S.L. Frank

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The Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher Semyon Ludvigovich Frank, Семен Людвигович Франк, was born on Jan. 28, 1877, in Moscow, and died on Dec. 19, 1950, in London. More than any other Russian philosopher of the so-called Silver Age who survived in exile, his life illustrated the effect of state terror in the 20th century. The Russian emigre scholar Vasily Vasilevich Zenkovsky in his standard A History of Russian Philosophy called Frank the greatest of Russian philosophers, while American translator-scholar Boris Jakim more recently called Frank's book The Unknowable the greatest work of Russian philosophy. Yet he is perhaps one of the least known today. A former observant Jew and then Marxist revolutionary, Frank married an Orthodox Christian in 1908 and converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1912. His politics evolved from revolutionary to liberal before 1917, and then to what he described as a creative conservatism (his philosophical outlook has also been described as that of metaphysical libertarianism as well as Christian realism and Christian existentialism). Singled out by Lenin for exile after the Bolshevik Revolution, Frank fled Communism and ended up taking refuge with his family in southern France, where, however, he and his family then had to go into hiding and temporary separation after the Nazi invasion, due to his Jewish ethnic background.

Frank saw Orthodox Christianity as fulfillment of his Jewish background, and as a philosopher was influenced by several strands of Orthodox-related philosophical thought, including the intuitivism of Nicholas Lossky, Vladimir Solovyov's sobornost philosophy, and the Russian Philokalia or Dobrotolubiye. He especially singled out the Western late-medieval mystical writer Nicholas of Cusa as an influence, together with the Neo-Platonist Plotinus, and identified himself as a Christian Platonist. Nicholas of Cuss in the fifteenth century was influenced both by pre-Schism writers such as John Scottus Eriugena (influenced heavily by St. Maximus the Confessor) and by his own personal encounters with Byzantine culture. Frank like other modern Russian philosophers also was influenced by nineteenth-century German philosophy, and his work includes references to the work of poets such as Goethe and Rilke.

In his particular scholarly genealogy, Frank as a Russian Orthodox writer connected with a stream of Christian philosophy different from the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas and later Roman Catholic scholars, one related to what Byzantine hymnody termed "the hidden God," an apophatic phrase also used by Nicholas of Cusa. In Frank's development of social his philosophy, he articulated a view of society as an interaction of sobornost (a hidden organic spiritual connectedness encouraging a sense of holistic unity) and mechanical organizational aspects of human life tending toward individualism. Likewise, in his articulation of ontology and epistemology, he highlighted interaction between an objective unknowable unity of reality in Christ, and cognitive understanding that was individualized.

In all this, his overall cosmology and anthropology reflect closely aspects of St. Maximus the Confessor's teachings, as well as those of St. John of Damascus in finding personhood in Christ rather than what Charles Taylor calls the "buffered self" of modernity that emerged from late Scholasticism. Frank's philosophy finds its context also in an existential awareness of the evils of totalitarianism in the 20th century, as experienced particularly by Russian Orthodox Christian culture but also in relation to the Holocaust and his Jewish background.

Highly praised for the clarity of his writing style by both Zenkovsky and Nicholas Lossky in both their classic histories of Russian philosophy, Frank also was criticized by them, especially by Lossky (also a prominent Russian philosopher of the early 20th century) for articulating a sense of "total unity" allegedly at odds with Christian distinctions between God and Creation. However, Frank's views on this arguably are less problematic when seen today in light of recent scholarship on St. Maximus the Confessor's work, which they closely parallel, and also in relation to hesychastic teaching and practice in Orthodoxy. Unlike two of the other great Orthodox philosophers of the 20th century also in the Russian tradition, Fathers Sergius Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky, Frank's work never stood accused of heresy by Church Synods; he did not develop Sophianism or Sophiology as those other two writers, although he shared some of the same influences (although with his own specific intellectual genealogy as noted above). While he wrote hopefully amid the dual Communist and Nazi threats to Christianity of Christian ecumenism, and had connections in the diaspora with the YMCA press in France and at the end of his life the World Council of Churches as a source of financial aid to him as a refugee scholar, he was never active in organized efforts at ecumenism as were some other Russian emigre scholars.

Most of Frank's major works have been translated into English, mainly by Boris Jakim. Those in English (with their original publication dates in Russian):

The Human Soul (1917), The Meaning of Life (1926), The Spiritual Foundations of Society (1930), The Unknowable (1939), The Light Shineth in Darkness (1949), Reality and Man (1956)

Arguably, The Unknowable, which updates and summarizes his philosophical work, and The Spiritual Foundations of Society, his articulation of his social philosophy, are his most important books. All his works remain relatively little studied in 21st-century global Orthodox scholarship besides Jakim's work, which is perhaps related in part to Frank's lack of firm institutional affiliation abroad or the controversy surrounding some of his contemporaries, the time of his repose not long after World War II, and his unique refugee situation.

Of the two other major untranslated works by Frank, The Object of Knowledge (1915), based on his Ph.D. thesis, is summarized in The Unknowable, which has been translated,and the concluding chapter of The Fall of the Idols (1924), his analysis of the Russian Revolution, is found at the end of the English text of The Meaning of Life.