Excerpts from The Philosophy of Cult (4): Plato and Kant Compared

Excerpt 1: What is orthodoxy?
Excerpt 2: Liturgy and Emotion; The Titanic Principle
Excerpt 3: Cult at the Center of Classical Culture

III. Cult and Philosophy

[Plato and Kant Compared]

The so-called philosophy of Plato is a philosophy of cult. It is cult as seen by a profound and wise thinker. Not without reason Plato expounds his most substantial questions in the form of myths, in many of which there are clearly hidden torments and sufferings, for example in Phaedrus and Republic, in the accounts of Hydra and others. This are the myth-parables of Plato. Therefore Kant’s philosophic design, the negation of Plato’s, is nothing else than the negation of cult.

This means that Kant too takes his starting point from cult and founds his system entirely upon it. But he does not maintain a positive orientation to it, as Plato does, but rather negative, not reaching out toward it, but fearing to reach it, like a pirate who avoids a port.

While the gaze of Plato, turned upon the profundity of the human spirit, was concerned with something objective, that of Kant, interested in exterior experience, was dedicated to pure subjectivity. The former was precise, the second evasive. Plato was a wealthy aristocrat, Kant a penurious plebeian, but while Plato frequented every kind of place in search of anything that was worthy of attention, Kant sought knowledge like a wealthy noble man. Plato traveled his whole life, running great risks and even ending up in slavery. Kant never left Konigsberg and lived among the influential.

Plato was a poet, pervaded with erotic impulses, who struggled to spiritualize his own sensuality. Kant was a grand ascetic, far removed from eros, a “castrato”, he busied himself with commodities, with goods and with his table. While Plato sought the divine-humanity, Kant sought the human-divinity. While Plato was always and everywhere a gentleman, despite the danger of the subjects he treated, Kant, despite his disinterest for everything dangerous, was always and everywhere a Philistine. Plato sought sanctity, Kant sought correctness. Thus Plato’s humble acceptance of reality led in the end to the idea of deification–theosis–and thus the proud self-exultation to heaven, the proud construction of objects by the self in Kant.

Everything in one is also in the other, but the convexities of one or the concavities and empty spaces of the other. One is more, the other is less. And if this is the case, if two of the greatest philosophers, who together have defined all philosophy, move in two opposite directions, if the sense of their divergence is defined precisely in the question of the concrete reality of the spiritual world that manifests itself in cult, we must say that philosophy defines herself in general by her relationship with cult, derives from it and make sit the object of its efforts to understand.


Of its nature philosophy is nothing other than coming to comprehension and consciousness of a spiritual, elevated, celestial, transcendental world. But we know this world only as cult, as the incarnation of the superior world in our concrete symbols. This is because philosophy is idealism, meant not as a matter of ideas, but as the concrete contemplation and experience of spiritual realities, which is to say, of cult.

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).

The Philosophy of Cult (2): Method

Part I: Introduction

Trembling Before the Wholly Other:

Method of the Philosophy of Cult

In the inaugural lecture—“The Fear of God”—Florensky defines his subject and explains his method of procedure. He begins invoking the motivating principles of this new discipline: divine love and holy fear. Elaborating these themes in a way reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, he describes religious fear as the experience of the completely new, the wholly other:

In the series of sensations that come to us from the world, there intrudes itself one that has nothing in common with the others, is comparable with anything us, something completely other. . . It penetrates like a two-edged sword to the point of separation between the soul and the spirit, up to that point of contact between our noumenic essence and the sphere of phenomena, the objects of earthly comprehension. . . This new thing rends the fabric of the ordinary in a way both mysterious and unusual….What reveals itself is not of this world and thus the whole world suddenly feels unstable, vacillating, weak: the ordinary pales in the face of true Being. And with the ordinary pales also our very existence. We end up seeming like tremulous flames exposed to the winds at the extreme edge of nothingness, as non-beings. It is precisely here where we find our eternal support, in Him Who Is from all the ages. Our greatest humiliation is also our greatest exaltation.[1]

But where Otto and others are less explicit, Florensky is unequivocal: this terrifying encounter between heaven and earth takes a definite concrete shape and specificity in space and time, precisely in religious cult:

There is a source, eternal and active, of this fundamental antinomic movement: the perennial dynamism of the “yes” and “no” of our life. It is a volcanic crater in which the lava is never covered by a rocky crust. It is the open window into our reality, through which other worlds appear. It is a breach in our earthly existence, out of which rivers from another world pour to nourish and strengthen us. In a word, it is cult.[2]

Cult is the terrifying eruption of the divine into the earthly plane, into concrete reality. Thus he is in a position to give a preliminary definition of his subject:

The first, fundamental, and most substantial definition of cult is just this: it is that specific part of reality in which the immanent and the transcendent, earthly things and heavenly, things from here and things from there, the fleeting moment and the eternal, the relative and the absolute, the mortal and the immortal encounter one another.[3]

If it is true that cult is fear and trembling before the advent of the Holy, the Wholly Other, how can the philosopher dare to approach liturgy as one intellectual object among others? What can frail words do when only vital contact with the Other yields true understanding? A comprehensive system is not only inconceivable, but downright impious.

Image result for the wholly other

Nevertheless, the philosopher of cult can make a series of halting approaches, clumsy starts that lapse into silence, a ring of concentric motions around the mystery of the cult, without claiming to define cult Itself. In fact, in one sense the method is an apophatic exercise meant to expose cult’s otherness and incomprehensibility when our language so often tends to domesticate it. Why bother? Florensky is ever frank:

I would never have dared to present these conferences before you, except that for many years now I have been tormented—in a positive sense—by this one thought: that the chief cause of the Church’s current collapse has been the lack of attention to and reflexion it has paid to cult, and that the primary job of theology today is precisely in the comprehension and explanation of cult.[4]

This apophatic method sheds light on the literary form of The Philosophy of Cult. Partly as a result of his devotion to Russian Symbolism,[5] Florensky was acutely sensitive to the relation between literary form and content. His Pillar and Ground of Truth is written in the form of 12 affectionate letters to a mysterious friend, which Rudolf Gustafson interprets as a conscious stylistic choice designed to symbolize the dialogue of mystical love which is the work’s central theme. We may read the fragmentary lecture-style of Philosophy of Cult along the same lines: they are a performative contradiction to rationalist philosophy with its pretensions to exhaustive system and autonomy of individual reason. True, “integral” thinking takes place within a community of friends turned toward the liturgical cult in fear. Their utterances can never claim to capture, much less surpass, the transcendent reality they praise.

[to be continued…]


[1] The Philosophy of Cult, 69–70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid., 102. Thus Florensky intuited one of the principle labors of the 20th century, in which liturgy was discovered and promoted in scholarship of every confession. At his time, liturgics was virtually unknown in Russia.

[5] See Richard Gustafson’s introduction to Pillar and Ground of Truth, pp. ix–xxiii; and Orvacz, pp. 53–54.

Pavel Florensky’s Philosophy of Cult (1918): Introduction

Fr. Pavel Florensky (1882–1937), Russian priest and polymath, theologian and mystic, sometimes styled the “Leonardo da Vinci of Russia” for the breadth of his intellectual accomplishments, left a great part of his writings for later generations to discover and publish after his secret execution in a Soviet forced labor camp in 1937.

Image result for pavel florensky

From his earliest writings,[1] Florensky had spent his life in a vigorous effort to vindicate the truth of the spiritual tradition of Russian Christianity before the whole cosmos of modern thought. His writing on icons is an emblematic example, wedding highly technical discussions on light waves and the physics of space with a creative recovery of patristic icon theology.[2] His most substantial work, Pillar and Ground of Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy,[3] is of seminal significance for a global understanding of Florensky’s larger project. Called variously a “metaphysics of love,”[4] a “sacral phenomenology,”[5] or “concrete metaphysics,” it is the main source for understanding Florensky’s neo-Patristic gnoseology.

Despite his towering stature in the Russian tradition, he remains little studied in English scholarship, partly because most of his writings remain unavailable in English, partly because the bold erudition of his works makes effective summary difficult.[6]

Of particular importance, his unfinished synthesis on the Christian liturgy, The Philosophy of Cult, remained unavailable inside Russia until 2004 and everywhere else until its first international edition was published in Italian in 2016.[7] This broadly speculative work seeks to establish the study of the phenomena of religious cult as a discipline in its own right, in fact, as the field of research that properly underwrites all other philosophical and empirical disciplines.

The Philosophy of Cult began as a series of lectures given in Moscow at the Academy of the Society of Professors from 1917-1918 and Florensky expanded and revised these manuscripts throughout his life. The final result is therefore an incomplete and sometimes fragmentary collection of essays on various themes, a “lineaments” of what Florensky, conscious of his own limits and the novelty of the subject, hoped would evolve into a proper branch of philosophical study in its own right. The unfinished nature is evident in the uneven texture of the argument, which in places proceeds in unconnected flashes of intuition broken off without rigorous treatment. Readers should consult the Italian edition for further scholarly introduction to the problematics of the text.

In his introduction to the Italian edition, Natalino Valentini places the work in the context of 20th century studies of religion. The century of anthropology and historical Biblical scholarship, symbolism and the Liturgical Movement, yielded many probing studies on the nature of the liturgy using various methodological approaches. But Florensky’s work is unique for the breadth and the integrity of its method, making his recovery a pressing concern for theology:

“[In the twentieth century] there are a number of splendid theological treatises on the liturgical mystery and its symbology (R. Guardini, H.U. von Balthasar, O. Casel, E. Przywara, H. de Lubac, J. Ratzinger, etc.). And yet few (perhaps with the exception of the writings of Guardini and the brilliant intuitions of Simone Weil and Maria Zambrano) have tried to explore the essence of the Christian liturgical cult using a rigorously philosophical method. This challenge was met by Florensky, who considered it from a point of view at once logico-phenomenological and ontological, taking into account both the anthropological basis and the sapiential-mystic view of the divine mysteries…illuminated by Scripture and the living Tradition of the Church, all in a constant critical dialogue with modernity.”[8]

To properly contextualize Florensky’s work, we must understand it as a stream of Russian Religious Thought, and more precisely of the Slavophile movement that formed a major tributary of Russian Religious Thought in the 19th century,[9] and of which we risk a simplifying account here.

Image result for pavel florensky
Philosophers Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov, a painting by Mikhail Nesterov (1917). Florensky is on the left.

Taking inspiration from Romantic and Idealist reactions to the Enlightenment, especially Schelling and Hegel, the Slavophiles attempted to offer a root and branch critique of modern Western culture from a unique Russian perspective. Convinced that it was Russia’s “national task” to redeem the West from its religious and philosophical errors, they opposed a distinctly Orthodox, integrally Christian worldview against a European intellectual milieu they viewed as fragmented and colonized by heresy.

Pioneers such as Khireevsky, Khomyakov, Soloviev and Bukharev proposed philosophies and theologies creatively elaborated from the Greek Patristic and Russian traditions and centered on a basic cluster of terms. Rejecting individualism and rationalism, they developed a more communitarian theory of “integral knowledge,” expanding reason to include spiritual Absolute Spirit of God, in turn accessible only through lived experience within the orthodox communion of the Church, a communion of love conceived on the Jerusalem model—sobornost. In Florensky’s own words, “living religious experience [is] the sole legitimate way to gain knowledge of the dogmas.”[10]

In his foundational doctoral thesis, Soloviev had urged what became the shared inspiration of Russian thought, “the need for a synthesis of faith and reason for further progress in creative thinking.”[11] Because Western modernity had “reached its limits,” “there was a need for a distinct, fresh approach, a synthesis of scientific or formal and theological knowledge that is of the Absolute.”[12]

It would not be unfair to describe the Slavophile project as a modern updating of the traditional Greek polemic against Western Christianity. In the modern version, the West’s spiritual disunity begins in the act of inserting the filioque, when the pope broke the ancient communion of the churches and put himself above the received tradition in an act of voluntary autonomy. No longer nourished in Trinitarian union, the dissociative tendencies of fallen reason, inherent already in the Roman Church, come to fruition in Protestantism and the fully autonomous cultural formations that spring from it.

Florensky’s philosophy of cult should be seen in this light as the quest, part of Russia’s “national task,” to propose a total alternative, a complete reclamation of philosophy and culture for the orthodox Christian communion. Florensky views Western rationalism, epitomized in Kant, as an explicit “heretical reconstruction”[13] of the inherited Platonic tradition. By appropriating Platonic categories and intentionally inverting them, the Protestant Kant turns philosophy into a weapon against the Christian liturgical worldview and into an idolatrous cult of self-positing, autonomous reason. By exposing this idolatrous posture and at the same time pointing out the ultimately religious, liturgical geneology of rationalist philosophy, Florensky shows that philosophy cannot escape its own origins, and must eventually return to them: the rebirth envisioned by Soloviev.

In short, Florensky reads modern philosophy as an ecclesiological heresy and the plight of modern art and science as the natural result of the spiritual disunity that comes with schism from Trinitarian communion. Into this well-trod ground of Slavophile polemic and his own novel neo-Patristic mystical approach, Florensky plumbs the resources of modern anthropology, phenomenology, offers an original linguistic analysis of Kantian philosophy that tries to prove that escaping from the cultic framework is an impossibility for Western philosophy after Plato. Philosophy is cult.

[to be continued…]


[1] Pavel Florensky, Early Religious Writings, 1903-1909, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2017).

[2] Iconostasis, trans. Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).

[3]The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, trans. Boris Jakim. Princeton (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[4] Robert Slesinski, Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984).

[5] Oliver Smith, “Pavel Florenski (1882–1937) –An Aesthetics of Holiness,” in Creation and Salvation Volume 2: A Companion on Recent Theological Movements, ed. Ernst M. Conradie, pp. 19–24.

[6] Recent exceptions include chapters in Johannes Miroslave Oravecz, God as Love: The Concept and Spiritual Aspects of Agape in Modern Russian Religious Thought (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdman’s, 2014), pp. 264–291; and in Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014), pp. 27–41; and consideration in Jennifer Martin, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2014). For the more abundant literature in European languages, the reader is directed to the bibliography.

[7] Florensky, Pavel A, La Filosophia del Culto, a cura di Natalino Valentini, trans. Leonardo Marcello Pignataro (Milano: Edizioni San Paolo, 2004). All translations from this text are my own.

[8] Natalino Valentini, Introduction to La Filosophia del Culto (Milano: Edizioni San Paolo, 2004), 11–12.

[9] For an overview of the streams of Russian Religious Thought see “The Development and Principal Characteristics of Russian Religious Thought in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Oravecz, 11–76. For a collection of primary texts from the founders of Russian religious thought, see Alexander Schmemann, Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977); and Ivan Kireevskii and Boris Jakim, On Spiritual Unity: A Slavophile Reader, (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarn Books, 1998); and Judith Kornblatt and Richard Gustafson, Russian Religious Thought (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). See also Aidan Nichols, Light from the East: Authors and Themes in Orthodox Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] N. Zernov, Eastern Christendom: A Study of the Origin and Development of the Eastern Orthodox Church (London: GPPS, 1961), 200.

[12] Oravecz, 46.

[13] The concept of “heretical reconstruction” is not Florensky’s, but borrowed from Radical Orthodox thinkers such as Milbank and Pickstock. Alisdair MacIntyre’s theory of “severence” and Taylor’s “mutation” describe essentially the same critique of modernity, as a development in more or less conscious opposition to the classical-medieval synthesis.