Pyotr Chaadayev
Philosophical Letters. Letter Three

V–A–C Sreda online magazine continues its three-month programme dedicated to the earth and its different meanings, associations, and interpretations in culture, art, folklore, and science.

In this issue, we publish a fragment from Pytor Yakovlevich Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters, in which the Russian philosopher and publicist reflects on the life of spirit beyond time and space, as well as on why human freedom can only be achieved through complete submission to moral law. The aspiration to escape the imagined limits of the past and the future, to overcome earthly existence, and to merge with the “nature of the whole world” is, for Chaadayev, the final purpose and truest expression of higher reason.

Time and space—these are the limits of human life such as it is today. But who can forbid me from tearing myself away from the suffocating embraces of time? Where did I glean my idea of time? From memory of past events. But what is remembrance? Nothing less than an act of will: this is clear from the fact that we never remember more than we want to remember, otherwise the whole succession of events that have followed one upon another over the course of my life would have remained constantly in my memory, would have jostled without end in my mind; whereas, on the contrary, when I give fullest freedom to my thoughts, I perceive only reminiscences that correspond with the state of my soul at the time, the feelings that move me, the thoughts that preoccupy me. We build images of the past as we do images of the future.

What prevents me from driving away the ghost of the past that stands motionless and unseen behind me, just as I might, should I wish it, eradicate the wavering vision of the future that floats before me, come out from that intermediary moment called the present, that moment so brief that it is past by the time I utter the word that expresses it? We create all time for ourselves, and in this there is no doubt; God did not create time, he allowed man to create it. But then where would time be, that fatal thought, that surrounds and oppresses me from all sides? Would it not vanish completely from my mind, would this imagined reality, time, that so burdens me, not pass without a trace? My existence no longer has any limits, there are no longer any obstacles to the perception of the infinite, my sight is set on eternity, the terrestrial horizon disappears, the heavenly vault no longer holds itself up on the edge of the endless plains that spread before my eyes, I see myself in that limitless duration, eternally one, not separated into days, into hours, into transient moments, a condition of eternal unity, without movement and without change, where all individual beings have disappeared one into the other, where, in a word, everything endures eternally. Every time our soul succeeds in casting away the fetters it has forged for itself, this kind of time becomes available to it as the time is in which it resides today. Why does it constantly strive beyond the immediate succession of things, measured out by the monotonous beat of the pendulum? Why does it incessantly fling itself into a different world, one where the fateful striking of the hours is no longer heard? The infinite is the natural shell of thought, it is in it that the single, true time resides, we create the other ourselves, though for what—I do not know.

Let us turn to space: it is clear to all that thought does not reside in it, it naturally accepts the conditions of the tangible world, yet it itself does not inhabit it. Then, it follows, whatever reality we may ascribe to space, it is a fact outside of thought, it has nothing in common with the being of the mind; it is a form, perhaps inevitable, but all the same no more than a form in which we perceive the external world. It follows then that space, even less than time, can bar us the way to the new existence that is at hand here.

This is the higher existence to which man must aspire, the life of perfection, authenticity, clarity, boundless knowledge, and, most of all, the life of perfect submission; a life that man has never yet mastered, but which is promised to him in the future. And do you know what this life is? It is Heaven: and no other heaven besides this one exists. We are henceforth allowed to enter this life, there is no place for doubt here. It is nothing other than the renewal of our nature in the present conditions, the last limit of the strengthening of the rational being, the final destiny of the soul on earth. I do not know whether each of us will be called upon this path, whether each of us will attain this glorious final purpose—but that the final point of our progress must and can only be in such complete merging of our nature with the nature of the whole world, this I do know, for only in this way will our soul ascend to full perfection, and this is the true expression of higher reason. [1]


[1] Here, two things are worth noting: first, that we do not mean to state that Heaven in its entirety is containing in this life, it but begins in this life, for death has not existed since the day it was overcome by the Saviour; and, second, that here, of course, we are speaking not of the merging of the material in time and space, only of merging in idea and principle.

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