With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Pavel Florensky and the Aesthetics of Morality: Part II

On Pavel Florensky

Pavel Florensky was one of the greatest intellectuals of early twentieth century Russia. Because of the wide variety of interests he held and pursued, several people dubbed him the Russian Leonardo da Vinci.[1] He was at once a philosopher, a theologian, a priest, an art historian, an art critic, a linguist, a mathematician, a physicist, and to top it all off, a married man with a family. He integrated his interests together in all that he did, providing for a creative and unique outlook in life as is evident in his writings. He was to be become the “scholar priest” whom the communists could not ignore; his scientific work, especially in the field of electrical engineering, made him a useful and important contributor to the new state, protecting him and his life until the time that they felt that they had got all they could out of him.

He was born on January 9, 1882 in Evlakh, Azerbaijan. His father, Alexander Ivanovich, was a Russian railroad engineer. His mother, Olga Pavlovna, although of Armenian background, had distanced herself from her family’s Armenian heritage. His father had no interest in religion: he could accept the idea that there was a higher being, but he did not believe in the tenets of the Christian faith. He was not hostile to religion; he was just unable to accept that any one religion had been given by God, and he believed that religious doctrines went beyond what humans could rationally know. His mother was more favorable to religion, and so she would “affirm the importance of religion and the clergy”[2] but like his father, she did not hold a strong conviction in the Christian faith. The family would celebrate Christmas and Easter, but they were seen as cultural celebrations, and the religious elements of the feasts would be minimized.

From his father, Florensky developed a keen interest in mathematics and the sciences; from his mother, he gained an interest in the arts. As a young man, he possessed an interest in the natural world and felt united with it, leading to an outlook on life which could be described as semi-pantheistic. Robert Slesinski has translated a beautiful passage from his memoirs, where he recounts one of his earlier mystical experiences at a seaport in Russian Georgia:

I remember my childhood impressions, and I do not err in their regard: at the seashore, I felt myself face to face before a dear, solitary, mysterious and endless eternity, from which all flows and in which everything revolved. It called me, and I was with it.[3]

While he was a capable student in school, he felt he learned more from when he would be with his father, going on various little side-excursions into the world around them. On those trips, he would examine what he saw, analyze it, and then he would either photograph it or draw it to preserve the experience. Often with his father, he would look for stones, shells, and fossils, creating within him an attraction to geology and the earth sciences which stayed with him throughout his life.[4] But it was not just the rocks, but all of the workings of nature, which he believed possessed a natural beauty of their own, and in their own way, inspired him. “Wayside blooms, buds, leaf-buds attracted him more than the luxuriance of fully opened flowers. The beauty of the bud fascinated him with its mystery, its promise, the possibly of another as yet unfolded life, of another, as yet, unapparent, but ripening being.”[5] In his introspection, he observed this attraction that he had for nature and tried to understand it, making it possible that some of his aesthetical ideas had their initial sparks in these childhood experiences.

From 1882 to 1900, he was a student of the Second Classical Gymnasium in Tiflis, where he acquired many basic technical skills in mathematics, linguistics, and the sciences. Until 1899, he pursued his studies, more or less, with a primary interest in the hard sciences, believing they would provide for him the best way to understand the world. But in 1899 he had his first major spiritual crisis: he felt that the life of pure scientific research was not enough; physics was inadequate on its own to explain life to explain reality. With this crisis, he embraced Russian Orthodoxy; to his parents, this seemed liked a sudden, “radical conversion.”[6]

After graduating from the Gymnasium in 1900, Florensky studied mathematics in the Department of Physics and Mathematics at Moscow University from 1900 – 1904. While there, he was able to study under the mathematician Nikolai Vasilevich Bugaev, who was the father of the Symbolist poet Andrei Bely. He was also keen in pursuing and developing his spirituality, and so he took classes in philosophy. Bely and Florensky formed a friendship, one which was founded not just from their respective interest in mathematics, but also, in the way they worked together in developing the philosophy of Symbolism. This philosophy sought to find an essential, integrated meaning behind works of art, literature, and religion based upon the combination of the idea that symbols, found in all of them, are signs that represent a greater, inner truth than the symbol itself, with the belief that all of the arts and religion tried to convey this greater message. Florensky had a great interest in the newer mathematical theories developing at that time, and wrote for his thesis, On the Peculiarities of Planar Curves as Loci of Disruptions of Continuity. He came to believe that Euclidean mathematics, and the physics based upon it, failed to meet the wider, more diverse, discontinuities found in higher mathematics, and therefore, failed to actually address reality. This belief would later help form some of Florensky’s aesthetic theories.

After finishing his degree in mathematics, Florensky had been given the opportunity to continue his mathematical studies, but he felt a much different call –a religious call. He talked with his Bishop about his desire of becoming a monk. However, his Bishop persuaded him that he was not called to the monastic life, and convinced him instead to go to seminary at the Moscow Theological Academy in order to study for the priesthood. From 1905 through 1908 he completed his basic theological training, and then he became a lecturer in philosophy for the Academy. While there, preparing for his future life, he met Anna Mikhailovna Giatsintova, whom he married on August 17, 1910. He was ordained a priest on April 24, 1911. He finished and defended his master’s thesis, Of Spiritual Truth, in 1914; he would later expand his thesis and publish it as his greatest theological work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth.

Before the October Revolution, Florensky became one of the leading members of a group of intellectual, spiritually minded philosophers in Russia. He became the friend or associate with many of the other liked minded individuals such as Sergius Bulgakov, Symeon Frank, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Nicholas Lossky. From 1911 – 1917, he was an editor and writer for one of the leading theological journals of the time, the Theological Messenger. He also continued research with his scientific and mathematical interests, and wrote articles for several technical journals; but his interests also went far and wide, so he was beginning to publish articles in other fields of study, such as linguistics. His articles touched upon the philosophical and sociological disputes of his time – for example, because communists were trying to ridicule traditional motifs following the principles of scientific positivism, Florensky would work to show the naivety of positivism, especially through his research in the principles of non-Euclidean mathematics. He would often point out that positivism relied upon the false presumptions of an Euclidean view of reality.[7]

The Bolshevik Revolution had a radical change on Florensky’s life. Before it, he had hoped to create a special philosophical academy in Moscow where one could study religion and religious phenomena scientifically. He had also been made the protector-curator of the St Sergius Monastery. After the revolution, he tried to convince the new regime to preserve the monastery intact for its cultural heritage in the essay,“The Church Ritual as a Synthesis of the Arts.” Several of the communists agreed with what he said, but only up to a certain point – they agreed with him that it was worthwhile to protect religious artifacts as works of art. To them he suggested that art could only be appreciated and experienced within the context it was produced and meant to be viewed. Thus he said that one should view the monastery as a museum—as a living museum where the monks and priests were able to go about their life, because this would preserve the integrity of the art within. He said it was similar to the way that a naturalist would want to keep a forest preserved by keeping all it natural inhabitants within it. “What would we say of an ornithologist who, instead of observing birds wherever possible in their natural habitat, concerned himself exclusively with collecting beautiful plumage?”[8] In an ingenious way, he labels those who would seek the destruction of the community as possessing a religious fervor, acting like ascetics who abandoned the world, while those who would want the monks to stay and make the monastery a living museum would be those who value art for its sake:
I could understand a fanatical demand to destroy the Lavra and leave not a stone standing, made in the name of the religion of socialism. But I absolutely refuse to understand a Kulturträger who, on the basis of nothing more than a fortuitous overabundance of specialists in the visual arts in our day, fervently protects the icons, the frescoes, and the walls themselves, and remain indifferent to other, no less valuable achievements of ancient art.[9]

Because of his work and critical studies in the arts, he would eventually teach art at the Higher State Technical Arts Studios from 1920 – 1927, where he eventually became the Chairman of its Department of Polygraphy. At the same time, during the 1920s, he would also work and lecture on the sciences. In 1920 he helped create a special ultramicroscope for the biologist Ivan Ognev; in 1921 he began his work as a specialist in electricity for the Soviet Electrification Plan, where eventually helped create new insulation materials for GlavELEKTRO.[10] He also worked on more than 120 articles for the developing Technological Encyclopedia between 1927 and 1934.

Florensky made several bitter enemies. He never left his religious fervor, and he always wore his cassock.[11] In 1928, because of complaints lodged against him, he had been sent on a three month exile to Novgorod; after his return to Moscow, he was able to continue with his scientific research and duties. In many ways, his genius earned him the ability to be a religious man, a theological philosopher, because his talents were needed by Russia. He was one of the greatest scientific minds of the time. The Soviets feared he was influencing young students, but they feared what would happen if they did not make use of his talents, talents which he did offer up for the good of the state.

Needless to say, Florensky was living on borrowed time. Even his genius was unable to save him from the new, more sadistic regime of Stalin. His religious faith had become too much of a burden to the Soviets. In 1933, he was accused of many crimes, including criminal conspiracy, and was sent to ten years of hard labor in the Soviet Gulags. He was sent there on his own with the rest of his family having to stay behind. Even under arrest, and working hard labor, Florensky continued his philosophical, theological and scientific studies – he wrote when he had the time, and it is possible that the Soviets gave him a bit more freedom to do so than any of the other inmates at the Gulag because they were interested in what he might write. Since his family was not in Siberia with him, he wrote to the authorities hoping that his works and research could be given to them. Indeed, they worked to help facilitate some of this, and he was able to write to his friends; thus his friend and co-worker, Pavel Kapterev, received his essay, “How Water Freezes.”[12] In 1934, he was given the chance to see his family one last time. He was then moved to the Solovki Gulag, where he taught mathematics and the scientific properties of iodine to his fellow inmates (it was, among other things, an iodine factory). He was allowed to write to his family; from his letters, they were able to read of the appalling conditions he lived under. On November 25, 1937, the Secret Police re-examined the case against Florensky, found him guilty, and condemned him to death. He was executed on December 8, 1937. In the 1950s, the Soviets would state that his execution was an unfortunate mistake. In the 1980s, Pavel Florensky would be among those canonized by ROCOR as a New Martyr of the Orthodox Faith. [13]


[1] Robert Slesinksi, Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 21.
[2] Ibid.,.28.
[3] Ibid., 30.
[4] Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Trans. Wendy Salmond (London, England: Reakton Books, 2002), 18.
[5] Victor Bychkov, The Asesthetic Face of Being, 19.
[6] Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky, Beyond Vision,19.
[7] This would also be the approach he would take in art critique, as can be seen in his lengthy work “Reverse Perspective.” While many believe our use of perspective in art works best to recreate the visual world we perceive, he finds mathematical reasons to dismiss it ,because perspectivism is formed from an Euclidean bias. He also points out that perspectivism fails to capture the whole of reality as we perceive it – even if an Euclidean view of the world was correct as to how things are: “Leaving aside the olfactory, gustatory, thermal, aural and tactile spaces that have nothing in common with Euclidean space, so that they’re not even subject to discussion in this sense, we cannot overlook the fact that even visual space, the least removed from Euclidean space, turns out on closer inspection to be profoundly different from it. And it is in fact [visual space] that lies at the core of painting and the graphic arts, although in various instances it can be subject to other aspects of physiological space too, in which case a picture will be a visual transposition of non-visual perceptions.” Pavel Florensky, “Reverse Perspective,” in Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Trans. Wendy Salmond (London, England: Reakton Books, 2002), 266.
[8] Pavel Florensky, “The Church Ritual as A Synthesis of the Arts” in Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Trans. Wendy Salmond (London, England: Reakton Books, 2002),102.
[9] Ibid., 111.
[10] See Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision, 22.
[11] “The Soviet authorities for whom Florensky worked, seeing his value as an extraordinary research scientists, wanted him to renounce his priesthood. Not only did he not comply, but he was daring enough to wear his priest’s cassock, pectoral cross and hat while working in an official capacity as a scientist, even going to the Supreme Soviet for National Economy dressed as a priest. Fearlessly walking in with his shining cross hanging from his neck, he delivered lectures to groups of Soviet scholars and old professors.” St Paul Florensky, Salt of the Earth: An Encounter with A Holy Russian Elder: Isidore of Gethsemane Hermitage. Trans. and intr. by Richard Betts (Platina, California: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1987), 29.
[12] Nicoletta Misler, Pavel Florensky: Beyond Vision, 26.
[13] St Paul Florensky, Salt of the Earth, 31.

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