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As cultural conflicts roil the world, the idea of a “clash of civilizations” has lately taken hold, with commentators from both East and West weighing the religious and political disparities that affect global unity. For all its present currency and urgency, the idea is nothing new. In various contexts V. S. Soloviev (1853–1900), the most distinguished representative of nineteenth-century Russian religious philosophy, anticipated our current global dilemma by more than a hundred years. These essays, presented together for the first time in English, consider from a number of perspectives how a future clash of cultures between East and West threatens human progress toward the harmonic unity that, for Soloviev, represented the ultimate human telos.
The six essays comprising this book span Soloviev’s publishing career, beginning with “The Mythological Process in Ancient Paganism,” written at the age of twenty, and ending with “Muhammad, His Life and Religious Teaching,” which appeared four years before Soloviev’s death at forty-seven. Throughout, Soloviev grapples with commonalities and differences apparent in the moral frameworks of civilizations since antiquity; and in religious and cultural practices, from Europe through the Middle East to Asia. His probing of the sources of religious morality and political authority in human history reinvigorated Russian intellectual interest in the East/West question in his time—
and still resonates powerfully in our own.
A MOST IMPORTANT TASK of historical study consists in the explanation of humanity's primitive pagan life, which constitutes the material basis of all later development, and since this life was wholly determined by one principle-religious belief-then its understanding, the understanding of paganism, is fully conditional on an understanding of pagan religion. In fact, the multiplicity of principles that define life as we see it in our time is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The ancient world (until its collapse) had no knowledge of a particular principle separate from religious belief in the intellectual realm-it had no knowledge of abstract self-determining science, just as in the sphere of social life it had no knowledge of abstract juridical principle, which determines the contemporary state (for the ancient state was absolute, i.e., religious), so that both intellectual life and social relations were identically conditional at the time upon a single principle of religion, and thus an explanation of this principle explains all of paganism and provides a basis for explaining the entire history of humanity as well.
But the difficulty of this task is equal to its importance, and so we see that until now the study of ancient religions is still at the level of gathering materials, on the one hand, and the construction of more or less abstract and arbitrary theories on the other. The most widespread among these theories now is the theory of a so-called mythology of nature. The content of primitive or mythological religions is given, according to this theory, by a few phenomena of extrinsic nature, chiefly those that are connected with thunder and with the annual and daily course of the sun, a mythological model that is conditional on the properties of primitive languages. Although the basic idea of this theory is noted neither for its novelty nor its profundity, its scholarly elaboration does have significance: it is thanks to this scholarly elaboration that certain important theses, which though previously known lacked any positive basis, became Firmly established. Thus, scholarly followers of this theory were the First to actually demonstrate the essential unity of all peoples' beliefs, forever eliminating previous assumptions about their incidental or individual origin; they demonstrated, at length, that they all represent a definite essential character, found in permanent relation to the phenomena of nature, in an indissoluble connection with these phenomena. But such results without doubt have only a formal significance. The essential content of pagan religions is not at all determined and explained by bringing all mythology under the phenomena of nature: only their general form is shown. It is apparent, in fact, that the phenomena of nature in and of themselves in no way give religious content; in and of themselves they exist as unchanging for us as they did for the ancients: however, they do not have any religious significance for us; consequently, the ancients saw in the phenomena of nature not at all what we see in them, and this-the fact that they saw what we do not see-also constitutes the proper content of mythology. It is said that the content of a myth is a phenomenon of nature; but one must not forget that in paganism the same thing that constituted the content of a myth was also the subject of a cult; consequently, according to the prevailing theory, it has to be confirmed that a phenomenon of nature was the subject of a cult, that is, phenomena of nature were worshiped, prayed to, and sacrificed to. But here it now becomes apparent that a natural phenomenon in this sense, that is, to which one can pray and bring sacrifices, does not have anything in common with what we call a phenomenon of nature. Therefore nothing is yet explained, while it remains uncertain as to what ancient people saw in nature.
The prevailing school proposes a very facile, but not new, resolution of this problem. Primitive man, they say, analogizing with their own actions, also saw in extrinsic nature the activity of living personal beings, which he also worshiped as having power over us. It is sufficient to note that such an explanation, again, does not explain anything. We cannot find any analogy between the arbitrary actions of people and the essential phenomena of nature-the ancients did find such an analogy; consequently, they looked and thought not as we do. What did this peculiarity of outlook depend on, what did nature's life force depend on in the view of primitive man?
The prevailing theory does not give a response to this. An actual response would be tantamount to the restoration of the entire ancient worldview-a task hardly able to be realized in contemporary intellectual conditions. But if it is not possible to restore fully the intrinsic essence of pagan religion, then one can at least determine the general current and the major elements of its development, proceeding from the state of pagan beliefs that is produced historically by the ancient data.
The specified naturalistic theory cannot give us any guidance in the resolution of this problem, which constitutes the goal of the present essay; every development in mythology must remain totally incomprehensible for this theory according to its very principle, since it assumes all the content of mythology in certain phenomena of nature, the sphere of which, being at its essence monotonous and changeless, cannot represent for religious consciousness, once having defined it, any motive to further development or process, so that this theory has to explain the fact of the actual mythological process from extrinsic and casual causes, resorting thus to an asylum ignorantiae. But if the prevailing theory cannot provide any help in this matter, then we can find significant support in two completely original and little-known views on this subject-the First belongs to the famous German philosopher Schelling, and the second to our own Khomiakov. The formal principle of Schelling's view must be acknowledged as absolutely true and not allowing any other evidence, apart from mythological reality itself: this principle is namely the concept of the mythological or theogonic process as subjective only insofar as it originates in the human consciousness, but fully objective and independent of consciousness according to its content and according to the principles that determine it. But we must leave aside the material part of Schelling's mythological theory, because it is entirely conditional on the metaphysical system underlying it and it shares all the essential shortcomings of this system, which was ingeniously devised but was not successfully elucidated or mastered.
Regarding Khomiakov, in his Notes on Universal History he deduces the entire religious development of paganism from the struggle of two root principles, defined according to "categories of will," namely, the principle of free creativity of spirit and the principle of natural necessity, which are expressed chiefly in organic life and its generative polarity (symbols: snake and phallus). The religion of free spirit (the bearers of which are the Iranians, and the religious representatives in paganism: the ancient Brahma and, in perverted form owing to religious struggle, Moloch, Tifon, Cronus, Hercules) and the religion of organic vital necessity (its bearers, the Cushites, and its major mythological representatives: Shiva, Osiris, Dionysus)-these two religions that adjoin each other historically and are a result of mutual struggle and interaction and take various forms-finally generate a system of religious syncretism, which in Hellenic mythology loses any religious meaning. Khomiakov's view cannot be accepted in such form. It is sufficient to note that religions of free spirit (monotheist according to essence) are encountered in the ancient world only in the Israelite people; if they existed in other peoples, then only in pre-historical times when there was not another (polytheist) religion; history has no knowledge of a joint existence in paganism of the two contrasting religious systems and, consequently, a struggle between them. Such an essential error is explained by the fact that in Khomiakov's time this study of ancient beliefs according to original religious testaments themselves had only just begun.
Having mentioned with obligatory gratitude the works of these two little-appreciated, solitary thinkers, we will strive with their help to indicate the general course of ancient religious development in its major elements.
The most ancient state of religious consciousness known to us in paganism is that which is expressed in the holy books of the Hindus-the Vedas (particularly in the Rig-Veda). The Vedic religion, as proved by scholarly research in comparative philology, is essentially identical with the original religions of all other Indo-European peoples-Iranians, Hellenes, Latins, Celts, Germans, Lithuanians, and Slavs-so that without committing a great error one can accept the Vedas as a testament of an original, common Aryan religion.
Max Müller, the well-known philologist and translator of the Vedas, presents in his lecture on this subject the characteristics of Vedic religion in the following way. The mythical gods in the Rig-Veda do not have any determinacy and stability; they are constantly confused and converted one into another, presenting a particular individual character only to a very weak degree. A consciousness exists that all the gods are only various forms, manifestations, or attributes of one divinity.
Each god is for the worshiper the same as all the gods. He is felt as the true divinity-supreme and limitless-without all these restrictions which according to our idea must appear for each separate god in the presence of a multiplicity of gods. The consciousness that all divinities are only various names of one and the same god is manifest here and there in the Vedas. So for example in the Rig-Veda (1.164.46) it is said: "He is called Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni; then he is the atmospheric heavenly Harutmat; he who is one is named in various ways: he is called Agni, Yama, Matarisvan."
The gods of the Vedas are heavenly gods. Agni does not constitute an exception; for although he also stands in direct relation to earthly fire-the fire of the hearth and of sacrifice-as is demonstrated by Kuhn, Aryans saw in earthly fire only the manifestation of heavenly fire, the same that acts in the phenomena of storms. However, apart from this it is apparent from the Vedic hymns to Agni that this god, with his close tie to the fire from which he even received his name, can in no way be identical with this element. In general it is without doubt that the gods of the Vedas, indissolubly connected with phenomena of nature, are never identified with them: a phenomenon of nature is represented only by a constant expression or action of the divinity. Regarding the Vedic cult, it differed in purity from all those perverted-in our understanding-rites in which later paganism abounded: phallicism was completely unknown to the ancient Aryans. As a consequence of the indeterminacy of divine images and the absence of anthropomorphism, there was no idol worship either: not one hint of any kind of portrayal of gods will be found in the Rig-Veda.
Although such a state of religious consciousness appears comparatively primitive, it, however, obviously cannot be accepted now as absolutely original, due to its indeterminate position, the middle ground occupied by Vedic religion between monotheism and polytheism. A question must necessarily arise here: is Vedic religion a monotheism produced synthetically from original polytheism, or oppositely, does it present a disintegration of an original unity of religious consciousness into a multiplicity of forms? If the First assumption is correct, that monotheism was produced from polytheism in Vedic religion, then this monotheism would have had to be prevalent in the period following the Vedic period. But, historically, it is of course the direct opposite: in the period following we see among all Aryan peoples the complete predominance of fully materialized polytheism. A complete polytheism developed out of the indeterminate religion of the Vedas; consequently, the monotheistic element in this religion could not be a bud of the future, but only a remnant of the past, so that, in accordance with the second assumption, it must be acknowledged that the course of development was from unity to multiplicity and that the original pre-Vedic religion of the Aryans was decisively monotheism, which now begins to disintegrate in the Vedas. But in order not to fall into arbitrary conjecture relative to the character of this original monotheism, we turn to the direct testimony of the Vedas themselves, in which clear traces of primitive religion should still be preserved. And we actually find these traces, especially in those hymns that are directed to the god Varuna, who represented among other mythic images a certain and particularly distinctive character. Here are several of these hymns.
I. Although, O Varuna, we often violate your law, God, as human children day after day, do not give us over as a sacrifice to death, to the rage and wrath of a frenzied enemy. As a warrior settles his tethered horse, appeasing you in your mercy, God, we settle your wrath with hymns. Thirsting only for treasures, the impious flee from you, as birds to their nests. When shall we appease him, the far-seeing giver of blessings, Varuna? He knows the path of birds that fly through heaven, and the ships that are on the sea. He knows the twelve moons with their bounty, and he knows the new moon. He who dwells above, preserver of heaven, is Varuna, the wise ruler; from there he perceives and beholds the wonders of all existence-what has occurred and what will yet occur. May he bless our life daily and prolong our days. Carry my hymns to him who sees far off, to him whom no one dares approach, no cunning man or sorcerer from among the throngs of people-carry them as cows to pasture, they are fulfilled desires. Let us speak once more together; I have brought you sweetmeats as a priest. Have I not seen the all-seeing, have I not seen his sign above? Truly he has heard my prayer. Take pity on me, Varuna-asking for protection, I call to you. You are the wise Lord of all, O hear me as you go on your way. (Rv. 1.25)
II. Great and wise are his exploits, separating earth and starry heaven and spreading the clear and broad sky in the middle. I will say to myself: How will I reach Varuna? Will he accept my gifts without being angered? How am I to look with a pure spirit on the one rich in mercy? I inquire about my transgression with trepidation, O Varuna, to sages I go with the question: they all say the same thing to me: Varuna is angry with you. Tell me, Varuna, which transgression do you persecute your former friend for? Announce this to me, unconquerable, mighty one, so that without sin I may approach you with supplication. (Rv. 7.86)
Excerpted from Enemies from the East?
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