Vladimir Solovyov on the Significance of the Self-Aware Human Individual

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Significance of the Self-Aware Human Individual

Stephen Talbott:

"Among animals, the life of the species takes precedence over the individual, whose efforts tend primarily to benefit the species. In this context, sexual attraction, manifested in sexual rivalry and figuring in natural selection, serves not merely for reproduction of organisms, but also for the generation of more perfect organisms.

In humans, by contrast, individuality achieves a significance that changes everything. The expression of the human personality is never made a passive and transient instrument of an evolutionary process external to it. This judgment, far from expressing mere human conceit, follows from the rational consciousness attained in human beings. Quite apart from sentience and whatever consciousness he shares with animals, the human individual can evaluate his own states and actions in their relation to “universal ideal norms”.

The point here is central for Solovyov. The individual human mind is “not merely the organ of personal life, but likewise the organ of remembrance and divination for the whole of humanity, and even for the whole of nature”. Capable of a rational understanding of truth and of conforming his actions to this higher consciousness, “the human may infinitely perfect his life and nature, without departing from the limits of human form”. This leads Solovyov to the conviction, not that evolution stops with humans, but that its continuation remains thoroughly human:

What rational basis can be conceived for the creation of new things, in essence more perfect forms, when there is already a form capable of infinite self-perfection, able to make room for all the fullness of absolute content? With the appearance of such a form further progress can consist only in new degrees of its own development, and not in its replacement by any creations whatsoever of another kind.

Here, where Solovyov’s thought may appear quite foreign to modern ideas, it also connects with current notions about how the possibilities for evolution change in the light of human culture — and also with the idea, occasionally voiced, that the human individual is more or less analogous to the animal species. Another way to get at the latter point would be to say that, for humanity, the problem of the origin of species becomes the problem of individual transformation.

Among less individuated organisms, the situation is altogether different. According to Solovyov, “the succession of higher forms from lower ones … is a fact absolutely external and alien to the animals themselves, a fact quite nonexistent for them”. The elephant and ape know nothing about the evolutionary conditions of their own existence. Even the progressively higher development of a particular or isolated organism’s consciousness does not contribute to the enlargement of the general consciousness, “which is as absolutely absent in these intelligent animals as in a stupid oyster”.

The importance of being conscious. (An editorial comment:) Consciousness, of course — especially when raised to the power of reason — is problematic for the material-minded biologist, who in many contexts prefers to ignore it. But this is to put out of view the profoundest of biological facts: consciousness alone is where the evolutionary process is first fully and explicitly realized. Evolution here “comes into its own” and declares itself in human awareness. That which has gone on from the beginning now operates, at least in part, through the conscious choice of the individual and the quest for universal ideals.

In slightly different words: what must be realized through individual human striving today can be seen as an expression — a further development and transformation — of the very processes that were at work in simpler, less individuated life forms. When we observe animals of increasing complexity, we notice a progressive internalization of function and an expansion of interior, sentient life, culminating in self-awareness. That which worked on the organism throughout evolutionary history to develop this capacity for self-awareness, now works through the human being in the exercise of this capacity. Is there any reason to doubt that it is the same power in both cases?

All of which suggests that evolution has had a certain mindful character all along — or a more-than-mindful character, inasmuch as the power to engender minds can hardly be alien or inferior to the capacity of the minds it engenders.

That, I hope, is a fair gloss upon Solovyov’s remarks about consciousness. It would be well to realize, in any case, that we are in no position to reject his emphasis on the central role of consciousness in evolution before we have at least half-begun our own reckoning with the still largely ignored relation between consciousness and evolutionary biology (Nagel 2012*).

Individual, Society, Cosmos

The importance of the individual, for Solovyov, is bound up with the “positive unity of all”, since through the human being there can shine forth the truth of the entire universe. The individual thereby becomes “the center of the universal consciousness of nature”.

This “positive unity of all”, along with the “universal consciousness of nature”, is perhaps where Solovyov’s thought becomes most difficult. In his larger body of work he seems always to be approaching these notions — and always from different directions. He is, in general, acutely aware of the fragmentation of human experience and of the world constituted by this experience. And he is preoccupied with the potentials to overcome this fragmentation and achieve wholeness.

* Beyond mutual impenetrability.

In The Meaning of Love Solovyov speaks of a two-fold impenetrability of things: they are separated from each other both in time and in space. “That which lies at the basis of our world is being in a state of disintegration, being dismembered into parts and moments which exclude one another”.

Overcoming this disintegration — re-membering ourselves and the world in which we live — is, as Solovyov sees it, a personal and social task with cosmic implications. Moreover, it is a task consistent with what we can already recognize, behind the disintegration, as the essential “unity of all”.

He cites — to give but one example of the principle of unity — a simple, profound, and universal physical phenomenon, one that would change a great deal of modern thought if we would only spend some time contemplating it: I mean the phenomenon of two objects gravitationally attracting each other. In Solovyov’s language: here we see that “parts of the material world do not exclude one another, but, on the contrary, aspire mutually to include one another and to mingle with each other”.

We could not retain our commonplace image of separate parts if we truly reckoned with the mutual participation of two objects gravitationally attracted to each other. It is not a matter of one object exerting an external force upon another “from a distance” (as students are often asked to imagine the matter), but of two entities caught up in a single, unified embrace wherein the being — the very substance and activity — of one is inseparable from that of the other. This truth, evident enough to the physicist, suggests that there is something pathological about our routine habits of perception through which we form our picture of a world consisting of separate and disconnected objects.

All our universe, insofar as it is not a chaos of discrete atoms but a single and united whole, presupposes, over and above its fragmentary material, a form of unity, and likewise an active power subduing to this unity elements antagonistic to it. … The body of the universe is the totality of the real-ideal, the psycho-physical ... Matter in itself, i.e., the dead conglomeration of inert and impenetrable atoms, is only conceived by abstracting intelligence, but is not observed or revealed in any such actuality.

That is a remarkable statement, coming as it did before the early twentieth-century revolution in physics. Solovyov points out that there can be no such thing as a “material unity” — not, at least, as matter is normally conceived. “Material things” just coexist side by side. Any unity must be ideal. After all, even the mathematical laws of physics, which offer one route toward a unified understanding of phenomena, are ideas — but ideas that belong both to our understanding and to the nature of things themselves.

Solovyov goes on to speak about the relation between the single animal and the species, the human individual and society, and the potential of the latter relation to become an image of, and contribute to, a universal or cosmic unity. Of course, this juxtaposition of human society and the cosmos, of earthly evolution and cosmic evolution, is one of those places where the twentieth-century biologist is likely to recoil in learned horror.

While these aspects of Solovyov’s thought are beyond the scope of this article, we would do well to recall a primary reason for the horrified recoil: namely, the Cartesian split of the world into two incommensurable substances — thinking substance and extended substance. Once we see beyond this supposed incommensurability, can we really believe the cosmos to be barricaded against the evolution of human consciousness3?

For anyone who should wish to pursue such matters, I can do no better than recommend Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1973*) and Saving the Appearances (1965*), ideally to be read in that order.

Sexual love as the redemption of individuality. The human capacity to recognize and realize truth “is not only generic but also individual: each human is capable of recognizing and realizing truth, each may become a living reflection of the absolutely whole, a conscious and independent organ of the universal life”. In the rest of nature there is also truth, “but only in its objective communality, unknown to the particular creatures. It forms them and acts in them and through them — as a fateful power, as the very law of their being, unknown to them, to which they are subject involuntarily and unconsciously. … Here love appears as a one-sided triumph of the general, the generic, over the individual”.

Solovyov expands on this difference between humans and animals by noting that egoism is the source of individual life and of the idea of the Whole. But egoism is not enough either for a true individual or for the genuine unity of the Whole, for through it a man affirms his particular being “as a whole for itself, wishing to be all in separation from the all — outside the truth”. On the other hand,

Truth as a living power that takes possession of the internal being of a human and actually rescues him from false self-assertion is termed Love. Love as the actual abrogation of egoism is the real justification and salvation of individuality.

In sum: human love signifies “the justification and salvation of individuality through the sacrifice of egoism”. The problem with egoism is not that we value ourselves too highly. Indeed, to deny absolute worth to ourselves would be to deny human worth altogether. No, the problem is that the significance we ascribe to ourselves is denied to others.

Of course, nearly everyone, in an abstract, theoretical sense, grants the principle of equality to others. But with any self-awareness at all, it is easy enough for us to recognize (painful as the recognition may be) that in our “innermost feelings and deeds” we assume “complete incommensurability” between ourselves and others. I am everything, they are nothing. And so far as I hold this attitude, I can hardly claim absolute worth even for myself. Such worth is more a potential than a reality. “I” can become “all” only together with others.

“True individuality is a certain specific likeness of the unity-of-the-all, a certain specific means of receiving and appropriating to oneself all that is other”. In reality, egoism impoverishes the individual by cutting him off from greater meaning. The one power that can undermine egoism is “love, and chiefly sexual love”. It compels us, “not by abstract consciousness, but by an internal emotion and the will of life to recognize for ourselves the absolute significance of another”. We realize our own truth and significance precisely “in our capacity to live not only in ourselves, but also in another”."

("A note of caution. It would be easy, but very mistaken, to take Solovyov as belittling other forms of love.")

* Solovyov on “Sexual Love”

"The term “sexual love”, for Solovyov, did not refer (as it likely would today) specifically to a physical act, but more generally to the love between a man and a woman: “I call sexual love, for want of a better term, the exclusive attachment (one-sided as well as mutual) between persons of different sexes which makes possible the relation between them of husband and wife, but in no wise do I prejudge by this the question of the importance of the physical side of the matter.”

“Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very center of our personal lives. This is characteristic of every kind of love, but predominantly of sexual love; it is distinguished from other kinds of love by greater intensity, by a more engrossing character, and by the possibility of more complete overall reciprocity.”


Varieties of Love

Stephen Talbott:

"Biologists must come to terms with other forms of love as well. Solovyov considers these, but finds each of them, whatever its profound virtues, unable to play the full evolutionary role of sexual love: Patriotism and love of humanity cannot do away with egoism because there is such a great incommensurability between the lover and the loved. “Humanity, and even the nation, cannot be for the individual being the selfsame concrete object as he is himself”.

In maternal love “there cannot be full reciprocity and living interchange, for the very reason that the lover and the loved ones belong to different generations, that for the latter life is in the future with new independent interests and tasks, in the midst of which representatives of the past appear only like pale shadows. … The mother whose whole soul is wrapped up in her children does of course sacrifice her egoism, but at the same time she loses her individuality … For the mother, though her child is dearer than all, yet it is only just as her child ...”

“Friendship between persons of one and the same sex is lacking in the overall difference in form, in qualities which complete each other”.

The object of mystical love “comes in the long run to an absolute indistinction, which swallows up the human individuality. Here egoism is abrogated only in that very insufficient sense in which it is abrogated when a person falls into a state of very deep sleep (to which it is compared in the Upanishads and the Vedas, where at times also the union of individual souls is directly identified with the universal spirit). Between a living human and the mystical ‘Abyss’ of absolute indistinction, owing to the complete heterogeneity and incommensurability of these magnitudes, not only living interchange, but even simple compatibility cannot exist”."