Bulgakov, Sergei Nikolaevich (1871–1944)

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Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, a Russian economist, philosopher, and theologian, was a leading twentieth-century religious philosopher in the tradition of Vladimir Solov'ëv. Bulgakov was born in Livny, Russia, the son of a priest. He attended a church school in Livny and spent four years in a theological seminary before enrolling in the faculty of law at the University of Moscow in 1890. He was graduated in 1894 and began teaching political economy at the Moscow Technical School in 1895. From 1898 to 1900 he traveled in western Europe and Great Britain, gathering material for his master's dissertation, Kapitalizm i zemledelie (Capitalism and agriculture; 2 vols., St. Petersburg, 1900). Through this and other writings on economic and social questions he soon acquired a national reputation. After teaching in Kiev for five years, he returned to Moscow in 1906 to become professor of political economy at the Moscow Institute of Commerce; in the same year he was elected to the second state Duma as a Constitutional Democrat. In 1912 he received a doctorate from the University of Moscow, and in 1917 he was named professor of political economy at that institution.

Although Bulgakov was a leading "legal Marxist" in the 1890s, he even then acknowledged the philosophical supremacy of Immanuel Kant and soon began to depart from orthodox Marxism on socioeconomic issues as well. In his master's dissertation he argued that Karl Marx's theory of the centralization of production is inapplicable to agriculture, where small-scale production is more stable and viable than large-scale. When, in the early years of the twentieth century, Bulgakov underwent a religious crisis, he abandoned Marxism completely, first for the idealistic position represented in his book of essays, Ot Marksizma k idealizmu (From Marxism to idealism; St. Petersburg, 1903), and subsequently for a mystical, "Sophiological" interpretation of the Russian Orthodox faith showing the direct and extensive influence of Solov'ëv and Pavel Florenskii and the ultimate influence of Plato and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. In 1909 Bulgakov contributed to the celebrated miscellany, Vekhi (Landmarks), in which ex-Marxist Russian intellectuals, including Nikolai Berdiaev and Petr Struve, criticized the radical intelligentsia. Bulgakov first outlined his positive religious philosophy in his doctoral dissertation, Filosofiia khoziaistva (The philosophy of the economy; Moscow, 1912) and over the years 19111916 he composed the work in which this philosophy received its fullest expression, Svet nevechernii (The unfading light; Moscow, 1917).

During the same period Bulgakov studied for holy orders, and in 1918 he was ordained a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. He moved to the Crimea, where he became professor of political economy and theology at the University of Simferopol', but in 1921 he lost this position because he was a member of the clergy. At the end of 1922 he was expelled from Russia along with many other non-Marxist scholars and writers. He settled first in Prague and lived from 1925 in Paris, where he took part in founding the Orthodox Theological Institute, serving as its dean and professor of dogmatic theology until his death. During these years Bulgakov wrote extensively on theological subjects and took an active part in ecclesiastical conferences in many countries, becoming an internationally known church figure. Some of his later theological works, particularly Agnets Bozhii (The lamb of God; Paris, 1933) and Nevesta Agntsa (The bride of the lamb; Paris, 1945) also carried further the development of his distinctive philosophical outlook.

Basic to this outlook is a cosmology that, although marked in its expression by obscurities and progressive modifications, centered consistently on the following themes: (1) The world, or cosmos, is an organic whole animated by a "world soul" or entelechy that is revealed in the structure, function, and connection of its parts. (2) God, or the Absolute, in creating the cosmos "out of nothing," created it not as something external or alien to him (for then it would limit the Absolute, which is impossible), but as an emanation of his own nature; the world is God as becoming, the divine nature fused with nothingness. (3) Mediating between the Absolute and the cosmos, uniting them both within itself, is a "third being"Sophia, the principle of divine wisdom. As the world of Platonic Ideas, Sophia is the ideal basis of the cosmos; as the object of divine love, purely receptive and conceiving everything within herself as the womb of being, Sophia is "eternal femininity"; as the principle of the Divine within the created, she is the "world soul," or entelechy; as a participant with the Trinity in the generation of the cosmos, she is a kind of "fourth hypostasis" in God. In his later works Bulgakov distinguished between the "divine Sophia" in God and the "created Sophia" in the cosmos, but he still emphasized their ultimate metaphysical identity and thus the consubstantiality of God and the cosmos.

Bulgakov resisted the pantheistic implications of his position, preferring to call it a form of panentheism, and strove to provide solutions to the chief philosophical problems it raised, such as the problems of evil and human freedom. He attributed evil to the nothingness or nonbeing that is the substratum of the cosmos: Through the willfulness of created beings, nothingness is actualized as a chaotic force erupting into the created world, which in itself is not evil but simply incomplete. He provided for human freedom through a doctrine of self-creation: man is free even in the act by which he comes into existence, for God allows man to collaborate in his own creation; at the same time, however, Bulgakov also asserted that Sophia guides history by a kind of necessity.

Like Florenskii, Bulgakov laid great stress on the antinomic character of rationality and looked to divine revelation through religious experience for knowledge of the highest truths, but his epistemological views in general received no thorough, original development or synthesis; the same is true of his scattered treatments of ethical questions and of his aesthetic reflectionsthe latter appearing principally in Tikhie dumy (Quiet meditations; Moscow, 1918). The work Bulgakov himself regarded as his most strictly philosophical productFilosofiia imeni (Philosophy of the name)was written in 1919 but first published posthumously in Paris in 1953. It is an exhaustive study of language, with particular application to theology, in which Bulgakov argued that words are not mere outward signs of meanings but are internally related to them as animate symbols.

Bulgakov's later works abounded in imaginative theological conceptions, including a doctrine of universal salvation and original treatments of the Incarnation and of the theological differences between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Some of his theological views, particularly his Sophiology, were severely censured in the early 1930s by the Moscow patriarchate, which affirmed that the doctrine of Sophia is incompatible with the Trinitarian nature of God and that it falsely introduces a distinction between masculine and feminine principles into the divine essence.

See also Absolute, The; Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Florenskii, Pavel Aleksandrovich; Kant, Immanuel; Marxist Philosophy; Marx, Karl; Plato; Russian Philosophy; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich; Sophia.


additional works by bulgakov

The Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1988.

Pain, J., and Nicholas Zernov, eds. A Bulgakov Anthology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household. Translated by C. Evtuhov. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Poole, R., ed. Problems of Idealism: Essays in Russian Social Philosophy. Translated by R. A. Poole. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Sophia, the Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1993.

Williams, R., ed. Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999.

works on bulgakov

Evtuhov, C. The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Kindersley, R., The First Russian Revisionists: A Study of Legal Marxism in Russia. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Lossky, N. O., History of Russian Philosophy, Ch. 15. New York: International Universities Press, 1951.

Zenkovskii, A History of Russian Philosophy. 2 vols. Translated by G. Kline. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

James P. Scanlan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)