Florenskii, Pavel

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FLORENSKII, PAVEL (18821943/1950s?), was a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian. Florenskii was born in Evlakh, Azerbaijan, in Transcaucasian Russia. His engineer father was Russian, perhaps half-Georgian; his mother was Armenian. Religion did not play more than a cultural role in the Florenskii family. Young Florenskii was a child prodigy during his elementary school years in Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi), Georgia. He was sent to study mathematics at Moscow University, where he also became intensely interested in philosophy. At the university he studied with the famous Sergei Trubetskoi and L. M. Lopatin, falling under their religious influence. At this time, with his friends V. F. Ern and A. V. Elchaninov, who was to become a famous émigré Russian Orthodox priest in Western Europe after the Russian Revolution, Florenskii founded the utopian Christian Brotherhood of Battle, an organization that worked for social reforms in Russia and a new church-state policy that would give freedom to the church along the lines of the theocratic philosophy of the sophiologist Vladimir Solovʾev. Upon graduation from the university, Florenskii gave up a research fellowship in mathematics to enter the Moscow Theological Academy on the advice of his spiritual guide, Bishop Antonii Florensov. After completing his studies at the academy in 1908, Florenskii was elected to the academy's faculty of the history of philosophy. He married Anna Mikhailovna Giatsintova on August 17, 1910, and was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox church on April 24, 1911.

As a priest, Florenskii never held a formal pastorate, although he served in one of the chapels at the Saint Sergius Trinity Monastery (at present-day Sergiyev Posad), where the Moscow Theological Academy was located, and he was always eager for pastoral work. His good friend Sergei Bulgakov, who returned to Christianity through Florenskii's ministry and became a famous Russian Orthodox archpriest and theologian, testified in his memoirs to the pastoral zeal of his spiritual guide. So also did the renowned, although very different, philosophers N. O. Lossky and Vasilii Rozanov, who also recovered their religious faith through his ministry, both the latter, however, would come to express serious doubts about their mentor's philosophical vision.

Florenskii wrote only one book of theology, the highly debated and generally considered epoch-making collection of twelve essays on theodicy titled Stolp i utverzhdenie istiny (The pillar and bulwark of the truth). Published in 1914 in a special typeface selected especially by the author, the book consists of more than eight hundred pages, with more than four hundred footnotes and commentaries touching upon virtually every area of human study: theology, philosophy, philology, history, mathematics, medicine, art, the various sciences, and even the occult. It is written in the form of intimate letters to a friend which Nikolai Berdiaev, among others, criticized for its pretentious aesthetical and lyrical stylization. The chapters, each introduced by a literary vignette, bear such titles as "Doubt," "Friendship," "Triunity," "Sophia," "The Comforter," "Light of Truth," "Contradiction," "Sin," and "Gehenna."

Stolp i utverzhdenie istiny is not a systematic work. Its controlling intuition is expressed in its opening sentence: "Living religious experience [is] the sole legitimate method for understanding [religious, and certainly Christian] dogma." The author's fundamental claim is that ultimate truth, which is religious, comes from the liturgical, spiritual, and ecclesial experience of the whole person within the community of faith and worship of the Orthodox church; this experience fundamentally is the gracious realization by creatures of the indwelling divine life of the trinitarian godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Following such thinkers as Solovʾev, Aleksei Khomiakov, and Ivan Kireevskii, and interpreting the theology of the Eastern Christian church fathers and the liturgical hymnography and iconography of the Orthodox tradition in their light, Florenskii forges a magnificent, and extremely complex, worldview. At the heart of Florenskii's worldview lies the experience of free and joyous communion in truth, love, and beauty. This communion is perfected by all creatures made in the image of the uncreated Trinity of divine persons. The eternal being and life of the Trinity provides the archetypal structure for human existence and fulfillment.

The work that formed the basis for Stolp i utverzhdenie istiny was accepted by the Moscow Theological Academy as an orthodox expression of the faith of the Russian church, albeit in highly individualistic and idiosyncratic form, and Florenskii was granted his doctoral degree after its presentation. However, careful analyses of the finished and published product, accomplished almost exclusively outside of Russia after the Revolution, have questioned the work on virtually every point. Classical Orthodox theologians and scholars such as Vladimir Lossky and Georges Florovsky have rejected it as an expression of church dogmatics, and philosophers such as Nikolai Berdiaev have faulted its philosophical argumentation. So also have philosophical interpreters such as Vasilii Zenkovskii and N. O. Lossky, the latter of whom, as has been seen, was greatly influenced in his return to Christianity by Florenskii. In all cases, however, the brilliance of the gifted thinker, the fundamental correctness of his guiding intuition, and his rejection of a rationalist approach to religious and specifically Christian thinking, indeed, to any truly metaphysical reflections on the ultimate nature of things, have been applauded by all who have had the courage to labor through his prodigious creation.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Florenskii was inducted by the regime into scientific service, often embarrassing the new rulers by appearing at scientific conferences and classes in his priestly cassock, wearing the cross. He worked for the Highest State Technical-Artistic Studios and the Commission for the Electrification of Soviet Russia. A member of the Academy of Sciences and editor of the Soviet Technical Encyclopedia, he was honored for several important scientific discoveries, one of which had to do with the refining of oil. He also wrote standard textbooks for Soviet schools. At the same time, he preached against the excesses of the regime whose fundamental worldview was contrary to his own. It is believed that Florenskii was imprisoned permanently during the Stalinist terror in 1933. According to Soviet records, he died in 1943, but other sources indicate that he may have survived into the 1950s. In 1956 the Soviet government formally rehabilitated the memory of the man who was called by many critics of his work the "Russian Leonardo da Vinci."


Pavel Florenskii's major work, Stolp i utverzhdenie istiny, was originally published in Moscow in 1914. A limited reprint was made in Berlin in 1929. Translations into French (Lausanne, 1975) and Italian (Milan, 1974) also exist. An English version of the fifth letter on the Holy Spirit, titled "The Comforter," appears in Alexander Schmemann's Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought (New York, 1965). Essays on the life and work of Florenskii may be found in N. O. Lossky's History of Russian Philosophy (New York, 1951) and Vasilii V. Zenkovskii's A History of Russian Philosophy, translated by George L. Kline (New York, 1953). The only book in English on Florenskii, which contains complete bibliographical information in all languages, is Robert Slesinski's Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love (Crestwood, N. Y., 1984).

Thomas Hopko (1987)

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