A Garden Lurking Beneath the Floorboards

In 1912, Sergei Bulgakov published The Philosophy of Economy, a sociological, philosophical, and religious examination of economic materialism. This was his way of settling an intellectual debt which he owed from his period as a respected Marxist intellectual. After writing two well-received works of Marxist economics, he drifted from political economy to explore the entire gamut of Idealist thought, particularly Kant, Hegel, and Schelling. This drift ended in one final major transition from Idealism to Christianity through reading the Russian sage and mystic Vladimir Solovyov. Like Solovyov, Bulgakov was drawn to a richly speculative understanding of the figure of Sophia from the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament—relating it in different ways to the order of Creation, the historical person of Mary, and the Church considered as the Bride of Christ. The Philosophy of Economy was Bulgakov’s first work to explicitly appeal to Sophiology in order to illuminate what are usually considered concerns of the practical order. With it, he hoped to move beyond the opposition of life and thought toward a more holistic, liturgical, and artistic understanding of the daily activity and ultimate destiny of the human community.

Throughout The Philosophy of Economy, Bulgakov articulated the metaphysical and theological implications of our most basic economic drives and needs using all the knowledge he had learned as a successful economist. This background as a serious professional economist lent more weight to his critiques of scientific determinism and his elevation of human freedom in all activities. He rigorously exposed the deflationary conception of human action contained in both capitalist and Marxist political economy. This economism, as he called it, is at the root of the modern economic discourse no matter the political tribe. “In practice, economists are Marxists, even if they hate Marxism.”[1] While appreciative of and conversant in scientific sociology and statistical analysis[2], he considered these to be limited and contingent tools. Denying their merely pragmatic and dependent character is what leads so often to the dogmatism of political economy which mistakes methodology for ontology. This constriction makes homo economicus the anthropological model and explanation for all human drives and behavior.

Bulgakov knew, however, that this vulgar conception emerged to assert the rights of matter against an overly spiritual and idealized anthropology. Bulgakov’s time reading the German Idealists led him to affirm their insistence on consciousness, freedom, and the spiritual significance of the person, but also to see that it had constructed a kind of rational cage to imprison the Real. Idealism shared with economic materialism the dogmatic error of desiring to conform to the image of the hard sciences and thereby reduce the task of philosophy to a theoretical underpinning of the progress of those sciences. The freedom and spiritual worth of the Kantian or Fichtean subject remained subjective and almost impossible to relate to the world without subsuming it into the self. He had in mind especially Kant and his legacy in the “panmethodism” and “pancategorialism” of the Marburg School (a later interpretation of Kant’s system championed by Paul Natorp and Hermann Cohen). This Kantian and Neo-Kantian approach, fixated on exhaustively cataloguing the schemas of cognition, was for Bulgakov the result of a “hereditary illness” which was passed down to the Western philosophical tradition from Descartes. The bifurcation of appearance and reality as well as the drive toward specialized epistemological minutiae is just one interpretive current made possible by the infamously ambiguous cogito ergo sum. That particular phrase appeared in Descartes’ Discourse on Method  in 1637 but a different passage from this work goes further in exemplifying what Bulgakov meant by characterizing method-driven Cartesian philosophy as a strange sickness.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes related a visit to Germany where he realized that cities planned and built by a single architect are far superior to their ancient counterparts. A city like Rome or Athens may have moments of surpassing beauty, but they lack the elegance of rational efficiency. The overall “indiscriminate juxtaposition” of buildings and “crookedness and irregularity of the streets” are ultimately intolerable deficiencies. The organic process by which ancient cities develop seemed too much like the product of chance rather than reason for Descartes’s taste. Of course, he was not primarily concerned with the reform of architecture but used this example to point out the absolute necessity of a method in human activities—especially philosophy. This ad hoc city is a pregnant image meant by Descartes to remind us of his desire for a fundamentum inconcussum to ground all human knowing. Any human project, architectural or epistemological, will be doomed to the vagaries of chance if it does not proceed according to a rational method which guarantees unified progress. Whatever has been received without appropriate epistemological vetting is to be discarded in order to start the activity on more solid ground. In the case of an ancient city like Rome, of course, this would mean advocating a total annihilation in order to have it rebuilt according to an impeccably chosen and planned design. Descartes admits that “it is not customary to pull down all the houses of a town with the single design of rebuilding them differently, and thereby rendering the streets more handsome.” But he coolly explains that is dangerous to live in house that is dilapidated from the passing of time and where “the foundations are insecure.”[3]

This sentiment shows us the nature of the Cartesian sickness: it consists of separating reason from life in order to “purify” it from contingency. In this philosophical fever dream, reason can become something autonomous, free-floating, and even capable of certainty—even more certain than any physical science. Again, with the Marburg School, Bulgakov thought that the enslavement of philosophy to the models of science and particularly mathematics had reached its most radically abstract expression. No royal road or method exists which produces or even underwrites a total philosophical system. It was to combat this overly intellectualist model of philosophical reason that Bulgakov wanted to rehabilitate the principles of economic materialism and put it on a new footing. Like physical labor, intellectual labor is subordinated to the needs of a living being, though not in any crudely reductive way. Philosophy is not a methodically-driven science, but an embodied creative process—an art:

It is difficult to refrain from comparing philosophical creativity to art, for a philosophical system is also a type of artistic creation, a “poetry of concepts”; it contains inner necessity and logical order, as a work of art contains a necessary consistency and harmony in the relation of parts to the whole, self-evident to “artistic reason" if logically unprovable. Yet the planning of the composition gives free rein to creative freedom, and the initial orientation requires artistic tact: here philosophical-artistic talent demonstrates itself most.[4]

In another passage, Bulgakov describes doing philosophy as the intellect throwing its anchor outside itself into the “shoreless ocean” of life, anticipating Heidegger’s concept of thrownness. As opposed to the absolute self-grounding of Cartesian, Kantian, and Hegelian rationalism,  Bulgakov relates the artistic contingency of philosophy with its essential debt to wonder:

Creation from nothing is given to man neither in the field of philosophy nor in other things. The content of philosophy depends to a significant extent on where and how this anchor is thrown, on what impresses or “surprises” the thinker, or on the orientation of philosophy; so we could write the history of philosophical systems as the history of various philosophical orientations.[5]

The contingency and artistry of philosophy turns out to be related to our own status as created beings whose intellects must labor without godlike self-sufficiency.[6]

Of course, there are other and more unsettling ways of avoiding the trap of rationalism. Bulgakov relates how the overly logicized account of human knowing provoked an eruption of irrationalist protest. Now, instead of thought swallowing life, life swallows thought in a dark genesis of the will or even physical drives. Not only is our thought not autonomous, it is a barely real epiphenomenon of blind forces. While Bulgakov appreciated the need to “raise the flag of rebellion” against overweening rationalism, he found the acidic rejoinders of Darwinist epistemology, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to be a skeptical solvent that ended in a radical—and equally devoid of spirit—annihilation of any kind of logos. The great master of Darwinist epistemology, Sigmund Freud, offers a useful example of how this tendency is related to the rigorous method of rationalistic Cartesian autonomy, even as it completely subverts its foundations.

Like Descartes, Freud also used the image of an ancient city to discuss the nature of the mind. Specifically, the human mind is like Rome, the Eternal City. This is a comparison explored near the beginning of his Civilization and its Discontents. He described how a knowledgeable traveler walking through the city of Rome as it is now, would recognize ruins and renovations from several different centuries. Walking the narrow streets of Rome, the traveler sees traces of its entire architectural history, many eras collapsing into a single horizon. For Freud, this corresponds to the permanence of memory in our own psyches. Memories may degrade, be submerged, or fragment, but nothing is ever truly obliterated. Our mental architecture is as disjunctive as the city built and rebuilt by Etruscans, Caesars, and Popes. In fact, the history of our psyche is even more present than the history of Rome could ever be. For the comparison between the mind and Rome to hold more perfectly “the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the old temple over which it was built. And the observer would need merely to shift the focus of his eyes, perhaps, or change his position, in order to call up a view of either the one or the other.”[7] Imagining the psyche as an ancient and partially ruined city is an evocative and almost—if we can permit ourselves to say this of the great master of suspicion—romantic thought.

It would be a mistake, however, to interpret Freud’s lingering romantic ambiguity as a substantive counter-weight to Cartesian rationalism. The image of the mind as Rome comes in as an explanation for how something as fuzzy and illegitimate as mystical sentiments of divine union (oceanic feeling) can persist in otherwise rational and civilized societies. Freud’s example does not suggest that one should naively live in Rome and it certainly does not entice one to worship in one of the Eternal City’s innumerable churches. Instead, we are to explore it (and by extension ourselves) as a well-educated traveler “equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge.”[8] Freud is still the master disenchanter of The Future of an Illusion. God, myth, and mysticism are obsolete even though our infantile desires continue to produce these illusory objects of fixation. Unlike Descartes, Freud did not think it was possible to raze the mental city to the ground and reconstruct it according to rational norms. Like Descartes, however, he thought the approach to mental life required a specific toolset with its own method—the psychoanalytic method. Cogito ergo sum is the foundation for an edifice which is perhaps immovable from the outside, but is vulnerable from what lurks beneath the floorboards.

But whether Descartes was right to take self-consciousness as an indubitable given or Freud was right to point out the predetermination of this consciousness in more primordial drives and forces, Bulgakov stands vindicated in describing these intellectual tendencies as different responses to a shared conviction that living and thinking are at odds. Freud’s approach is different from Descartes’s not because he prefers romanticism over rationalism but because he prefers pessimistic rationalism over optimistic rationalism. Similarly, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and later Foucault are no less scientific than the Neo-Kantians when they take up reason as a scalpel and methodically dissect themselves as some kind of living experiment. Bulgakov rejects both of these polar opposites by holding on to the fundamental unity in the human person of the logical and the a-logical. If pushed, however, it is clear that Bulgakov would have considered what is below and outside reason to be of greater significance than self-consciousness. His understanding of the a-logical however, comes from Schelling, rather than Freud, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche:

Life is broader and deeper than rational consciousness, and this consciousness has its own history, for below and behind it lie “subliminal,” subconscious, or pre-conscious spheres. Although the rational-discursive daytime I is the sharpest expression or symptom of life, it grows out of the depths and has roots in the darkness of the night-time, dreaming I; the personality is immeasurably deeper and broader than its consciousness at any given moment. Life in nature acquires consciousness by a long and roundabout path, not immediately. This truth was felt with great immediacy by the “historian of reason,” Schelling, before any Darwinism or evolutionism . . . Only the basic mood of anti-intellectualism, the rebellion against deadening rationalism, is valuable; but “we cannot live by rebellion alone” (Dostoevsky) even in philosophy, for here too rebellion is that same slavery, but in reverse, making us the spiritual prisoners of rationalism instead of overcoming it.[9]

The rebellion against any kind of logos does seem heroic at times. We admire the courage of those who perform field surgery on themselves, and maybe ridding ourselves of metaphysical and theological dreams is something like this. If we can admit that there is no real unity between our life and thought, is this not the highest kind of strength which makes us more than human? It might even be a Promethean gift to humanity. Freud can simply say that civilization does suppress our drives and cause us to become neurotics—that is the tragic exchange involved in moving from violent barbarism to a socially coordinated existence. There is a melancholic sweetness in saying that the trauma of civilization is the trauma of leaving infancy, and that any desire to return to the wilderness or to childhood is only the product of an illegitimate nostalgia. There is no return to the innocence of childhood or to that of a mythical golden age. These are all illusions underwritten by the greatest illusion of all—God.

But we really were innocent children once—is it impossible to believe that humanity as a whole was once innocent too? Are all the myths, songs, and poems about such a time and place simply a failure of nerve? And furthermore, is the suppression of a desire which you think might be impossible to fulfill really a great act of courage? Dante Alighieri, the epic poet of adventuring desire, presents a scene in Canto 28 of his Purgatorio in which the pagan poets Statius and Virgil learn that the myth of the Golden Age was an obscure memory of Eden—and they smile:

The poets in their melodies of old
May have dreamed on Parnassus of this spot,
Singing about the happy age of gold.

For here the human race was innocent,
Forever spring, and fruit upon the vine.
This is the nectar which the poets meant.

Bulgakov did not dismiss the yearning for harmony present in myths and poems as the neurotic dream of a ridiculous man. Instead, he made the biblical narrative of Creation and the Fall a central component of his Philosophy of Economy, and interpreted our longings for harmony, desire for life, and experience of freedom as a remembrance of an Edenic mode of being in the world instead of a shadow of the will to power. We recoil in horror at dead mechanism or outright chaos having the final word because we inhabit nature as divided from God and itself. This is not a matter of dogmatic special pleading in Bulgakov’s eyes, as he takes Schelling’s naturphilosophie and Solovyov’s Lectures on Godmanhood as demonstrating the credibility of this view for philosophical reflection. The metaphysical Fall “that in religion is known as Original Sin and that involved not man alone but all of creation . . . is a major hypothesis for the philosophy of economy.”[10] To interpret economics Sophiologically also means interpreting the economic task in terms of the garden of Eden. Bulgakov’s understanding of philosophy as an art which is also a kind of labor[11] is directly related to the immediate, intuitive, and contemplative union of thought with life in the Edenic state:

The current economy was preceded by a different one, a different type of labor—free, selfless, loving, in which economic activity merges with artistic creativity. Art has preserved the prototype of this primordial type of economic labor. Originally, economic activity was the harmonious interaction of man with nature; this was the Edenic economy, preceding the historical process that began with the Fall.[12]

The creative art of philosophy is not merely prudential judgement (phronesis) or something constructed (techne) but a kind of co-laboring which transfigures the world with divine life. This is the Sophiological understanding of St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:19-23:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Now we can see that Bulgakov calling philosophy and economics an art is not to deflate their claims to self-expression or accomplishments to the merely aesthetic but to elevate their significance to something beyond reason’s wildest dreams—the resurrection of nature into the glory of God. This kind of laboring wisdom actually participates in the divine life and shares it with imprisoned creation. Instead of homo economicus, God allows us to participate in his salvific economy as an analogous though subordinate kind of homo creator.[13] Plato seems to have seen fragments of this vision beyond reason when he described the four divine madnesses as belonging to the poet, prophet, priest, and philosopher in the Phaedrus and recounted Diotima’s speech in the Symposium. Here the only method is an initiation into the divine mysteries where our eros is continually purified and continually seeking more holy wisdom. Instead of an autonomous science there is a thirst which “. . . never drinks its fill / unless it drinks the water asked as grace / by the girl of Samaria at the well.”[14] There are parallels here to the theurgy of late antique Platonism of Proclus and Iamblichus (taken up by Pseduo-Dionysius to describe the sacraments and the liturgy) as well as the Catholic Italian Neoplatonists of Renaissance Florence (Bulgakov cites Pico della Mirandola with great approval). Bulgakov’s speculative ambitions, however wild, were always deeply rooted in the sacramental, liturgical, hierarchical, and legal structures of the visible Church.

Though he drew from many eclectic sources, he had no patience for those spectacularly tragic Gnostic cosmogonies which have sought to replace the biblical narrative and authentic Christian practice since the Church’s founding. The specificity of Christ and his Church was so important for Bulgakov that he turned more and more toward dogmatic theology and ended his life as a seminary professor in Paris. Like Solovyov before him, he was not afraid to take what was good from many sources. Whatever could not be refined or purified, he left behind as so much dross. Salvation only comes through and in Christ by whom we are made partakers of the divine nature as all of nature is transfigured into the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Bulgakov meant for Philosophy of Economy to have a companion volume Eschatology of Economy in which, among other things, he would discuss the metaphysics of death as well as Satanic inversions of the task of humanity to creatively labor to bring the world back into God. This volume never appeared though his later writings in both Unfading Light and The Bride of the Lamb would cover some of these themes.

Without advocating for a simple return, Bulgakov reminds us that before the city there was the garden. By caring for and cultivating this garden, Adam and Eve were meant to transfigure the whole world—not into an altar of technological autonomy like Babel—but into the temple of God. The book of Revelation gives a glimpse of the eschatological Heavenly Jerusalem which descends and unites with the New Earth. The final scene of the providential drama reveals that the all-encompassing greed and power of the “great city” of Babylon will be dethroned to make room for the holy city. This luminous city, however, welcomes the garden by having a river run through it and the tree of life dwell at its heart. Its gates, though made of gleaming precious metals, are perpetually open to the outside. Our true dwelling place is neither an inhuman wilderness, nor a sterile artificial complex, but the harmony of a temple-city-garden[15].

Bulgakov never left this early work behind but carried the Sophiological themes of creative labor and the divine-human marriage some thirty years later to the final volume of his dogmatic trilogy The Bride of the Lamb. We see his earlier writings flower theologically in passages like this one describing the eschatological and liturgical destiny of humanity:

It follows from these figures that man does not depart from the earth to heaven. On the contrary, heaven bends down to earth, and man’s vocation and creative ministry in the world are therefore not abolished but are raised to a new, higher state . . . Man will continue to live in the garden of God . . . He remains a creative artificer of the world.

And this:

Ontologically, man is not simplified or impoverished in the life of the future age. On the contrary, for himself and for the world, he will be revealed in the fullness of his humanity, as the creaturely god of the world, as its logos and spirit. For man, the life of the future age will consist in creative activity in the world, creaturely praise.

Bulgakov ends his final major work with Mary herself, the exemplar of wisdom, who lifted Bulgakov out of the slough of materialism and shattered his crystal prison of Idealism.

This is the most general and complete revelation that we have of the Church as humanity in Divine-humanity. And if this is the case, then is not the Most Pure Mother of God Herself in Her glory this personal head of the Church, the personal humanity of Divine-humanity? Is She not the Heavenly Jerusalem, which returns to earth from its heavenly home in the parousia of the Mother of God, in order to become here the spiritualized tabernacle of God with men? Is She not Sophia herself, creaturely but entirely deified, the peak of all creation, more venerable than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim? Is She not the glory and joy of the saved peoples at the marriage feast of the Lamb? Is She not that perfect union of the divine and human in which all creation, both the angelic choir and humankind, rejoices? She, the Spirit-Bearer, is “Spirit and Bride,” manifesting in Her very being the image of the hypostatic Spirit of God. And about Her it is said in the final words of the New Testament;

And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come.
And let him that heareth say, Come!
Even so come, Lord Jesus![16]

[1] Bulgakov, The Philosophy of Economy, 41

[2] Bulgakov’s teacher of political economy, A.I. Chuprov, was the father of A.A. Chuprov who was in turn the founder of the Continental school of mathematical statistics.

[3] Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part 2

[4] Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy, 60

[5] Ibid, 47

[6] There are many profound resonances between Bulgakov’s model of philosophy as art with its emphasis on wonder and contemporary Catholic philosopher William Desmond’s metaxology. See especially chapters 2 and 3 of The Intimate Universal for comparison.

[7] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 4

[8] Freud, 4

[9] Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy, 53

[10] Bulgakov, The Philosophy of Economy, 150

[11] Astonishingly, the interpretation of labor as most fundamentally a kind of art (though not as Edenic) did emerge in later Marxist thought, retroactively validating Bulgakov’s appropriation.. “For the main hero of our books we must take labor, that is, the human being organized by the labor process...the human being who in turn organizes labor to be easier and more productive, elevating it to the degree of art. We must learn to think of labor as creative effort.” Maxim Gorky, “New People” in Soviet Literature, VI (1949)

[12] Bulgakov, The Philosophy of Economy, 154

[13] For an excellent survey of the historical-theological roots of the Christian use of homo creator see the first chapter of the first volume of John Milbank’s dissertation The Religious Dimension in the Thought of Giambattista Vico

[14] Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 21, 1-3

[15] Many connections between the work of Eden, the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple and the Heavenly Jerusalem can be found in the Protestant work The Temple and the Church’s Mission by G.K. Beale, though Mary is not in focus.

[16] These last three passages are from The Bride of the Lamb, “The City of God”, 519-526.

Featured Image: Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Planers, 1875; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Andrew Kuiper

Andrew Kuiper usually writes about Christian theological appropriation of esoteric discourses and lives in Michigan with his wife and three children. His essays and poetry have been published in various magazines.

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