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Book Review: Russia’s Path Toward Enlightenment

By (July 1, 2016) No Comment

Russia’s Path Toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics, and Reason, russia's path1500-1801

by G. M. Hamburg

Yale University Press, 2016

Readers tend to think of the Enlightenment that spread across Europe in the 18th century as having had an adversarial relationship with organized religion, to put it mildly. Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Voltaire, Hume – to one extent or another, each would have viewed a new spirit of inquiry as antithetical to the massive edifice of Church authority. And this renders all the more surreal the seamless symbiosis of Christianity and humanism in G. M. Hornburg’s encyclopedic new book, Russia’s Path Toward Enlightenment, which traces in exhaustive, fascinating detail the social and intellectual currents that swirled through Moscow life in the centuries before the “enlightened despotism” of Catherine the Great.

It’s one of many, many such currents in the book, which is a comprehensively-researched 900 pages of Russian intellectual history over three centuries, but even a narrative as sprawling and heavily-populated as Hamburg’s keeps coming back to this symbiosis, this relationship between the Orthodox Church and the growing forces of pre-Enlightenment thought. One of the many now largely forgotten intellectuals brought to life by Hamburg, the poet and playwright Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarkov, promoted the ideas of Voltaire connecting “enlightenment with erudition,” but through the Orthodox concept of prosveshchenie, a kind of hard-won inner awakening, Hamburg’s book consistently reminds its readers that in Russia, with its millennial linkage of social hierarchy with Divine will, the connection was much more “enlightenment with piety”:

To be “enlightened,” in the Christian sense was, among other things, to have internalized a share of divine wisdom and with it the desire to live virtuously, to seek justice all one’s days; hence, many of those Orthodox Christians who respected the image of God in themselves and in others proved receptive to early modern Western European theories of human dignity and rights. Enlightened Orthodox people grasped the fallibility of human beings and of human institutions, but they were not daunted by that fallibility, because Orthodoxy teaches the possibility of overcoming imperfection through theosis.

Russia’s Path Toward Enlightenment is an enormous, intimidatingly stark volume from Yale (starkly priced as well, in a bracket not for the faint of heart), and yet – just like its subject – appearances belie inner realities: the sheer exuberance of the mental sleigh-rides on offer in these pages uncannily never flags, and although the sheer extent of the author’s scope and erudition can be daunting for the non-specialist, the reading experience itself is always thrilling. These and thinkers and believers lived in a world most general-interest readers know nothing about; there couldn’t be a more generous and ultimately convincing introduction that world than the one Hamburg has written.