Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Chapter Five— Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology

Vladimir Solov'ev

It makes sense that the best (some might say the first, or even the only) Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century should be as deeply a religious man as Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ev (1853–1900). Like so many other Russian thinkers, Solov'ev was not only religious but fundamentally ambivalent about Russian Christianity, flirting at various stages of his life with Orthodoxy's two greatest temptations, atheism and Catholicism. He was staggeringly precocious, beginning his mature writing career when he was in his twenties. He was astonishingly versatile, writing philosophy, poetry, and humorous theatre. And he was enormously influential: the whole symbolist movement in Russian letters finds the source for much of its essential thinking in him.

The root of Solov'ev's thought is the same as for John of Damascus and the same as for the entire Russian kenotic tradition. It all goes back to Christ, the Word incarnate: two natures, one person. Solov'ev's Lectures on Godmanhood, which he began writing at the age of twentyfour and which contain many of the principles he was to write about for the rest of his career, take their point of departure in the notion of Christ's—and consequently man's—dual nature.[7] Duality underlies everything for Solov'ev, who is an idealist in virtually every sense of the term. There is God and his creation; God and man; Christ's divinity and Christ's humanity; the world of ideas and the world of matter; the absolute, permanent, objective idea in the individual and the purely subjective, personal idea; and on and on.

History is the dynamic process of the unfolding of the world spirit, which Solov'ev defines as the "tendency toward the incarnation of the


Godhead in the world" (SS, 3:145). The Incarnation of the Word is the last link in a long chain of physical and historical incarnations. It is the crowning event in history because through it Christ abdicates his divine glory, thus simultaneously divinizing his humanity and humanizing his divinity. With the Incarnation it is no longer a question of simply a transcendent God: we now have the God-Logos, the personal incarnation of God. The Incarnation points up the duality of man's own nature and makes possible Solov'ev's dream of Godmanhood, by which he means an assertion of the divine and absolute that inheres in each of us (as it did in Christ through the miracle of the Incarnation). Solov'ev's dualism is thus not the dualism of radically separate entities; the whole point of Lectures on Godmanhood and the underlying doctrine of the Incarnation is to show the original unity and the continuity of God and nature. God inheres in nature; the ideal inheres in the material.

This is how we get to Solov'ev's doctrine of beauty and art. Beauty in nature and beauty in art are not different in kind for Solov'ev. Art is not an imitation of nature or even a mere duplication of nature's work; it is rather a continuation of what is begun by nature. What is begun by nature is the same kind of incarnation we found in the Godman. Beauty in nature is "the transformation of matter through the incarnation in it of another, supramaterial principle," Solov'ev says in an essay called "Beauty in Nature."[8] Thus beauty in nature is ultimately the expression of a purely ideal content. It is the "incarnation of an idea" (SS, 6:43) or, as Solov'ev puts it later on in the essay, the "sensible incarnation of a certain absolutely objective, completely single idea" (SS, 6:73), A diamond, for example, is an object of beauty because it represents an almost perfect embodiment (incarnation) of an idea, namely the idea of illuminated stone. The beauty of a diamond resides neither exclusively in its substance (coal) nor exclusively in the light it reflects and refracts, but in both. The substance provides a means for embodying the supramaterial, ideal agent of light, and this very embodiment embodies the idea of illuminated stone.

In an essay titled "The General Meaning of Art" Solov'ev shows where nature leaves off and art picks up.[9] "The beauty of nature," he says, "is merely a veil cast over evil life and not a transfiguration of that life. Man, therefore, with his rational consciousness, must be not only the end of the process of nature but also the means by which an ideal principle can exert an inverse, deeper, and fuller influence on nature" (SS, 6:78). Man enhances and furthers the work of the ideal in nature by creating artworks, and this act of creation consists precisely in the


type of incarnation whose result we see in diamonds and other objects of natural beauty. Beauty always represents the incarnation of an idea. The artistic activity of man incarnates an idea by uniting "a spiritual content and a sensible expression"; thus, through the "mutual penetration" of this content and this idea, "a material phenomenon that has truly become beautiful, that is, that has truly incarnated in itself an idea, must become just as enduring and immortal as the idea itself" (SS, p. 82).

The repeated use of the word incarnate and its various related forms in this essay is sufficient to show the theological character of Solov'ev's thought. The root notion is always condescension or kenosis, which translates, in aesthetics, as any process by which something that is not physical gets expressed in something that is. The triple task of art, says Solov'ev, consists in "(1) the direct objectificarion of those deepest internal determinations and qualities of the living idea that cannot be expressed by nature, (2) the animation of natural beauty and, through this, (3) the immortalization of the individual phenomena of that beauty" (SS, 6:84). It is almost senseless to speak of an iconology in Solov'ev, if by iconology we refer to a separate science of icons. Everything is iconic for him. All creation is pervaded with the ideal, and almost everything would seem to invite the kind of perceptual act I just described. But artworks are even more iconic than other things because in them the work of the ideal has been enhanced by man. More than other things, presumably, artworks highlight their own iconicity.

Chapter Five— Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology

Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.