During the 18th century, a new mantra of philosophy, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, swept the western world and carried it to new heights. This movement was a renewal of classical philosophy, science, and reason and had an impact on the world which still lasts to this day. Out of this movement came many developments of political philosophy which spurred on many bloody revolutions. The movement displaced the sovereignty of God in men’s hearts and replaced it with a view that Man was the center of everything. While this new drug intoxicated Western Europe, Russia was not left out and soon began experiencing some of the same dreams and side effects. Due to the efforts of Peter the Great in westernizing Russia, new ideas and practices began to infiltrate the Russian mindset and upheavals ensued. The works of three Russian writers will be examined to discuss how Russian society was becoming more enlightened.
Nikolai Ivanovich Novikov’s treatise, “On Man’s High Estate,” is replete with classical references- evidence of the enlightenment- and many similarities to the political thought which influenced the Founding Fathers of this country. The author begins with several references or comparisons to Classical Greek thought and life. He mentions that their assembly of readers “resembled the Athenian Areopagus” and “awe-inspiring Minerva…would have been pleased with it”. The Areopagus was an elaborate meeting house where the Athenians used to assemble as a high court and Minerva was the goddess of wisdom. In the enlightenment in the West, the classics were studied and applied and through Peter the Great and his successors this was also done in Russia. At the beginning of his argument, Novikov asks the assembly if Russians would read what they have written if they inscribe with French quills and fill the pages with the thoughts or philosophies of England and Germany. Novikov also speaks of the value of human reason and ability which is the central theme of the Enlightenment (64). He states essentially that man is the center of the universe and why would we investigate the heavens if it weren’t for the fact that in doing so we are studying man (64). On the next page he talks of the power of human reason or “self knowledge” and how it can help their work. He also states one of the premiere thoughts of the Enlightenment that man can achieve a greater sense of ethics and virtue (65). Such thoughts are certainly examples of the effects of the enlightenment in Russian society.
Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin and his treatise “A Discourse on Permanent Laws of State” could be described as a Russian contemporary of Locke’s Two Treatise of Government. Fonvizin discusses various ideas of political theory which are quite opposite to Prokopovich’s Sermon on Royal Authority and Power. Fonvizin writes that “without permanent state laws, neither the condition of the state nor that of the sovereign is stable”. While Prokopovich argued that the tsar gets his authority from God and therefore his (the tsar’s) word or decree is law. Prokopovich would be an avid supporter of the Jacobean or Stuart idea of divine right of kings while Fonvizin advocates Locke and Jefferson’s ideas of natural rights and the law being higher than the king. Evidence of the enlightenment doctrine of natural laws or rights are replete in Fonvizin’s treatise. Moreover, he argues for something which we as Americans or any lover of liberty would desire; that “Supreme power is entrusted to a sovereign solely for the benefit of his subjects” (96). I doubt Peter the Great had that in mind when he established serfdom in Russia or if George III of England also thought of the colonists when he imposed unjust taxes and misrepresentation upon them. This was all going on during the time of the French and American Revolutions. Fonvizin continues in his treatise to describe various forms of government and how they are to act inside of virtue and do what is in the best interest of the people. This is a very Western and Enlightened idea.
In the excerpt of Aleksandr Radishchev’s work “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” there are many defenses of the Enlightenment in Russia. He speaks of the issue of free speech and press, an idea which I thought was only American. However this was a common point of Enlightenment discussion and Russia’s opinion of the matter made them quite different than many other countries. Russia gave its people a limited freedom of the press by putting censorships on various writings. Radishchev’s works themselves were censored and he was banished to Siberia for publishing “dangerous works”. Radishchev used this excerpt to speak out against censorship since it forced writers to be immature in their writings. This treatise also bears witness to the fact that the Enlightenment in Russian society did not totally weed God out of the picture. “God will always be God, perceived even by those who do not believe in Him. But if you think that the Supreme Being will be offended by blasphemy, can an official of the Department of Public Morals be His chosen attorney? The Almighty will not give a power of attorney to one who shakes a rattle or sounds the alarm bell. The hurler of thunder and lightning, Whom all the elements obey, the agitator of hearts beyond the limits of the universe, will disdain to be avenged even by the king himself (who imagines himself to be His vicegerent upon earth). Who can be the judge in an offense against the Eternal Father? The real offender against God is the person who imagines that he can sit in judgment on an offense against Him. It is he who will be answerable– before Him”. This is proof that Orthodoxy still reigned strong in Russia despite the heavy Western influence.
In conclusion, these three Russian writers give varying examples of Enlightenment thought as it was concerned with Russian issues. They spoke of Reason, of which they said Man is the center and Enlightenment political ideas that dominated the world. Such political ideas threw Russia into a revolt which did not succeed but is a testimony to the influence of the Enlightenment on all Russians. The Enlightenment and desire for bettering of civilization through math and science certainly increased Russia’s status in the world and granted it favor among the other European nations. Russia was indeed becoming enlightened and western.