Letters on the Philosophy of History by Petr Iakovlevich Chaadaev

The Letter from Petr Iakovlevich Chaadaev is a dense philosophical letter about why Russia is and should continue to strive towards becoming a Westernized country. The letter begins with a response to a previous letter from a female friend of his. He focuses on reprimanding her regarding her recent moral or intellectual qualms and reinforcing the strength of religion in her life. By page 164, the argument shifts to a more westernized position and the argument for why Russia should want to be considered Western begins. The piece continues to define what Russia is and how that makes it a western society. The argument centers around religion, morality and historical ties and how all three of these need to be used to push Russia ever more towards the Western ideals and standards. He remarks on how Russia does not possess all that it should in regard to its historical memory as a country and chastises his society for latching onto any new thought that comes across. Leading to the belief that Chaadaev did not want people to keep changing their thoughts but instead focusing on what the Western philosophers were preaching. This gave the author a very enlightenment sort of vibe, Catherine the Great would have been proud. Continuing on, Chaadaev displays his connection between religion and westernization. He claims that Russia is a western country purely because they are Christian like the rest of Europe. On page 165, he readily states; “all Europe called itself Christendom and the term was used in public law” (Chaadaev 165). He further justifies this by saying if all of Europe is Christendom then Russia, a Christian nation, is a part of Christendom and therefore European. He also argues that Russia may be as moral if not more moral than Europe, further qualifying it as a western nation. He argues that the Russian society developed its moral compass from the European powers during the exploits of Peter the Great and has sense held fast to them and continued to live by those examples. An interesting argument given the Decembrist revolt was only a few years previous and that by this point the Russians were almost ten years into the Caucasian war. This long-winded letter ends with Chaadaev’s acknowledgement that though he could not make this brief, history in and of itself cannot be brief. His arguments stand as a good example of the Westernizers view in the intellectual argument over what kind of region does Russia belong to: The West, The East or is it its own Slavic Region?


Questions:

  1. Looking at page 164, Chaadaev argues that Russia has no roots or history of its own. How does this help his overall argument that Russia should strive to be more Western?
  2. Chaadaev mentions the “Atmosphere of the West” (pg 165) and talks about how all of Europe was shaped by religion and ideologies that in return made Europeans more intellectual and modernize. Based on Russia’s past history, could the same be said?
  3. Around page 165, We see Chaadaev argue about the morality of Europe and how superior it is given it history, psychology and familial ties. If as argued previously, Russia has none of these things, how can Russia grow to be more like them? What does Chaadaev hope to see changed in the Russian Society to make it truly westernized? 
  4. Throughout the letter, Chaadaev uses many different points to convey his philosophical argument that Russia should’ve became more modernized because the rest of Europe was able to. Do his central themes of historical identity, religion and morality provide a through argument that Russia is Westernized?
  5. On page 170 at the start of the second paragraph, there is an argument about opinions and their role in society. Given the philosophical nature of this text, how can modern society take place in the realm of opinions when history is based on factual analysis and tangible evidence?
  6. Religion plays a huge role throughout this whole piece. On the bottom of page 171, Chaadaev attempts to claim that Russia is western because Christainity means westernization. How do we see this argument develop? Is it effective in proving his point?
  7. Pretend to be of the point of view of a slavophile. Are there holes in Chaadaev’s argument that Russia is a Western country and is continuing to westernize? Where do we see in the historical timeline, proof that Russia may still be more focused on the Slavic or eastern regions? 
  8. Towards the end of the letter, Chaadaev discusses what Christianity means to society. (Halfway down page 172) If Christianity is everything and unites everyone, is there any way to argue that all Christians are not inherently western? Are there other aspects of what makes a country Western that Chaadaev ignores? (Think also to page 165 where he refers to all of Europe as Christendom.) 

4 Replies to “Letters on the Philosophy of History by Petr Iakovlevich Chaadaev”

  1. In response to question one, Chaadaev argues that Russia has no roots or history of its own. By doing this it helps him say that Russia should strive to be more Western. He explains that countries all over Europe have common goals, features, ways of life that set them apart but Russia does not. They have influence on them from other countries, and they influence other countries as well. By doing this, it helps other countries form their own sense of identity. He is saying that Russia should strive to be more Western because by doing so it will help create a sense of identity for Russia, and bring a commonality among the people. It will also help them develop as a country. So by saying that Russia has no roots or history of its own it only makes the people want to create their own sense of identity.

  2. 3. Chaadaev believed that it was Russia’s adherence Byzantine Orthodoxy that truly set them apart from the rest of Europe, and in doing so, cut them off from the advancements made by the European’s as one people. He believed Catholicism to be the binding agent for the peoples of Europe to progress, and only through their acceptance of Western Christianity could the Russian’s hope to catch up with their western counterparts.

    1. I agree, however to expand just a tad bit, Chaadaev believed Roman Catholicism to be the link that how bonded all of western Europe to being civilized. Due to Russians having Byzantine Orthodoxy being their many religion, Chaadaev explained that this prevented Russians from ranking up in the world.

  3. In response to question number one we can relate this back to the debate of Slavophiles vs Westernizers. The Westernizers argues that Russia did not have a history out side of the West which is similar to the argument being made here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *