Between Garden and City

Andrew Kuiper offers a superb, exhilarating summary of Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy.

Kuiper begins by summarizing Bulgakov’s case against “economism,” the assumption shared by free marketeers and Marxists that human beings are motivated above all by economic drives. For both, man is homo economicus.

Bulgakov had read and thought his way out of this materialist assumption by deep reading in Idealist philosophy, but he didn’t think that Idealism solved the problem. On the contrary, Idealism, like economism, attempted to mold philosophy to the model of the hard sciences. Idealism assumed the primacy of rational method, as outlined by Descartes in his Discourse on Method. Kuiper summarizes Descartes dream of civic order:

“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.”

Descartes was willing to annihilate existing orders to purify philosophy from the contagion of contingency.

In combatting this violent rationalism, Bulgakov proposed that philosophy be reconceived as an art. “It is difficulty,” he wrote, “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.”

For Bulgakov, this did not mean a lurch into irrationalism, a move from the tyranny of logos into the tyranny of a-logos. Kuiper summarizes a passage from Freud to illustrate the romantic impulse:

“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.”

Freud’s Rome seems the polar opposite of the Cartesian planned city, but Bulgakov recognized an inner connection between the two. Freud doesn’t want anyone to live in the ramshackle Rome he describes. He wants to explore it “equipped with the complete historical and topographical knowledge.” Unlike Descartes, Freud doesn’t think we should destroy the ancient city; he doesn’t think it possible. Rather, he offered psychoanalysis as a means for navigating through the narrow streets and crumbling ruins. (Freud never gave up the pretense of being scientific, though literary scholars were right to recognize Freud as a kindred spirit.)

For Bulgakov, neither Descartes nor Freud takes the unity of human persons seriously. He acknowledged that consciousness is tossed about by subliminal and subconscious drives, memories, fears. But that doesn’t mean that we jettison logos.

All this is preparatory to Bulgakov’s treatment of economy per se, which he develops in an openly theological and biblical register. Kuiper writes, that “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.”

The fall has disrupted the harmony of human beings with creation, and thus disrupted the unity of human labor. In Bulgakov’s words, “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.” Philosophical labor is art, but that is only because, Bulgakov thinks, all labor was originally art.

Economic activity doesn’t merely look back, but forward, to the completion of creation in a new heavens and new earth. For Bulgakov, human labor actually participates in the redemption of creation from the curse (he cites Romans 8 in support). Kuiper explains, “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.”

As Bulgakov puts it, at the end “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.” The eschaton doesn’t diminish man but fulfills him: “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.”