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Iranianism versus Kushitism

October 29, 2012

Sarah J. Young’s highly recommended second lecture on Russian thought is about the Slavophiles of the 1830s and 1840s. Quite refreshingly her post centers on the Slavophiles and not on contrasting them to the Westernizers or comparing them to Dostoevskii’s later group of pochvenniki (the name suggests people who believe what matters for how things develop is their particular native soil). These other groups are mentioned, but there’s much more depth on, say, Khomiakov’s opposition of “Iranian” freedom and “Kushite” necessity:

So they were markedly critical of the West in a variety of ways. This formulation of the West’s negative qualities and Russia’s contrasting positive value rested upon Khomiakov’s philosophy of history in his Notes on Universal History, which he saw as being driven by two opposing principles: freedom and necessity. He called the principle of freedom “Iranian,” as he claimed it originated in the Middle East, with religions “centred on the worship of a single, freely creating divine entity” ([Sarah] Hudspith, p. 12). He termed the principle of necessity “Kushite,” originating, he said, in Ethiopia (the biblical land of Kush) and in pantheistic religions which identify the universe with God. Hudspith continues:

According to Khomiakov, Iranian societies were characterized by their organic societal structure and by their spirituality and creativity. […] Kushite societies were mechanically constructed and could be broken down and rebuilt without violating their wholeness, whereas Iranian societies, like a living organism, could not be reduced to their constituent parts. (Hudspith, p. 12)

Khomiakov characterizes the effect of these two different principles on the form civilizations take thus:

In Iranianism one finds oral culture, verbal writing systems, a simple, communal existence, spiritual prayer and disdain for the body, […]. In Kushitism one finds artistic culture, writing systems based on symbols, organized state structures, prayer through incantation, and veneration of the body […]. (Khomiakov, PSS, 5: 531, cited in Hudspith, p. 13)

One may justifiably be sceptical about this basis of this in fact; [Nicholas] Riasanovsky describes Khomiakov’s History as “a peculiar combination of history, philology, and fantasy, but chiefly fantasy.” (p. 71) […] While one might expect Khomiakov to ascribe a common origin to the two, because of their shared Christian religion, in fact he identifies their pre-Christian roots in the opposing principles. Thus Western Christianity’s roots in pagan Rome ally it to Kushitism or necessity, whilst Russia’s ancient tradition of communality indicates its roots in Iranianism or freedom.

Here is one edition of Khomiakov. The Iranianism-Kushitism contrast doesn’t begin to give an idea of how many sweeping ideas about cultures (India, ancient Greece, Jewish monotheism, Asia, Mexico and Peru…) fly by in these pages.

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