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S.L. Frank

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 Fr. 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 his wife described as similar to being "hunted like an animal." He and his wife Tatyana Sergeevna Bartseva (1886-1984), whose union in marriage he came to cherish as a concrete expression of the mystery of Christian love, had four children: Victor (1909-?), Alexei (1910-1969), Natalia (1912-1999), and Vasiliy (1920-1996).

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, the apophatic tradition of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and the hesychastic teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and 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 Fr. 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 of self and others unto death. His biographer has said his approach to evil as inconsequential in the face of love may also reflect Frank's need for tranquility amid the turmoils of 20th-century refugee life. He criticized the Western Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin as a source of the disconnect from experiential Christian faith that he saw as the root of 20th-century totalitarian ideologies and a certain type of heartless Western rationalism, while upholding 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.

In 1965, some 15 years after Frank's death, Fr. Georges Florovsky, former dean of St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Harvard and professor at Princeton, wrote the Foreword to the English translation of Frank's Reality and Man in which he expressed sympathy for Frank's philosophical search but categorized it as overly pessimistic, apophatic, and Platonist, in allegedly eschewing the Cross for a Platonic escapism. Fr. Florovsky was responding to a critique of his own academic field of theology as overly abstract by Frank, from the latter's emphasis on Christian existentialism and experiential faith. Frank's philosophical approach to the Cross in that way could be thought of as that of the Wise Thief, St. Rakh in Russian tradition, who "stole Paradise" while on Golgotha. Frank suggested in Reality and Man a parallel between his own writings' focus on the coincidence-yet-distinction of the Kingdom of God and of human experience, and St. Gregory of Palamas' stress in Orthodox tradition on the distinction yet unity of God's Essence and the workings of the uncreated energies. That was related also to St. Maximus' teachings on the logoi of the Logos, which again has been more deeply explored in recent theological scholarship than in Fr. Florovsky's time.

All Frank's works remain relatively little studied in 21st-century global Orthodox and secular scholarship. This perhaps reflects Frank's lack of firm academic and ecclesiastical affiliations abroad (such as those of contemporaries like Fr. Florovsky), where 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; the lack of English translations of his work until the last years of his life (his first work to be translated into English was in 1946 and he reposed in 1950), 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. These factors and Frank's more introverted family-centered life and relatively poor health in exile limited his social networks when living in Western Europe. 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, as is a short helpful essay in English on Frank's mature social philosophy by Dylan James Pahman. Phillip J. Swoboda also offers an interpretation of his philosophy as "expressive humanism" in his contribution on Frank to the collection A History of Russian Philosophy 1830-1930: Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity (2010), while Boobyer has argued that Frank is best understood as an anti-utopianist Christian realist, a kind of Russian alternative to Reinhold Niebuhr in the mid-twentieth century ("A Russian Version of Christian Realism: Spiritual Wisdom and Politics in the Thought of S.L. Frank (1877-1950)," International History Review 38 (2015): 45-65).


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), God With Us (1946), The Light Shineth in Darkness (1949), Reality and Man (1956)

Regarding 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.