Karsavin, Lev Platonovich (1882–1952)

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Russian historian-medievalist and religious philosopher Lev Platonovich Karsavin was born in St. Petersburg, the son of a ballet dancer and master, and the brother of the famous ballerina Tamara Karsavina. He graduated from the Department of History of Petersburg University in 1906 and stayed there as a teacher, doing studies in medieval spirituality and culture. Being a disciple of the prominent medievalist Ivan Grews, he soon started to develop his own approach, which can be considered in retrospect as an early prototype of the method of the French Annales school. His first big monograph (1912) was devoted to the early history of the Franciscan Order and the heretical sects of the Waldenses and Cathars. His next monograph, Foundations of Medieval Spirituality in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Mainly in Italy (1915), is an important theoretical work of a type close to future studies in historical and cultural anthropology. Here Karsavin developed a methodology for historical studies based on the formation of general concepts like "an average religious person," "basic religious fund," and so forth, and tried to perform a reconstruction of the personality of the medieval individual in all its dimensions. The long-forgotten historical work of Karsavin, which includes also Introduction to History: The Theory of History (1920) and Philosophy of History (1923), was rediscovered in the 1970s and 1980s (chiefly in influential works by Aron Gurevich) and won recognition as a pioneering effort.

During the period of the Russian Revolution (19171922) Karsavin's thought shifted gradually to philosophy. This transition was stimulated by his interest in methodological and philosophical problems of history and Christian doctrine. Like a medieval scholastic thinker, he came to general metaphysical problems from reflection on Christian dogmas. In the same period, important changes in his life took place. Karsavin was opposed to the Bolshevik regime, not politically (he even considered the Bolsheviks to be the only force capable of ruling Russia), but ideologically and spiritually. Having a provocative style, he demonstrated his Christian convictions much more than he had before the revolution, lectured in a theological institute, and became the target of a vicious campaign in the official press. In the summer of 1922 he was arrested and then expelled to Germany together with a large group of noncommunist public figures, including leading religious philosophers (Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergey Bulgakov, Nikolai Lossky, Semen Frank). In exile, he lived in Berlin (19221926), then in Clamart, next to Paris (19261928), and finally settled in Lithuania, where he was invited to hold the chair of general history at Kaunas University. Between 1925 and 1929 he took an active part in the Eurasian movement, becoming the leading theoretician of its left wing characterized by pro-Soviet views. During the twenties he wrote all his principal philosophical works, creating an original system of religious metaphysics.

Karsavin's system is the last big system of the so-called metaphysics of All-Unity. This philosophical school founded by Vladimir Solov'ëv took the central place in Russian religious philosophy and included leading figures of the Russian religious-philosophical renaissance of the twentieth century. By definition, its systems are based on the fundamental concept of All-Unity that represents a specific transrational principle of inner form describing perfect unity of a manifold such that any part of this manifold is identical to the whole of it. Karsavin gives this concept a new treatment, describing All-Unity as a sophisticated hierarchical system, structured vertically (into components or "moments" of higher and lower order, the latter being subsystems of the former) and horizontally (into a variety of moments of the same order). Vertical connections in this structure are described by the notion of contractio borrowed from Nicolas of Cusa, while horizontal ones are characterized by means of conglomeratio et exglomeratio centri found in Giordano Bruno and meaning that any two moments of the same order are connected not in a direct (i.e., causal) way, but only via the center of the whole system.

Drawing upon ancient doctrines and using their concepts in a constructivist and systematic way close to the theory of systems, this treatment is both archaizing and modernist. In Karsavin's system, the principle of All-Unity is subordinate to another fundamental principle, that of Tri-Unity, modeled on the Holy Trinity as it is presented in Christian dogma. Karsavin follows here the paradigm of dynamic ontology: Like many metaphysical doctrines, from Plotinus to Hegel, he treats being as a process governed by a triadic principle of development, where All-Unity represents the static aspect of Tri-Unity, its "stopping and rest."

Three ontological notions are identical in Karsavin's system: (perfect) Tri-Unity, God, and (perfect) Person. This trilateral identification also serves as the definition of Person. Human being is interpreted as an imperfect person that strives to perfection, that is, to God; all kinds of collective units, social and religious groups, nations, and classes are also considered as imperfect, embryonic persons and called symphonic persons. Karsavin's personalistic turn was new for the metaphysics of All-Unity, which, starting with the Greeks, had traditionally developed in an impersonal symbolist vein. The personalistic trend is further enhanced in Karsavin's description of the world process. The three stages of ontological dynamics are primal unity, disjoining, reunification; the central stage is interpreted as nonbeing or death. In the act of creation God endows with being the reality that he creates, thus depriving himself of being (kenosis) and voluntarily choosing sacrificial death. This voluntary passing of one's own being to somebody, identical to voluntary sacrificial death for somebody, is the definition of (perfect) lovewhence it follows that the creature, striving to God, advances to pass, in its turn, its own being to God and thereby ascends to its own sacrificial death out of love.

Thus Karsavin's philosophy presents itself as an ontological drama of death, sacrifice, and love. These principles of his thought turned out to be perfectly realized in the final years of his life. When in 1944 it was clear that the Soviet Union was about to recapture Lithuania, Karsavin refused to leave and move to the West. In 1946 he was dismissed from the university for his deliberately defiant attitude toward Soviet authorities. In 1949 he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Abez, near the polar circle. In the gulag he wrote about ten texts of spiritual poetry and metaphysics and until his final days (he died there from tuberculosis) was a spiritual guide and teacher for his fellow prisoners. After the fall of communism, all of Karsavin's principal works were republished in Russia and have been actively studied.

See also Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Religion; Russian Philosophy.


works by karsavin

Vostok, Zapad i russkaia ideia. St. Petersburg: Academia, 1922. 2nd ed., Moscow, 1991.

Noctes Peropolitanae. St. Petersburg: A. S. Kagan, 1922.

O nachalakh. Berlin: Obelisk, 1925.

O lichnosti. Kaunas, Lithuania: 1929.

"Poema o smerti." Eranus 2 (1931): 231310.

Religiosno-filosofskie sochineniia. Podgotovka tekstov, predislovie, kommentarii Sergey Horujy. Moscow: Renaissance, 1992.

Malye sochineniia. Podgotovka tekstov, predislovie, kommentarii Sergey Horujy. St. Peterburg: Aletheia, 1994.

works on karsavin

Wetter, Gustav A. "L. P. Karsawins Ontologie der Dreieinheit." Orientalia Christiana Periodica 9 (1943): 366405.

Wetter, Gustav A. "Zum Zeitproblem in der Philosophie des Ostens: Die Theorie der 'Allzeitlichkeit' bei L.P.Karsawin." Scholastik 3 (1949): 345366.

While there are no English-language works devotedly solely to Karsavin, the following two English-language works contain sections on Karsavin: Zenkovsky, V. V., A History of Russian Philosophy, vol. 2 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1953); Meerson, Michael Aksionov, The Trinity of Love in Modern Russian Theology (Franciscan Press: 1998).

Sergey Horujy (2005)

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Karsavin, Lev Platonovich (1882–1952)

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