The recent encyclical on social doctrine, Caritas in Veritatae, has raised interesting questions about international cooperation and development. I’ve certainly had some good conversations. But I’ve been struck by a fairly widespread lack of acquaintance with War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ by Vladimir Solovyov (1853–1900). It’s a book that is worth knowing, not the least because it bears directly on a central theme of Caritas in Veritatae: “humanity’s journey towards unity.”
Solovyov was a confidante of Dostoevsky, and some speculate that the young Solovyov was the model for one of Dostoevsky’s memorable fictional characters, Alyosha Karamazov. He certainly shared Dostoevsky’s conviction that modern secular culture was careening toward a soulless anti-humanism that puts on the mask of philanthropy. Indeed, War, Progress, and the End of History should be read as a rich elaboration of the main thrust of Dostoevsky’s more famous tale of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.
War, Progress, and the End of History features three conversations among elite Russians who have repaired to the French Riviera for relaxation. One is a retired General, another an eminent diplomat whom Solovyov dubs “the Politician,” and still another a young Prince, an enthusiastic follower of Tolstoy’s pacifism and idealistic morality. The group is rounded out by a mysterious “Mr. Z,” the clearest representative of Solovyov’s own views, and a middle-aged lady who often intervenes to keep the conversation focused on the main topic: the true meaning of war and peace.
Provoked by a pacifist newspaper article, the General dominates the first conversation. Against the presumption that war is inherently evil, the General pronounces the Russian army “a glorious band of Christ-loving warriors.” The Prince, of course, is horrified by this intimate association of Christianity with warfare. “Christianity,” he observes, “absolutely condemns war.” Christ came to bring peace.
With this sharp juxtaposition of characters, Solovyov dramatizes two moral intuitions. On the one hand, most of us can identify some wars and uses of violence that are commendable rather than condemnable. Solovyov’s characters give examples of the sort that show up in ethics textbooks: a father defending his daughter against a vicious attacker, a battalion of soldiers defeating an enemy force bent on genocide. Yet, at the same time, it seems obvious that human beings were made for peace, not war. So, which shall it be? Is war holy or profane?
For the most part, we are trained to form our divided intuitions in terms of a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force. This allows us to distinguish between just and unjust wars. Solovyov adverts to this approach, but sets it aside. He recognizes that the modern tendency to view war as profane does not arise out of new conclusions drawn from traditional modes of moral reflection. Instead, as Solovyov shows, deeper assumptions about human history and progress play a decisive role.
As the conversation evolves, Solovyov draws attention to the fact that modern pacifism has difficulty accounting for its own novelty. Why have nearly all men and women in all previous ages endorsed some uses of violence? In the character of the Prince, Solovyov rehearses Tolstoy’s answer, which turns out to be the answer given by most modern moral idealists. “My conscience,” the Prince reports, “has progressed beyond this elementary stage.” The true content of Christianity is now coming to the fore. For the first time in human history, authentic discipleship is a real possibility.
In the second conversation, the Politician holds the floor. At first, he seems very different from the Prince. A modern man of science and reason, the Politician dismisses the Prince’s dreamy idealism. Yet, when it comes to war, he also believes in progress. War and conflict, he argues, have no usefulness in our complex, interconnected world. Much like theorists in the 1990s who predicted that globalization would create economic disincentives for conflict, the Politician observes that war had become impractical. “The military period of history,” he announces, “is over.” In our new circumstances, “peaceful politics is a criterion and symptom of cultural progress.”
In the third conversation, Mr. Z rotates to the center of attention, and it turns out that he also sees a link between war and progress. Unlike the Prince and Politician, however, Mr. Z articulates an apocalyptic vision of history, quoting a striking passage from the Gospel of Luke in which the Prince of Peace says, “Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (12:51). History is progressing toward its appointed end-a division between good and evil, and their final conflict.
Solovyov does a brilliant job drawing together a number of theological threads. In the main body of the third conversation, Mr. Z engages the Prince in a debate about the resurrection. Over and against the Prince’s ethic of non-resistance, the pugnacious, aggressive character of Nicene doctrine comes into view. Mr. Z points out that the Risen Christ wins the decisive battle in God’s war against the Kingdom of Death. This war defines human history and it the engine of its true progress. By contrast, the accommodating, revisionist impulse in liberal Christianity reflects our desire to soften this conflict and broker a false peace that reconciles us to death.
The third conversation ends with Mr. Z recounting a fanciful and often amusing story of the anti-Christ. In this tale, the anti-Christ begins as a progressive modern intellectual who writes books on biblical criticism, world peace, and the unity of religions, and who eventually becomes a world leader-a figure that contemporary readers might imagine as a composite of Marcus Borg, Thomas Friedman, John Hick, and Al Gore. His great promise is peace and prosperity, which he eventually provides as head of a global empire. Against him only a small group of believers remains, a remnant of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox now unified by the final persecution. The stage is set for the final triumph. The peace of Christ embodied in the small but finally united spiritual witness of the church overcomes the world government ruled by the anti-Christ.
To a great extent, Caritas in Veritatae cuts against the dark vision of conflict that dominates Solovyov’s vision of history. The recent encyclical encourages us to give sympathetic consideration to the development of global institutions capable of solving the world’s problems. Yet, in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict takes a more cautionary view. In his exegesis of the temptations of Jesus, Benedict cites War, Progress, and the End of History.
In his use of Solovyov in Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict draws attention to the fact that the promise of progress turns out to have its dangers. When the devil takes Jesus to a high mountaintop and offers him dominion over the entire world, Benedict’s interpretation follows the main lines of Solovyov’s vision of the anti-Christ. Jesus is tempted by the philanthropic promise of a politically unified globe. It is the tempting vision, as Benedict observes, of “one great kingdom of peace and well-being.” And it is a vision very much alive today.
The problem, as Benedict points out, is spiritual. To believe in global institutions as the source of true peace lead us to “the worship of well-being and rational planning.” We end up believing in a false gospel of Peace and Prosperity. This is not the gospel Christ brings. God turns out to be much more ambitious. Our true peace is fellowship with him, and with others in him. As Solovyov’s story of the Anti-Christ reminds us-and the story is an imaginative interpretation of the Book of Revelation-progress toward Christ’s peace will not be conflict free. Humanity will not happily converge upon a harmonious end of history. Indeed, the promise of happy convergence may be the last and most powerful weapon of evil.
As I said, Caritas in Veritatae raises interesting questions. No one can doubt that our world is drawing toward a much greater degree of economic, cultural, and political integration. But how are we to read the signs of the times? How does Pope Benedict read them? Caritas in Veritatae points in one direction; his entirely sympathetic use of War, Progress and the End of History points in another. Perhaps this should not surprise us. The signs of our times aren’t easy to decipher.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.