Konstantin Nikolayevich Leontiev
Leont'ev, Konstantin Nikolaevich (1831–1891)
LEONT'EV, KONSTANTIN NIKOLAEVICH
Konstantin Nikolaevich Leont'ev was a Russian writer, philosopher, critic, and publicist. Like almost all important nineteenth-century Russian authors, Leont'ev came from a family of landowners. He was trained in medicine at the University of Moscow and served for three years as an army doctor in the Crimean war. After the war he took the post of family doctor on a country estate in the province of Nizhnii-Novgorod, married, and published his first novel, Podlipki (1861). In 1863 he entered the Russian diplomatic service and worked for eight years as a consular official on the island of Crete and the Balkans. After a cure from dysentery, he underwent a spiritual crisis and spent a year (1871–1872) in a Greek monastery on Mount Athos. Soon after he left the consular service, and he returned to Russia where he worked as a journalist in various cities and a censor of literature in Moscow. In 1887 he decided to renounce the secular world, was officially divorced from his wife, and retired to the Optyna Pustyn' cloister in the province of Tula. Shortly before his death he took monastic vows and died a monk in the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery near Moscow.
Although Leont'ev can be considered one of the brilliant representatives of nineteenth-century Russian culture, on a par with Alexander Herzen, his work is not very well known. His novels and stories have hardly been translated and his philosophical and political views only scantily studied. The main reason for this seems to be his odd, maverick-like personality, which expressed itself in views so paradoxical and extreme that it is almost impossible to weld them together and to integrate them with the main ideas of his age.
Leont'ev was torn between an amoral aestheticism and the intense desire for saving his soul by the ascetic renunciation of the world. The protagonist of almost all his novels (among which, apart from Podlipki, V svoem kraiu [In my own land, 1864], and Egipetskii golub' [The Egyptian dove, 1881–1882]) is a narcissistic superhero (more or less identical with Leont'ev himself) who takes delight in all things beautiful and considers it his duty to lead a poetic life. "Ethics does not coincide with aesthetics: otherwise it is impossible to approve the beauty of Alcibiades, of a diamond, of a tiger." Which is better: "the bloody and spiritually exuberant age of the Renaissance, or contemporary Denmark, Holland, Switzerland—humble, prosperous, moderate?" (Sobranie sochinenii, Vol. I, p. 282; 414). However, the hero is dissatisfied with his actual self as he realizes his own limitations and the vanity of his sensuous experience and of the world he has enjoyed so much.
It is this latter attitude that made Leont'ev severely criticize contemporary writers such as Fëdor Dostoevsky, Lev Tolstoy, and Vladimir Solov'ëv. In the essay "Nashi novye khristiane: F. M. Dostoevskii i graf Lev Tolstoi " ("Our new Christians: F. M. Dostoevsky and Count Lev Tolstoy, 1882) he ridiculed the rose-colored Christianity of these authors. By promising paradise on earth (just like the utopian socialists), Leont'ev stated, they introduced heretical, humanistic elements into their religious views, making God a diluted God of love instead of a God of fear. However, in another essay he made a brilliant analysis of Tolstoy's novels, in particular praising War and Peace.
Leont'ev is best known for his aesthetic approach to history and his uncompromising criticism of his own age, which according to him, was dominated by equality and its unavoidable counterpart mediocrity. Just as such thinkers as de Maistre, Comte Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche, and John Stuart Mill, Leont'ev rejected the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, which had led to democracies in which there was no place for great men and intense, creative contradictions. In his collection of essays Vostok, Rossiia i slavianstvo (The East, Russia, and Slavdom, 1885–1886), which included his main work "Vizantizm i slavianstvo " (Byzantinism and Slavdom, 1875) he developed a biological theory of the evolution of history. Each historical cycle comprises three periods: a period of childhood, or primitive simplicity ; a second period of adulthood, characterized by differentiation and flourishing complexity ; and a final period of old age, which through decline and disintegration leads to a secondary simplicity.
According to Leont'ev Europe was already in its third phase, the first being the period of the barbarian invasions, the second the High Middle Ages. As clear signs of the contemporary decay, he considered the disappearance of class distinctions and the dominance of bourgeois culture, the culture of the average man. Since the time of Peter the Great (1672–1725), this European leveling interfusion had infected Russia. Russia's salvation, he maintains, lies in reversing this process, which can only be done by defending its prime institutions, autocracy and orthodoxy, and promoting a situation in which "despotism, danger, strong passions, prejudices, superstitions, fanaticism …, in a word everything to which the nineteenth century is opposed" (Sobranie sochinenii, Vol. VIII, p. 98) could flourish. More extreme and reactionary than the older Slavophiles such as Aleksei Khomiakov and the brothers Ivan and Petr Kireevskii, Leont'ev had no scruples about supporting strict censorship and political repression in order to reverse the pernicious process of democratization. However, he with great insight foretold the excrescences of the "fixed equality" of communism, which "through a series of combinations with other principles must gradually lead, on the one hand, to a decreased mobility of capital and property, and, on the other, to a new juridical inequality, to new privileges, to restrictions on individual freedom, and to compulsory corporate groups, clearly defined by laws—probably even to new forms of personal slavery or serfdom." (Edie, Scanlan, Zeldin 1965, p. 278).
Leont'ev is often called the Russian Nietzsche. With his pessimistic view on the development of European culture and society, he can be seen as a forerunner of Oswald Spengler. In Russia interest in his work has grown considerably since the 1990s. Biographical data, his complete works, and criticism about him (in Russian) can be found on the web at http://knleontiev.narod.ru.
See also Carlyle, Thomas; Dostoevsky, Fëdor Mikhailovich; Khomiakov, Aleksei Stepanovich; Kireevskii, Ivan Vasil'evich; Maistre, Comte Joseph de; Mill, John Stuart; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich; Spengler, Oswald; Tolstoy, Lev Nikolaevich.
Edie, James M., James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, eds. Russian Philosophy. Vol. II. Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1965.
Sobranie sochinenii (Collected works). 9 vols. Moscow: Sablina, 1912–1914. (Reprint of vols. 1–4, Würzburg, Germany: JAL, 1975).
Egyptian Dove: The Story of a Russian. Translated by George Reavey. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969.
Zapiski otshel'nika (The notes of a hermit). Moscow: Russkaia kniga, 1992.
Berdyaev, N. Leontiev. Translated by George Reavey. London: Centenary Press, 1940.
Lukashevich, S. Konstantin Leontev (1831–1891). A Study in Russian "Heroic Vitalism." New York: Pageant Press, 1967.
Ivask, Yurii Konstantin Leont'ev: Zhizn' i tvorchestvo (Konstantin Leont'ev: life and works). Bern and Frankfurt, Germany: Herbert Lang, 1974.
Rzhevsky, Nicholas "Leontiev's Prickly Rose." Slavic Review 35 (1976): 258–268.
Willem G. Weststeijn (2005)
Leontiev, Konstantin Nikolayevich
LEONTIEV, KONSTANTIN NIKOLAYEVICH
(1831–1891), social philosopher, literary critic, and novelist.
Konstantin Nikolayevich Leontiev occupied a unique place in the history of nineteenth-century Russian social thought. He was a nationalist and a reactionary whose position differed in significant respects from the thinking of both the Slavophiles and the Pan-Slavists. Some historians refer to Leontiev's social philosophy as Byzantinism.
Leontiev led a varied life, in which he was in turn a surgeon, a diplomat, an editor, a novelist, and a monk. He was raised on a small family estate in the province of Kaluga. After studying medicine at the University of Moscow, he served as a military surgeon during the Crimean War. Following his military service, he returned to Moscow to continue the practice of medicine and to write a series of novels that enjoyed little success. He married a young, illiterate Greek woman in 1861, but continued to engage in a series of love affairs. His wife gradually descended into madness.
In 1863 Leontiev entered the Russian diplomatic service, which led to his assignment to posts in the Balkans and Greece. While serving in that region, he developed an admiration for Byzantine Christianity, which was to remain a dominant theme in his thinking. He was irresistibly attracted to the Byzantine monasticism that he observed during a stay at Mount Athos in 1871 and 1872. Leontiev arrived at the conviction that aesthetic beauty, not happiness, was the supreme value in life. He rejected all humanitarianism and optimism; the notion of human kindness as the essence of Christianity's social teaching was utterly alien to him. His stance was anomalous in that he lacked strong personal religious faith, yet advocated strict adherence to Eastern Orthodox religion. He believed that the best of Russian culture was rooted in the Orthodox and autocratic heritage of Byzantium, and not the Slavic heritage that Russia shared with Eastern Europeans. He thought that the nations of the Balkans were determined to imitate the bourgeois West. He hoped that despotism and obscurantism could save Russia from the adoption of Western liberalism and constitutionalism, and could give Russia and the Orthodox Christians of the Balkans the opportunity to unite on the basis of their common traditions, drawn from the Byzantine legacy.
Leontiev accepted Nikolai Danilevsky's conception that each civilization develops like an organism, and argued that each civilization necessarily passes through three phases of development, from an initial phase of primary simplicity to a second phase, a golden era of growth and complexity, followed at last by "secondary simplification," with decay and disintegration. He despised the rationalism, democratization, and egalitarianism of the West of his day, which he saw as a civilization fully in the phase of decline, as evident in the domination of the bourgeoisie, whom he held in contempt for its crassness and mediocrity. He thought it desirable to delay the growth of similar tendencies in Russia, but he concluded, with regret, that Russia's final phase of dissolution was inevitable, and saw some signs that it had already begun.
Leontiev did not hesitate to endorse harshly repressive, authoritarian rule for Russia in order to stave off the influence of the West and slow the decline as long as possible. He saw Tsarist autocracy and Orthodoxy as the powerful forces protecting tradition in Russian society from the dangerous tendencies toward leveling and anarchy. He glorified extreme social inequality as characteristic of a civilization's phase of flourishing complexity. Un-like the Slavophiles, Leontiev had little admiration for the Russian peasants, who in his view inclined toward dishonesty, drunkenness, and cruelty, and he repudiated the heritage of the reforms adopted by Alexander II. Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of preserving autocracy and aristocracy in Russia.
After leaving the diplomatic service, Leontiev suffered from constant financial stringency, despite finding a position as an assistant editor of a provincial newspaper. His stories about life in Greece did not find a wide audience, although late in his life he did attract a small circle of devoted admirers. In 1891 he took monastic vows and assumed the name of Clement. He died in the Trinity Monastery near Moscow in the same year.
Leontiev was one of the most gifted literary critics of his time, though he was not widely appreciated as a novelist. In Against the Current: Selections from the Novels, Essays, Notes and Letters of Konstantin Leontiev (1969), George Ivask says that in Leontiev's long novels, "his narration is often capricious, elliptic, impressionistic, and full of lyrical digression depicting the vague moods of his superheroes, who express his own narcissistic ego." After Leontiev's death Vladimir Soloviev contributed to the recognition of Leontiev's erratic brilliance, stimulating a revival of interest in Leontiev in the early twentieth century.
See also: byzantium, influence of; danilevsky, nikolai; nationalism in the arts
Ivask, George, ed. (1969). Against the Current: Selections from the Novels, Essays, Notes and Letters of Konstantin Leontiev. New York: Weybright and Talley.
Roberts, Spencer, ed. and tr. (1968). Essays in Russian Literature: The Conservative View: Leontiev, Rozanov, Shestov. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Thaden, Edward C. (1964). Conservative Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Alfred B. Evans Jr.