environmental Metaphysics in Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy
An earlier, and rather different, version of this paper was presented as the Keynote Address at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy, October 30, 2004, in Memphis, TN. A much revised version was presented on December 2, 2004 to a Philosophy Department Colloquium at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester MA.
Bruce V. Foltz
I once heard talk of the old days, how
animals and trees and rocks would speak
with men. . . In the old days all nature is
supposed to have been more alive and full
of meaning than in our day.
Nature is not what you think,
Not an empty, soulless face,
It has a soul, it has freedom,
It has love, it has a language.
We try to live honorably so that we can
discern the inner meaning of existent
things, and. . . make our way to the divine
Logos in the ontological heart of things.
Evagrios of Pontos
I. THE NATURE OF RUSSIAN PHILOSOPHY
Throughout most of the twentieth century, both the rich cultural heritage of Russia and its profound effects upon the West have been eclipsed – inside as well as outside Russia – by the shadow of the totalitarian government to which it had itself given birth. Only recently is it beginning to be recognized that the influence of Russian culture upon the culminating period of modernism, and its transition into post-modernity, has been so decisive that historian Steven Marks has plausibly entitled a recent study, “How Russia Shaped the Modern World.” For it was the powerful current of anarchist theory running from Bakunin to Kropotkin that gave to the world in their first forms both ecological utopism and modern terrorism, even as the writings of Tolstoy first systematically articulated the theory of nonviolent resistance. The concept of “nihilism” – along with the nihilist sensibility – was born in Russia as well. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky influenced modern literature so profoundly that George Steiner has claimed only Attic tragedy and Shakespeare have had a comparable influence. Russian painters such as Kandinsky and Malevich, “purists of beauty,” gave the world its first abstract paintings, going beyond three dimensional art. In the performing arts, figures such as Chekov, Nijinksy, Stravinsky, and Stanislavsky were decisive in the rise of modern drama, ballet, music, and acting theory. Occultist and New age sensibilities were first synthesized by Madame Blavatsky living in London. And in France, the intellectual history of science, and the reading of Hegel that has been most influential in the twentieth century, were respectively shaped by the Russian emigrants, Koyre and Kojeve. And of course, the totalitarianism pioneered by Lenin, and perfected by Stalin, was emulated in various forms by admirers as diverse as Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, as well as Nasser of Egypt and the Middle Eastern Baath Party.
But just as impressive, although so far much less influential, have been the achievements of Russian philosophy, an intellectual milieu that largely remains terra incognita not only in the West, but until recently in Russia itself due to its suppression by the Bolsheviks. The period of philosophical activity beginning with Soloviev in the late nineteenth century and culminating with Florensky, Berdyaev, Shestov, and Bulgakov in the twentieth has few rivals in the history of philosophy for its comprehensive scope and its intellectual power. It is a philosophical tradition that has great appeal and great promise for the practice of philosophy today, drawing as it does on the deep springs of German Idealism and Neoplatonism, while avoiding the pitfalls of dogmatic metaphysics through a phenomenological emphasis on lived experience, an orientation toward socio-political praxs, and above all a concrete rootedness in everyday spirituality based on the mystical tradition of the Christian East. And I shall maintain that one of the best ways to see the brilliance of this philosophical milieu is through seeing its striking implications for the incipient discipline of environmental philosophy. There are numerous reasons for this, but four are especially salient:
First, there is a deep tradition of nature mysticism reaching back into Russia’s pagan past, but just as strongly rooted in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox spirituality. For example, “Hagia Sophia” – the holy wisdom of God, the divine wisdom coursing throughout the cosmos – lends its name not only to the Great Church of Constantinople, but in its Cyrillic form designates great cathedrals throughout Russia, renowned icons of the Russian Church, as well as liturgies and feast days. It has often been seen as the idea most characteristic of Russian thought and spirituality, and it allows for an understanding of the divine immanence in nature that is neither pantheistic, nor even panentheistic, for it is solidly based on the Byzantine distinction between the divine essence or
ousia – eternally hidden and unknowable, even to the celestial orders – and the divine energies or energeia, immanent throughout creation, noetically present to the holy and to the chosen, yet at work in all things. At the same time, Environmental philosophy, which has so far been struggling to reach beyond the limitations of modern ethics, has great need of an understanding of nature in its holiness – an experience that is attested in innumerable nature writers, but which has been left without conceptual articulation by philosophers and theologians alike.
Second, and closely related to this, the role of beauty is vital and pivotal in Russian culture – in its philosophy, its literature, and its theology. It was after all Dostoevsky who famously prophesied that it is beauty that will save the world. But this love of the beautiful, this philokalia, reaches far back to the early medieval envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who traveled the world in search of a religion suitable for the pagan Rus, and who were overwhelmed by what they encountered at the Church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople:
Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty*.
* “The Russian Primary Chronicle,” cited in Medieval Russia: A Source Book, 900 – 1700, Basil Dmytryshyn ed., (New York: Holt: Rinehart and Winston, 1967) p 34.
As Plato and all Platonism has maintained, it is in beauty that the eternal breaks through into the temporal, that the forms are actually perceptible, that invisible becomes visible. Or as the Byzantine-Russian tradition would state it, it is in beauty that the divine wisdom, the holy wisdom through which the cosmos is created and upheld and renewed, is most characteristically experienced. And I believe that something of this order is an indispensable element for a viable environmental aesthetic.
Thirdly, the Enlightenment came late to Russian, and when it did, the triumphalism of science and discursive rationality met not with a relatively diminished and debilitated spirituality as in the West, but with a more intact and robust spiritual tradition that could hold its own against the coercive advocacy of instrumental reason by Czar Peter the Great. This has, I believe, given Russian philosophy – at least in its pre-Soviet manifestation – the ability to maintain a freer relation to the scientific view of nature, both subjecting it to a more radical – and less reactionary – criticism than in the West, while at the same time appropriating it when suitable in a nearly ingenuous manner that would have seemed untenable to Western critics of science from Blake to Heidegger. And surely there is no task for environmental philosophy more urgent than a free, and creative, encounter with modern nature science, whose metaphysics of nature has so far been uncritically appropriated by most environmental thinkers and theorists.
Finally, as will be discussed in more detail later, Russian philosophy draws heavily upon a cosmic eschatology that sees nature as awaiting its own resurrection through the redemption of humanity – that is, through the redemption of the very agent through whom nature is fallen and the divine wisdom inherent within it becomes obscured. This allows environmental thought and practice as whole to be contextualized – as seems increasingly demanded by deeply global realities such as climate change – within a cosmic struggle for the triumph of the motley and the various and the beautiful, of the hale and holy and the healing over corruption and disfiguration, of life over death.
These ideas are by no means remote from the concerns of environmental philosophy as articulated during the last three decades. Thus, this paper will proceed from what has surely been the most vexing conceptual dilemma that has impeded the development of environmental philosophy: that between anthropocentrism and deep ecology, between the view that the meaning and value of nature is rendered through its relation to the human sphere, and the view that human beings must be understood – and more importantly, must understand themselves – primarily as members of a larger biotic community. It will approach this problem not by means of a generalized composite drawn from recent Russian philosophy as a whole, but through the work of a single thinker – Sergei Bulgakov – whose early work – upon which I will focus – while lacking much of the later nuance and sophistication of his later writings, is perhaps most commensurate with Western philosophical currents. I would like it to be a first step in a direction that seems to me rich with possibility.
II. HOUSEHOLD LIFE
Until recently, the work of Sergei Bulgakov was suppressed in Russia and largely untranslated in the West. But as this neglect gets redressed, it is becoming evident that Bulgakov – along with Shestov, Florensky, and Berdyaev – was indisputably one of the greatest Russian philosophers of the twentieth century, and it seems even clearer that as a twentieth century theologian, he is simply without peer in the Orthodox East, and perhaps the West as well. He started out, however, as an economist holding a prestigious chair in agricultural economics – trying to adapt Marx to the largely agrarian economy of Russia – and as a politician who served in the second Duma, or Russian Parliament. Along with many Russian intelligentsia during the first decade of the twentieth century, Bulgakov – after publishing in 1900 a major work called Capitalism and Agriculture – became disillusioned by the inapplicability of Marxist economics to Russian reality, as well as disenchanted with what he saw as the irresponsibility of the left in the 1905 Revolution and subsequently, in the second Duma. Together with Berdyaev, he edited in 1909 an influential collection of articles – much excoriated by Lenin, living in Switzerland – called Vekhi or Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia, that sought to articulate a more indigenous, progressive vision for Russia than what the intelligentsia now regarded as the failed revolutionary politics. Intellectually, Bulgakov moved first from economics into philosophy, and then from philosophy into theology, eventually being ordained a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1918. He was exiled from Russia by the Bolsheviks in the early twenties, and continued his academic life in Paris until 1944 when, according to some present, he died as a saint. Published in 1912, The Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household represents Bulgakov’s major work as a philosopher, finalizes his break with Marxist political economy, and establishes the philosophical grounds for his later work as a theologian.
The book opens by acknowledging the inescapability of Marx’s central insight: the “economism” or “economic materialism,” that despite its reductionistic assumptions, has become “the reigning worldview” of our time*. Bulgakov grants immediately, then, the truth of “economism,” the “profound content which shimmers through” economic materialism, its “indestructibility” – despite its one-sidedness and abstractness. Writing in 1912, he foresaw what became widely evident only later: that a central element of our current historical experience is the sense that “life is, above all, an economic process.” “Our time,” he continues, “understands, feels, experiences the world as a household – i.e., in Greek, the world in some undeniable sense now presents itself to us as ecos.”** In contrast to the later Heidegger – who recoils at the global, technological revealing of nature as inventory (Bestand) – Bulgakov grasps its inevitability, and prescribes not Heidegger’s step back – the Schritt zuruck – but seeks instead to tunnel into this contemporary experience – to show internally its one-sidedness and dogmatism – states that economism should be “overcome from within” – even as he acknowledges its partial legitimacy. Indeed, he even maintains that “not to experience” this “peculiar enchantment of economic materialism” at all, “not to feel its hypnosis (even if one does not abandon oneself completely), means to have some defect of historical consciousness, to be internally alien to contemporary reality,” artificially aloof***. And in contrast to the environmental purist, seeking enclaves of pristine nature unsullied by humanity, Bulgakov notes from the beginning that of course all nature has become for us today an economic product. But he goes on immediately to show that this economic status entails far more ontologically than it might appear. And thus begins a reversal from within.
A reader coming to Bulgakov with a background in phenomenology will be struck by how many of the central themes of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty are
* Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household, trans. Catherine Evtuhov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 41.
** Ibid, p. 40.
anticipated, sometimes by half a century. For example, just as Heidegger was to begin Being and Time with a unitary thought (Dasein as Being-in-the World) that dramatically subverted the bifurcation of subject and object, so Bulgakov begins The Philosophy of Economy with an understanding of economic activity that not only destabilizes the rigidity of economic materialism, but also undermines the later antinomy between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. The philosophy of economy, then, will begin from a sense of “philosophical wonder” – a sense of strangeness like that undergone by a visitor from a faraway land, for whom nothing is customary or conventional – at the defining problem of economy: “humanity in nature – and nature in humanity.”* This philosophical wonder will be double, yet respond to something single and unitary – to what in Russian is called koziaistvo: a word denoting economy and economic activity, but even more basically household life, home management, house maintenance – thus preserving in its Russian root, the same meaning as the Greek ecos – the root for both economy and ecology.
* Ibid., pp. 35, 43.
The world is a household, and this insight opens up the essential philosophical perplexity that eluded Marx, preventing him from understanding the true character of economy. Just as Heidegger, in his essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” much later sought to show phenomenologically that the genuine problem of housing in Postwar Germany was not primarily logistical, so Bulgakov seeks to elucidate how the economic problems of late czarist Russia – equally concrete issues, such as land reform and peasant proprietorship – could be understood adequately only from within, though a study of the lived dimensions of economic reality, and ultimately through an ontology of economic activity that stayed close to its phenomenological moorings in the lived experience of the khoziain (the proprietor or subject of economic activity – both as individual, and more importantly as collective) interacting with nature (the object of economic activity). This interaction is what constitutes khoziaistvo – economic activity as household life.
Thus, Bulgakov rejects Marx’s scientific objectivism as dependent on Kant’s understanding of nature as object, and as leading to the view of labor as the effect of one object (the laborer) upon another. In contrast (and this has lent his work tremendous urgency in the reforms of post-Soviet Russia), Bulgakov insists on understanding koziaistvo (economic activity, household life, or simply housekeeping) from within the lived experience of the khoziain, the householder, the head of the household, the host (to the visitor), the proprietor in the sense of the proprietor of an inn, or as he will even call him later in the book, the world steward and even the demiurge. The central perplexity of economy, then, is not labor, seen as an event of objective causality, but something much more remarkable and perplexing and wonderful, worthy of true philosophical surprise (thaumáxô): it is the world as household. Nature as a Kantian “object” is an abstraction. So too, the genuine “subject” is not what Bulgakov calls “the Kantian epistemological subject” – “the mind of a scientist preparing an experiment” – detached, and disembodied*.
Like Heidegger, Bulgakov maintains that nature is more primordially encountered within practical activity (as Zuhandenheit) than in theoretical consciousness. But as Heidegger often seems to overlook, practical activity presupposes our being part of nature. “In order for economy to be possible, the subject – the world proprietor, or demiurge – must be part of the natural world, immanent in empirical reality.” ** Thus Marx, and the whole tradition of materialism, and the biocentrists are all correct here: humanity is a part of nature, humanity in nature, a housekeeper and an inhabitant. Nature is not, however, a Kantian object, but a household ripe with human meaning; it is always already in its very givenness humanized, and science is itself part of that humanization from within, not a disengaged mirroring from outside, nature in humanity. Thus, the anthropocentrist and humanist are also right – and Heidegger is right – in maintaining that the dweller and householder, who alone can make the world a household, cannot be just another part of a greater totality of objects, but must somehow lend meaning to the whole.
The primary datum – both phenomenologically and ontologically – is economic activity as household life, something utterly concrete, something integral and cohesive that must yet be understood both as humanity in nature and as nature in humanity. What is needed, then, is an ontology of the economic process, understood from within the lived experience of the householder.*** “Every economic act,” Bulgakov writes, “realizes a
* Ibid, p. 181.
** Ibid, p. 132.
*** Ibid, p. 38.
certain fusion of subject and object, the penetration of the subject into the object, the subjectification of the object – or the subject’s exit from itself into the world of things, into the object, that is, an objectification of the subject.” * Humanity in nature, and nature in humanity. Objectification of the subject and subjectification of the object. Biocentrism and anthropocentrism. Two aspects of something concrete and integral, two faces of a single reality. Bulgakov makes explicit here his philosophical debt to Schelling’s philosophy of identity, for which “nature must be visible spirit, and spirit must be invisible nature.” ** The starting-point for Bulgakov, however, is not the critical idealism of Kant, but the economism which subtly underwrites modern science and advances its domination of environmental thought.
For the ground of scientific materialism, Bulgakov argues, is economic materialism. And this economic underpinning holds for biocentrism as well, to the extent that it rests not on a vision of mystical identity – toward which deep ecology tacitly inclines – but on the results of positive science. The seemingly passive scientific subject is an expression of the active economic subject. It is not its mirroring by an epistemological subject that constitutes the reality of nature: “the entire practice of mutual interaction of I and non-I establishes the reality of the external world and fills the empty and cold realm of the non-I with strength, warmth, bodies, turning the mirage of the non-I into nature and, at the same time, placing the I within nature, organically fusing them into a single whole.”*** The knower is neither a mirror nor a phantom, but the subject of a mutual interpenetration of humanity and nature. But who is this subject of economic activity?
The interaction and interpenetration of humanity and nature – nature as household and ourselves as proprietors – presupposes a unitary field that must be always already in place and in play, prior to any individual engagement. Economic activity, the world as household, has a hereditary and historical, as well as a social and collective, character. “Economy as a whole,” argues Bulgakov, “is not only logically but empirically prior to separate economic acts.” **** Who, then, is the subject of economy as a whole? “The single true transcendental subject of economic activity, the personification of pure
* Ibid, p. 77.
** Ibid, p. 85.
*** Ibid, pp. 110f.
**** Ibid, pp. 124f.
economy, is not any given individual but humanity as a whole.”* Ontologically, Bulgakov understands this notion of humanity as a whole, of a universal subject, in an robustly realist manner, not as an abstraction or universal, nor as a methodological device, as the transcendental subject was for Kant. For economic acts to cohere into a system – and therefore for cognitive acts to cohere as science, and for human actions to come together as history – human knowers and agents must not be impermeable to one another, but function as nodal points for humanity as a whole.**
“There is one subject,” Bulgakov maintains, “and not many: the transcendental subject of knowledge, of economy, of history is clearly one and the same; it founds and objectivizes all of these processes, transforming the subjective into the trans-subjective, synthesizing the fragmented actions and events that make up economy, knowledge, and history into a living whole.” *** (That Kant individualizes the transcendental subject Bulgakov regards as a “mystical misstep” by which Kant “reflects the fundamental sin of Protestantism,” setting up individual will and consciousness in opposition to the “supraindividual unity” of humanity.****) This does not, of course, mean that individual persons are somehow unreal, but that when they engage in what ontologically establishes their own humanity, they do so by taking part in something shared and common. “Only one truly knows, but many engage in the process of cognition.”*****(130) This collective, universal humanity is none other than what has been called since antiquity the world soul, and whose lineage Bulgakov traces from Plato, Plotinos, and the ancient Stoics through Sts. Dionysios, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximos in the Greek East – and Scotus Erigena in the Latin West – to Böhme, von Baader, Schelling, and Soloviev in modern times. Precisely in its character of khoziain, of world proprietor, humanity is at the same time world soul, the very eye of the world soul, the world soul become hypostatic – nature acting upon itself, recognizing and realizing itself through that agency. And the aim of this momentous movement, the goal of that self-realization, is a permeation of nature – in all its seemingly lifeless recesses – with humanity, an infusion that is just as complete as the manner in which nature permeates humanity in all that seems most purely ideal. That
* Ibd, p. 126.
** Ibid, p. 131.
*** Ibid, p. 132.
**** Ibid, p. 304, n. 7.
***** Ibid. p. 130.
reciprocal interpenetration is not just agriculture and industry. It is precisely what knowledge accomplishes. And even more importantly, it is preeminently what is undertaken by art – the perfection of economic activity understood as household life, the completed self-realization of nature in the element of beauty.
Bulgakov maintains that the epitome and perfection, “the goal and limit” of economic activity – of household life – is art, though which human creativity transforms and transfigures nature by uncovering and unleashing its beauty. He even argues that “economy [as such] must return to its [Edenic] prototype, must become transformed into art.”* Thus, those who today argue that nature is a social construction are partially right. Through art, as through science, as through traditional practice and historical experience, nature emerges transformed as a result of human labor. But to see only this, is to espouse the same kind of one-sidedness as the environmental positions discussed earlier: materialism, anthropocentrism, biocentrism, etc.
The intellectual historian Marjorie Hope Nicolson has shown how our appreciation of the beauty of wild landscapes is a rather recent acquisition. For example, she documents that until the last few centuries, the Alps were regarded as so repulsive in their bleak, chaotic, barren disorder that coaches traversed them with curtains drawn, to protect travelers from such a repugnant spectacle.** The wild nature we work to preserve in the harsh mountain high-country, the scoured canyons of the Southwest, and the flooded marshlands and estuaries of the Southeast is beautiful, but it is a beauty that is a creative product. A product of what? Two centuries of romanticism in poetry, music, and painting. The philosophical concept of the sublime. A century and a half of nature-writing, from Chateaubriand and Bartram and Thoreau, to Dillard and Lopez. Dazzling historical accounts by amazed explorers and naturalists from Powell and Muir to the present day. Photographers such as Adams and Weston and Porter, plus a half-century of Sierra Club calendars and coffee-table books. The point is that the wild nature we find
* Ibid, p. 310, n.34.
** Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963).
beautiful is a humanized nature, the result of economic activity, a product of human art and creativity. Nature in humanity – the object subjectivized. Or as V. S. Naipaul put this, the work of the imagination “hallows it subject,” such that “landscapes do not start to be real until they have been interpreted by an artist.”* But does that mean that the result is a fiction or fabrication – somehow unreal? To the contrary, it is far more real, Bulgakov argues, than the nature revealed by scientific theories from Copernicus to the present day, theories that are just as much creative products of human economy, and which are hardly invalidated by that status.
For science and art and the simplest economic activities of tool-making and agriculture all proceed from the same source: the discovery – within nature as a lifeless, mechanical collection of blind forces, an inanimate realm of brute necessity, within natura naturata – of vital interrelationships, of an unbounded field of reciprocally connected and mutually penetrating forces, a “logos of things” – which we ourselves engage as both participants and revealers. Evoking the Stoic thought of the logos spermatikos, Bulgakov later writes “the truth is that nature is not empty, but full. It is full of logoi, ontic seeds, which pre-contain the all of cosmic being.”** (C208) In short, we find everywhere incipient life, organic interactions and the palate of the beautiful, but frozen in immobility and awaiting liberation through our knowledge and creativity: we find natura naturans, find once again the world soul – this time not in humanity as transcendental subject, but in nature as transcendental object. The conditions for the possibility of economic activity of any kind – the ontological ground for the world as household – lie in this self-recognition of humanity in nature, and the simultaneous self-realization of nature in humanity. In economic activity, the life of the earth household, we thus find a twofold manifestation of the world soul: as realizing the potential for collective activity of the transcendental subject, and as realizing the potential for universal life and freedom and transfiguration in the transcendental object. Discovery and creation are not two different practices here, but aspects of a single process of self-realization – to use a term favored by deep ecologist Arne Naess, even as he struggles to
* V. S. Naipaul, Vintage Naipaul (New York: Vintage Books, 2004) p. 55.
** Sergei Bulgakov, The Comforter, tr. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004) p. 208. I have substituted here the Greek “logoi” for the translator’s rendering from the
Russian of “logoses.”
justify it philosophically. What happens, however, if economic production is merely willful and arbitrary? What if putative creativity results not in the animation and transfiguration of nature, but in its distortion and debasement and degradation. In Blakean terms, what if a perverse economy results not in “mountains green” and “pleasant pastures seen,” but in “clouded hills” and “dark satanic mills”? And why the earlier claim, still not justified, that nature as it is revealed by art is truer, more real, than the nature revealed by science?
To answer these questions, we must consider how Bulgakov develops two themes that are central to the Byzantine philosophical and theological traditions, and in particular to their articulation in Russian Orthodoxy – concepts somewhat dissonant with Western thought in the last millennium, but deeply resonant with the shared experience and traditional wisdom of non-western humanity. First, in the Christian East, the concept of the fall is understood to be not exclusively a fall of humanity, but of the cosmos as a whole, due to the waywardness of humanity. It is not just we ourselves that are fallen, but nature too, because of us. Accordingly, it is not only humanity that stands in need of redemption and resurrection, but all of nature – whose inherent goodness and beauty has been afflicted with discord and corruption. Second, underlying the thought of cosmic fall and redemption, is the concept of Sophia – the Divine Wisdom elaborated at great length in the Wisdom Books of the Septuagint Bible, and central to Eastern Christendom since the fourth century building of the great Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople, and its namesake successors in Kiev and Novgorod. Sophia is that element – manifested in natura naturans – through which nature in whole and part is rooted in the Divine being, and which thus provides the normative measure within nature for what it once was paradisiacally, and for what it once more must be through human creativity. And thus it provides the standard for what Bulgakov calls an Edenic economy, household life that redeems and resurrects cosmic nature.
Speaking of itself – or indeed herself, as the passage is gendered in the Septuagint Book of “Proverbs” – Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, states “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth. . . When [the Lord] prepared the heavens, I was there; when he set a compass upon the face of the depth. . . when he appointed the foundations of the earth; then I was by him, as one brought up with him; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.” (Prov. 8: 23-31).* And in the Book of the “Wisdom of Solomon,” Sophia is “she who is the artificer of all things,” who “pervadeth and penetrateth all things by reason of her pureness. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a clear effluence of the glory of the Almighty. . . an effulgence from everlasting light and an unspotted mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wisd. of Sol. 7:21, 24 – 26)** Surely, as Bulgakov notes, Sophia is “the world of [forms] discovered for philosophy by Plato,” and he even anoints Plato as the “prophet of Sophia.”*** Yet Sophia is just as much what Heidegger calls “the holy” and “divinely beautiful nature” in his Hölderlin essays, not something transcendent, but nearer the surface, bubbling over into the beauty that allows us to apprehend nature’s rootedness in the saving and healing power of the holy. It is that which Dostoevsky named, in writing that “beauty will save the world” – and in Bugakov’s words, “beauty is the unceasing force that strives within every being towards the realization of its own logos, its eternal life.”**** It is, argues Bulgakov, “the spirituality of nature,. . . the grace of the Holy Spirit that inheres in it,” “that ineffable and rationally unfathomable beauty which delights, nourishes, freshens, and fills the soul.”***** Sophia is Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things” that can nevertheless “flame out like shining from shook foil,” and Sophia
* Cited in Bulgakov, Economy, pp. 137f.
** Cited in Bulgakov, Economy, p. 305.
*** Ibid, p. 138; Sergei Bulgakov, “Hagia Sophia,” in Sergius Bulgakov, A Bulgakov Anthology, ed. Nicholas Zernov and James Pain (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,1976) p. 14.
**** Selection from Sergei Bulgakov, The Unfading Light, cited in Sergeii Bulgakov, Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) p. 140.
***** Bulgakov, Comforter, p. 202. Bulgakov continues here: “The beauty of nature is a self-evident fact – for both believers and unbelievers equally. . . Beauty is the exteriorized sophianicity of creation that ‘clothes’ the latter; it is the reflection of the mystical light of the Divine Sophia. The beauty of nature is objective. This means that it can by no means be identified with human emotional or subjective states. The beauty of nature is a spiritual force that testifies about itself to the human spirit.” (Ibid,)
is the nature characterized by Thoreau as “Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, . . a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.”*
“Sophia shines in the world,” writes Bulgakov, “as the primordial purity and perfection of the universe, in the charm of a child and the enchantment of a fluttering flower, in the beauty of a starry sky or of a flaming sunrise. . . . These sophic rays,” he continues, “are what attract us to nature.”** Sophia is revealed preeminently in the beauty of nature, which Bulgakov calls both “the vestment of divinity” and “the flower of creation” – “that ineffable beauty which delights, nourishes, freshens, and fills the soul. . . [that] spiritual force that testifies about itself to the human spirit.”*** And it is also, of course, Sophia that allows us to sort out what is Edenic from what is fallen – and to distinguish the Edenic economy which actualizes the latent life and beauty and goodness of nature, from an economy that Bulgakov does not hesitate to name, along with Blake, diabolical: “if [economic] creation takes matters into its own hands, seeking a model outside the divine Sophia, it shapes a shadowy, satanic world alongside the given, created one.”**** The Edenic economy, in contrast, he defines as “the selfless loving effort of man to apprehend and to perfect nature, to reveal its sophic character.” This corresponds to the “Edenic state” in which economic activity began, in which the household was itself Eden, and in which humanity was created to be “the living tool of the divine Sophia,” to name the birds and animals, to transform the whole world into the garden of Eden, and in the words of Genesis, “to tend it and keep it” – in which, “originally, economic activity was the harmonious interaction of man with nature.”*****
But why revive these old thoughts of paradise and fall, even though Bulgakov states clearly that he intends them not historically, but phenomenologically and ontologically, “according to a certain empirico-mystical geography?”****** Do they not affront modern science so egregiously, that even those critical of scientism must find them questionable? Isn’t everything in nature just. . . natural? Perhaps the simplest answer is that this
* Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) pp. 621, 625.
** Bulgakov, Economy, p. 151.
*** Bulgakov, Comforter, p. 202.
**** Bulgakov, Economy, p. 146.
***** Ibid. p. 154.
****** Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) p. 178.
ancient view of nature seems not only unavoidable phenomenologically – and it seems to me that Annie Dillard has made this case very strongly in her writings on nature, especially in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where a cosmic strife between harmony and disorder, between beauty and ugliness, is shown to be an inescapable element of our lived experience of nature – but also inevitable as we survey the common experience of humanity, apart from the experiment we have recently undertaken in the secularized West. It was for Confucius the need to restore on earth the ways of heaven through the recovery of human-heartedness, and for Lao Tzu the return to the way and virtue of the Tao that is both hidden and manifest in things. It was the Hindu quest to see through the veil of maya, and the Buddhist prescription to relinquish the grasping and clinging that bring suffering into the world and sustain it. And we could go on at great length, mentioning the cosmic warfare apprehended by the ancient Persians, and the loss of a golden age assumed by the Greeks and many other peoples. Indeed, the Promethean humanism discussed earlier is a one-sided appropriation of this insight. Cosmic
misalignment, that somehow finds its locus in humanity – from whom its redemption must nevertheless proceed, as it does in Buddhism and its teaching of the Bodhisattva, whereby liberation from cosmic errancy and suffering must take place through the medium of humanity. But if this is correct, then there is an even deeper truth to anthropocentrism, one having nothing to do with self-interest, enlightened or otherwise.
As understood in the Byzantine tradition, humanity was created as a cosmic priesthood, the living link between God and cosmos, positioned to consecrate and celebrate the nature that surrounds us: in Bulgakov’s terms, the “ontological center” of nature – “the unifying center of the world in the eternal harmony and beauty of the cosmos [as it was] created by God.”* And it is precisely because of this cosmic role that the fall of humanity must at the same time necessarily be a fall for nature as well. Destined to serve as the medium through which creation itself was to become deified, fallen humanity becomes instead the bane of nature, its scourge and oppressor. Thus Edenic nature, in contrast, represents the normative “anamnesis of another [mode of] being, similar to the golden dreams of childhood and most accessible to childhood. . .
* Bulgakov, Economy, pp. 144f.
[proffering] distinct, palpable revelations of the world’s sophianicity in our soul.”* Accordingly, it serves as “a preparation for what [lies] hidden in the recesses of all of natural being. . . [as] a sort of eschatology of natural being.”**
But why does Bulgakov propose art as the paradigm of the Edenic economy, as the vehicle to realize this eschatology? Why not, instead, science – and especially ecology – as environmentalists tacitly presuppose? Science, he answers, can only study nature in its lifeless and mechanized, and thus its fallen, aspect. “Science throws a net of mechanism, imperceptible as are the threads of a spider web to a fly, over the entire world,” and as a result, “nature as universal organism, hen kai pan, does not yield itself alive to science.”*** It lacks entirely the means to see life as everywhere incipient in nature, to apprehend the sophic seeds awaiting germination, the spring day that Rilke says was waiting for us to celebrate it and sanctify it. Science can indeed trace the sophic footprints innatura naturata, but it is methodologically incapable of apprehending the life that left them behind, natura naturans. “A scientific relation to the world,” writes Bulgakov in italics, “is a relation to the world as mechanism.”****
As Kant had shown long before, the truth of things is inaccessible to discursive thought.***** “Sophia, which establishes the ultimate connection of all things, cannot be understood through science, which only understands nature’s regularities and patterns.”****** Discursive knowledge fails here, because it is based on “the division of subject and object and on the disintegration of being,” and thus it finds the truth of things surrounded by cloudlike mystery and inexpressibility. But this does not consign us to either skepticism or blind belief. “Sophia can only be perceived by revelation” – not discursively, but noetically through “miraculous, intuitive ways independent of scientific cognition.” It is revealed through religious myths and symbols; revealed, he says, in the brilliant intuitions
* Bulgakov, Bride, p. 178: “The remembrance of an edenic state and of God’s garden is nevertheless preserved in the secret recesses of our self-consciousness, as an obscure anamnesis of another [mode of] being, similar to the dreams of golden childhood and most accessible to childhood. These are distinct, palpable revelations of the world’s sophianicity in our soul, although they are usually obscured in the soul by our failure to believe in their genuineness or even in their possibility.”
** Ibid, p. 179.
*** Bulgakov, Economy, pp. 183f.
**** Ibid., p. 183.
***** Ibid, p. 157.
****** Ibid, p. 155.
of great philosophical genius; revealed aesthetically, in modes whereby “the infinite shines through the finite”; and revealed too in the inexpressible “mysteries of personal religious life.” (Ibid) In each of these, “truth is a state of being” in which the knower “becomes a living member of the divine Sophia, the body of Christ, his church, and in doing so apprehends the sophic world – for us merely an ideal-as living reality. He becomes transparent and sophic; Sophia – that sun which shines and warms us while remaining invisible – emerges from the clouds and openly stands in the middle of the sky.”* Bulgakov himself clearly seems to have experienced such sophianic insights, as indicated by his autobiographical account of a twilight vision of the Caucasus Mountains from the Russian steppes – when, as he states it, “the first day of creation shone before my eyes,” and liberated him from the dark dreams of Marxist materialism and “the dull pain of seeing nature as a lifeless desert and of treating its surface beauty as a deceptive mask.”**)
Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy is a long and complex book; only some of its main features have been reviewed here, and this in a summary fashion. Moreover, what was published in 1912 was only Volume One “(The Earth as Household”) devoted to the ontology of economic activity. A second, projected volume would have delivered his economic axiology as a philosophy of history and culture, showing how a sophianic economy can be seen emerging in both human history and in culture. Since it never appeared, the content of Part Two must be extrapolated from his later, theological writings – the task of another paper, especially given the developments in the twentieth century that would need to be integrated into Bulgakov’s perspective. Developments such as accelerating globalization, the rise of the environmental movement, and the steadily increasing interest of traditional religious institutions in integrating environmental perspectives into their theological outlook would all reinforce key
* Ibid, pp. 135, 156. This passage alludes to Bulgakov’s theologically important distinction between the divine Sophia, the Wisdom of God as it is rooted in the Trinitarian Life, and the worldly or cosmic Sophia, that same Wisdom as it is manifest in the world. Many theological criticisms of Bulgakov’s “sophiology” have ignored this distinction.
** Bulgakov, The Unfading Light, cited in Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1993) p. ix, and Bulgakov Anthology, p. 10.
concepts in Bulgakov, such as the ontological unity of humanity, and the hope for a progressive realization of sophianic economy.
But even what is developed in “The World as Household” provides powerful tools for rethinking environmental issues. For it delivers a philosophical means for understanding environmentalism as an important mode of the great charge of humanity, and this is no less than – to use the biblical terminology of William Blake – a building of the New Jerusalem on earth, requiring nothing less than the resurrection and transfiguration of nature. Championing the nature revealed by poetry and imagination over the lifeless, mechanized nature of Newton and modern science – which he sees as powerless to check the rise of “dark satanic mills” – Blake ends his poem with this stanza:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
To build the New Jerusalem – the earth as the Holy City – requires mental, spiritual, noetic “fight” – deployed through the sword of imagination – scimitar of the Edenic economy, and vanquisher of lifeless matter and dissonant disorder – to restore “England’s green and pleasant land.” But whence the criterion for this restoration, the touchstone for distinguishing the Edenic from the Satanic economy? The hallmark is the divine Sophia as it permeates nature, natura naturans as it shows itself in what is beautiful, and consequently finds resonance within the human heart. If Bulgakov is right, this is not something vague, something secondary or merely subjective, but the very grounds for that interaction with nature that makes us mediators between the finite and eternal, the visible and the invisible. And it inaugurates a far more powerful environmental vision than those of the warring schools of environmental philosophy – anthropocentrism and biocentrism, social constructivism and positivism. It allows us to understand why sound environmental restoration is not the fabrication of something artificial, but the re-vitalization of cosmic Sophia. It suggests to us that the call to eating differently, and more simply – and perhaps too abstaining from food that entails the shedding of blood, as Orthodox fasting requires – may after all advance the environmental project, by bringing us closer to the Edenic economy from which we have ontologically fallen. At the same time, it provides a means for understanding the domestication of animals not as only as a degradation (which, of course, in some cases it is) but in its most salutary forms, as an elevation of the pre-human into the higher modes toward it which inclines, and with which it instinctively cooperates, while at the same time restoring to us an animal identity that – as Paul Sheperd has argued – we ignore at our own peril. It allows us to subvert the destructive dichotomy between supposedly pristine wilderness and human habitation – as if human hands were necessarily contaminants – and allows us to understand Rene Dubos’ controversial claim (in The Wooing of the Earth) that human activity can sometimes so much represent the tender hand of a householder in love with the land, that nature can actually be made better than it was before. It answers the questions of why the disorder and aberration entailed by catastrophic climate change, by genetically modified plant and animal species, and by the extinction of those species that were first articulated as individual notes of the great Song of the Earth – why all of these disruptions are sophic degradations, and not – as some would now argue – just as “natural” as anything that has come before. Seeing nature as inherently sophianic – not just empirically, but in the possibilities toward which it inclines – allows for a deep understanding of why technologies friendly to natural patterns are intrinsically better than the violent technologies of Promethean humanism; why natural fabrics, materials, foods are important to an environmental vision that seeks the Edenic; and why the natural species that express the sophic genius of place are always preferable to exotics, even though the latter are in a secondary sense, just as “natural.”
Bulgakov’s writings – both earlier and later – merit sustained consideration from environmental philosophers. But more important yet, the thought of a normative depth to nature – accessible first in aesthetic terms, but requiring a religious, spiritual, mystical articulation to be rendered comprehensible – a vision of what Bulgakov calls sophianic nature – has now become indispensable for serious thinking about the natural environment. It is, I conclude, a need become urgent and apparent, both in the literature of environmental thought, as well as in the events and processes that surround us, and threaten to overwhelm us.