Foreword: Dare to be Wise!

In: Audacity of the Spirit
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Losev’s title, Audacity of the Spirit, is a nod to Horace’s injunction, Dare to be wise,1 but above all it summarizes his own life and spirit, the spirit in which he presents this primer in dialectics—in thinking—in living.

1 A Primer in Dialectics

Nothing is more needed in philosophy today than dialectical thinking, and nothing is more difficult than to learn to think dialectically in today’s academy. The teaching of philosophy is dominated by formal logic, which is a necessary but only the initial stage in learning the art of rational thinking—at least so it should be. However, for the vast majority of students in the natural and social sciences who are required to take an introductory course in symbolic logic, this remains their only exposure to the rules and modes of rational argumentation and comprehension. In the meantime, the objective demand for overcoming formal, abstract, and merely analytic ways of thinking is stronger than ever. Our age cries out for holistic thinking and, in desperation, randomly clutches at anything that even remotely promises relief from the endless fragmentation of knowledge and human experience in general. Dialectics is precisely the science of thinking that teaches us to put things together after we have analyzed, deconstructed, and pulverized them into near-nothingness. Aleksei Losev’s Audacity of the Spirit belongs to the rarest of genres in that it can serve as an introduction to dialectical thinking for young people—an expert answer to this urgent demand.2

Losev belonged to those who took dialectics very seriously and wished to pass this attitude to younger generations, to help them learn how best to comprehend the world around them, themselves in this world, and the ways of transforming both themselves and the world they live in. He thought of dialectics as a science and an art necessary for all those who “plunge into the boundless sea of thought,” as he puts it in the dialogue that opens this book. The extraordinary and lasting success of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World and Vittorio Hösle’s The Dead Philosophers’ Café, each of which has gone through multiple editions and has been translated into many languages, testifies to the need among young people for a philosophical view of things. The reason lies in the nature of the problems humanity faces today: they require broad and profound, not quick and piecemeal, comprehension and solutions. Unlike these well-known books, however, Audacity of the Spirit is addressed not to the adolescent, but to the college student. It is a primer in dialectics that also contains examples of applying this mode of thinking to specific cultural-historical phenomena, including the culture of antiquity and the nature of personhood.

For the nonspecialist, dialectics is associated today mostly with the Frankfurt School and especially with the thought of Theodor Adorno, who has the reputation of a dialectical superman in the West. In the second place, the reader may recall the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a 19th-century dialectical thinker. Deeper in history, Socrates is often remembered as the arch-practitioner of dialectical inquiry. These are all important milestone names in the history of dialectical thinking. The tradition that Losev follows, however, is more densely populated. It does indeed trace back to the Pre-Socratics, such as Heraclitus and Parmenides, but, in addition to Socrates and Plato, it also includes later Greco-Roman philosophers such as Plotinus and Proclus, whom modern historians call Neoplatonists; Byzantine theologians such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Gregory Palamas; such Renaissance figures as Nicholas of Cusa and Marsilio Ficino; a string of German Idealist thinkers, from Immanuel Kant to Johann Fichte to Friedrich Schelling to, of course, Hegel; and, finally, their Russian heirs, such as Vladimir Solov′ev. Then, both as a matter of pragmatically adapting to Soviet ideological constraints and as a genuine engagement, Losev added to his list, in a selective manner, such figures as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. (I address this dimension of Losev’s dialectical approach in more detail below, under the heading “The Book before You.”) Such a baffling set of characters among Losev’s influences and philosophical interlocutors, who are not easily reconciled with one another, results from the peculiar circumstances of Losev’s life and intellectual-spiritual evolution. It is to them that I now turn.

2 Who is Aleksei Losev?

Aleksei Fedorovich Losev was a Russian philosopher whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose mind probed a remarkable variety of areas, resulting in an output that is by any measure monumental in size, historical scope, and originality of insight. Losev’s outlook was informed by philosophical traditions spanning much of European history. He was an attentive contemporary and thoughtful interpreter of the most important schools of thought of the 20th century, from phenomenology to Marxism to structuralism to semiotics. All of these doctrines and approaches left their mark on Losev’s thinking, and yet his journey has a distinct sense of continuity and persistent individuality about it: he creatively reworked these influences and sources into a unique philosophical outlook of his own.

This outlook is marked by five key features. First of all, as a true dialectician, Losev firmly upheld the tenet of the identity of thought and being, which Hegel called the gateway into philosophy. In other words, he rejected both the abstract objectivism that reduces human thinking to an epiphenomenon of external reality and the equally abstract subjectivism that imprisons this thinking within the confines of the insulated individual mind and reduces external reality to an epiphenomenon of the subject’s internal games. Throughout his long life, Losev argued that thought and reality are intimately intertwined with each other; that, driven by thought, language expresses and in fact shapes the realities that human beings inhabit; and that both thought and language are agents of remaking the actual world. This basic attitude underlies his extensive engagement with such phenomena as myth, symbol, and aesthetic expression.

Second, he viewed all phenomena and all aspects of human experience in historical terms. The era that he devoted most of his attention to in the course of his life was antiquity, but he always set his understanding of it in the context of subsequent periods, down to the contemporary moment.

The third, and perhaps most important component of Losev’s outlook, is his devotion to the fundamentals of the Eastern Orthodox view of the world. In Losev’s case, this devotion has nothing to do with a restorationist fundamentalism wishing to go back in historical time. On the contrary, like Vladimir Solov′ev and Pavel Florensky, Losev strove tirelessly to elaborate a contemporary version of the Eastern Christian intellectual and spiritual tradition; at the same time, he kept finding in it profound resonances with the historical transformations that he observed firsthand and was drawn into in the course of his own life. This made him, fourth, a critic of modernity, of the modern outlook in its most basic dimensions—albeit not of the Adornian type. As the reader will see, Losev never lost faith in the goodness of creation, nor in humanity’s potential to draw on this goodness. The progress that he envisioned was not of the typical modern sort that stretches into absurd and futile endlessness, but culminated in the attainment of rational human goals.

Last, but not least, Losev preserved throughout his life an insatiable intellectual curiosity: his intellectual horizon was always open, expansive, and constantly expanding. His enthusiasm for living thought has drawn to him numerous followers around the world and continues to attract those similarly infected with the desire to know, to comprehend, and, above all, to remake actuality for the better. Audacity of the Spirit conveys this enthusiasm well.

In cultural-historical terms, Losev belonged to a small number of intellectual giants who assured the continuity of Russian culture during the Soviet period, despite the regime’s constant attempts during the seven decades of its existence to break this continuity by a variety of means: from massive physical extermination of human beings, to forced deportations of cultural elites, to demolition of historical monuments, to suppression of large segments of Russian literature and spiritual history, to ideological indoctrination of younger generations. Like Dmitrii Likhachev, who carried the torch for medieval Russian literature, and like Mikhail Bakhtin, who created luminous, internationally celebrated works in literary and cultural theory, Losev was part of the arc that connected pre-Soviet with post-Soviet Russian intellectual culture and philosophical thought.3 The regime failed, and the small number of giants quietly triumphed, whether or not they lived to see the fruit of their labor and sacrifice. Today, Losev has become one of the most important figures in the history of Russian thought, and his international recognition is rising to match his achievements.

Losev was born on 23 September 1893 in the south of Russia, of Cossack origins. His father was a teacher of mathematics who early left his wife and son and become a musician locally.4 In his later years, Losev used to say that he had inherited some artistic and especially musical inclination from his father. Losev’s mother devoted herself to raising her son. They lived in the home of her father, an Orthodox priest, after whom the boy was named; this grandfather died when Aleksei was seven.

Losev was an excellent student in the classical gymnasium (i.e., a high school focusing on the classics and liberal arts) and at one point received from the headmaster an edition of the collected works of Vladimir Solov′ev as an award for his successes. Toward the end of his life, Losev would pay homage to this thinker by writing two books about him—books that were, despite official attempts to suppress them, snatched up by readers hungry for rediscovering their spiritual and intellectual roots. Losev graduated from the gymnasium in 1911 with a gold medal and entered Moscow Imperial University (now Moscow State University), pursuing two majors at once: philosophy and historical philology (or historical linguistics, as it is now more commonly known).

Alongside immersing himself in his studies, Losev was an ardent operagoer and spent many evenings absorbing the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theater. His first publications, Traviata and Snowmaiden, were devoted to the music of Giuseppe Verdi and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. He had studied the violin seriously from the age of nine, and in 1927 wrote Music as a Subject of Logic (Muzyka kak predmet logiki), an excellent, probing, and imaginative book on the philosophy of music. Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle made an indelible impression on him; much later in life, in the 1970s, he would write two major essays on the German composer’s worldview and use of myth.5

In 1914, Losev went to Berlin on a scholarship to study at the Royal Library, but this was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He graduated from Moscow Imperial University the next year and was invited to remain at the Department of Classical Philology in preparation for professorship.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the ensuing civil war of 1918–1922 were cataclysmic events that caused abrupt and profound changes in Russian society as a whole and in Russian philosophy in particular. Losev experienced these events as a world-shattering catastrophe, prophesied by Richard Wagner and Aleksandr Scriabin.6 The faculty of historical philology at the University was closed in 1921, philosophical and scholarly societies were being disbanded one after the other, and in 1922 a large number of well-known scholars and philosophers were expelled from the country by Lenin’s decree. From his university student days, Losev had attended the meetings of the Vladimir Solov′ev Religious-Philosophical Society, where he met some of the most important figures in Russian philosophy of the Silver Age: Nikolai Berdyayev, Evgenii Trubetskoi, Semen Frank, Sergei Bulgakov, and Pavel Florensky. His graduation paper on Aeschylus was read with approval by Viacheslav Ivanov, a poet and thinker whom Losev held to be his teacher and inspiration for the rest of his life. When the Solov′ev Society was closed by the Bolshevik regime soon after the Revolution, Losev joined the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture created by Berdyayev on its ruins—but the Academy was in turn closed by the Soviet authorities in 1922.

In this era of a forced exodus of the Russian intellectual class, Losev concentrated on his philosophical projects. In 1918, he attended a concert of Aleksandr Scriabin’s music in the Bolshoi Theater that was introduced by Anatolii Lunacharskii, the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment. Addressed to the glittering hall filled with revolutionary soldiers and sailors, Lunacharskii’s fiery speech, followed by a performance of Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, made such an impression on Losev that after the concert he wrote, as if in one breath, an essay about Scriabin’s music and worldview. A critique of Scriabin from a standpoint in which Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were mixed freely with Russian Symbolism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the essay was not published until seventy years later.7 In 1919 he became a professor of classical philology at a newly established university in Nizhnii Novgorod. When that appointment ended, he taught aesthetics at the Moscow Conservatory and then worked at the State Academy of Artistic Sciences. The latter was closed in 1930 amidst official accusations of “idealism” among its members.

In 1922, Losev married Valentina Sokolova, an astronomer and mathematician in her own right and then also her husband’s faithful companion and assistant until her death from cancer in 1954. It was a spiritual union. The wedding ceremony was conducted by Father Pavel Florensky; seven years later, the couple took secret monastic vows, which was not revealed until after Losev’s death.

Losev’s 1920s were filled with intensive, almost feverish writing; in the last three years of the decade he published, in rapid fire, eight books, some of them massive (more than 500 and even more than 900 pages long, the total amounting to almost 2900 pages), all both strikingly original and fastidiously well researched. (Elena Takho-Godi remarked that these books seem to have been written “in one sitting.”8) The books dealt with such subjects as the worldview of antiquity as it relates to modern science; philosophy of language; philosophy of music; theoretical aesthetics; philosophy of mathematics; Aristotle’s critique of Plato; and ancient mythology. The culmination of this “octoteuch,” in Sergei Khoruzhii’s expression, was The Dialectics of Myth (Dialektika mifa), published in 1930. This last publication brought on a catastrophic ending to this early blossoming. Losev was arrested on the pretext of violating censorship rules; he—or, rather, Valentina Loseva acting on his instructions—had secretly reinserted in the manuscript passages excised by the censor. In fact, however, the unacceptable action was his open criticism of Soviet ideology, down to its mythological underbelly. The Dialectics of Myth was not only Losev’s masterful exploration of one of his favorite subjects, mythology as such, but also an impassioned j’accuse (or, better yet, a jeremiad) thrown in the face of modern materialism, progressivism, and militant atheism.9 Soviet Marxism prided itself on being a modern, progressivist, and scientific ideology, free from superstition and thoroughly rational. Losev showed that, quite to the contrary, it was an outlook rife with mythical beliefs, haunted by multiple layers of irrationality, and seething with aggression and myopic intolerance; rather than winning arguments against its opponents, Soviet Marxism was simply trampling them down by brute force. Marshalling the clichés of Soviet propaganda, he wrote:

From the point of view of the Communist mythology, not only “a ghost wanders in Europe, the ghost of Communism” (the beginning of the Communist Manifesto) but also “the vermin of counterrevolution are swarming,” “the jackals of imperialism are howling,” “the hydra of bourgeoisie is baring its teeth,” “the jaws of financial sharks are gaping,” etc. Here we also find scurrying about such figures as “bandits in tail-coats,” “monocled brigands,” “crowned bloodletters,” “cannibals in mitres,” “cassocked jaw-shatterers,” etc. In addition, everywhere here are “dark forces,” “gloomy reaction,” “the black army of obscurantists”; and in this darkness there is “the red dawn” of “world fire,” “the red flag” of rebellion…. What a picture! And they say there is no mythology here.10

Retribution did not fail to follow. The run of the book was almost entirely destroyed. Losev was arrested, accused of participating in an anti-Soviet conspiracy, and, after seventeen months in prison including four months of solitary confinement, condemned to ten years in labor camps. In the Soviet press, no lesser a figure than Maxim Gorky ran a rampant campaign of slander and denunciation against the young philosopher, and Stalin’s henchman Lazar Kaganovich declared him a class enemy at that year’s Communist Party congress. The book was the last sound of a free philosophical voice in the Soviet Union for many decades to come. Russian philosophy retreated out of the country and away from the public sphere into the secrecy of private studies, regarded as a rearguard action in which writing was done “for the drawer.”11

Valentina Loseva was arrested shortly after her husband and sentenced to five years in labor camps. They found themselves separated by a vast distance: Losev was sent to the construction of the White Sea–Baltic Canal in the northwest of Russia; Loseva served her term in the Altai Territory in the east. Their correspondence during that time is a poignant, piercing document of human pain, endurance, and defiance in the face of life’s trials.12 Fortunately, even in those turbulent and fateful times they did not perish—unlike countless others. They were both released long before their terms were over: the canal was built, class enemies were “corrected,” and in 1933 they were back in Moscow. (Losev’s release was, ironically, due in part to intercession on his behalf by Gorky’s wife Ekaterina Peshkova.) Losev, who had become an official invalid in the camps—he nearly lost his sight—was banned from teaching and publishing philosophy, a ban that lasted until 1953. He was formally allowed to write about ancient aesthetics—apparently, the least relevant and least dangerous subject in the eyes of the authorities. In practice, however, publishers consistently rejected his books.

Losev did not give up. When asked, much later in life, why in the wintry 1930s and 1940s he had not withdrawn entirely into his own private world but kept devising new projects, writing, and sending his manuscripts to the publishers, stubbornly knocking on the doors that kept closing in his face, he gave a typical reply: “I am not a martyr, I am a fighter.” He earned a living by part-time teaching in Moscow and in the provinces, but, most important, he continued writing, against forbidding odds. There were some partial successes. In 1937, for example, he managed to publish several translations of Nicholas of Cusa, a thinker important to Losev as a milestone figure in the history of Neoplatonism. All of his manuscripts and books were destroyed for a second time in 1941, when World War II came to the Soviet Union and a German bomb fell on his home, killing Valentina’s mother. (The first time he lost his library and manuscripts was ten years earlier, after his arrest; it nearly broke his spirit.). However, it was also during the war that Losev finally returned to full-time teaching in Moscow: first, briefly, at Moscow State University, where he was also at last awarded a doctorate based on his work published in the 1920s, and then, after yet another round of accusations of “idealism,” at the Moscow Lenin Pedagogical Institute, where he remained a professor of philology for the rest of his life.

In 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Losev’s twenty-odd years of banishment from print came to an end with the publication of a study on ancient Greek mythology; this became the drop that started a flood. Losev’s rate of publication for the next thirty-five years is simply astonishing, both in quantity and in quality. The megaproject during this period is his The History of Ancient Aesthetics (Istoriia antichnoi estetiki), which in the end amounted to his second octoteuch: eight volumes published between 1963 and 1994, the last two of which were in two books each. This single-author survey of the philosophy of antiquity as it unfolded over twelve centuries (“Ancient aesthetics is ancient philosophy,” Losev insisted) is unprecedented in world scholarship, and would have been enough to secure a solid reputation for any thinker, but in Losev’s case it was only his main path, accompanied by numerous byways. Among these there loom works serving as supplements to this history: a book on ancient mythology, another on Hellenistic-Roman aesthetics, and a hefty volume on Renaissance aesthetics (Estetika Vozrozhdeniia (Aesthetics of the Renaissance), 1978; subsequent editions in 1982 and 1998), a major study in the philosophy of the symbol (Problema simvola i realisticheskoe iskusstvo (The Problem of Symbol and Realist Art), 1976; repeat editions in 1996 and 2014), the two books on Vladimir Solov′ev already noted, and books on Plato and Homer for a series of popular biographies.13 To this, add literally hundreds of scholarly articles and numerous editorial projects, as well as active participation in two major encyclopedias: one on world mythology, for which he wrote thirty-five articles on Greek myth, and the other an encyclopedia of philosophy, for which he wrote a hundred entries.14

Despite growing recognition and despite assistance from a growing number of those who respected and admired his work, many in official circles, both in the academy and in institutions of ideological control, continued to regard Losev with suspicion, actively resisting release of his books. However, when in 1983 the State Committee for Publishing (Goskomizdat) banned Losev’s book about Vladimir Solov′ev, written for the general public, the suppression was only partly successful; people found copies in provincial and rural bookstores, where the initial run had been diverted, and brought them back to the cities by the dozen. It would soon be time for Soviet censorship’s turn to engage in its own rearguard action, as the system of ideological controls was now beginning to retreat before emerging sociocultural realities. By the end of his life, Losev’s output included more than forty monographs and some eight hundred smaller scholarly publications. Now, almost three decades later, the tally has grown dramatically, thanks to the publication of numerous works that had been preserved only in manuscript, as well as publication of existing texts in new editions.15 Losev’s philosophical and scholarly legacy is truly vast, and it is safe to say that examination and exploration of this corpus is only beginning, promising us new discoveries and new insights into his thought.

In addition to being a scholar, Losev was an inspired and inspiring teacher. Unlike Hegel, who according to some reports could be an awkward lecturer, Losev highly prized effective and engaging presentation and honed his skills over a lifetime in the classroom. Fully in accordance with his views, as a teacher he turned philosophy into myth and symbol, clothing concepts in Homer’s, Hesiod’s, and Plato’s stories and images. Pregnant lines of Symbolist poetry, especially those from Viacheslav Ivanov, frequently sparkled in his speech. He knew also how to draw on official Soviet symbolism, such as the hammer and the sickle, to make his point and generally strove to establish contact with his concrete audience, which in those years consisted of young people raised on Soviet intellectual nourishment. Above all, however, he cultivated the art of elucidating complex philosophical theories and concepts in an accessible and vivid idiom, seeking to stir into life his listeners’ own creative thinking. “To speak of something well,” Losev believed, “is to arouse your listeners’ interest and to awaken searching thought.”16 He called the driving force of his pedagogy “living thought.” During his tenure at the Pedagogical Institute, he taught generations of students and mentored numerous postgraduate students. Losev’s teaching was an important part of his overall legacy, and Audacity of the Spirit is eloquent testimony to his desire to communicate with younger contemporaries in the here and now.

Losev died in 1988, on 24 May, the Eastern Orthodox feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the 9th-century creators of the Old Slavonic alphabet, at a time when Russians were celebrating the millennium of their literature. His writings continued to come out posthumously, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of his widow, Aza Takho-Godi, a professor of classical philology at Moscow State University. (After Valentina Loseva’s death, Takho-Godi and Losev married in 1954 and she became the philosopher’s companion and assistant.) Some publications were delayed by many decades; others, such as The Dialectics of Myth, were brought back from forced oblivion. Losev’s apartment in the pedestrian Arbat Street in the center of Moscow has been transformed into Losev House (Dom A.F. Loseva), a library and cultural center in his name: a philosophical island surrounded by the bustle of souvenir stalls, coffee-shops, jewelry stores, and banks—and with the Vakhtangov Theater across the street.

3 The Book before You

Among philosophers there are prophets and there are teachers. The former proclaim their truths from the mountaintop, caring little whether the valley-dwellers understand their inspired revelations. The latter patiently explain to the youths who come to them what philosophy’s revelations actually mean in the language of the uninitiated. Theodor Adorno belonged to the first type; Aleksei Losev, to the second.

Audacity of the Spirit (Derzanie dukha) was compiled by Yurii Rostovtsev, editor-in-chief of the leading Soviet student magazine, Student Meridian (Studencheskii meridian), and an admirer of the elderly philosopher. The book draws on short essays that Losev wrote for readers of that magazine, as well as several interviews, some of which were for the journal Questions in Philosophy (Voprosy filosofii). These essays and interviews are arranged in three parts. The first, “To Learn Dialectics,” deals with various aspects of the dialectical method. In the second, “On the Benefits of Philosophy,” Losev discusses his interpretation of antiquity, Marxist-Leninist methods, philosophy of culture, and history of philosophy. In closing, with Part 3, “Worldview and Life,” Losev offers his reflections on the more personal aspects of studying philosophy. (It is this part, one should think, that better deserves the title “On the Benefits of Philosophy.”). The essays on antiquity in Part 2 can serve as examples of Losev’s own deployment of the dialectical method discussed in Part 1. Continuing a venerable philosophical tradition, the book opens and closes with dialogues between the narrator and Chalikov, Losev’s half-humorous invention.

Chalikov is a typical college student of the late Soviet period, speaking the language of that generation with all its colloquial clichés, but his speech, and what is particularly important his thinking, are remarkably unconstrained by Soviet ideological tropes. The questions he asks and the way he responds to the narrator’s reflections make him a figure that is not confined to any particular sociopolitical context and one that remains contemporary long after that context has vanished. The dialogues are also Losev’s contribution to the tradition of serio ludere, or serious play, a well-known mode of discourse in the long history of Platonism. The book first came out in the year of Losev’s death (the present translation is based on the 1989 printing of that edition) and clearly showed signs of haste on Rostovtsev’s part: aside from a handful of footnotes with references to the classics of Marxism-Leninism and to some of Losev’s own works, it contained no scholarly apparatus, not even full references to the sources from which the essays were drawn.17 It also contained Rostovtsev’s own epilogue about Losev, entitled “The Marathon Runner” (“Marafonets”), which is not included in this translation. At the time when the book was published, no one could yet foresee just how far Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika or glasnost would go, and Rostovtsev’s desire to publish the book as soon as possible is quite understandable. Losev himself was severely ill that year and certainly did not have a chance to review the contents.

The peculiar composition of the Audacity of the Spirit and the circumstances of its publication are responsible for certain drawbacks in the work. The most detrimental of these is repetitiveness. From one essay or interview to another, Losev addresses similar topics, often using similar definitions of such subjects as the dialectical-materialist method or the culture of antiquity. There is some value, of course, to looking at one subject from several angles, but the reader will need patience to get past the repetitions. The second shortcoming is the result of the Soviet context. Losev’s repeated declarations of fidelity to the Marxist-Leninist point of view sound anachronistic today and seem to add little to the substance of his reflections, although they may still be of historical interest or serve as an entrance point into the more abstruse questions of Losev’s relation to Marxism. This relation is complex, and an exhaustive account of it would take us too far afield. In any event, there are several layers to Losev’s assimilation of Marxism. Briefly, there are the obligatory but superficial reverences to the classics of Marxism, after which Losev goes on to develop a line of thinking that has little if anything to do with the Marxist approach. Such is his use of Lenin in the essay “Dialectics and Common Sense” (Chapter 3), where Hegel is greater than any of the subsequent classics.18 There are, however, such essays as “History of Philosophy as a School of Thought” (Chapter 11), where Losev insists on the primacy of the mode of material production, such as primitive communal or slaveholding systems, as the basis for philosophy included in the ideological superstructure. In these cases it is hard to tell where camouflage ends and agreement of substance begins. Then in essays such as the “Twelve Theses on the Culture of Antiquity” (Chapter 7) or “The Philosophy of Antiquity as a Whole and in Its Parts” (Chapter 8), no reference is made to Marxist ideas at all. Things then take yet another turn when Losev exploits Marx’s reflections on the nature of a commodity to bolster his own theory of the symbol.19 Finally, Losev could deftly turn Marxism on its head while speaking in the doctrine’s own idiom. For example, having spent much time, as I have just mentioned, insisting that the culture of antiquity rests on the foundation of its economic order, Losev then offers the following observation: “The economic foundation of the ancient world (i.e., slaveholding) was made possible only by viewing the slave as a thing and a slaveholder as an organizer of such things” (Chapter 13).20 In other words, it is ideas, after all—and not just any ideas, but a particular conception of the human person—that define everything in a given cultural-historical order.

Finally, the greatest drawback of Audacity of the Spirit as a window into Losev’s thought is that the most important part of his outlook, the foundation of his worldview in Eastern Christianity, is wholly absent, excepting only a few thickly coded hints. As already noted, Losev’s philosophy as a whole and especially his philosophy of language are deeply informed by this aspect of his persona.21 Losev’s key work in this area, the 1927 Philosophy of the Name (Filosofiia imeni), was inspired by onomatodoxy (spelled in Russian variously as imiaslavie or imeslavie), an early 20th-century theological movement among Russian Orthodox monks focused on the veneration of God’s name. The roots of the movement reach deep into the medieval Byzantine monastic tradition of silent prayer known as hesychasm—and, God knows, Losev had to do a lot of it in the course of his life. The movement was violently suppressed by the Russian government at the instigation of the official Church, but, when Losev was arrested by the Soviet authorities, they tried to paint him as a member of a clerical-monarchist conspiracy—an ironic twist in onomatodoxy’s history.

Losev’s doctrines of myth, symbol, and personhood are suffused with the spiritual energy that he derived from his faith. In Audacity of the Spirit we encounter him, however, as an ostensibly secular thinker; he withholds his deepest convictions and presents instead a vague, generalized picture that can fit a secular outlook as well as a religious one. In the last several essays, Losev speaks of the genuine goal of humanity’s progress in terms of universal human peaceful well-being, or simply universal well-being. The one place where his nonmodern—not to say antimodern—side reveals itself is his insistence that the struggle of opposites in history cannot simply continue ad infinitum (which is Adorno’s view), but must come to a peaceful end. Like Aristotle and Hegel, Losev is a teleological thinker, and this sets him sharply apart from the typical modern progressivist opinion. However, the reader will have to learn about these deeper reaches of Losev’s spiritual and philosophical convictions from his other writings. Only a faint tangential echo of it can be heard in the following words: “I do not know how to live without thinking of the universal liberation of humanity, both from all natural disasters and from all evil within human society. Let others invent their means of mass annihilation. I and my pupils will still believe in the coming of universal peace and freedom.”22

In view of these limitations, it is truly surprising how well the book hangs together. Losev’s thought is dynamic, it presses forth and carries you with it; his rhetoric is well-practiced, and his formulations are at once concise and pithy. Note just one such formulation: “Culture is the ultimate common element (obshchnost’) of all the main strata of the historical process: economic, sociopolitical, ideological, practical-technical, artisanal, scientific, artistic, moral, religious, philosophical, national-popular, and quotidian” (Chapter 10). If you notice a certain circle-like quality in the enumeration of these strata, linking economic activity in the beginning to everyday living at the end, you have understood something of Losev’s logical procedure, for it starts with what is closest at hand, rises to the most remote regions (philosophy), and then returns to ordinary reality, enriched by the journey traversed in thought. This is culture, as Losev understood it. If, reading the sentence, you recalled Plato’s ladder of divine ascent in the Symposium, with its seven steps leading up to the eighth, the ultimate mystical vision of true beauty, you have grasped one of Losev’s models. His stratification of the historical process may be in twelve parts, but its eighth step touches on the domain of divine mystery. If this, further, made you think of the medieval and Renaissance Neoplatonists’ circuitus spiritualis, the spiritual circuit that encompasses the entire creation, where the created world emanates from the suprarational unity of God, and then, having passed through all of its phases, from the supramundane Intellect down to the utter dispersal of matter, returns to its original source—then you have identified yet another of Losev’s sources.

And yet, if you are a Marxist, the definition would hardly raise any red flags for you (at least until you take a closer look), and in fact, in the next paragraph Losev asserts with a poker face that his understanding of this “common element” is best suited to “the Marxist-Leninist understanding of culture.”23 This is far from being the case, however, for Losev’s point here is that culture is the universal that determines all those twelve particulars in his list, whereas from the standard Marxist point of view it is the first of these particulars, the socioeconomic model, that determines and defines the cultural superstructure. Overall, the book manages to convey the experience of thinking along with the author, and many observations sound as fresh today as they sounded forty years ago. One example is the structural parallel between seemingly unrelated historical and mathematical thinking that serves to confirm Losev’s point about the intrinsic unity of any given cultural order:

In contrast to the medieval person, the modern man (literally, the new European man: novoevropeiskii) believed in perpetual and continuous progress. In the 17th century, there appeared Newton’s and Leibniz’s doctrine of infinitesimal values, in which the infinitely small value was defined not as an immobile atom, but as a constant and continuous tendency toward infinite diminution or infinite increase. In terms of their respective contents, there is nothing in common between the historical doctrine of eternal progress and the mathematical doctrine of variable quantities (which became the subject of a special science, differential and integral calculus), and yet Losev shows how the type of unfolding itself, the structure of its composition (i.e., the continuous becoming of an infinite series) is the same in both cases.24

Another striking example is Losev’s discussion of the absence of human personhood in the culture of antiquity, or what Losev calls that culture’s nonpersonalist cosmologism (Chapter 7, thesis 7). It is incorrect, Losev argues, to translate the Latin subjectum as “subject” in the modern sense of the word; the Latin word rather means “object”—i.e., the bearer of various qualities that by itself is devoid of any qualities, let alone being a person. Nor can we translate the Latin individuum as “person” in our contemporary sense: the Latin word means only something indivisible, and is virtually synonymous with subjectum. The Greek prosopon, indirectly the origin of the modern English word “person,” first meant “face” or “appearance,” then “mask,” then the actor who plays a role while wearing a mask. “Strictly speaking,” comments Losev, “in pre-Christian literature there is no use of prosopon in the sense of a person.”25 Likewise, neither hypostasis nor another Greek term, hypokeimenon, qualify as equivalents of the later “person,” but, in grammatical or juridical senses, point only to the external aspect of the human being as the subject of a proposition or bearer of rights and responsibilities. “From the point of view of antiquity,” Losev sums up, “all these terms must be understood in their cosmological sense. […]Personhood in antiquity is not viewed as something indivisible; it is reducible to the processes that occur in the starry skies and also touch the earth.”26

I could cite many more such examples, but I would be anticipating the reader’s pleasure of discovering them. One of the great virtues of Audacity of the Spirit is that, even as it is a beginner’s introduction to dialectics, it belongs also to another and exceedingly rare genre: a major philosopher’s summing-up of his reflections for a nonspecialist audience. In the chapters “On a Worldview,” “Life’s Credo,” and “Twelve Theses on the Culture of Antiquity,” Losev does precisely that, sharing with us the fruits of his lifelong meditation on the human condition without either jargon or condescension.

A comprehensive analysis of Losev’s philosophy indeed remains a task for the future, despite the goodly amount already written about him.27 With this in mind, I offer a tentative assessment of my own. The horizon of Losev’s philosophical outlook is extraordinarily broad, and its underpinning tenets are extraordinarily deep; combined, they create a philosophical world inhabited by positions that are not easily reconciled, if at all. In this he resembles Plato, whom he both intensely admired and harshly criticized. Such doctrines as Marxism, phenomenology, structuralism, and semiotics occupy parts of this philosophical space, but the horizon itself cannot be reduced to any of them—nor to all of them taken together. Eastern Orthodox spirituality may constitute the largest and most pervasive presence within this horizon, but cannot be regarded as its sole defining element. Let me further suggest that, rather than through influences of various schools of thought and trends in philosophy, Losev’s own philosophy is better comprehended by looking at how it intertwines its key themes: myth, symbol, language, music, number, culture, and, above all, person.28 It is from the standpoint offered by Losev’s philosophy of personhood, especially, that a key can perhaps be found to defusing the danger of eclecticism in his worldview.

4 Plunge into Living Thought!

At the end of his life, after all the persecution and suppression, Losev’s response to his trials was this: Pointing to his published works in an argument with a sceptic and pessimist, he exclaimed, “I believe that it would be basest ingratitude on my part to moan and groan that somewhere and at some time I had no response [to my writings]. These works of mine, which are now found on the shelves of the Lenin Library, are powerful proof positive that my feelings of gratitude are justified.”29 He could say so because of his unshakeable faith in living thought. “Creative thinking,” he taught, “calms one down, makes one healthy not only mentally but physically as well; it encourages one to work, and it helps one set humanly attainable goals.”30 The key moral lesson the reader can derive from this book is distilled in a typically argumentative declaration: “Who does not work for universal well-being has no worldview at all, but only world-disdain.”31

The book’s closing dialogue, “A Miracle without Miracles,” connects with the theme of the book’s beginning: the nature of dialectical thinking, and especially of the moment when something new arises from the synthesis of the opposites locked in mutual struggle. Chalikov insists that this moment is miraculous and that, because everything in the world arises in this manner, all of reality is miraculous, too. The narrator puts a different spin on it: If everything is miraculous, then miracles are natural. This exchange brings to mind that episode in Hegel’s Encyclopaedia Logic, in which dialectics morphs into speculative philosophy and Hegel explains that the dialectical synthesis looks like something mystical only to abstract understanding (Verstand), whereas speculative reason (Vernunft) demands it.32 Chalikov’s wide-eyed wonderment at the realization that concepts are alive also takes us back to Hegel—and much, much further back. It is almost never mentioned in our textbooks that Aristotle calls his Prime Mover, that self-thinking thought which sets everything in motion, the eromenon: that which is loved. So: Open the pages of this book, plunge into the boundless sea of living thought!

Vladimir L. Marchenkov

Athens, Ohio


  • Ehlen Peter. “A.F. Losevs personalistische Ontologie” [A.F. Losev’s personalistic ontology]. Studies in East European Thought 48, no. 1 (March 1996): 83108.

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  • Emerson Caryl. “On the Generation That Squandered Its Philosophers (Losev, Bakhtin, and Classical Thought as Equipment for Living).” In “Aleksej Fedorovich Losev: Philosophy and the Human Sciences,” special issue, Studies in East European Thought 56, no. 2/3 (June 2004): 95117.

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  • Gusejnov Gasan. “The Linguistic Aporias of Alexei Losev’s Mystical Personalism.” In “The Discourse of Personality in the Russian Intellectual Tradition,” special issue, Studies in East European Thought 61, no. 2/3 (August 2009): 153164.

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  • Hegel Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Encyclopaedia Logic, with the Zusätz. Part 1, Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze. Translated by T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, and H.S. Harris. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.

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  • Jubara Annette. Die Philosophie des Mythos von Aleksej Losev im Kontext “Russische Philosophie” [Aleksei Losev’s philosophy of myth in the context of “Russian Philosophy”]. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000.

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  • Khoruzhii Sergei. “Ar′egardnyi boi [Rearguard action].” In A.F. Losev. Iz tvorcheskogo naslediia. Sovremenniki o myslitele [A.F. Losev: Creative legacy; contemporaries about the thinker], edited by A.A. Takho-Godi and V.P. Troitskii, 583584. Moscow: Russkii Mir, 2007.

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  • Losev Aleksei F. Derzanie dukkha [Audacity of the spirit]. Moscow: Politizdat, 1988.

  • Losev Aleksei F. The Dialectics of Myth. Translated by Vladimir Marchenkov. London: Routledge, 2004.

  • Losev Aleksei F. Strast′ k dialektike: literaturnye razmyshleniia filosofa [A passion for dialectics: literary reflections of a philosopher]. Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel′, 1990.

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  • Losev Aleksei F., and Valentina M. Loseva. “Radost′na veki.” Perepiska lagernykh vremen [“Joy for ever”: correspondence from the labor camp days]. Moscow: Russkii put′, 2005.

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  • Marchenkov Vladimir L.Prophecy of a Revolution: Aleksey Losev on Wagner’s Aesthetic Outlook.” In Wagner in Russia, Poland and the Czech Lands, edited by Stephen Muir and Anastasia Belina-Johnson, 7191. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.

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  • Scanlan James P.The New Soviet ‘Philosophical Encyclopedia.’ III: The Coming of Age of Soviet Aesthetics: An Examination of the Articles on Aesthetics in the New Soviet ‘Filosofskaja Enciklopedija.” Studies in Soviet Thought 13, no. 3/4 (September–December, 1973): 321333.

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  • Schiller Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters. Translated by Reginald Snell. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1965.

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  • Takho-Godi Aza, and Viktor Troitskii, eds. A.F. Losev. Iz tvorcheskogo naslediia. Sovremenniki o myslitele [A.F. Losev: creative legacy; contemporaries about the thinker]. Moscow: Russkii Mir, 2007.

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  • Takho-Godi Elena, and Robert Bird. “Aleksej Losev’s Antiutopia.” In “Aleksej Fedorovich Losev: Philosophy and the Human Sciences,” special issue, Studies in East European Thought 56, no. 2/3 (June 2004): 225241.

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“Dare to be wise” is an English rendition of the Latin phrase Sapere aude (Hor. Epist. 1.2.40), which Friedrich Schiller quoted in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters, trans. Reginald Snell (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1965), 49 (Eighth Letter).


In this Foreword I cite the Russian edition, A.F. Losev, Derzanie dukha [Audacity of the spirit] (Moscow: Politizdat, 1988), hereafter cited as DD.


See Emerson, “On the Generation That Squandered Its Philosophers (Losev, Bakhtin, and Classical Thought as Equipment for Living),” 95–117.


This brief survey of Losev’s life unavoidably repeats the pattern of an earlier account in my Translator’s Introduction to A.F. Losev, The Dialectics of Myth (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 4–12.


For a discussion of those essays, see Marchenkov, “Prophecy of a Revolution: Aleksey Losev on Wagner’s Aesthetic Outlook,” 71–91.


See DD 258–260 (Ch. 11).


A.F. Losev, “Mirovozzrenie Skriabina” [Scriabin’s worldview], In Strast′ k dialektike: literaturnye razmyshleniia filosofa [A passion for dialectics: literary reflections of a philosopher] (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel′, 1990), 256–301.


Elena Takho-Godi and Robert Bird, “Aleksej Losev’s Antiutopia,” 225–241.


This is the theme of Annette Jubara’s interpretation of The Dialectics of Myth in Die Philosophie des Mythos von Aleksej Losev im Kontext “Russische Philosophie.”


Losev, The Dialectics of Myth, 96.


Sergei Khoruzhii wrote of the author of The Dialectics of Myth: “His writing is for him a rearguard battle fought by Russian Christian culture. The culture has retreated but he was fated to stay behind, and he is not laying down his arms” (Khoruzhii, “Ar′egardnyi boi,” 583–584).


Losev and Loseva, “Radost′ na veki.” Perepiska lagernykh vremen [“Joy for ever”: correspondence from the labor camp days].


For a discussion of the latter book, see Marchenkov, “Prophecy of a Revolution: Aleksey Losev on Wagner’s Aesthetic Outlook,” 83–87.


For a discussion of Losev’s contribution to the latter project, see Scanlan, “The New Soviet ‘Philosophical Encyclopedia.’ III: The Coming of Age of Soviet Aesthetics: An Examination of the Articles on Aesthetics in the New Soviet ‘Filosofskaja Enciklopedija’,” 321–333.


The latest and fullest bibliography of Losev’s works, compiled by a group of scholars associated with the Losev House Library, includes approximately a thousand records. It is available on the Library’s website at [accessed 25 May, 2018]. Many of Losev’s monographs exist today in multiple editions, as well as multiple versions (notably those published under Soviet censorship and then again restored to the form originally intended by the author). An exact count would require a special study.


DD 324 (Ch. 17).


The 1988 publication of DD contains only a sketchy citation of the sources from which these essays were drawn, sometimes referring only to the journal Voprosy filosofii [Questions in philosophy] or only with a heading such as “A.F. Losev’s responses to Professor D.V. Dzhokhadze’s questions”—without any indication, however, of where these responses may have been published (DD 198 [Ch. 9]). I distinctly remember reading the essay “Twelve Theses on the Culture of Antiquity” in the magazine Studencheskii meridian when it first appeared there, although I can no longer recall the year.


See especially the quotation from Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (DD 79 [Ch. 3]).


DD 310–311 (Ch. 15).


DD 288 (Ch. 14); emphasis added.


As Losev states, “In philosophy, I have always been interested most of all in two areas: ancient philosophy and philosophy of language” (DD 285 [Ch. 13]).


DD 296 (Ch. 14).


DD 218–219 (Ch. 10).


DD 93 (Ch. 4).


DD 163 (Ch. 7).


DD 164 (Ch. 7).


The count of sources in the bibliography of literature about Losev, Literatura o zhizni i tvorchestve A.F. Loseva [Literature about A.F. Losev’s life and work], which is Part 3 of the Losev House bibliography [], is greater than 1,600, including references to monographs, scholarly articles, encyclopaedia entries, newspaper articles, and other types of texts.


For discussion of Losev’s personalism see Ehlen, “A.F. Losevs Personalistische Ontologie,” Studies in East European Thought, 83–108; and Gusejnov, “The Linguistic Aporias of Alexei Losev’s Mystical Personalism,” Studies in East European Thought, 153–164.


DD 273 (Ch. 12).


DD 294 (Ch. 14).


DD 313 (Ch. 15).


G.F.W. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic, with the Zusätz. Part 1, Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze, 131–133 (§82).