Today I want to share with you an excerpt from an absolutely amazing text which, to my knowledge, has ever been published anywhere on the English-language Internet: the book “The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters” by Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), specifically, a part of the second chapter of the book entitled “Letter two: Doubt“.
In this excerpt, Father Paul compares the Russian word Istina, the Greek word Aletheia, the Latin Veritas and the Hebrew ‘Emet from a linguistic point of you. I find most interesting the “tension” between the two groups furthest away from each other: Russian vs Latin and Greek vs Hebrew. There is so much which could be said about that, but I don’t want to bore you with my own musings – I much rather share the text with you directly. At the end, I have added a short bio of Father Pavel who was both an amazing and a controversial personality.
The first time I read this text, I was in my early twenties, it hit me like a ton of bricks and I could never forget it. I hope that you will also find it worth the (at times difficult) read.
Cheers and hugs to all,
Excerpt from the book “The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters” by Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937)
Let us now turn to the etymology. [The Russian word} Is-ti-na and its derivatives (cf. the Lettish ist-s, ist-en-s) are related to es-t’, est-e-stvo (to be, essence). They can be com-pared with the Polish istot-a [entity], istot-nie (really), istniec (to exist really). Others have the same view of the etymology of the word “istina.” According to the definition of V. Dal’, for example, “istina is all that is genuine, authentic, exact, just, that which is. All that is [estl is istina. Are not est’ and estina, istina one and the same?” Dal’ asks. Mikloshich, Mikutsky, and our specialist in old words, F. Shimkevich,11 are of the same opinion. It is clear from this that, among • the various meanings of the word “istyi,” we find “closely resembling.” According to the old explanation of a certain merchant, A. Fomin, “istyi” means similar, exact. Thus, he explains the ancient locution “istyi vo otsa” to mean “exactly like the father.” This ontologism in the Russian understanding of the truth is strengthened and deepened for us if we consider the etymology of the verb est’. Est’ comes from the root es, which in Sanskrit gives as (e.g., cismi = esmi; asti = esti). Esmj, est’ can without difficulty be related to the Old Slavic esmi; the Greek eimi (esmi}; the Latin (e)sum, est; the German ist; the Sanskrit asmi, asti, etc) But in accordance with certain hints in the Sanskrit, this root es signified—in its most ancient, concrete phase of development to breathe, hauchen, ath-men. In confirmation of this view of the root as, Curtius points to the Sanskrit words as-u-s the breath of life), asu-ras (vital, lebendig); and, equivalent to the Latin os, mouth, the words as, us-ja-m, which also signify mouth; the German atinnen is also related to this. Thus, “est”‘ originally meant to breathe. Respiration, or breath, was always considered to be the main attribute and even the very essence of life. And even today, the usual answer to the question, “Is he alive?” is “He’s breathing.” Whence the second, more abstract meaning of “est”‘: he’s alive, he has strength. Finally, “est” acquires its most abstract meaning, that of the verb that expresses existence. To breathe, to live, to be—these are the three layers in the root es in the order of their decreasing concreteness, an order that, in the opinion of linguists, corresponds to their chronological order. The root as signifies an existence as regular as breathing Beira gleichmassig fortgesetze Existenz) in contrast to the root bhu, which one finds in bye, fui, bin, phuo, etc., signifying becoming rein Werden). Pointing to the link between the notions of breathing and existence, Renan gives a parallel from the Semitic languages, namely the Hebrew verbal sub-stantive haja (to happen, to appear, to be) or hawa (to breathe, to live, to be). In these words he sees an onomatopoeia of the process of breathing. Thanks to this opposition between the roots es and bhu, they complement each other: The former is used exclusively in forms of duration, derived from the present. The latter is primarily used in those forms of time which, like the aorist and the perfect, signify an accomplished becoming. Returning now to its Russian understanding, we can say that the truth Ustinal is existence that abides, that which lives, living being, that which breathes, i.e., that which possesses the essential condition of life and exis-tence. Truth as the living being par excellence—that is the conception the Russian people have of it. To be sure, it is not difficult to see that it is precisely this conception of the truth that forms the distinctive and original feature of Russian philosophy.
The ancient Greek underscores a wholly other aspect of truth. Truth, he says, is aletheia. But what is this aletheia? The word alethe(s)ia or, in the Ionian form, aletheie, like the derivatives alethes (truthful), aletheno (I con-form to truth), and so forth, consists of the negative particle a (a privativum) and *lethos, lathos in Doric. This latter word, from the root ladho, has the same root as the verb latho, the Ionic lethO, and lantham (I pass by, I slip away, I remain unnoticed, I remain unknown). In the medium voice this verb acquires the sense of memoria labor, I let slip in memory, I lose for memory (i.e., for consciousness in general), I forget. Connected with this later nuance of the root lath are: lethe, the Doric labia, lathosuna, lesmosuna, Testis, i.e., forgetting and forgetfulness; lethedanos, i.e., compelling one to forget; lethar-gos i.e., forgetting and, therefrom, lethargos, a summons to sleep, Schlaf-suck, as the desire to immerse oneself in a stage of forgetting and uncon-sciousness, and, further, the name of a pathological sleep, lethargy.'” The ancient idea of death as a transition to an illusory existence, almost to self-forgetting and unconsciousness, and, in any case, to the forgetting of every-thing earthly, finds its symbol in the image of the shades’ drinking of water from the underground river of Forgetfulness, “Lethe.” The plastic image of the “water of Lethe,” to Lethes bud& and a whole series of expressions, such as meta lethes, i.e., in forgetfulness; lethen echein, i.e., to have forgetting, that is, to be forgetful; en lethes tinos eina, i.e., to forget something; tethers tinos poiesthai, i.e., to produce forgetting of something; lesmosunan thestai, to bring to a state of forgetting; lestin iskein ti, i.e., to forget something, and so forth—all this taken together testifies that forgetting for the Greek under-standing was not merely a state of the absence of memory, but a special act of the annihilation of a part of the consciousness, an extinguishing in the consciousness of a part of the reality of that which is forgotten, in other words, not a lack of memory but the power of forgetting. This power of forgetting is the power of all-devouring time. All is in flux. Time is the form of existence of all that is, and to say “exists” is to say “in time,” for time is the form of the flux of phenomena. “All is in flux and moving, and nothing abides,” complained Heraclitus. Everything slips away from the consciousness, flows through the consciousness, is forgotten. Time, chronos, produces phenomena, but, like its mythological image, Chronos, it devours its children. The very essence of consciousness, of life, of any reality is in their flux, i.e., in a certain metaphysical forgetting. The most original philosophy of our day, Henri Bergson’s philosophy of time,” is wholly built on this unquestionable truth, on the idea of the reality of time and its power. But despite all the unquestionableness of the latter, we cannot extinguish the demand for that which is not forgotten, for that which is not forgettable, for that which “abides” in the flux of time. It is this unfor-gettableness which is a-letheia. Truth, in the understanding of the Greeks, is a-letheia, something capable of abiding in the flux of forgetfulness, in the Lethean currents of the sensuous world. It is something that overcomes time, something that does not flow but is fixed, something eternally remembered. Truth is the eternal memory of some Consciousness. Truth is value worthy of and capable of eternal remembrance. Memory desires to stop movement; memory desires to freeze the motion of fleeting phenomena; memory desires to place a dam in front of the flux of becoming. Thus, the unforgettable existence that is sought by consciousness, this aletheia, is a fixed flux, an abiding flow, an immobile vortex of being. The very striving to remember, this “will to unforgettableness,” surpasses the rational mind. But the latter desires this self-contradiction. If, in its essence, the concept of memory transcends the rational mind, then Memory taken in its highest measure, i.e., the Truth, a fortiori transcends the rational mind. Memory-Mnemosyne is the mother of the muses, the spiritual activities of mankind, the companions of Apollo, of Spiritual Creativity. Nevertheless, the ancient Greeks demand of Truth the same quality that is indicated by Scripture, for there it is said that “the truth of the Lord endureth for ever” (Ps. 117:2) and that “Thy truth is unto all generations” (Ps. 119:90).
As is well known, the Latin word for truth, veritas, derives from the root var. In view of this, the word veritas is considered to have the same root as the Russian words Vera (faith) and verie (to believe), and the German words wahren, to preserve or protect, and wehren, to prevent, as well as to be strong. Wahl; Wahrheit, truthful, truth, are also related words, like the French verite, which directly derives from the Latin veritas. That the root var originally refers to the cultic domain is seen, as Curtius tell us, from the Sanskrit vra-ta-m, sacred rite, vow; from the Zend varena, faith; and from the Greek bretas, something revered, a wooden or stone idol; the word heorte (instead of e-For-tee, cultic worship, religious feast, also appears to be related. The cultic connection of the root var and especially the word veritas is clearly seen in a survey of Latin words of the same root. Thus, there is no doubt that the verb ver-e-or or re-vereor, which is used in classical Latin in the more general sense of I am apprehensive of, I take care, I am afraid, I am terrified, I revere, I respect, I tremble with fear, originally referred to mystical dread and to the caution that was provoked by this dread when one came too close to holy beings, places, and objects. Taboo, the sacred, the holy, is what forces a man vereri. This led to the Catholic title of spiritual persons: reverendus. Reverendus or reverendissimus pater is a person toward whom one must be-have respectfully, cautiously, fearfully. Otherwise, something bad could hap-pen. Verenda,-orumor or partes verendae are pudenda, and it is well known that antiquity had a reverent attitude toward them, treated them with fearful religious respect. Then, the noun verecundia, religious fear, modesty, the verb verecundor, I have fear, and the adjective verecundus, fearful, shameful, de-cent, modest, once again point to the cultic domain of the application of the root var. It is clear from this that, strictly speaking, vents means protected or grounded in the sense of that which is the object of a taboo or consecration. Verdictum, the verdict of a judge has, of course, the sense of the religiously obligatory judgment of persons who head a cult, for the law of antiquity is only an aspect of cult. The meanings of other words, such as veridicus, verilo-quium, etc., are clear without explanation. A. Suvorov, the author of the Latin etymological dictionary, indicates that the Russian verbs govoriu, relzu [I speak, I say] express the original sense of the root var. But, on the basis of what has been said above, it is unquestion-able that, if the root var really means “to speak,” it is precisely in the sense attributed to this word by all of antiquity, that is, in the sense of a powerful, vatic word (be it ritual consecration or prayer) which is capable of making its object not only juridically and nominally but also mystically and really a source of fear and trembling. Thus, strictly speaking, vereor means “the power of ritual consecration exerted over me.” After these preliminary considerations it is not difficult to guess the meaning of the word veritas. Let us first remark that this word, which is of late origin, had wholly belonged to the domain of law and acquired only with Cicero a philosophical and generally theoretical sense, a sense that refers to the domain of knowledge. Even in the generally moral sense of sincerity, parresia, this word is encountered before Cicero just once, in Terence, in the phrase: “obsequium amicos, veritas odium pane (obsequiousness produces friends while sincerity produces hatred). Furthermore, although in Cicero the word veritas at once acquires a wide application, this is primarily in the legal and, in part, the moral domain. Here, veritas means either the real situation of a juridical case as opposed to its false clarification by one of the parties involved, or justice, or finally the just cause of the plaintiff. It is only rarely equated with “truth” as we tend to understand it. The juridical nuance of veritas, a word religiously juridical in its root and morally juridical in its origin, was subsequently preserved and even grew more pronounced. In later Latin the word even came to have a purely juridical meaning. According to du range, veritas means depositio testis, the deposition of a witness, veridictum. Veritas then came to mean inquisitio judicaria, judicial inquest. It also came to mean right, privilege, particularly with re-spect to property, and so forth. The ancient Hebrews, and the Semites in general, captured in their language a special aspect of the idea of Truth: the historical aspect, or more precisely, the theocratic aspect. Truth for them was always the Word of God. For the Hebrew, the irrevocability, certainty, and reliability of this Divine promise is what characterized it as Truth. Truth is Reliability. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17}. The Truth as it is represented in the Bible is precisely this absolutely irrevocable and unalterable “law.”
The Hebrew word ‘emet or, in colloquial pronunciation, ones, truth, has as its basis the root ‘mn. The verb ‘aman derived therefrom means, strictly speaking, I supported, I propped up. This main meaning of the verb ‘aman is strongly indicated by nouns of the same root from the domain of architecture: jomenah, column, and ‘amore, builder, master, and, in part, by ‘omen, peda-gogue, i.e., builder of children’s souls. The intransitive middle sense of the verb ‘amore, was supported, was propped up, then serves as the point of de-parture for a whole brood of words that are fairly removed from the main meaning of the verb ‘aman, i.e., was strong, firm has supported, as propped up), and therefore was unshakable. From this we get the meanings: suitable for use as a support to lean upon without damage to it, and finally, was faithful. From this we get Amen, meaning: my word is firm, verily, of course, thus it must be, fiat. It serves as a formula to seal a union or a vow. It is also used to conclude a doxology or a prayer (here it is said twice). The meaning of the word “amen” is well clarified from Rev 3:14: “These things with the Amen, the faithful and true witness.” Cf. Is. 65:16: ” ‘elohe-‘amen, the God that one should trust.” From here one can understand the whole combination of meanings of ’emet (instead of amenet). Its most immediate meanings are firmness, stability, durability, and therefore safety. Further, we get faith-faithfulness, fides, by virtue of which he who is constant in himself preserves and fulfills the promise, the concepts of Treue and Glaube. One can then also understand the connection of this latter concept with the honesty and whole-ness of the soul. As the distinguishing characteristic of a judge or a judicial sentence, ’emet therefore signifies justice, truthfulness. As the distinguishing characteristic of inner life, it is opposed to pretense and has the meaning of sincerity, primarily sincerity in the worship of God. Finally, ’emet corresponds to the Russian word istina (truth) in opposition to falsehood. This is precisely how this word is used in Gen. 42:16, Deut. 22:20, 2 Sam. 7:28. Also see 1 Kings 10:6, 22:16, Ps. 15:2, 51:6, etc. Derived from this latter nuance of the word ’emet is the term meanies, which is used by Hebrew philosophers, e.g., Maimonides, “to describe people who, not being satisfied with authority and custom, strive for intellectual knowledge of truth.” Thus, for the Hebrews, Truth really is the “reliable word,” “reliability,” “the reliable promise.” And since to “put .. . your trust in princes, . . . in the son of man” (Ps. 146:3) is vain, the sole reliable word is the Word of God; Truth is God’s unalterable promise, which is insured by the Lord’s reliability and immutability. Thus, for the Hebrews, Truth is not an ontological concept, as it is for the Slays. It is not an epistemological concept, as it is for the Greeks. And it is not a juridical concept, as it is for the Romans. Instead, it is a historical, or rather, a sacred-historical concept, a theocratic concept. The four nuances of the concept of truth observed by us can be combined in pair fashion, in the following manner: The Russian Istina and the Hebrew ’emet refer primarily to the Divine content of the Truth, while the Greek Aletheia and the Latin Veritas refer to its human form. On the other hand, the Russian and Greek terms have a philosophical character, while the Latin and Hebrew terms have a sociological character. By this I mean that, in the Russian and Greek understanding, Truth has an immediate relation to every per-son, while, for the Romans and the Hebrews, it is mediated by society. All that we have said about the division of the concept of the truth can be conveniently summarized in the following table:
|ACCORDING TO CONTENT||ACCORDING TO FORM|
|Immediate personal relation||Russian istina||Greek Aletheia|
|Social mediation||Hebrew ’emet||Latin Veritas|
“What is truth?” Pilate asked of the Truth (see John 18:38). He did not receive an answer. He did not receive an answer because the question was vain. The Living Answer stood before him, but Pilate did not see the Truth’s truthfulness. Let us suppose that the Lord answered the Roman Procurator not only with this screaming silence but also with the quiet words, “I am the Truth.” But even then the questioner would have remained without an answer, for he would not have known how to recog-nize the Truth as truth, could not have been convinced of its genuineness. The knowledge that Pilate lacked, the knowledge that all of mankind lacks above all, is knowledge of the conditions of certitude. What is certitude? It is the discovery of the proper character of truth, the recognition in truth of a certain feature that distinguishes it from un-truth. Psychologically, this recognition is expressed as untroubled bliss, the satisfied thirst for truth. “Ye shall know the Truth (ten aletheian), and the Truth (he aletheia) shall make you free” (John 8:32). Free from what? Free in general from sin (see John 8:34), from every sin, free (in the domain of knowledge) from everything that is untruthful, from everything that does not conform with the truth. “Certitude”, says Archimandrite Serapion Mashkin,27 “is the feeling of truth. Certitude appears when we pronounce a necessary judgment and consists in the exclusion of the suspicion that the judgment pronounced will change some time or somewhere. Certitude is therefore the intellectual feeling of accepting the judgment pronounced as a true one.” “By a criterion of truth,” the same phitosoplaet says in another work, we mean the state of the truth-possessing spirit, a state of com-plete satisfaction, of joy, in which there is no doubt whatever that the stated proposition conforms to genuine reality. This state is reached when a judgment about something satisfies a proposition called a measure of truth or its criterion.” The problem of the certitude of truth is reducible to the problem of finding a criterion. The entire demonstrative force of a system is focused, as it were, in the answer to this problem of finding a criterion. Truth becomes my possession through an act of my judgment. By my judgment, I receive truth into myself. Truth as truth is revealed to me by my affirmation of it.
Biography of Father Pavel from the Orthodoxwiki:
Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky was born on January 21 (N.S.), 1882, in the town of Yevlakh in what is now western Azerbaijan. His father, a railroad engineer, was from a family of Russian Orthodox priests and his mother was from Armenian nobility. His education included attendance at the gymnasium in Tiflis, Georgia where he displayed unusual aptitude in science and mathematics. After graduating from the gymnasium, Pavel entered the Department of Mathematics of Moscow State University graduating in 1904 with degrees in mathematics and physics. In the meantime he developed a profound religious outlook and a desire to seek a career in the Orthodox Christian priesthood instead of science.
Refusing a position teaching at the university, Pavel entered the Ecclesiastical Academy at the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra in Sergiyev Posad, north of Moscow. There, he developed for a while an interest in a radical Christian movement and created with three fellow students the society of Union of Christian Struggle. The group was based on ideas of Vladimir Solovyov that aimed revolutionarily to rebuild Russian society. In 1906, he was arrested for membership in the society, and shortly later he lost interest in the radical movement although Fr. Pavel continued exploring the ideas of Solovyov’s sophiology, Sophia (Wisdom), and through this association met and became close friends with Sergius Bulgakov, another disciple of Solovyov.
Fr. Pavel’s interests at the Moscow Academy included philosophy, religion, art, and folklore. With these interests he became prominent in the Russian Symbolism movement. Intent on becoming a cloistered monk, he was persuaded by the faculty to become a teacher and scholar instead. He also published in the magazines New Way and Libra. In 1908, having graduated from the Academy he began teaching there. During these years at the Academy he began to ponder the basis of his belief beyond the formalisms of the Church. It was through his soul-searching and inner struggle that he started his main work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters. While much of The Pillar was completed by the time he graduated in 1908 the complete book was not published until 1914 and was not fully translated from the Russian for many years.
Until 1919, he continued to live at the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra after his graduation while he taught at the Academy. In 1911, he married and was ordained a priest. In 1914, he wrote a dissertation About Spiritual Truth. Fr. Pavel was the chief editor of the authoritative Orthodox publication of the time, Bogoslovskiy Vestnik. His writings included works not only on religion and theology, but on philosophy, art theory, mathematics, and electrodynamics.
After the Bolsheviks closed the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra in 1918 and in 1921 the church where he served as priest, Sergievo-Posad, he began working in Moscow for the State Plan for Electrification of Russia. Here Leon Trotsky believed Fr. Pavel had the ability to help the government in electrification of Russia. In this position, contemporaries noted the strange sight of Fr. Pavel in his priest’s cassock and pectoral cross working along side Soviet scientists and leaders including addressing Soviet scientific conferences and lecturing at the university. The Bolsheviks continued pressing him to renounce his priesthood, but he was considered too valuable to the Bolshevik regime and left alone.
In 1924, he published a monograph on Dielectrics as well as works on ancient Russian art. He also wrote the standard Soviet textbook on electrical engineering that was used for thirty years. Later in the decade he published his “hard Science” work Imaginary Numbers in Geometry that was devoted to the geometrical interpretation of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In this work Fr, Pavel proclaimed that geometry of imaginary numbers predicted by the theory of relativity for a body moving faster than light is the geometry of the kingdom of God.
With the ascendency of Stalin in 1927 and after Fr. Pavel objected to Metr. Sergius’ declared policy of Orthodox Church cooperation with the Soviet regime, he began to feel the sting of Bolshevik justice for his defiant actions. He was first arrested in 1927 and exiled to Nizhny Novgorod in 1928. He returned to Moscow after Maxim Gorky’s wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, interceded for him. He was arrested again in 1933 and sentenced to ten years in the labor camps for publishing the monograph about the theory of relativity. In it, his comment on the kingdom of God was considered agitation material. His sentence began at the Baikal Amur Mainline camp, building the new shortcut railroad line of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and after a year he was transferred to the former monastery at Solovetski on the White Sea where he conducted research on products made from seaweed.
In 1937, he was moved to Leningrad for trial by an extrajudicial NKVD troika. The troika sentenced him to death, according to legend, for refusing to disclose the location of the head of St. Sergius Radonezhsky which the Bolsheviks wanted destroyed. Fr. Paul had been rumored to be a organizer in earlier years of a plot to save the relics of St. Sergius. In 1946, Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra was reopened and Pavel Golubtsov, later Abp. Sergius, returned St. Sergius’ relics to the Lavra.
The date of Fr. Pavel’s death was disputed. Officially, Soviet information stated he died in Siberia on December 8, 1943. But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union a search of the NKVD archives showed this date to be false, and that he was shot immediately after the NKVD troika trial in December 1937. He was probably martyred at the Rzhevsky Artillery Range, near Toksovo, northeast of Leningrad and buried in a mass grave with some 30,000 others who were executed by the NKVD. In the words of Solzhenitsyn he noted Fr. Pavel Florensky as perhaps the most remarkable person devoured by the Gulag.
During the last decades of the twentieth century statements had appeared noting a recognition of Fr. Pavel as a saint and new martyr. This action was often attributed to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. However, Metr. Vitaly, then First Hierarch of ROCOR, noted firmly that no such action was ever considered by ROCOR, and that no such glorification had been made. Fr Pavel’s teachings included ‘Sophiology’, a teaching condemned by the Church in Florensky’s lifetime.