In his first two decades of literary activity (1854–76) Konstantin Leont’ev wrote mostly short stories and novels. His talent was recognized by Turgenev, who helped him with money, advice, and constructive criticism. Over the next two decades (roughly 1871–91) he produced a torrent of brilliant, provocative, and disturbing essays. In his final years he expressed some of his deepest insights in personal letters.
Two of Leont’ev’s central ideas—the priority of aesthetic over moral values and the benign effect of social conflict on cultural creativity—were expressed by the character Mil’keev in the novel V svoem kraiu (1864; Back home): “A single century-old magnificent tree is worth more than twenty faceless men; and I will not cut it down in order to be able to buy medicine [to treat] the peasants’ cholera!” It was doubtless the French Romantics who taught Leont’ev to view social violence as culturally creative.
“Which is better,” Mil’keev asks rhetorically, “the bloody, but spiritually and culturally luxuriant Renaissance or the tame, prosperous, moderate existence of contemporary… Switzerland?”
Leont’ev was quite prepared to replace moral criteria by aesthetic criteria for judging societies, cultures, and religions. “What is useful to all of them,” he wrote, “we do not know and shall never know. What is beautiful, elegant, and lofty in them—it is bigh time we found out!” (“Srednii Evropeets kak ideal i orudie vsemirnogo razrusheniia” [1871– 84; The average European as an ideal and instrument of universal destruction]). Like Nietzsche, with whom he has often been compared, Leont’ev celebrated the “poetry of war,” regarding security, comfort, and tranquillity as destructive of cultural vitality and creativity. But his characteristic stress was on the “aesthetics” or “poetry” of social and historical life, in contrast to Nietzsche’s stress on the aesthetics of high culture. Leont’ev died before Nietzsche became known in Russia; but he would doubtless have consigned him to the despised “bookish, paper world” (knizhnyi i bumazhnyi mir) of universities and editorial offices.
In ancient Greece and Rome, as in medieval Europe and the present Ottoman Empire—in which he served for a decade as a Russian diplomat—Leont’ev saw vibrant diversity, held within cultural and sociopolitical bounds by the “despotism of an inner idea.” But in Western Europe’s present, and especially in its projected future, he saw only a dreary, prosaic conformity. He was outraged by the thought “that Moses went up to Sinai, the Greeks built their elegant acropolises, the Romans waged their Punic Wars, the handsome genius Alexander, in a plumed helmet, crossed the Granicus and fought at Arbela; that the apostles preached, martyrs suffered, poets sang, painters painted, and knights shone in the tourneys, only in order that the French, German, or Russian bourgeois, in his ugly and comical clothing, should sit complacently…on the ruins of all this past greatness” (“Pis’ma o vostochnykh delakh” [1882–83; Letters on Eastern affairs]).
Leont’ev’s theoretical explanation of the decline of 19th– century European culture was based on a triadic schema of historical development borrowed from Nikolai Danilevskii. Historical cultures, like living beings, develop from a stage of “initial simplicity” to one of “flourishing complexity” and then sink, through a process of “leveling interfusion,” to decay and death. Europe, which had achieved its flourishing complexity in the high Middle Ages, was already far advanced in the terminal process of leveling interfusion. It is not clear how seriously Leont’ev took this schema. But it is quite clear that it fed his “philosophical hatred” (as he himself called it) of the egalitarian, secularizing, democratizing, and standardizing tendencies of his time.
The “poetry of life,” as Leont’ev saw it, could not be maintained, “without the mysticism and shaping beauty of religion, without the magnificence and threatening power of the state, without a resplendent and firmly established aristocracy” (“Plody natsional’nykh dvizhenii na Pravsolavnom vostoke” [1888–89; The fruits of national movements in the Orthodox East]). Despite Leont’ev’s significant points of contact with Nietzsche, there are two key theoretical differences. The first is Leont’ev’s attachment to religion and the churches (chiefly Russian Orthodoxy, but also Islam and Roman Catholicism). The second is Nietzsche’s repudiation of Good Samaritanism in the name of “instrumental cruelty” toward the weak and uncreative. Leont’ev, in contrast, defended Good Samaritanism, urging compassion “for the nearest…the person encountered …— charity toward the living and real human being whose tears we can see, whose sighs and groans we hear, whose hand we can actually clasp, like a brother’s, in this present hour” (“Nashi novye khristiane, II” [1880; Our new Christians, II]). This stands in sharpest contrast to what in 1883 Nietzsche celebrated as Fernsten-Liebe, “love of the high culture of the remote historical future,” as he rejected Nächstenliebe (“love of neighbor”) and urged Nächsten-Flucht (“flight from one’s neighbor”). Leont’ev was explicit in condemning the “feverish preoccupation” with the earthly welfare of future generations on the part of both socialists and utilitarians. Although Nietzsche was indeed feverishly preoccupied with the remote historical future, he joined Leont’ev in scorning the socialist and utilitarian concern for the “earthly welfare” of future generations. What he preached was concern for the cultural creativity of a handful of future Übermenschen (supermen)—quite a different matter.
Leont’ev introduced what might be called a Nietzschean corrective or corollary into his Good Samaritanism, insisting that Christian agape should not be one-sidedly “democratic”; it should be directed not only toward suffering workers or wounded soldiers (of whom he had direct experience during the Crimean War), but also toward the “high and mighty”—such as defeated generals or noblemen abused by the mob.
In his own time and after, Leont’ev’s ideas were “heard but not heeded, read but not understood.” It is only in our century, and especially in the past half-dozen years (and mostly in Russia) that this deep and original, if sometimes idiosyncratic thinker has been treated with full and deserved seriousness.
Konstantin Nikolaevich Leont’ev. Born 25 January 1831 in Kudinovo. Studied medicine at Moscow University. Served as a military surgeon in the Crimean War, 1853–56. Began publishing fiction, 1854. Married Elizaveta Pavlovna Politova, 1861. Served as a diplomat at the Russian consulate on Crete and in the Balkans, 1863–73; suffered from dysentery or cholera, 1871, then made a religious vow and lived for a year on Mt. Athos, Greece. Returned to Russia, 1874; spent much time at the Optina Pustyn monastery;
censor in Moscow, 1880–87; took monastic vows and entered the Trinity Monastery, near Moscow, 1891. Died at the Trinity Monastery, 24 November 1891.
Essays and Related Prose
Vostok, Rossiia i Slavianstvo (The East, Russia, and Slavdom), 2 vols., 1885–86
Essays in Russian Literature: The Conservative View: Leontiev, Rozanov, Shestov, translated by Spencer E.Roberts, 1968: 225–356
Against the Current: Selections from the Novels, Essays, Notes, and Letters of Konstantin Leontiev, edited by George Ivask, translated by George Reavey, 1969
Zapiski otshel’nika (Notes of a recluse), edited by V.Kochetkov, 1992
Tsvetushchaia slozhnost’: Izbrannye stat’i (Flourishing complexity: selected articles), edited by I.Simonova, 1992
Izbrannoe (Selected writings), edited by I.N.Smirnov, 1993
Izbrannye pis’ma, 1854–1891 (Selected letters, 1854–1891), edited by D.V.Solov’ev, 1993
Other writings: several novels (including Podlipki, 1861; V svoem kraiu, 1864; Iz zhizni khristian v Turtsii [From the life of Christians in Turkey], 3 vols., 1876; Egipetskii golub’ [The Egyptian Dove], 1881), short stories, and works on literary criticism, including studies of Lev Tolstoi and Ivan Turgenev.
Collected works edition: Sobranie sochinenii, 9 vols., 1912–14.
Auden, W.H., “A Russian Aesthete,” in his Forewords and Afterwords, edited by Edward Mendelson, New York: Viking Press and London: Faber, 1973:274–82 (article originally published 1970)
Berdiaev, Nikolai, Konstantin Leont’ev, Orono, Maine: Academic International, 1968
(original Russian edition, 1926; first English translation, 1940)
Dolgov, K.M., Voskhozhdenie na Afon: Zhizn’ ii mirosozertsanie Konstantina Leont’eva
(The ascent of Mt. Athos: Konstantin Leont’ev’s life and world view), Moscow: Luch, 1995
Ivask, luri, Konstantin Leont’ev: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Konstantin Leont’ev: life and work), Berne: Lang, 1974
K.N.Leont’ev: Pro et contra: Lichnost’ i tvorchestvo Konstantina Leont’eva v otsenke russkikh myslitelei i issledovatelei, 1891–1917 (K.N.Leont’ev: pro et contra: Konstantin Leont’ev’s personality and work as appraised by Russian thinkers and scholars, 1891–1917), edited by Aleksei Kozyrev and Aleksandr Korol’kov, St. Petersburg: Izd-vo Russkogo Khristianskogo Gumanitarnogo In-ta, 1995
Kline, George L., Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968:35–54
Kologriwof, Iwan von, Von Hellas zum Mönchtum: Leben und Denken Konstantin Leontiews, 1831–1891, Regensburg: Gregorius Verlag, 1948
Korol’kov, Aleksandr, Prorochestva Konstantina Leont’eva (The prophecies of Konstantin Leont’ev), St. Petersburg: Izd-vo S.Peterburgskogo Universiteta, 1991
Lukashevich, Stephen, Konstantin Leontev [sic] (1831–1891): A Study in Russian “Heroic Vitalism”, New York: Pageant Press, 1967
Masaryk, Thomas G., The Spirit of Russia: Studies in History, Literature, and Philosophy, vol. 2, London: Allen and Unwin, and New York: Macmillan, 1955:207– 20 (original German edition, 1913; first English translation, 1919)
Poliakov, Leonid, “The Conservatism of Konstantin Leontiev in Present-Day Russia: An Example of ‘Encouraging Pessimism’,” Russian Studies in Philosophy 35, no. 2 (Fall 1996):51–60
Yanov, Aleksandr, “Tragediia velikogo myslitelia” (The tragedy of a great thinker),
Voprosy filosofii 1 (1992):61–88
Zenkovsky, V.V., A History of Russian Philosophy, vol. 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Columbia University Press, 1953:434–53 (original Russian edition, 1948)
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