The Realism of S. L. Frank
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The Realism of S. L. Frank

S. L. Frank

Today at The Imaginative Conservative, I offer a brief look into the social though of the Russian philosopher S. L. Frank:

In his 1930 book, The Spiritual Foundations of Society, Frank offers a refreshing vision of a conservatism that cannot survive apart from creativity.

The book is a remarkable tour de force of intelligent, nuanced, and in some ways even prescient Christian social thought. One can find references—some explicit, some in Frank’s own words—to personalism, natural law, solidarity, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, organicism, and ordered liberty, among others. These are all tied together through the uniquely Russian Orthodox concept of sobornost’ and its counterpart obshchestvennost’, the inner, supratemporal spiritual unity of society and its outer, temporal and mechanical form, respectively. Through these two lenses, he examines the perennial questions of social life: individualism and collectivism, morality and law, hierarchy and equality, the state and civil society, inter alia.

In one sense, we might say that Frank advocates a sort of “Third Way” between these pairs, but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Instead, he insists on the fundamental duality of life, not a terium quid but a both/and, tempered by actual historical experience.

Frank understood that ideals alone — as most Third Way proposals tend to be — are not enough. History is full of examples of people trying to incarnate their perfect vision of society only to create something utterly different, exposing the unreality of their vision. “The leaders of the French Revolution,” he wrote, “desired to attain liberty, equality, fraternity, the kingdom of truth and reason, but they actually created a bourgeois order. And this is the way it usually is in history.”

His views on revolution make for a good example of how his philosophy was informed by historical reality. I write,

If one innovates simply to innovate, one will either find oneself, having won the reactionary fight, as now part of the new establishment or else stuck forever rebelling, dissatisfied, cynical, and restless. Those who wish for progress will not find it apart from conservatism.

Frank, who had previously survived the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, had little sympathy for such revolutionary romanticism and was an outspoken critic well before that tragedy came upon his native Russia. “Radicalism which has become revolt, revolution,” he wrote, “is reactionary in its very essence, for in destroying it leads not to the advancement but to the regression and reduction of life.”

Unfortunately for Frank, like many others he had fled to Germany. In addition, though a Russian Orthodox Christian he was ethnically Jewish. So soon after writing The Spiritual Foundations of Society, he had to flee for his life again.

One of his last published works, The Light Shineth in the Darkness (1949), reflects how heavily the tragic events of the first half of the twentieth century weighed upon him. He wrote,

In the problem of the light and the darkness, the problem of the light that shines in darkness, i.e., in the combination of two fundamental ideas, the incomprehensible, unnatural but factually evident resistance of the darkness to the light, and the possibility of faith in the light despite this resistance of the darkness — are concentrated all the thoughts and doubts, all the hopes, to which the European consciousness has come as a result of the experience of the first four-and-one-half decades of the 20th century, and particularly the horrific experience of the Second World War…. People whose first moral convictions were formed under the influence of the ideas of the 19th century cannot but be aware — insofar as they have at all preserved the ability to learn from the experience of life — that they have received and are receiving a lesson of the first importance, a lesson that exposes many of their former convictions (indeed the most essential of these convictions) as illusions and sets before them new, tormenting problems.

As we recently observed the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb, revisiting a thoughtful writer like S. L. Frank, who lived through that awful time in human history, can help us better understand it and to “learn from the experience of life” today.

For more on S. L. Frank, read my essay, “The Imaginative Conservatism of S. L. Frank” at The Imaginative Conservatism here.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.