(Typed up for class discussion on the book titled above, edited by Rowan Williams)
The work of Sergii Bulgakov provides us with a powerful and sympathetic conclusion to the course. In Bulgakov we find what has perhaps been lacking in the work of many of the writers that we have read--the pathos of someone deeply involved in a mighty historical struggle. Bulgakov is no dry theorist or comfortable idealist, but a man fighting for freedom and for God in the midst of one of history’s great upheavals--the slowly fermenting and increasingly radical Russian Revolution that culminated in 1917. With Bulgakov too we find the sympathetic figure of a man with a complex personal history--training for the priesthood, then apostate, atheist, Marxist, then a post-Marxist academic and politician, gradually stumbling back to the Orthodox faith, and finally an ordained theologian in exile.
Unsurprisingly, then, we find a refreshing balance and realism in his work--a true understanding of both the values and victories of modern liberal civilization and also its great dangers and failures, of both the need for wealth and economic progress, and the need for restraint and self-denial.
In his first essay, “The Economic Ideal,” we find echoes of Ruskin, along with many of the ideas that we have been considering throughout this term. Distinguishing between science (a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake) and technique (a pursuit of knowledge in service to some practical end, Bulgakov identifies political economy as primarily a technique. But the question then is to what end is it oriented? To two ends, says Bulgakov--the economic good of wealth-generation, and the social good of wealth-distribution. Political economy has become obsessed with the first good, Bulgakov says, and has sacrificed all other ethical considerations to the priority of wealth creation. Indeed, it has been presupposed that wealth creation is a good, without any serious ethical consideration. Bulgakov attempts to offer such consideration, by discussing the two poles in Western thought on the issue: asceticism and hedonism. Hedonism, he sees, has become the ideal of the modern age--ever-increasing demand for material goods has been seen as as an uncontested good, a process that should continue, until our physical appetites should complete trump the higher impulses of spirit. Asceticism, however, offers nothing but a complete rejection of bodily pleasures and temporal happiness, in favor of an altogether spiritual realm. This is of course thoroughly un-Christian.
In opposition to both, we must find a way to speak of wealth and material life as “not ends in themselves but only means for the service of a higher and absolute end.” This higher and absolute end would seem to be God, though Bulgakov is not yet explicit about this at this quasi-religious phase in his life. In any case, this higher good is found in the moral life of the spirit which physical goods should serve, not rule. In opposition to asceticism, though, Bulgkov understands that a moral life requires freedom, and this includes external freedom. A man that is a slave to hunger and poverty is scarcely capable of realizing his true human calling. Therefore technology, which enables us to make matter our servant to help free man from necessity and privation is, in principle, a good thing. Bulgakov speaks of technology as the conversion of matter into spirit. The expansion of wealth is the means by which humans are freed from a bondage to nature and an ability to flourish spiritually and culturally. And for the increase of wealth, an increase of need, of demand, is needed: “The expansion of neeed is a law not only for material existence but also for the spirit; indeed the development of spirit consists precisely in the expansion of its demands, in the fact that it perceives problems and tasks which it has not perceived before.”
So, Bulgakov gives a stamp of approval to the economic ideal, but only as a means to an end, the end of human flourishing. For this end, we need a careful balance between hedonism and asceticisim--the strengths of hedonism insofar as they drive us to increase material prosperity for those who are slaves to privation; the strengths of asceticism insofar as they help us to resist the domination of our spirits by the seduction of wealth. Above all, we must resist luxury, which we have “once the cult of gratification, aesthetic or non-aesthetic, has become a guiding principle.” Luxury will destroy culture as readily as poverty. Wealth is thus a two-edged sword: “Wealth does no more than build the walls of civilization; within those walls it is equally possible to construct a radiant temple for the spirit and to open a brothel.” Wealth then must be controlled by the moral discipline of virtue, which political economy has too often left outside of its consideration.
Discussion: This all seems fairly obvious and middle-of-the-road--let’s steer clear of asceticism, and steer clear of hedonism as well. What does Bulgakov really offer here for us to take away?
I’d say three things: 1. Reminds us that wealth creation is a good thing, and that capitalism, to some extent, can be good at accomplishing that. It’s easy to lose sight of this when we get riled up in our anti-capitalism. 2. Reminds the free marketeers that wealth creation cannot be an end itself...nor can it be indifferent about ends. It has the clear specific goal of enabling human freedom and flourishing. 3. He drives home the extent to which modern society is hedonistic and based on luxury, something perhaps we already knew, but don’t give enough weight to. If this was true in fin-de-siecle Russia, how much more in the 21st-century US and UK!
What do you take away from this essay?
His second essay, "Heroism and the Spiritual Struggle" is much less explicitly economic. Rather, it is a reflection on the cultural and political ethos of the leftist revolutionary movement in early 20th-century Russia, and thus on the whole cultural and political ethos of late modernity. This, he sees, is fundamentally based on the hubris of the Enlightenment, which made man, and more specifically, rational, “enlightened” man, the arbiters of the world’s fate. In response, he offers an alternative politics based on the Christian virtue of humility. Much of his account seems to be relevant only to the extreme phenomena of early revolutionary Russian political and intellectual life. How much of it applies to us today?
The dangerous optimism that he critiques--of human ability to create a better world, especially through politics, has largely evaporated in the course of the 20th centuries devastating conflicts. In general, our political figures no longer have the mystique that they may once have had. We know that they are either boring bureaucratics or hopelessly unrealistic idealists. If I were to be cynical, I could point out the similarities between Bulgakov’s self-anointed messianic intelligentsia politician that is sure to leave the people disillusioned and our own recent leftist messiah, Obama. But I won’t.
But even if we no longer have the same sort of atheistic revolutionaries that Bulgakov was dealing with, his critique is still important, because neither have we espoused the Christian virtues of humility and the long hard road of faithfulness. The humility of our politics today is the humility of the underachiever--we know that society is screwed up and that we’re all screw-ups, so we won’t expect too much or try too hard. Christian faithfulness and humility seeks great things, but knows that man will not achieve them alone, and so must work hard at small things, trusting God for the rest.
Bulgakov’s portrayal of anti-revolutionary Christian humility and faithfulness offers us, I think, a wonderful conclusion to this course. We have learned much about the evils and problems of modern economics--we know the sins and the heresies, the injustices and oppression. We know also the ideals, what the world ought to look like. But our mindset is all too likely to be that of the over-educated student revolutionary that Bulgakov criticizes--high on ideals, but short on humility, we may want to try and change the world overnight, and do more harm than good in the process. Rather, our task is to follow God’s calling in our own little spheres, working tirelessly and faithfully to change the world with His help, one little piece at a time, and trust Him to take care of the rest.