Vladimir Solovyov, AKA Vladimir Sergeyevitch Soloviev, (1853-1900), one of the greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century, was the founder of a tradition of Russian spirituality that brought together philosophy, mysticism, and theology with a powerful social message. A close friend of Dostoevsky, a Platonist, and a gnostic visionary, Solovyov was a prophet, having been granted three visions of Sophia, Divine Wisdom. He was also a poet and a profoundly Christian metaphysicist. His most important works include Lectures on Divine Humanity, The Justification of the Good, and War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations.
His little book, The Meaning of Love — published in the early 1890s, long before the era of sociobiology — is as trenchant and relevant a counterpoint to that modern discipline as any likely to be found today. According to Solovyov, love between men and women has a key role to play in the mystical transfiguration of the world. Love, which allows one person to find unconditional completion in another, becomes an evolutionary strategy for overcoming cosmic disintegration. In an essay entitled Vladimir Solovyov on Sexual Love and Evolution, the author Stephen Talbott examines the implications of Solovyov’s theories on love and evolution in illuminating detail.
In his book “The Occult Establishment”, James Webb writes: “Vladimir Sergeyevitch Soloviev was the father of the peculiar sort of religious speculation that most characterised the Russian religious revival. He was the son of an eminent historian who was also an Orthodox priest. Vladimir Soloviev abandoned his early materialism for an idealistic philosophy and in 1872 underwent the first of a series of mystical experiences. This consisted in the transfiguration of a girl travelling in the Moscow-Kharkov train into the figure of a divine woman. At once Soloviev abandoned his scientific pursuits and left Moscow University to study at the Ecclesiastical Academy. In 1874 he went to London, where the second of his visions overcame him. Once more the figure of a divine woman appeared before him. She revealed herself as “Sophia” – wisdom – a divine participant in the Creation of the world.”
On January 26, 1878, two days before his twenty-fifth birthday, Vladimir Solovyov stood up before an audience of intellectuals and officials in St. Petersburg to begin the first of his twelve Lectures on Divine Humanity. The lectures aimed at concretely demonstrating the reality of the evolution of human consciousness and religion. Among the attendees was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who, although much older than Solovyov, was already a close friend. (It is indeed possible that Solovyov was an influence in Dostoyevky’s mystical entry in his Writer’s Diary: The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Also attending was Leo Tolstoy, with whom Solovyov would carry on a much more “antagonistic” relationship.
The precocious Solovyov became widely known through these early lectures and his even earlier publications. During his teenage years, he had been “possessed by a passionate and violent atheism”. Having entered Moscow University at age sixteen under the sway of positivism and utilitarianism, he pursued three years of study in physics and mathematics before switching to the Faculty of History and Philology. As a mark of both his talent and his audacity, he received his degree in June of 1873 without completing any classes as an official student of that faculty. A year and a half later he defended his master’s thesis. Thereafter he took up theological studies, and then he would return to the Faculty of History and Philology for his doctorate.
The impressive body of work Solovyov completed during his twenties included these major publications: The Crisis of Western Philosophy: Against Positivism (parts of which were published before submission as his master’s thesis); The Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge, concerned with the nature of organic rather than abstractly logical knowledge; A Critique of Abstract Principles (doctoral thesis); and Lectures on Divine Humanity. He was, during that third decade of his life, already considered an important figure on the Russian intellectual scene, and he would eventually be regarded by many as the most significant and influential Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century.
Solovyov, however, could not remain comfortable living the life of an academic, and in fact spent much of his life as a wanderer of sorts. He died surrounded by friends but with neither a family nor a home of his own. Yet despite what almost appeared to be vagrancy at times, his academic credentials remained secure throughout his life. During his last decade he was asked to be the philosophy editor of the important multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He wrote dozens of articles for the encyclopedia on ancient and modern philosophers and on such philosophical topics as beauty, reason, nature, mysticism, and evil.
But there were other sides of his life, that of a mystic visionary. He claimed to have had three visitations from, or visions of — a figure he identified as “Sophia”, or “Divine Wisdom”, and he spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with the implications of these mystical experiences. Yet his drive to hold the different aspects of his life together — he also achieved considerable work as a poet, literary critic, political commentator, and theologian — was always solidly grounded. He had little tolerance for detachment from the material world, whether in the form of abstract religiosity and mysticism, or abstract science. In all matters he sought an understanding that could lead to transformation and elevation of the world, not an escape from it.
It is also noteworthy that he often ridiculed himself, whether in verse or otherwise. Some of his poetry makes fun of his own most precious beliefs, and his self-mockery extended even to, or especially to, his bumbling search for the truth of Sophia. More generally, he was known for his irreverent epigrams, pranks, and sometimes crude jokes, showing a willingness to mix earthly humor and divine love, as well as laughter and metaphysics. Embracing opposites in the hope of raising them to a higher unity, he was described as “a vegetarian in a land of meat-filled pastries and cutlets, a Slavophile who rejected Russian nationalism, and a scholar willing to give up a stable university career to speak out against the tsar”. This may help explain the perplexingly diverse views of his life and work.
Despite his popularity, Solovyov consistently provoked criticism from Russians of all schools. For Slavophiles, he focused too much on the West; for Westernizers and liberals, he was an irrational mystic; for Orthodox clergy, he was a freethinker who flirted with Catholicism; for Tolstoyans, he supported Orthodox doctrine; for Dostoevsky’s reactionary acolytes, he was too sympathetic to Jews. In an article on the Slavophiles written in 1889, Solovyov ironically points to the number of conflicting labels attached to him by the press: Catholic, Protestant, rationalist, mystic, nihilist, Old Believer, and, finally, Jew.
Solovyov never married. He acknowledged “serial infatuations” as a young person, and carried on a number of idealized relationships with women as an adult, at least one of them (with a married woman) lasting some twenty-three years to the end of his life. That particular woman happened to be named “Sophia”, and she was among those at his bedside as he died, an apparently homeless pauper in 1900, leaving his brother Mikhail Sergeevich and several colleagues to defend and promote his intellectual legacy.
It is widely held that Solovyov was one of the sources for Dostoyevsky’s characters Alyosha Karamazov and Ivan Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazov. Solovyov’s influence can also be seen in the writings of the Symbolist and Neo-Idealist of the later Russian Soviet era. His book The Meaning of Love can be seen as one of the philosophical sources of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata (1889). This was also the work where he introduced the concept of ‘syzygy’, to denote ‘close union’.
He influenced the religious philosophy of Nicolas Berdyaev, Sergey Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Lossky, Semyon Frank, the ideas of Rudolf Steiner and the poetry and theory of Russian Symbolists, namely Andrei Belyi, Alexander Blok, Solovyov’s nephew, and others. Hans Urs von Balthasar explores his work as one example of seven lay styles that reveal the glory of God’s revelation, in volume III of The Glory of the Lord. He found support from Dostoievsky, the Archbishop of Lithuania, Sophie Tolstoy (Leo Tolstoy’s widow) and Princess Wolkonsky (a follower of Mme Blavatsky). Nicholas Berdyaev, in The Russian Idea, wrote: “Solovyov’s essay of the “Meaning of Love” is the most outstanding of all his works and even the only original expression about Eros-Love in the history of the Christian thought. Solovyov is the first Christian thinker, who actually acknowledged the individual and not only the sense of genus of love between man and woman.”
Solovyov compiled a philosophy based on Hellenistic philosophy (see Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus) and early Christian tradition with Buddhism and Hebrew Kabbalistic elements (Philo of Alexandria). He also studied Gnosticism and the works of Valentinus. His religious philosophy was syncretic, and fused philosophical elements of various religious traditions with Orthodox Christianity and his own experience of Sophia.
Solovyov described his encounters with the entity Sophia in his works, Three Encounters and Lectures on Godmanhood among others. Solovyov’s fusion was driven by the desire to reconcile and or unite with Orthodox Christianity these various traditions via the Russian Slavophiles’ concept of sobornost. His Russian religious philosophy had a very strong impact on the Russian Symbolist art movements of his time. Not surprisingly, Solovyov’s teachings on Sophia, conceived as the merciful unifying feminine wisdom of God comparable to the Hebrew Shekinah or various goddess traditions, have been deemed a heresy by ROCOR and as unsound and unorthodox by the Patriarchate of Moscow.
A century before the integral spirituality movement expounded by the likes of Ken Wilbur, Solovyov sought to create a philosophy that could through his system of logic or reason reconcile all bodies of knowledge or disciplines of thought, and fuse all conflicting concepts into a single system. The central component of this complete philosophic reconciliation was the Russian Slavophile concept of sobornost (organic or spontaneous order through integration; which is related to the Russian word for ‘catholic’). Solovyov sought to find and validate common ground – or where conflicts found common ground – and by focusing on this common ground to establish absolute unity and or integral fusion of opposing ideas and/or peoples.
For a full description of Solovyov’s visionary experiences of Sophia, see here:
Quotes from Solovyov:
“Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very center of our personal lives. This is characteristic of every kind of love, but predominantly of sexual love; it is distinguished from other kinds of love by greater intensity, by a more engrossing character, and by the possibility of more complete overall reciprocity.”
“All our universe, insofar as it is not a chaos of discrete atoms but a single and united whole, presupposes, over and above its fragmentary material, a form of unity, and likewise an active power subduing to this unity elements antagonistic to it. … The body of the universe is the totality of the real-ideal, the psycho-physical … Matter in itself, i.e., the dead conglomeration of inert and impenetrable atoms, is only conceived by abstracting intelligence, but is not observed or revealed in any such actuality.”
“Imagine a group of people who are all blind, deaf and slightly demented and suddenly someone in the crowd asks, “What are we to do?”… The only possible answer is “Look for a cure”. Until you are cured, there is nothing you can do. And since you don’t believe you are sick, there can be no cure.”
“Truth as a living power that takes possession of the internal being of a human and actually rescues him from false self-assertion is termed Love. Love as the actual abrogation of egoism is the real justification and salvation of individuality.”
“Love is as yet for humans what reason was for the animal world: it exists in its beginnings, or as an earnest of what it will be, but not as yet in actual fact. … The task of love consists in justifying in deed that meaning of love which at first is given only in feeling. It demands such a union of two given finite natures as would create out of them one absolute ideal personality.”
“The highest task of true language is already foreordained by the very nature of words, which inevitably represent general and permanent ideas, not separate and transient impressions … They bring us to the comprehension of universal meaning. In a similar fashion the highest task of love is already marked out beforehand in the very feeling of love itself, which inevitably and prior to any kind of realization introduces its object into the sphere of absolute individuality, sees it in ideal light, and has faith in its absoluteness. Thus in both cases (in the realm of verbal cognition and likewise in the realm of love), the task consists not in thinking up anything whatsoever completely new out of one’s own mind, but only in consistently carrying farther and right to the end what has already been given in germ.”
“Failure to recognize one’s own absolute significance is equivalent to a denial of human worth; this is a basic error and the origin of all unbelief. If one is so faint-hearted that he is powerless even to believe in himself, how can he believe in anything else? The basic falsehood and evil of egoism lie not in this absolute self-consciousness and self-evaluation of the subject, but in the fact that, ascribing to himself in all justice an absolute significance, he unjustly refuses to others this same significance. Recognizing himself as a centre of life (which as a matter of fact he is), he relegates others to the circumference of his own being and leaves them only an external and relative value.”
“The meaning and worth of love, as a feeling, is that it really forces us, with all our being, to acknowledge for ANOTHER the same absolute central significance which, because of the power of our egoism, we are conscious of only in our own selves. Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very centre of our personal life. This is characteristic of every kind of love, but predominantly of sexual love; it is distinguished from other kinds of love by greater intensity, by a more engrossing character, and by the possibility of a more complete overall reciprocity. Only this love can lead to the real and indissoluble union of two lives into one; only of it do the words of Holy Writ say: ‘They shall be one flesh,’ i.e., shall become one real being.”
“True spiritual love is not a feeble imitation and anticipation of death, but a triumph over death, not a separation of the immortal form from the mortal, of the eternal from the temporal, but a transfiguration of the mortal into the immortal, the acceptance of the temporal into the eternal. False spirituality is a denial of the flesh; true spirituality is the regeneration of the flesh, its salvation, its resurrection from the dead.”
“There is only one power which can from within undermine egoism at the root, and really does undermine it, namely love, and chiefly sexual love. The falsehood and evil of egoism consists in the exclusive acknowledgement of absolute significance for oneself and in the denial of it for others. Reason shows us that this is unfounded and unjust, but simply by the facts love directly abrogates such an unjust relation, compelling us not by abstract consciousness, but by an internal emotion and the will of life to recognize for ourselves the absolute significance of another. Recognizing in love the truth of another, not abstractly, but essentially, transferring in deed the centre of our life beyond the limits of our empirical personality, we by so doing reveal and realize our own real truth, our own absolute significance, which consists just in our capacity to transcend the borders of our factual phenomenal being, in our capacity to live not only in ourselves, but also in another.”
“Those who feel horrified at the thought that the Spirit of Christ acts through men who do not believe in Him, are wrong even from the dogmatic point of view. When an unbelieving priest correctly celebrates the liturgy, Christ is present in the sacrament in spite of the celebrant’s unbelief and unworthiness, for the sake of the people who need it. If the Spirit of Christ can act through an unbelieving priest in a sacrament of the Church, why can it not act in history through unbelieving agents, especially when the believers drive it away? The Spirit bloweth where it listeth. Its enemies may well serve it. Christ who has commanded us to love our enemies can certainly not only love them Himself but also know how to use them for His work. And nominal Christians who pride themselves on having the same kind of faith as the devils should call to mind another thing in the Gospel — the story of two apostles, Judas Iscariot and Thomas. Judas greeted Christ with words and with a kiss. Thomas declared his unbelief in Him to His face. But Judas betrayed Christ and ‘went and hanged himself,’ and Thomas remained an apostle and died for Christ.”
“But in order to constitute Social Man, the individual element, reintegrated by true Marriage, must be reunited to the fixed collective form. The individual is inwardly separated from society by the desire for preeminence and external domination in the name of his own personality. He re-enters the unity of society by the moral act of renunciation, the subordination of his will, his own interests, his whole ego to the will and interests of a superior being recognized as such. If married love is essentially a coordination of two equal though different existences, social love is bound to express itself by a definite subordination of social units of different orders. Here it is not the brutal egoism of Man which must be shattered by an intense emotion impelling it to identification with another being; that has already been done by sexual love. It is the individual existence which must be linked to a general hierarchy whose gradations are defined by the formal relation existing between the whole and its pats of greater or less significance. The perfection of social love cannot then consist in an intensity of subjective feeling, but in its conformity with objective reason which tells us that the whole is greater than any of its parts. The obligation of this love is therefore infringed and the realisation of social Man is hindered, not only by mere egoism, but also chiefly by that particularism which draws distinctions between the interests of lower groups, to which we are more immediately attached, and those of higher and more extensive groups. When a man separates his love for the family, the trade union, the social class or the political party to which he belongs from his love for country, or when he is ready to serve the latter without regard to mankind as a whole or the Universal Church, he is putting asunder what God has joined in one, and is becoming an obstacle to the integration of social Man.
The type and basic reality of this integration are given in the ecclesiastical hierarchy formed by the Sacrament of Order. It is the triumph of social love, for no member of this order functions or acts for himself or in his own name; each one is ordained and invested by a superior representing a wider social unit. Here, form the humblest priest up to the Pope, the servant of the servants of God, all are absolutely free, as far as their sacred ministry is concerned, from self-asserting egoism or isolated particularism; each one is simply a distinct organ of a united social whole, the Universal Church.”
“This perfection, which for us is still only being realized, is for God, i.e., in the truth, already real. That ideal unity towards which our world is aspiring, and which constitutes the end of the cosmic and historical process, cannot be only someone’s subjective understanding (for whose, pray, is it?); truly it is like the external object of Divine love, like His eternal other.”
“If desires fly by like shadows,
If vows are empty words,
Is it worth it to live in this fog of delusion,
Is it worth it to live if the truth is dead?
Does one need eternity for useless striving,
Does one need eternity for deceptive words?
What is worthy of life lives without doubts,
A higher power knows no bonds.
Knowing one’s own higher power,
Why wail on about childish dreams?
Life is just an exploit, and the living truth
Shines like immortality in moldering graves.”
From his final vision of Sophia, in the Egyptian desert:
“And in the purple of the heaven’s splendor,
With eyes filled with an azure fire,
You looked like the first radiance
Of a universal and creative day. . . .
I saw everything, and everything was one thing only–
A single image of female beauty. . .
The infinite fit within its dimensions:
Before me, in me – were you alone.
O, radiant woman! In you I am not deceived:
In the desert I saw all of you. . .
Those roses will not wither in my soul wherever life’s wave may speed.
Only an instant! The vision concealed itself–
And the sun’s orb rose in the sky.
The desert was silent.
My soul was praying,
And the ringing of church bells didn’t cease in it.”