Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Pushkin's Vision of the Enlightened Self: Individualism, Authority and Tradition beyond Karamzin *

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Pushkin's Vision of the Enlightened Self: Individualism, Authority and Tradition beyond Karamzin *

Article excerpt

In the Memoirs of Princess Dashkova we find a curious account of one of the Princess' conversations with Diderot concerning the socio-political conditions and the prospects of the Enlightenment in Russia. In response to Dashkova's praise of the Russian political system, in which "the gentry serve as intermediaries between the peasants and the Crown," Denis Diderot retorts:

   But surely, Princess, you cannot deny that freedom would increase
   their knowledge and understanding, and that these would later give
   rise to abundance and riches?

To her interlocutor's great frustration, Dashkova easily parries Diderot's argument by stating the idea that can be called the cornerstone of Russian conservative liberalism. She says: "In stating your case you have, if you will forgive my saying so, confused cause and effect. It is knowledge and understanding that produce freedom; the latter without the former would produce nothing but anarchy and confusion." (1)

The argument between Dashkova and Diderot represents in a nutshell the central problem at the heart of all Russian debates about the appropriateness of Enlightenment ideas in Russia and the methods of their implementation. In this debate Diderot represents the rationalist strand of the Enlightenment, defined by the belief in the unlimited and universal potential of human reason. Diderot considers personal freedom a prerequisite for socio-economic and cultural progress, which can be achieved not through wise government but through the rational autonomy of each individual. Dashkova, on the other hand, believes that education and appropriate personal upbringing must precede the acquisition of political maturity, not follow it. Her point of view is closer to the ideas of the British conservative liberal thinkers, such as for instance Edmund Burke, who believed that a traditional class society guarantees both a sense of personal dignity to each individual and moral health to the nation. (2) Dashkova fears that any sudden change of the established social and legal structure would only push Russian society into an abyss of anarchy and confusion, rather than free the dormant rational powers of the human subject. (3) Therefore, public education and liberal enlightenment must proceed before any major political or social changes can take place.

In the first two decades of the nineteenth century Dashkova's point of view on the methodology of the Russian Enlightenment was shared by many important thinkers, including Karamzin and Pushkin. Both of these writers, fascinated in their youths with the Greek republican ideals, in their mature years embraced a more conservative political perspective. Both of them could be called conservatives in so far as they believed that the progress of consciousness and the formation of mature and responsible individuals capable of political participation had to precede political reforms. However, the project of gradual intellectual and moral enlightenment itself presented the greatest dilemma for the advocates of a slow "evolution from below." Thus Karamzin, despite his great contribution as a historian and his indubitable achievement in the reformation of Russian literary culture, failed to offer a viable program of public enlightenment and, by doing so, to reconcile his liberal intellectual ideals with his arch-conservative politics.

The task of this article is to trace the differences between Pushkin's and Karamzin's views concerning the emergence of the new "enlightened" personality. I suggest that in the years following Karamzin's death in 1826 Pushkin's thought transcended the inherently limited and contradictory Karamzinian approach to the Enlightenment and achieved, within the framework of a conservative outlook, a more dynamic and viable understanding of the relationship between the development of individual self-consciousness and socio-political progress. While Karamzin sought to bar the individual from interfering with the political course of the nation, Pushkin came to believe that Russia's political stability and historical destiny depended on the free choice and conscious support of each mature individual. …

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