Chaadaev, Pëtr Iakovlevich (c. 1794–1856)

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(c. 17941856)

Pëtr Iakovlevich Chaadaev was a Russian thinker and writer. He was a member of the old nobility (his mother's father was the celebrated historian Mikhail Mikhailovich Shcherbatov [17331790]). He studied at Moscow University and participated in the great war of 1812 and in the subsequent campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe. In 18161817, while an officer in the Hussars, he met and became friends with Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (17991837), who in his young years dedicated three letters in verse to Chaadaev. In 1821 Chaadaev resigned from military service, cutting short what had promised to be a brilliant career. From 1823 to 1826 he traveled in Europe (England, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany), where he became acquainted with Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais, whose religious-philosophical ideas made a profound impression on him. At that time he also became friendly with a number of representatives of certain European religious sects, who were adherents of Catholic socialism. The acquaintance with European culture, social heritage, and ideas precipitated a spiritual crisis in Chaadaev: the transition from Enlightenment deistic beliefs about the universe to a modern version of Christianity, consisting in a syncretic union of religion, philosophy, history, sociology, natural science, art, and literature.

After his return Chaadaev wrote (from 1829 to 1831) his main work: Lettres philosophiques. It was written in French and consisted of eight treatises in the form of letters addressed to a lady. This work signified the start of an original Russian philosophy, as well as the formation of a new worldview for Chaadaev. Here, Chaadaev attempted to develop a religious justification for the social process. The establishment of a "perfect order on earth" is possible, in his opinion, only by means of the direct and constant action of "Christian truth," which, through the continuous intellectual interaction of many generations, forms the foundation of "the universal-historical tradition" in the movement of social history and facilitates "the education of the entire human race" (1991 Vol. 1, p. 644). In Chaadaev's view this social idea of Christianity evolved, first, in Catholicism. This idea defined, as Chaadaev points out in the first letter, "the sphere in which Europeans live and in which alone under the influence of religion the human race can fulfill its ultimate purpose" (p. 652).

From this premise Chaadaev infers that European successes in the domains of culture, science, law, and material progress were the fruits of Catholicism as a socially active, political religion; and therefore these successes could serve as the starting point of a higher synthesis. The interpretation of Christianity as a historically progressive social development became for Chaadaev the foundation of a critique of the contemporary Russian situation. In Russia Chaadaev found neither "elements" nor "embryonic indications" of European progress. In his opinion the reason for this was that, when it initially separated from the Catholic West, Russia "erred concerning the true spirit of religion": Russia did not recognize "the purely historical side," that is, the socially transformative principle, to be an inner property of Christianity (658). The consequence of this was that Russia lagged behind Europe and had not gathered "all the fruits" of science, of culture, of civilization, of a well-ordered life. Chaadaev believed that, for Russia to achieve the successes of European society, it was insufficient for it simply to adopt the European forms of development: It had to change everything from the beginning, by repeating, under the flag of the salvific Catholic idea, the entire history of western Europe.

The first "Philosophical Letter" was published in the Moscow journal Teleskop (1836). This publication produced in thinking Russia an impression similar to a "rifle shot resounding in a dark night" (in the words of Alexander Ivanovich Herzen, 19541965). After its publication the journal was prohibited by the government, and its editor-publisher, N. I. Nadezhdin (18041856) was arrested and expelled from Moscow, while Chaadaev himself was declared, "by imperial order," to be insane. This "Philosophical Letter" was the only work of Chaadaev's to be published during his lifetime. Chaadaev's conclusions in this letter provoked a serious critique and disputation in circles of the Russian intelligentsia. Despite the official prohibition of the polemic around the Philosophical Letters, there were serious responses to them from Pushkin, P. A. Viazemskii (17921878), Aleksandr Ivanovich Turgenev (1784?1846), Filip Filipovich Vigel (17861856), D. P. Tatishchev (1974), Schelling, and others. By and large, these commentators did not agree with Chaadaev, but they recognized that it was legitimate and timely to formulate philosophical problems connected with solving the riddle of "the sphinx of Russian life" (in Herzen's words). Chaadaev's publication also provoked a serious split in Russian social life, a split that acquired the character of a dispute that, in principle, could never be resolved.

Although Chaadaev was prohibited from publishing his ideas, he continued his philosophical search. To accusations that he was insufficiently patriotic, he responded with the article "L'apologie d'un fou" (The apology of a madman; written in 1837 but first published in Paris in 1862), in which, speaking about Russia, he affirms that "we are called to solve most the problems of the social order, to answer the most important questions which preoccupy mankind" (1991 Vol. 1, p. 675). Here, he admits that the traditions of Orthodox Christianity possess indisputable merits and have played a beneficial role in the formation of the Russian mind. He is prepared to see Russia's calling in the fact that "at the proper time [it] would offer a solution to all the questions provoking disputation in Europe." In the 1840s Chaadaev's house in Moscow became the center of an important literary and philosophical circle.

Following in Chaadaev's footsteps, many Russian writers and philosophers became sufficiently bold to pose and ask into fundamentally important but hitherto systematically unexplored problems of social development. This exploration made it possible to clarify conceptions regarding the historical evolution of Russia, and it had a significant influence on the formation of the two fundamental trends in Russian social thought: the Western-izing orientation (Timofei Nikolaevich Granovskii [18131855], Vissarion Grigor'evich Belinski, Herzen, and Konstantin Dmitrievich Kavelin) and the Slavophile orientation (Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov, Ivan Vasil'evich Kireevskii, Konstantin Sergeevich Aksakov [18171860], and Yu. F. Samarin [18191876]. Chaadaev himself found a common language with representatives of both camps, although he also critiqued both; at various times he was invited to contribute to journals that held diametrically opposed positions.

Chaadaev's ideas on the philosophy of history proved to be a stimulus for such different thinkers as Khomiakov, Herzen, Apollon Aleksanrovich Grigor'ev (18221864), Konstantin Nikolaevich Leont'ev, Nikolai Iakovlevich Danilevskii (18221865), and Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ëv (Solovyov). In essence, these ideas marked the start of the development of an original Russian philosophy.

Chaadaev's esthetic judgments reflected the influence of his "one idea"; they are subordinate to the moral ideal worked out by him. For Chaadaev, beauty in art is inseparable from truth and goodness. The artist is a guide leading people toward endless perfection; in transient things the artist discerns the milestones on this path. Somewhat paradoxically, Chaadaev condemned the art of antiquity, in which, he believed, "all the moral elements were chaotically confused" (1991 Vol. 1, p. 359). In contrast, Gothic art was, for Chaadaev, "something sacred and heavenly," serving as an expression of moral feelings and compelling man "to lift his gaze toward heaven" (p. 359). In contemporaneous letters Chaadaev valued Nikolai Vasil'evich Gogol's (18091852) Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends (1846), in which "among weak and even sinful pages there are pages of astonishing beauty, full of infinite truth" (1991 Vol. 2, p. 1991). Chaadaev's aesthetic judgment was defined by his moral creed: "[M]oderation, tolerance, and love for all that is good, whatever form it might take" (p. 200).

Chaadaev's legacy was most accurately assessed by Khomiakov, who wrote in 1860:

An enlightened mind, an artistic feeling, a noble heartthose are the qualities that attracted everyone to him. But at a time when it appeared that Russian thought had become submerged in heavy and involuntary sleep, he was especially valuable to us because he was awake and awakened others, because in the thickening darkness of that time he did not allow the lamp of truth to go out.

See also Aesthetic Judgment; Belinskii, Vissarion Grigor'evich; Enlightenment; Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich; Kavelin, Konstantin Dmitrievich; Kireevskii, Ivan Vasil'evich; Lamennais, Hugues Félicité Robert de; Leont'ev, Konstantin Nikolaevich; Russian Philosophy; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich.


works by chaadaev

Russian Philosophy, edited by James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, with George L. Kline, 101154. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965.

Philosophical Letters, and Apology of a Madman. Translated by Mary-Barbara Zeldin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969.

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i izbrannye pis'ma (Collected works and selected letters). 2 vols. Moscow: Izd-vo "Nauka," 1991.

P. Ya. Chaadaev: Pro et contra. Antologiia (P. Ya. Chaadaev: Pro et Contra. An Anthology). St. Petersburg, Russia, 1998.

works about chaadaev

Herzen, A. I. Sobranie sochinenii v 30ti tomakh (Works in 30 volumes). Moscow: USSR Academy of Sciences, 19541965.

Khomiakov, A. S. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Complete works). Moscow: Universitetskaia tipografiia, 1900.

McNally, Raymond T. Chaadayev and His Friends: An Intellectual History of Peter Chaadayev and His Russian Contemporaries. Tallahassee, FL: Diplomatic Press, 1971.

Moskoff, Eugene A. The Russian Philosopher Chaadayev: His Ideas and His Epoch. New York: N.p., 1937.

Zenkovsky, V. V. A History of Russian Philosophy. 2 vols. Translated by George L. Kline. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953. Originally published in two volumes under the title Istoriia russkoi filosofii (Paris 19481950).

Viacheslav Koshelev (2005)

Translated by Boris Jakim