Other relevant keywords: Interpretation, Orthodoxy, Philology, Secularism, Symbol, Wisdom
Sergei Averintsev (1937–2004)
Sergei Sergeevich Averintsev was an outstanding Russian cultural scholar who made essential contributions to many fields of the humanities, including philology, philosophy, theology, literary studies, and intellectual history. From 1971-1991, he was a senior researcher at the Gorky Institute of World Literature of the USSR Academy of Sciences and from 1981-1991 he was in charge of the Department of History of Ancient Literature. From 1989-1991, he served as People’s Deputy of the USSR and developed a law on freedom of conscience. From 1989-1994, he was Professor of the Department of History and Theory of World Culture of the Faculty of Philosophy, Moscow State University; from 1992-2004, he headed the Department of Christian Culture of the Institute of World Culture of Moscow State University. From 1994 to the end of his life, he was Professor of the Institute of Slavic Studies at the University of Vienna.
Sergei Averintsev was a man of encyclopedic erudition that embraced Greek and Roman antiquity, the New Testament, the Middle East, Byzantium, the European Middle Ages, 19th c. Russian literature and philosophy, the Russian Silver Age, and 20th c. Western literature and religious thought. He was a philosopher in the deepest sense, a seeker and lover of wisdom. He was a scholar with an ability for broad thought and a firm standing in the humanistic and religious foundations of Russian and European culture. His thinking was a challenge to totalitarianism of any kind, be it communism or nationalism, religious fundamentalism or technocratic pragmatism. His credo comprised a unity of faith, reason, and freedom, and in this regard he might have repeated after St. Augustine: “Believe in God and do what you want.”
Averintsev was born in 1937, the year by which Stalin had planned to completely exterminate religion in the USSR; tens of thousands of priests were killed and tens of thousands of churches destroyed or turned into warehouses. Averintsev did more than any other Russian intellectual to restore the connection of his contemporaries with the spirituality of the past, thus opening the way to the spirituality of the future. Beginning in the late 1960s, with the publication of his articles in the five-volume Philosophical Encyclopedia and his book The Poetics of Early Byzantine Literature (1977), Averintsev established himself, as they say in Russia, as vlastitel’ dum—the ruler of the minds of the Russian intelligentsia. He reversed the relation between politics and culture in the minds of many intellectuals. Under the Soviet regime, culture was believed to be a tool of politics. For Averintsev, politics was only one small segment of culture, inscribed within larger and spiritually deeper segments, such as literature and language, philosophy and theology. He can be considered, along with Mikhail Bakhtin, a founder of the Soviet and post-Soviet culturology (kul’turologiia), an integrative, multidisciplinary approach to culture.
The scope of Averintsev’s professional erudition embraced the Bible and early Christianity, the Byzantine empire, medieval Russia, Russian poetry, and 20th century Western theology and the philosophy of culture. He was a brilliant philosophical commentator who rendered the material of his inquiries with such clarity that it is difficult to separate his own thought from his analyses of the works of others. The reader of his texts gets the impression that the mentalities of distant cultures begin to articulate themselves, with Averintsev merely playing the role of mediator. This poses certain difficulties as far as the exposition of his own views is concerned.
The principal problem of culturology, as formulated by Averintsev, is the hermeneutic circle that arises between the investigator and his subject matter. A scholar may pretend that he is able to bracket his own cultural preconceptions and immerse himself objectively in another culture, but such a claim is, in Averintsev’s view, self-deceptive. He writes:
We regard the illusion of all-inclusive understanding as a lethal threat for humanistic thought, which is always an understanding ‘across the barriers’ of non-understanding. In order to feel authentically even the closest subject, it is necessary to confront it and to experience the resistance of its impenetrability; only emptiness is completely penetrable. (“Grecheskaia ‘literatura’ i blizhnevostochnaia ‘slovesnost’’ 9)
This is the first precondition of humanistic knowledge: to recognize the otherness of the culture under consideration. That is why a scholar who wants, for example, to study medieval aesthetics finds himself in a paradoxical situation—the very concept of aesthetics did not even emerge until the 18th century. Thus, medieval authors cannot be made to conform to our own understanding of aesthetics as a separate discipline. The researcher of medieval aesthetics as aesthetics implicitly presupposes that “the thinkers of the past, instead of working on their own problems, were busy exclusively with the preparatory work on our problems as we now understand them” (Averintsev, Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 31).
However, even in recognizing this paradox, it is impossible to eliminate one’s contemporary conceptual framework, which means that the scholar must identify those modes of medieval sensitivity which correspond to our concept of the aesthetical. In other words, the scholar must neither identify himself with the subject of his study, nor estrange himself from it. Authentic interpretation is a dialogic interpenetration of the two cultural perspectives. For example, the predicate of being means two different things for a modern philosopher, for instance Kant and a medieval thinker like St. Augustine. For Kant, being is not a real predicate: it adds nothing to the concept of the thing but serves only to attach attributes to things; it is only a linking element in a logical proposition. For Augustine, being is a real quality that comprises the most important aspect of the thing. As Augustine writes, “Everything that is, participates in the good to the degree that it is” (qtd. Averintsev, Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 37). Being as such becomes a good in itself, a measure of all possible perfection, and thus for medieval consciousness, being was an aesthetic rather than a purely a logical or ontological category. In modern philosophy, ontology is occupied with being while aesthetics is occupied with beauty, and there is no intersection between them. For the thinkers of the Middle Ages, however, being was an aesthetical issue while beauty was an ontological issue.
Culture and Culturology
Averintsev assumes that culture has its own logic, one that operates independently of human intention and may even contradict it. For example, Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor of the 4th century, in attempting to ban Christianity in favor of a return to paganism, actually conformed to his epoch’s cultural logic, which demanded that an emperor be the defender of the true faith. The fact that Julian’s theology was pagan and not Christian was not as significant, in Averintsev’s view, as his conformity with the dominant paradigm of Byzantine civilization, according to which the emperor was a theologian with a duty to instruct his subjects in the matters of religion. Averintsev is interested in the interplay of meanings between the subjective intentions of historical figures and the objective consequences of their accomplishments. This tenet has nothing to do with the socio-economic determinism of the Marxist approach to the humanities, but is reminiscent of Oswald Spengler’s notion of the morphology of culture, later echoed in the works of Aleksei Losev. According to Averintsev:
The main task that Spengler set himself was to grasp the primary phenomenon, the internal forms of each of the eight cultures that he inventoried, and then to deduce eidetically from this primary phenomenon absolutely everything: the forms of politics and the types of eroticism, the juridical and the musical, mathematics and lyricism. (“‘Morfologiia kul’tury’ Osval’da Shpenglera” 86)
Averintsev also uses the Spenglerian method of transdisciplinary analysis for finding connections among different aspects of culture, for example, the political ideology of the Byzantine empire, the theory of symbol in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and the creative use of metaphor by Byzantine poets.
Despite certain affinities, Averintsev argues against those aspects of Spengler’s approach to culture that seem to simplify and vulgarize the eidetic mode of description. In his view, Spengler neglects to assess distinctions among levels and aspects of culture, reducing everything to a single dominant theme. Averintsev’s own methodology attempts to preserve the specificity of each cultural category, not mixing philosophy and poetics or ideology and mathematics.
One should look for the connection between different levels while keeping in mind that these levels remain different and to present their connection neither as a rigorous mechanical link, nor as a kind of magical engagement. I assure the reader that even in a bad dream, I would not imagine that metaphors or acrostics are an expression of the psycho-ideology of certain layers of early Byzantine society or the materialization of some abstract categories of philosophical or theological doctrine. A metaphor is first of all a metaphor, an acrostic is an acrostic; a literary scholar ceases to be a scholar if tautologies of this kind are not dear to him. (Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 238)
This observance of common sense and suspicion of over-generalization are characteristic of Averintsev’s intellectual style.
Another objection to Spengler that Averintsev raises pertains to the former’s reliance upon static and discrete cultural forms, like “Apollonian” or “Faustian,” which he believes fail to account for transitional and synthetic cultural modes. Averintsev argues that culture is always in the process of transition. It is not by chance that his methodological principles are derived from an analysis of Byzantine culture, which exemplified a transition from classical antiquity to the civilization of Christian Europe and also an interaction between Eastern and Western cultural models. One could never define Byzantine culture according to Spengler’s categories, because it embraces and blends elements of several types that he classified as incompatible, such as “Apollonian,” “Magical,” and “Semitic.”
Averintsev is adept at locating multi-dimensional links among cultural phenomena, rather than reducing all phenomena to a single concept or proto-phenomenon. He elaborated a technique of what may be called culturological “allusion,” whereby he places a phenomenon in relation to several (temporal and spatial) layers of cultural associations, without insisting upon the obligatory or privileged nature of any of them. Averintsev attempts to extend the sphere of possible associations rather than to narrow it to one general principle. For example, in his characterization of early medieval verse, which revives the devices of Alexandrian “learned” poetry, Averintsev uses T. S. Eliot’s definition of poetry as “some degree of the heterogeneity of the material, forced to comprise unity through the action of a poetical mind” (Eliot, Selected Prose 60–61). With this, Averintsev does not forget to mention that Eliot is another heir of Alexandrianism, referring to Origen in his “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” (1920), and that this definition is related to the style of the “metaphysical poets” (Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 269). Thus, the Alexandrinian epoch, Byzantine literature, the Baroque, and T. S. Eliot reveal their cultural affinities in the space of one short passage, illustrating how Averintsev’s work is saturated with the articulation of cultural connections and facts. His is not simply an erudition measured by quantitative knowledge, but a deeper and more subtle talent for simultaneous analysis and synthesis of the widest scale of cultural allusions and associations.
Like Aleksei Losev, Averintsev points to the omission of Christianity from Spengler’s construction of cultural types as his principal oversight. For Averintsev, Christianity does not represent yet another cultural type, but rather is a kind of intercultural mediator that dissolves the borders between distinct cultures, like blood moving among different bodily organs. In some of his most influential contributions to the Philosophical Encyclopedia, Averintsev expose his theological views, which, oddly enough for a Soviet publication, were explicitly those of a Christian believer. He regards Christianity as the most highly developed form of theism and as a personalist understanding of the Absolute. Theism, in Averintsev’s view, was favorable for the development of new European technologies, since it stripped nature of its magical component and transformed it into a resource for human innovation. However, Averintsev indicates a principal difference between Eastern and Western forms of Christianity, one that hinges upon their relative concern with ontological versus juridical questions.
For Catholic theology, God and man are first of all subjects of will, for Eastern Orthodoxy, they are the objects of ontological processes. For Catholicism, it is most important to find a harmony between two wills, either in a rationalist and juridical plane (scholasticism) or through sentimental emotion oriented on individualistic subjectivism (mysticism)… The basic theoretical problem of Orthodoxy is the ontological relationship between human and divine nature in the God-man. (Averintsev, Pravoslavie 333-334)
In Averintsev’s view, Orthodoxy emphasizes the divine order of a God-created universe rather than the historical progression of mankind as a function of God’s will. While Catholicism centers on the subjective, psychological relationship between man and God, Orthodoxy focuses on the divine nature of material forms, since the world was sanctified by God’s incarnation into a human body. This may be one of the reasons why technological development in the Christian East lagged behind the West: nature was not seen as an object of human manipulation but rather as the holy flesh, which was inseparable from the spirit and was sanctified through the birth of Christ and His resurrection.
For a Soviet reader of Averintsev, his discussions of Classical and Biblical intuitions are easily extrapolated to theoretical comparisons of Western and Russian cultures. For example, the “symbolism of the warm and womb-like maternal love, which is as characteristic of Greek-Slavic Orthodox culture as it is alien to Antiquity, comes from the Old Testament…” (Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 63). An insightful Russian audience could, through Avertintsev’s works, trace its cultural lineage back to distant and noble roots of Biblical spirituality, which Soviet history had almost succeeded in suppressing. As opposed to the Western intellectual, who has the luxury of freedom of expression traceable to liberal and demonstrative Ancient Greek oratorical modes, a member of the Russian intelligentsia finds himself in the position of the bent and harried scribe of the ancient Near East who, to avoid political oppression, delivered his best thoughts not in open speech to his contemporaries, but by writing for an audience in posterity. This accounts for the gravitation of Russian culture, among others in Eastern Christianity, to the literary mode of expression—to a “mute word,” while Western culture has favored the oral and visual modes.
Averintsev’s moral philosophy follows the same patterns of cultural differences. Thus, Averintsev’s interpretation of the Biblical author Ben Sira, who expounded the ideals of humble dignity and the wisdom of common sense, reflects the position of a free man in an unfree society. Averintsev writes:
If we imagine a man legally free, respected and sufficiently provided for, who is placed in the same climate of political unfreedom which was dominant in the Hellinistic East, as it was dominant in the time of the Pharaohs, and would be dominant in the time of the Byzantine Emperors; who knows how little depends on him, but nevertheless would like to live his life in a righteous and human way…; who would like most of all to live quietly and peacefully to the end of his days, but cannot deny the [ever imminent] possibility of becoming a beggar or a prisoner; if we endeavor to see this social and ethical type, we shall understand that the didactic book of Ben Sira has assured for itself an enduring role. (Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 157)
It would be wrong to assert that Averintsev’s descriptions are designed to convey a hidden critique of Eastern despotism in its Soviet manifestation; instead, their breadth invites application to many epochs and circumstances, including, but not limited to, contemporary ones.
In some of his articles, Averintsev addresses themes of 20th century philosophy and literature, focusing on figures most resonant with his own cultural intuitions, such as Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Vyacheslav Ivanov, and Osip Mandelshtam. Despite their diversity, one can find a common denominator in the cosmopolitan nature of their creative endeavors, which are oriented toward synthesizing the Eastern and Western, and Classical and Christian traditions. They are as distant from the avant-gardist renouncement of tradition as from the fundamentalist reverence for one national or religious heritage. Averintsev’s concern is to discover a middle road between these two extremes of militant innovation and intolerant conservatism. His cultural “heroes” are those who represent culture in the multiplicity of its dimensions and find the most cautious, tolerant, and refined ways of mediating between binary oppositions.
This relates especially to Averintsev’s native culture, which was the victim of two extremes: Westernizing self-condemnation and Russophilic self-exaltation. The culturologist is concerned with presenting culture in its entirety, and thus to balance carefully its competing tendencies. “I have before me a way between the Scylla of loveless and inattentive hypercriticism and the Charibdis of romantic myth-making on historical themes” (Averintsev, “Vizantiia i Rus’” 212).
Avertintsev’s main moral concern, which is inseparable from his scholarly endeavors, centers on the overcoming of sectarianism of all kinds—political, religious, nationalist, etc. He repeatedly warns against the danger of sectarianism, the spirit of self-righteousness and esoteric dedication to a specific code, professional jargon, and redemptive doctrines. In his view, utopianism of all kinds (including communism) is nothing but the distortion of the Judeo-Christian promise of salvation. He writes: “The most radical opposition to the theistic idea of salvation in the new European epoch appears to be the social and technological utopia which substitutes for the transcendent existence granted by God an earthly future which is planned by people themselves…” (“Spasenie” 108). Totalitarianism is nothing but sectarianism, which grows to encompass all of humanity isolated from its own past and from the variety of its possible futures. In the late 1980s, while totalitarianism was disintegrating, the danger of sectarianism remained real in the plurality of minor totalitarianisms that threatened to take root among the fragments of a fallen system. At that historical moment, Averintsev feared a potential atomization of culture through the proliferation of aggressive sub-cultures founded in sectarian movements of narrow-minded “believers” who vaunt themselves as chosen ones and condemn the representatives of other nations or denominations as “subhuman.” The only thing that can remedy such a situation is consciousness of the unity of all human culture and the inseparable nature of religion and humanism. Fanaticism, which eliminates the humanist element, and atheism, which eliminates the religious, are not only perverse in themselves, but tend to merge into one doctrine of fanatic atheism, which was the case with both 20th-century varieties of totalitarianism, Nazism, and Communism. This is why Averintsev insists upon a theistic doctrine, which presents God as embodied in a human personality, and thus provides the necessary balance between the religious and humanistic elements of culture. Philosophically, Averintsev’s views echo Vladimir Soloviev’s idea of “Godmanhood” as the foundation of the growing syntheses of diverse aspects of world cultures, the ideal of the utmost freedom of parts in the utmost unity of the whole.
State and Religion
Averintsev’s view on the unity of religion and humanism extends to his political thinking, which focuses on the relationship between religious and secular powers. He traces the origin of Russian statehood to the Byzantine idea of the “sacred state.” “Christianity and the Caesarist idea of sacred power met in the epoch of Constantine, comprising two poles of Byzantine social consciousness that necessarily complement each other…” (Averintsev, Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury 57). The same relates to the concept of “Holy Russia,” which was conceived not as a local or ethnical entity but as a world of genuine belief encompassing all geographical spaces, including even Eden. Since Russia began to emerge as a political power when the Byzantine empire was disintegrating, Russia borrowed the attribute of holiness to become the only world power whose political claims were justified by a religious authenticity. Averintsev draws parallels between the Russian and Byzantine empires in terms of their Eurasian geographic dominion and their theocratic self-determination. However, he finds that in the Russian sensibility, the antinomies of sacred power are sharpened as in the case of Byzantium. On the one hand, Russia’s Tsars were perceived as the High Priests of the church, and loyalty to them was tantamount to loyalty to God. On the other hand, power as such was considered sinful, since Christ stated that his power was derived from beyond this world, and he distinguished between the allegiance to God and to Caesar. The point is that “power in itself, at least autocratic power, is something that abides some place higher or lower than the human world, but in any case seems not to enter into it. It is very difficult here to separate the blessing from the curse” (“Vizantiia i Rus’” 235). Averintsev contrasts this duality of the Russian attitude toward power with the Western recognition of the possibility of mediation and neutralization between the same two extremes. In particular, the West elaborated the rules of politeness and civility, which are neutral in terms of good and evil.
…The Catholic worldview divides being not into two parts (‘light’ and ‘dark’) but into three: among the celestial domain of supernatural grace and the infernal domain of the antinatural there exists, for a time, the domain of the natural, which proceeds according to its own laws, though under the authority of God. State power belongs precisely to this last domain… […] Russian spirituality divides the world not into three parts but two, the realms of light and dark; and nowhere is this felt so keenly as where the issue of power is concerned. [The kingdoms of] God and the Anti-Christ come close to each other without any buffer zone between them… (“Vizantiia Ii Rus’ 234-235)
How can we extricate ourselves from this duality? Averintsev believes that Russia must escape these two extremes, neither by sanctifying power nor by fleeing into the “false innocence of irresponsibility” by renouncing it (235). Thus, power must be acknowledged as a secular necessity rather than worshipped or declined on religious grounds. Democracy is preferable to theocracy because it desacralizes power without subordinating the religious to the secular. Democracy creates a zone of neutrality that must be allowed to follow its own natural law.
I must say that in political matters I am unreservedly pro-democracy, precisely because democracy among all political forms is the most openly secular. As an advantage of democracy—its religious advantage—I see exactly the frankness of its non-mystical character. It is difficult even for a spiritually intoxicated man to confuse democracy with the kingdom of God, more difficult than the most terrible regimes, which pretended to be the likeness of God’s kingdom and were accepted as such by many. That is why I believe that we must feel the greatest fear before the specter of false theocracy, since this is what the revelation of John the Theologian depicts as the ultimate and fullest manifestation of evil. (“Razdelennoe khristianstvo” 7)
Averintsev’s political and aesthetical view mirror each other. In each case, he argues the danger of blurred distinctions: in the one case, between secular and religious power, and in the other, between secular and religious art. The danger arises with the human pretension to know and embody God’s will. This is why political theocracy and aesthetic theurgy are equally guilty of substituting human intention for divine providence. Overtly, non-religious systems are preferable to quasi-religious systems, since they leave the natural order in God’s hands and thereby implicitly acknowledge the transcendental aspect of divinity, which cannot be translated into human terms. Thus, the religious imperative of humility is more adequately realized in democracy than in theocracy, by which human rulers attempt to identify, translate, and dictate God’s plan. Although Averintsev proceeds from religious premises, he comes to conclusions that suggest affinities with existentialist thinkers like Grigory Pomerants, who defended secular, pluralistic structures as humbler and more religiously justified than any kind of moral or religious authoritarianism.
Averintsev’s own philosophical views are imbedded within his expositions and criticisms of other thinkers. He consciously abstains from pretensions of innovation or originality, attempting instead to contextualize his own ideas organically in the cultural matrix of a given epoch or tradition. The difficultly that arises when attempting to distill Averintsev’s own ideas from his scholarship reflects his concern with the universality of culture and situates him among those Russian thinkers, like Ivan Kireevsky or Vladimir Soloviev, who saw their goal as building connections among the diverse ideas of other minds, periods, and cultures. This was the ideal of “all-comprehensive unity” (vseedinstvo), to use Soloviev’s expression, which was his individual attempt at intellectual synthesis. However, Averintsev’s methods may also be understood as echoing some paradigms of postmodernist reflection, insofar as they suppress the subjectivity of the thinker and appeal to Otherness as the main ethical concern of thinking.
Mikhail Epstein, December 2017
Averintsev, Sergei. “Grecheskaia ‘literatura’ i blizhnevostochnaia ‘slovesnost’.’ Dva tvorcheskikh printsipa.” Religiia i literature. Hermitage, 1981, pp. 5-34.
—. “‘Morfologiia kul’tury’ Osval’da Shpenglera.” Religiia i literatura. Ermitazh, 1981, pp. 68-90.
—. Poetika rannevizantiiskoi literatury. Nauka, Glavnaia redaktsiia vostochnoi literatury, 1977.
—. “Pravoslavie.” Filosofskaia entsiklopediia. Ed. F. V. Konstantinov, vol. 4, Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1967, pp. 333-334.
—. “Razdelennoe khristianstvo.” Interview with Sergei Averintsev in Rome. Russkaia mysl’ (January 1993), No. 3964.
—. “Spasenie.” Filosofskaia entsiklopediia. Ed. F. V. Konstantinov, vol. 5, Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1970, p. 108.
Eliot, T. S. “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. Faber, 1984, pp. 60–61.