No Comment, Quotation — August 18, 2011, 2:32 pm

Solov'ëv and the Eternal Struggle with Evil

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Ka?e?c?, o? ?????. ??o ?e?c????e???o cy?ec??ye?, ? o?o ??pa?ae?c? ?e ? o??o? o?cy?c???? ?o?pa, a ? ?o?o???e???o? c??po????e??? ? ?epe?ece ?????x ?a?ec?? ?a? ??c???? ?o ?cex o??ac??x ?????. Ec?? ??o ???????ya???oe — o?o ??pa?ae?c? ? ?o?, ??o ????a? c??po?a ?e?o?e?a, c?o?c??e ? ??epc??e c?pac?? ?po?????c? ?y???? c?pe??e???? ?y?? u ocu?u?a?m ux ? o?po??o? ?o?????c??e ???e?. Ec?? ??o o??ec??e??oe — o?o ? ?o?, ??o ???c?a? ?o??a, ???????ya???o ?opa?o?e??a? ??y, ?po?????c? c?ac??e????? yc????? ?e??o??x ?y???x ???e? ? o?o?e?ae? ?x; ec??, ?a?o?e?, ??o ?????ec?oe ? ?e?o?e?e — ? ?o?, ??? ?????e ?a?ep?a????e ??e?e??? e?o ?e?a co?po???????c? ???o? ? c?e??o? c??e, c?????a??e? ?x ? ?pe?pac?y? ?op?y op?a????a, co?po???????c? ? pac?op?a?? ??y ?op?y, y????o?a? pea???y? ?o???a??y ?ce?o ???????. ??o ec?? ?pa??ee ??o, ?a???ae?oe c?ep???. ? ec?? ?? ?o?e?y ????o ?pa??e?o ?????ec?oro ??a ?y??o ???o ?p???a?? ?a? o?o??a?e???y? ? ?e?yc?o??y?, ?o ???a??e ?????e ?o?e?? ?o?pa, ? o??ac?? ????o ?pa?c??e??o? ? o??ec??e??o?, ?e???? ???o ?? c???a?? cep?e????? yc?exa??.

It is quite simple. Evil really does exist, and it finds its expression not only in the absence of good, but in the affirmative resistance and predominance of lesser qualities over the higher ones in all the spheres of existence. There is an individual evil — when the lesser side of man, the animal and bestial passions, oppose the better impulses of the soul, overpowering them, in the great majority of people. There is a social evil, when the psychology of the crowd, individually enslaved by evil, resists the salutary efforts of the few better men and eventually surmounts them. There is, finally, a physical evil in man, when the baser material aspects of his body resist the living and enlightening power which binds them up together in a beautiful form of organism — resist and break the form, destroying the real basis of the higher life. This is the extreme evil, called death. And had we been compelled to recognize the victory of this extreme physical evil as final and absolute, then no supposed victories of good in the individual and social spheres could ever really be considered successes.

Vladimir Solov'ëv, War, Progress and the End of History (??? ????????? ? ?????, ?????????, ? ????? ????????? ??????? ?? ?????????? ??????? ??????? ?? ??????????) (1900)(S.H. transl.)


In the modern world, there are essentially two approaches to the concept of evil. There is the traditional, conservative, essentially theological perspective, in which evil is an autonomous force working to corrupt man and society, and in which it is a foe, to be identified and battled wherever it appears. And there is the secular perspective, associated with such Enlightenment thinkers as Rousseau, which sees man as naturally good, capable of becoming “evil” only as a result of choices that may be the product of environment or education. Vladimir Solov'ëv, one of Russia’s outstanding thinkers and writers in the late nineteenth century, understood these opposing perspectives as a fundamental contradiction within the developed societies of his time. He was certainly right — in fact, his writings on this subject maintain their currency over a century later, attesting to the shrewdness of his insights and his abilities as a narrator.

The most captivating of Solov'ëv’s writings — rivaled only by his essays on Dostoyevsky — is a short work entitled War, Progress and the End of History — more commonly referred to simply as the “Antichrist,” thanks to the narrative about the End Times appended as its conclusion. In the body of the book, Solov'ëv assembles five Russians who reflect the thinking of his time. They meet in a garden villa on the French Riviera and engage in animated, occasionally brilliant conversation. One is Mr. Z, a figure Solov'ëv all but acknowledges to be himself. Another is the General, who represents traditional, conservative Russian thought, and whose remarks bear a suspicious similarity to statements by Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the great Oberprokurator of the Orthodox Church and the archconservative opponent of reform and liberalism in late Romanov Russia. Third is the Prince, a barely disguised representation of Count Lev Tolstoy. And fourth is the Politician, a man with a liberal vision and faith that the rule of law can improve the human condition, likely modeled on Fëdor Fëdorovich Martens, the great architect of modern international law and Imperial Russia’s representative at the Hague Conferences. Rounding out the characters is a hostess who drives the conversations forward.

Solov'ëv develops their differing viewpoints in a masterful and convincing fashion, with the exception of the Prince. On this score, Solov'ëv’s antipathy toward Tolstoy, if not his outright condescension, shows through, and the characterization becomes cartoonish. Solov'ëv had long harbored the idea of propagating his own vision in tandem with Russia’s greatest novelist, but having been rebuffed, he couldn’t conceal his bitterness.

The forces of social revolution and Nietzschean nihilism — powerful presences in the Russian intellectual discourse of the time — remain at the boundaries of the conversation. Surely, Solov'ëv seems to say, they would have no place in a polite parlor of the Russian gentry. Instead, the core of the discussion turns on the questions of evil and its role inside humans and in society. Each of the speakers offers a view, but Solov'ëv saves the last word for the Antichrist section, his riveting tale of evil come in human form upon the earth. It is, in essence, an account of the end of history (in the scriptural, not Hegelian, sense), which culminates in the rise of the Antichrist and the return of Christ.

The narrative begins with an account of Europe’s final decades, detailing a struggle with Islam and then a still more cathartic clash between Europe and the Far East. Europe, with its faith in science and modernity, emerges triumphant, and the European states reassemble as the United States of Europe. At their helm stands a new leader, a brilliant and charismatic figure with a dazzling ability to empathize and an apparent facility with religious doctrine. He assumes dictatorial powers and moves his capital to Jerusalem, site of the narrative’s final dramatic confrontations, which take place between the leaders of the three great branches of Christianity: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism — or, as Solov'ëv would have it, the traditions of the apostles Peter, John, and Paul.

Many of Solov'ëv’s followers (such as Cardinal Biffi) and modern readers (Pope Benedict XVI) see his account as an attempt to predict the end of the world, thereby enlisting him as a soldier in their own culture wars. Cranks of all sorts still cite him in demonizing their political adversaries as Antichrists. But Solov'ëv’s true purpose was philosophical and theological. He wanted his readers to consider the limits of secular thought and the absurdity of its dismissal of evil. His message was not that liberalism is evil, but rather to identify as shortcomings its blindness to the possible presence of evil and its presumption that evil can be defeated through better social services and education.

Indeed, Solov'ëv stands outside the liberal-conservative dichotomy of late-nineteenth-century Russia. Within the Russian intellectual tradition, he is generally reckoned among the last of the great Slavophiles — upholders of an intellectual tradition that accorded a special role to the Orthodox Church. As religiously suggestive as his Antichrist narrative may be, however, Solov'ëv doesn’t fit this mold. True, he rejects Rousseau’s dismissal of evil, but he replaces it with Kant’s, which is to say with an Enlightenment school that appeals to reason but recognizes a darkness in the human condition that might be called evil. Like Kant, Solov'ëv was convinced of the need for a moral philosophy independent of religion — one that could provide a beacon for a society torn between different religious rites and struggling with the rise of secularism. He also embraced the rule of law independent of the Christian State favored by Slavophile tradition. And finally, he supported the aggressive pursuit of science, without impositions from state or church (though bound by rules of ethics), as essential to human happiness.

The picture of Solov'ëv that emerges is of a writer capable of captivating American End-Timers, but who would be disgusted by their hate-based rhetoric, their fear of learning and science, and their lack of compassion for their fellow humans. In Solov'ëv’s telling, the Antichrist can be a figure of the political left, right, or center. He is marked by his love of power, his self-love, and his clever adulteration and manipulation of Christian doctrine. He is a political chameleon, seeking out rhetorical formulas and ideas that appeal to the masses, and can be used to manipulate them, but he is not beholden to his words. The political world has always attracted such personalities, of course, but none so far can lay claim to being the Antichrist.


Luca Signorelli’s fresco, “Sermons and Deeds of the Antichrist” (“Predica e fatti dell’Anticristo”), found in the Duomo of Orvieto in Umbria, is one of the most alarming works of the Renaissance. It gives us an Antichrist fully matching Solov'ëv’s model, who demonstrates a convincing command of scripture, who projects love and kindness, and who calls on people to do good, but who is nevertheless a demonic sham of the genuine article.


Listen to the second movement of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), performed by the Munich Philharmonic. The movement is entitled “Exspectans Exspectavi Dominum,” and the text being sung follows the Psalms 40:2–4 of the Vulgate.

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