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S.L. Frank

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The Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher Semyon Ludvigovich Frank, also known as S.L. Frank and Semen Frank, Семён Людвигович Франк, was born on Jan. 28, 1877 (Gregorian calendar), 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 (also translated “The Unfathomable”) the greatest work of Russian philosophy. Yet he is perhaps one of the least known of the Silver Age Russian philosophers today. Raised in a Jewish family with active interest in Jewish religious intellectual tradition, then a 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 indicated was a creative conservatism, which a biographer termed liberal conservatism. His philosophical outlook has been described as articulating a metaphysical libertarianism, but more centrally as expressing anti-utopianist Christian realism and Christian existentialism. Singled out by Lenin for exile in 1922 on the "ships of philosophers", Frank fled Communism and ended up with his family first in Berlin and then near the outbreak of World War II in France. Because of his Jewish ethnic background he was in danger from Nazi Anti-Semitism, and after interviews with the Gestapo, went into hiding in southern France towards the end of World War II as his family was temporarily separated, an experience he described as similar to being "hunted like an animal."

Philosophical Outlook

Frank saw Orthodox Christianity as fulfillment of his Jewish background steeped in the Old Testament. As a philosopher he was influenced by several strands of Orthodox-related thought, including the intuitivism of Nicholas Lossky, Vladimir Solovyov's sobornost philosophy, and the hesychastic teaching of 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 Cusa in fifteenth century Catholic Germany had been influenced both by pre-Schism Christian writers such as John Scottus Eriugena (himself influenced heavily by St. Maximus the Confessor) and by his own personal encounters with Byzantine culture, and was outside the orbit of mainstream Scholasticism. Frank like other modern Russian philosophers also was influenced by nineteenth-century German romantic philosophy. His work includes references to the writings of poets such as Goethe and Rilke, as well as to other thinkers such as Bergson and Spinoza, although it remains distinctively rooted in spirit in first-millennial patristic Neo-Chalcedonian and apophatic theology, and related hesychastic thought. 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. Nevertheless, he seemed sensitive to criticisms of his work as pantheistic, arguing that it was panentheistically based in the Christian God. His philosophical reflections toward the end of his life became increasingly explicitly Christian. In exile he wore around his neck both an Orthodox cross and a tiny bag with soil from his mother's grave in Russia as a reminder of his homeland.

In Frank's development of social philosophy, he articulated a view of society as an interaction of sobornost (hidden organic spiritual connectedness encouraging a sense of holistic unity in the God-man Jesus Christ) and mechanical organizational aspects of human life tending toward individualism, which leads him to an Orthodox definition of justice and natural law different from that which developed in the Catholic and Protestant West. Likewise, in his articulation of ontology and epistemology, he highlighted interaction between an objective hidden-but-experiential unity of reality in Christ, and cognitive understanding that was individualized. Frank argued that it was the unfathomable or unknowable aspect of being that ultimately was the source of concrete personhood and intuitive objective reasoning. 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 emerging from late Scholasticism. Frank's philosophy finds its context also in coping with 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.

Assessments of his work

Highly praised for the clarity of his writing style by Zenkovsky and Nicholas Lossky in both their classic histories of Russian philosophy (and again rated overall by Zenkovsky as the greatest Russian philosopher), Frank nonetheless was criticized by them, especially by Lossky (also a prominent contemporary Russian philosopher) for articulating a sense of "total unity" allegedly at odds with Christian distinctions between God and Creation. Another prominent contemporary Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, likewise praised Frank’s overall contribution to Christian philosophy, while criticizing what Berdyaev called a monism inadequately taking into account the nature of evil, although Berdyaev's own anti-ascetic charismatic emphasis is alleged to fall outside of Orthodox tradition by Fr. Seraphim Rose among others.

Frank’s writings as they relate to cosmology and anthropology arguably are not problematic from the standpoint of Orthodoxy when read in light of recent scholarship on St. Maximus the Confessor's work, which they closely parallel, and to the application of hesychasm to psychology articulated by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and others. Frank’s philosophy parallels Vlachos’ writings in not emphasizing individual personalism in the same way as Berdyaev, stressing personhood in the unfathomable “hidden God” of the Cross and Resurrection. Unlike the philosophical writings of two prominent contemporary Russian Orthodox priests, Fathers Sergius Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky, Frank's work never was condemned as heretical; he did not develop Sophianism or Sophiology as they did. He shared some of the same influences but with his own specific intellectual genealogy as noted above.

In terms of theodicy, Frank in his works The Fall of the Idols and The Meaning of Life shows keen awareness of the suffering and disruption of Russian Orthodox life amid the unleashing of great evil, which he identifies with demonic idolatry, in its objectifying self and others unto death. His biographer has said his approach to evil as of inconsequence in the face of love may also reflect Frank's need for tranquility amid the turmoils of both 20th-century refugee life. He criticized Western Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin as a source of disconnect from experiential Christian faith that he saw as the root of 20th-century totalitarian ideologies and a certain type of heartless Western rationalism, and upheld Orthodox Trinitarian teaching as distinct from Catholic theology. Frank disagreed with Berdyaev's brief post-World War II reconciliation with the Soviet state as naive, seeing the Soviet system as totalitarian evil, although he had earlier in exile defended the post-Tikhonite Moscow Patriarchate's situation under the Soviets. While he wrote hopefully amid Communist and Nazi threats to Christianity of a potential Christian universalism, highly praised the writings of the ancient Sufi Muslim mystical writer Hussayn ibn-Mansur al-Hallaj, and had connections in the diaspora with the YMCA press and the World Council of Churches as sources of refugee aid, he was not active in organized ecumenism, and resisted American Protestant influence on the YMCA Russian youth movement among emigres.

All his works remain relatively little studied in 21st-century global Orthodox and secular scholarship, which is perhaps related in part to Frank's lack of firm academic and ecclesiastical affiliations abroad (such as contemporaries like Fr. Georges Florovsky) as he often had to rely on the charity of friends and refugee aid grants, his precarious situation in Europe as an exiled ethnically Jewish Russian Orthodox philosopher who was legally stateless and a target for the Nazi Final Solution, and because the nature of his work did not encourage the controversial celebrity of some other Russian emigre intellectuals, such as Fr. Bulgakov and Berdyaev, given also Frank's more introverted family-centered life. Besides Jakim's introductions to his English translations of some of Frank's books, Philip Boobbyer's biography, S.L. Frank: The Life And Work Of A Russian Philosopher, 1877-1950 (1995) is a valuable source in English on Frank's life and work.


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 or German):

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)

Of the two other major untranslated works by Frank: The Object of Knowledge (1915), based on his Ph.D. thesis, is summarized in early sections of 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.

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, but his last two (The Light Shineth in Darkness and Reality of Man) reflect his intensified reflections on faith and God's Creation.