The Philosophy of Cult (3): Cult at the Center of Classical Culture

Part I: Introduction
Part II: Method

The next parts of the paper I deemed too boring….so I’m skipping to the historical section. Perhaps I will post the whole next week.



An Historical Illustration

a) The Unity of Ancient Religious Culture

Florensky moves on to justify his theoretical solution with an historical illustration. If he is able to show that, from an empirical perspective, religious cult has been the coordinating center of human activity throughout the history of human civilization, it lends credence to his claim that Divine Incarnation is the universal interior logic of human culture.

He first gives a brief rehearsal of the Slavophile critique of Western cultural decadence. The incoherence of modern western, humanistic civilization can be traced to the dissociation of culture and cult. Once the arts and sciences asserted their independence from religion they became superficial and sacrilegious. “Thus they lost their true utility and with it their certainty of their own undeniable necessity” (126). They are no longer “effective realities” but “intentional operations.” Things have become mere objects of practical use, and concepts are not longer links with the divine world but only utilitarian categories: a wholly “secular civilization” (126).[1]

But it was not always so. In the past, cult and culture were intimately linked, and any attempt to part an artistic or intellectual work from its divine source was considered sacrilege: “Historically, the fine arts are rings on the chain, or fledglings from the nest, of a more serious and creative art: the art of divine action, theurgy… the ‘maternal bosom’ of all the arts and sciences. The name for activity that claimed autonomy from theurgy was sacrilege” (125).

Since Florensky is rather impatient about historical particulars in this fragmentary work, we have to fill in the historical material ourselves, and this might be done by taking Greek culture as an example. The Greeks considered every art—even the most menial—to be a gift from the gods. The fine arts in particular were not only directly inspired by divine beings—the Graces and Muses—but participations in divine realities. The harmonic ratios, astronomical science, and the ideal forms of the marble statue are incarnations of the divine music that could harmonize one’s own soul. Artistic production in this view is participation in the divine work, a revelation of nous, a spiritual purification, an extension of divine incarnation. All works of culture—moral, practical, political, intellectual—are united in the one craft of divinization: making men god-like.

b) The Unity of Ancient Religious Culture: Pierre Hadot and Others

Florensky’s reading is supported by scholars of antiquity. In his classic studies of ancient philosophical culture, for example, Pierre Hadot argues that for the ancients, the task of the philosopher was not primarily one of communicating “an encyclopedic knowledge in the form of a system of propositions and of concepts that would reflect, more or less well, the system of the world.”[2] Rather, “the teaching and training of philosophy were intended not simply to develop the intelligence of the disciple, but to transform all aspects of his being.”[3] Ancient philosophy was a set of spiritual exercises aiming at spiritual “metamorphosis” and “transformation.” Each discipline had both a theoretical and spiritual aspect, so that the Stoics spoke of a “lived logic, lived physics, lived ethics”[4] which were the sciences as integrated into the unitary pursuit of wisdom. The disciplines of philosophy were not cut up into parts, but considered “a single act, renewed at every instant, that one can describe, without breaking its unity, as being the exercise of logic as well as of physics or of ethics, according to the directions in which it is exercised.”[5]


Religion as Cult

After this preliminary answer to the problem of cult and culture, Florensky proceeds to the second part of his project, to develop an account of human culture based on the philosophy of cult.

He outlines the three possible accounts of human culture, each depending on which tool-making activity one privileges: concept-terms (notiones), machine-tools (instrumenta), or holy things (sacra).

1) Ideologism: (N –> I, S)

If in its search for the sources of being, the intellect is seduced into seeing itself as the sole source of its own activity—e.g. the cogito or Transcendental Ego—it is led to approve a view of culture in which the primary activity is a system of concepts, elaborated by intellectual geniuses, that transcend the empirical world. All acts of production and religious rites “are a simple application of theoretical structures—scientific, mythological, dogmatic.” One first conceives a project in the rational faculty and then enacts it in the practical and religious realms. Under this category we might identify several modern forms of gnosticism, for which religion is a metaphorical expression of the system of abstract truths, which are the superior discourse.[6]

2) Economic Materialism: (I –> N, S)

This view holds that the formation of human culture is driven by the inexorable laws of economy. The cumulative force of infinite small actions produce conditions that define all man’s intellectual and sacral actions. Conceptual systems and sacred rites are ex post facto justification of existing economic arrangements:

“A world-view is really the a posteriori justification of an economic order that has formed itself using its own instruments and arms, through economic and social relationships that derive from it, while cult is the consecration of this very order, also a posteriori” (135).

3) Concrete Idealism (S –> N, I)

In an act of confidence that is tragically ironic in light of subsequent history—though not untrue to the experience of his generation of Russian philosophers—Florensky claims that economic materialism has become passé, ceding its place to a new, as yet undefined view he ventures to call concrete idealism. The term is borrowed from Soloviev, who is never cited in the text, but Florensky chooses to apply the term instead to the fruit of the Cambridge ritualist school of anthropology.[7] It is: “a theory according to which all existence is determined by a type of ritual, incarnate in religion, from which then derive all practical utility and theoretical concepts” (137).

The rationalist schools of the previous century tended to privilege dogma as the primary expression of faith. They looked on dogma as the expression of pure reason, superior to ritual and life, which are poetic elaborations or even obfuscations, of this primary datum. The new school recognizes the central and dominant role of cult in religion, making dogma, myths, and practices ancillary disciplines. (See Excerpts from The Philosophy of Cult (1): What is orthodoxy?)

Florensky gives several striking examples of the contrary view. The Symbol of Faith should not be seen as a compendious dogmatic summary or a declaration of personal or collective faith, but as a liturgical-sacramental performance of unity with the Trinitarian communion of love and thought. In fact, only in this liturgical, Trinitarian communion of love can a true faith in the Trinity be confessed,[8] and outside of it the creed is barren and without meaning:

“Outside the life of the Church there is neither Symbol of faith nor faith, but only something useless and incomprehensible. Thus outside the liturgy the Symbol of faith can be neither understood nor studied, just as, for example, the activity of the human body cannot be understood or studied from some chemically separated elements that were once integral parts” (146-47).

Doctrine is subsidiary, a “moment of cult” and not an independent reality in its own right. Scripture too is only a “liturgical moment,” and to read it outside the liturgy is as sacriligious as it would be to wear a cassock casually in the street.[9]

But one might object: If cult is a symbolic system constructed by a human community, there must be a prescriptive dogma or rational explanation that precedes it, “gets behind it” and mediates its meaning. Florensky denies that this is the case, for reasons consistent with his Neo-Patristic and symbolist inspirations. The ancients never bothered to describe the “meaning” of their rituals, precisely because their exterior forms were thought to be one with their “meanings,” such as not to require the mediation of concepts. Ancient cult is mute because its symbolic expression was understood to convey its message directly. These views are clearly derived from Florensky’s early exposure to the Russian symbolist movement and from Neo-Platonic accounts of religious cult, though in this context he cites the German Protestant theologian Karl Bähr.[10]

This epistemology, be in Symbolist or Neo-Patristic, is the ultimate reason why cultic objects do not require demonstration. The mode of liturgy—a poetic mode—precludes the necessity of rational explanation by the dogmatist or the scientist because it furnishes the participant a contemplative performance of concreted logoi transcending abstract reason. It is a divine condescension, making its forceful appearance in symbolic forms that speak directly to the mind. The force of this superior symbolic discourse explains why the logos of cultic objects requires no demonstration, and so fulfills the criteria for an activity of fruitful antinomy. It is probable that this solution, little justified in this text, will be unsatisfying to the modern reader.[11]

But once again we must recall that Florensky never promised a comprehensive, fully justified account of cult. The Philosophy of Cult is explicitly predicated on a prior subjective experience of divine fear and creatureliness in the face of the Divine Presence in the liturgy. Only the contemplative soul seized by the holy fear of the ceremonies can adequately exegete their contents and expression, and then only in the context of inspired discourse among friends, in the Platonic sense. Thus the ultimate transcendental precondition for unitive experience is not the symbol-structure itself any more than an a priori principle, but the fearful Advent of the Divine Savior upon the Altar. Florensky is conscious that his fragmentary, lecture-based format, delivered to friends, is a performance of this apophatic truth. Nothing could be further from the Kantian ideal.


[1] There is nothing novel in this Romantic-inspired critique of modernity’s technical logic, found everywhere in Khomyakov, for example, and the German Romantics. It is well expressed by Balthasar: “In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself ot affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. …Syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Introduction to The Glory of the Lord, vol. I, San Francisco: Herder, 1982, pg. 19).

[2] Pierre Hadot, “La philosophie antique: une éthique ou une pratique?,” in Études de philosophie ancienne (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010), 11; cited in Davidson, 21.

[3] Davidson, 21.

[4] Hadot, “La philosophie antique: une ethique ou une ratique?,” 18–29, cited in Davidson, 24.

[5] “It is the same Logos that produces the world, enlightens the human being in his faculty of reasoning and expresses itself in human discourse, while remaining completely identical with itself at all stages of reality. Therefore, physics has for its object the Logos of universal nature, ethics the Logos of reasonable human nature, logic this same Logos expressing itself in human discourse. From start to finish, it is therefore the same force and the same reality that is at the same tiem creative Nature, Norm of conduct and Rule of discourse” (Hadot, “Les divisions des parties de la philosophie,” in Études de philosophie ancienne, 211.)

[6] C.f. Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity (New York, State University of New York, 2001).

[7]This new way has been elaborated largely by English anthropologists, among whom he names Spencer, Tylor, Jevons, Grant Allen, Robertson Smith, Andrew Lang and of course Frazer; Durkheim, Toutain, Hubert and Mauss and Reinach as sociologists.

In later scholarship, we might also point out the work of Louis Bouyer—e.g. Rite and Man—where he engages with the same body of scholarship and similarly concludes the priority of ritual to myth; and of Pierre Hadot, Roy Rappaport, and Mary Douglas.

[8] As opposed, e.g., to Cornelius Tiele (1830–1902) who wrote: “In doctrine, whether it be mythological and poetic or dogmatic and philosophic, I find the origin of every religion….Only from here do we come to understand what man thinks about his God and his relationship with Him. Cult, ritual, ceremony teach me nothing when I look at them, unless I have some explanation of their meaning” (f. 60, pp. 150-51).

[9] “Let us clarify our meaning with another example. The apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel are often considered books. The Holy Gospel and the holy apostolic letters are not “books,” but rather moments of liturgical action, derived from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edificatory meaning, but one even more important: precisely an active, sacramental meaning.

In the same way the “books” of the Old Testament which should be read only in prayer, in an active, liturgical manner, and not a passive, mental, theoretical manner. The Psalter, for example, is a book of exorcism. That is why it is read over the dead, to defend them from the wicked powers of the devil. Some of its psalms, such as “Qui habitas in adiutorio altissimi” (Ps 91 [90]), are principally for exorcism, which is why they are embroidered on cinctures and transcribed in cases when spiritual defense is needed, and are recited for defense against rabid dogs and wicked persons. Upon the exorcistic power of the Psalter is based also the spiritual habit of continually repeating the Psalms from memory, even in the midst of doing other things, as a form of spiritual activity and consecration of one’s whole being through the sacramental words [. . . . ] Not only the Psalter, but all of Sacred Scripture has a cultic meaning, not merely a literary one” (The Philosophy of Cult, 147).

[10] “This is surely because in antiquity real and sensible objects were in general held to be immediate images of ideal and suprasensible things. Signs were at the same time words, or even more comprehensible than words” (K.W.C.F. Bahr, Symbolik des Mosaischen Kultus, vol. I, pp. 35–36; pg. 154).

[11] The problem with this epistemology is that it is perhaps insufficiently attentive to the analogical nature of the lumen fidei, as if the liturgical symbols could speak directly to human intelligence without the mediation of supernatural faith. Elsewhere, however, Florensky discusses the process of ascesis and purgation required to experience the liturgical vision: “The isolations of the hierurgos are his ascents into heaven, a sort of spiritual liberation. But each must limit himself to the measure that is given to him, ascending only to the dimension that is proper to him. If someone tried to go beyond the sphere chosen for him, he would enter an atmosphere so rarified, into an element that the fire had so refined, that he would be suffocated and hurtled with broken wings into the recesses of the earth and the depths of the sea. A new little Icarus, he will tumble into the abyss of chaos and spiritual formlessness” (The Philosophy of Cult, 306).

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