Sobornost? Or Ego? Two Women and Two Paths

The chronicle of human events often seems to be an unrelenting tale of woe, emphasizing the presence of sin in our world. But God can bring good out of seemingly irremediable circumstances. Furthermore, he often uses pairs of people and their choices to teach us lessons about good and evil, or the right and wrong paths. That divine catechesis begins with Abel and Cain, and continues with Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Saul, and Peter and Judas.

We can also find historical examples closer to our era. The 1917 Russian Revolution was unmistakably a curse; paradoxically it was also a blessing. For the Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and others who eventually comprised the populace of the Soviet Union, the revolution meant oppression, deportation, collectivization, and a host of other evils. Externally, the world received Russian-Soviet refugees bearing the ills of occultism, atheism, non-Bolshevik Communism, and schism. But the Bolsheviks also forced out thinkers, writers, and religious people who enriched the West. The Russian-Soviet loss was the world’s gain. The bulk of the Russian-Soviet thinking—good or bad—that flowed into the diaspora can be distilled down to spiritual anthropology, or how we understand the human being. Is he the highest form of animal, able to be analyzed by his component parts, instincts, and physical needs? Does she have a soul? How and why do they interact? Russian-Soviet refugees provided multiple irreconcilable answers.

According to the esoteric thinkers George Gurdjieff (1877-1949) and his disciple P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947), humans are beings mostly unaware of the ways of higher consciousness and ignorant of large troves of hidden knowledge. The duo attempted, like their counterparts in Theosophy and Anthroposophy, to guide people into those purported higher levels of consciousness. Their school of thought is not compatible with a classical Christian understanding of humans, creatures of body and soul living under the burden of original sin.

Much closer to the traditional view were the works of writer Yevgeny Zamyatin and philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Zamyatin (1884-1937) is best known for his novel We, which centers on a nameless character in a future collectivist dystopia. The novel presents a technocratic world with a rigidly rational form of collective life in which food, clothing, sex, work, and time are all tightly regulated. This society exists in a sterile city protected by an encircling wall from nature and the remaining (primitive) humans. The protagonist, D-503, is a gifted engineer and lead builder of a space ship that will allow this society to spread its truths to other planets. D-503 appears to be a scrupulously logical and mathematical type; however, he also has a poetic and sensuous side. His world is upset when he meets a bold, mysterious woman, I-330. His deepening involvement with her takes him farther and farther from the truths he thinks he knows, even outside the wall and amongst the primitive people. By saying yes to her, he becomes more fully alive, even to the extent of betraying society’s values and breaking its laws. A doctor he sees gives him a startling diagnosis: “Apparently, you have developed a soul” (89). In the meantime he has also said yes to O-90, his state-sanctioned sex partner and the maternal counterpart to I-330. His yes to her results in the conception of their child, even though that act is punishable by her death. In the end he helps O-90 escape outside the wall carrying their unborn child. D-503 cannot live with the chaos of freedom resulting from his yes and submits to a lobotomy-like operation. As the novel ends, he is a more pliant member of society, but we are left with an ambiguous conclusion as the forces of nature and the primitive people seem to be toppling the city society. The key fact revealed is that a person is one who says yes to another—love overcomes ego.

Like Zamyatin, Berdyaev (1874-1948) thought much about the relationship between individuals and society. He critiqued what he called the “bourgeois spirit,” whether capitalist or Marxist, by which he meant that which focuses on the material and rejects the spiritual. “Freedom is a difficult thing,” Berdyaev writes in Slavery and Freedom. “It is easier to remain in slavery” (247). According to Berdyaev: “The real ‘we,’ that is, the community of people, communion in freedom, in love and mercy, has never been able to enslave man, on the contrary it is the realization of the fullness of the life of personality, its transcension [sic] towards another” (104).

That understanding of human relationship brings us to two Russian women, both émigrés to North America, who proposed divergent approaches to life: Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum (better known as Ayn Rand, 1905-1982) and Catherine de Heuck Doherty (1896-1985). Rand was a major libertarian thinker, novelist, and founder of the philosophy of Objectivism. Doherty was a Catholic activist and mystic who eventually settled in Canada and began the Madonna House apostolate. Rand grew up with religion (Judaism in her case) but became an ardent atheist, while Doherty was raised in a Russian Orthodox family. Influenced by Zamyatin’s We, Rand thought about the person and society under totalitarianism, but came to different conclusions in her early novel Anthem. The world of Anthem is if anything more collectivist and totalitarian than We, but also much more primitive and quasi-religious. Rand’s protagonist is named Equality 7-2521. Despite his intellectual promise he has been designated as a street sweeper, in part because of his rebellious nature. While performing his duties he discovers technology from a previous age. His experiments lead him to re-discover electrical light and thus a new Prometheus. He also spots and meets an attractive female, Liberty 5-3000. Accused of being an evildoer, Equality flees into the forest. Eventually Liberty joins him and they begin a new life with new names. Liberty is not his equal—she is drawn to him by his demigod characteristics. Equality says no to society and yes only to himself. “And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and meaning and the glory. The sacred word: EGO” (122-123).

Rand developed her thinking on ego into Objectivism, elaborated in a number of non-fiction books but also in the well-known novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In Anthem, Rand’s Equality 7-2521 hopes to build and indeed becomes a builder solely through the force of his own will. Her protagonist is also persecuted by the ruling authorities: reviled (79-80), threatened with burning at the stake (80), and anathematized (82). “‘What is not done collectively cannot be good,’ said [one of the ruling Council members] International 1-5537” (81). Rand’s views have remained influential, especially in North America, especially because of her defiance of all external authority.

Her counterpart Doherty is not as well-known to the public at large, but her books are influential nonetheless. Her best known work is Poustinia, an overarching look at Eastern Christian beliefs and practices for a Western audience. Doherty, unlike Rand, emphasized obedience to constituted authority. According to the author notes for her book Molchanie: “At the beginning of her new life in the West, Catherine accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church, without rejecting the spiritual wealth of her Orthodox heritage” (87). In the same book Doherty supplies the antidote to the alienation inherent in Rand’s ego-driven philosophy: “[T]here is only one way to bring people to God, and that is to love each individual personally. It is to love one totally, completely, utterly….Yes, love must be communicated person to person, otherwise it will not be effective” (77). In her book on pilgrimage, Strannik, Doherty insists that a prerequisite for pilgrimage is sobornost, which is reminiscent of solidarity in Western Catholic teaching. Sobornost “reunites you to God and man” and it is “a unity that must not be broken” (47). This unity also requires kenosis or self-emptying, a scriptural concept much-appreciated by Russian theologians.

The whole of Doherty’s thought and mission is found in “The Little Mandate,” which reads in part: “Arise – go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me [Christ], going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.” This is sobornost manifested and incarnate, the antithesis of Rand’s praise of ego.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), writing during the Cold War, discerned the societal and spiritual consequences of rising individualism in our culture: “As persons surrender a sense of responsibility to God, to the state, to family and to their vocation in life, they dissolve into atoms; atoms exist only for themselves. To say we live in the atomic age may be a more unfortunate characterization than we know; for if we are nothing but atomic individuals, then we are ready either to be split or fissioned mentally, or else collectivized into a socialistic dictatorship. The latter is nothing but the forcible organization of the chaos created by a conflict of individual egotism” (213-214). Sheen correctly interpreted the signs of the times, foreseeing that a godless society reliant on science for guidance would be a society adrift, prone to either individualism or collectivism—both paths to a soul-crushing and dehumanizing existence.

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Berdyaev, Nikolai. Slavery and Freedom. Trans. R.M. French. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.

Doherty, Catherine. Molchanie: Experiencing the Silence of God. (Combermere, ON: Madonna House, 2009).

Doherty, Catherine. Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man. (South Bend, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1981).

Doherty, Catherine. Strannik: The Call to the Pilgrimage of the Heart. (Combermere, ON: Madonna House, 1991).

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. New York: Signet, 1946.

Sheen, Fulton J. Guide to Contentment. Canfield, OH: Alba House, 1996.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Harper Voyager, 2012.

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Greg Cook is a writer living with his wife in New York's North Country. His work has appeared at Crisis, OnePeterFive, and St. Austin Review. He is the author of two books of poetry: Against the Alchemists and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini's Sacred Signs. He is at work on a collection of essays.

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