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‘Synergy’, ‘energy’ and ‘symbol’ in Pavel Florensky and Palamism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2021

Dmitry Biryukov*
National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation
*Corresponding author. Email:


This article is a study of Pavel Florensky's philosophy of symbol in the context of his discovery of Palamism in the 1910s, when Florensky started to speak of symbol using Palamite language. It proposes a fundamental difference between Florensky's and Palamas’ teachings on symbol: Palamas views a natural symbol as the energy of an essence, while for Florensky symbol is the essence itself, the energy of which synergises with the energies of other essence. In this context the prehistory of the concept of synergy in Florensky is studied, leading to the identification of a further difference in the ontologies of Florensky and Palamas: while Florensky's ‘essence-energy’ has the property of necessary correlation with the ‘other’, following the tendencies of the philosophy of that epoch, in Palamas ‘energy’ does not presuppose any necessary correlation with the ‘other’. The author connects this difference in ontologies between the two thinkers with their respective teachings on symbol.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Letter from Pavel Florensky to Boris Bugaev, 1904.VII.18; in Florensky, P. V. (ed.), Obretaja put': Pavel Florenskij v universitetskie gody [Getting the Way: Pavel Florensky in his University Years], 2 vols (Moscow: Progress-Tradicija, 2015), vol. 2, p. 651Google Scholar.

2 Florensky, Pavel, Early Religious Writings, 1903–1909, trans. Jakim, Boris (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017), p. 55Google Scholar.

3 See Senina, Tatiana, ‘The Status of Divine Revelation in the Works of Hieromonk Anthony Bulatovich’, Scottish Journal of Theology 64/4 (2011), pp. 381–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 See Biriukov, Dmitry, ‘Hierarchies of Beings in the Patristic Thought: Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus and the Palamite literature’, Scrinium: Journal of Patrology and Critical Hagiography 10 (2014), p. 300CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Florensky, Pavel, Avtoreferat [Auto-Abstract], in Sochinenija v chetyreh tomah [Works in Four Volumes] (Moscow: Mysl', 1994), vol. 1, pp. 3940Google Scholar. Cf. Florensky, Imeslavie kak filosofskaja predposylka [Onomatodoxy as a Philosophical Premise], in Sochinenija v chetyreh tomah (Moscow, 2000), vol. 3/1, pp. 254–5; Florensky, On the Cultural-Historical Place and Premises of the Christian World-Understanding. Lecture Eighteen: The Relation between Philosophy and Science [11.XI.1921], in Florensky, Pavel, At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism: On the Cultural-Historical Place and Premises of the Christian World-Understanding, ed. and trans. Jakim, Boris (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2014), p. 134Google Scholar.

6 Florensky, Avtoreferat, p. 40.

7 This worldview is generally based on the thesis that ‘a thing can bear the energy of another thing’. See Florensky, At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism, p. 126.

8 Pavel Florensky, Imeslavie kak filosofskaja predposylka, vol. 3/1, p. 359.

9 Ibid., p. 257.

10 Ibid., p. 263.

11 Pavel Florensky, Simvolika snovidenij [Symbolism of Dreams], in Sochinenija v chetyreh tomah, vol. 3/1, p. 424.

12 ‘Every symbol either derives from the nature of the object of which it is a symbol, or belongs to an entirely different nature. Thus, when the sun is about to rise, the dawn is a natural symbol of its light, and similarly heat is a natural symbol of the burning power of fire. As to signs which are not connatural in this way, and which have their own independent existence, they are sometimes considered symbols. Thus, a burning torch might be taken as a symbol of attacking enemies. If they do not possess their own natural existence, they can serve as a kind of phantom to foretell the future, and then the symbol consists only in that. … So a natural symbol always accompanies the nature which gives them being, for the symbol is natural to that nature; as for the symbol which derives from another nature, having its own existence, it is quite impossible for it constantly to be associated with the object it symbolises, for nothing prevents it from existing before and after this object, like any reality having its own existence. Finally, the symbol lacking an independent existence exists neither before nor after its object, for that is impossible; as soon as it has appeared, it at once is dissolved into nonbeing and disappears completely.’ Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, III.1.14, ed. Meyendorff, John, trans. Gendle, Nicholas, (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 74Google Scholar; see also Triads, III.1.19–20, 36. On the natural symbol in Palamas see Biriukov, Dmitry, ‘Neilos Kabasilas's Rule of Theology and the Distinction between the Light and Warmth of Fire in Neilos Kabasilas and Gregory Palamas’, Scrinium: Journal of Patrology and Critical Hagiography 14 (2018), p. 390CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Bishop Arsenius, Filofeja, patriarha Konstantinopol'skogo XIV veka tri rechi k episkopu Ignatiju, s ob'jasneniem izrechenija pritchej: Premudrost' sozda sebe dom i proch [Three Discourses of Philotheus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Addressed to Bishop Ignatius with an Explanation of the Expression of the Proverb: ‘Wisdom hath builded her house’, etc.], Greek text and Russian translation (Novgorod, 1898). Cf. Roman Svetlov, Igor’ Tantlevskij, ‘“Odisseja” ponjatija mudrosti v antichnoj mysli i nekotorye osobennosti biblejskih koncepcij premudrosti’ [The “Odyssey” of the Notion of Wisdom in Ancient Thought and Some Peculiarities of the Concepts of Wisdom in the Bible], Voprosy Filosofii 1 (2020), pp. 114–27.

14 Florensky, Pavel, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters [1914], trans. Jakim, Boris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 557, n. 693CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 My research has shown that the only sources about the philosophical content of the Palamite doctrine available in Florensky's circle were the anathemas against Barlaam and Akindinos in the conciliar decision of 1351, quoted in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, which had been published by that time by Fyodor Uspensky as Sinodik v nedelju pravoslavija. Svodnyj tekst s prilozhenijami [The Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy: Summary with Appendices] (Odessa, 1893).

16 Florensky, Pavel, Analiz prostranstvennosti i vremeni v hudozhestvenno-izobrazitel'nyh proizvedenijah [Spatial and Time Analysis in the Art and Graphic Works] (Moscow: Progress, 1993), p. 302Google Scholar.

17 Pavel Florensky, Ob Imeni Bozhnem [On the Name of God], in Sochinenija v chetyreh tomah, vol. 3/1, p. 358.

18 Pavel Florensky, Simvolika snovidenij, p. 423; Magichnost' slova [Magic of the Word] [1920], in Sochinenija v chetyreh tomah, vol. 3/1, p. 240; Imeslavie kak filosofskaja predposylka, pp. 257, 259, 261; Ob imeni Bozhiem, p. 358.

19 See Antonova, Clemena, Visual Thought in Russian Religious Philosophy: Pavel Florensky's Theory of the Icon (New York: Routledge, 2020), pp. 30–1Google Scholar.

20 See e.g. Frank, G., ‘Synergismus’, in Realencyclopadie D. A. Hauck (Leipzig, 1884), Heft 141–50Google Scholar, S. 103–13. An example of corresponding Russian usage in this context can be found in Alexander Katansky, Uchenie o Blagodati Bozhiej v tvorenijah drevnih sv. otcov i uchitelej Cerkvi do bl. Avgustina. Istoriko-dogmaticheskoe issledovanie [Teaching on the Grace of God in Church Fathers up to Augustine of Hippo. A Historical and Dogmatic Research] (St Petersburg, 1902), p. 19.

21 Vassily Bolotov, Lekcii po istorii Drevnej Cerkvi. III. Istorija Cerkvi v period Vselenskih soborov. I. Cerkov' i gosudarstvo. II. Cerkovnyj stroj [Lectures on the History of the Ancient Church. III] (St Petersburg, 1913), p. 316.

22 Polovinkin, Sergei (ed.), Zapiski peterburgskih Religiozno-filosofskih sobranij [Proceedings of St Petersburg's Religio-Philosophical Meetings] (Moscow: Respublika, 2005), p. 368Google Scholar.

23 Sergei Zarin, Asketizm po pravoslavno-hristianskomu ucheniju. Tom pervyj: Osnovopolozhitel'nyj. Kniga vtoraja: opyt sistematicheskogo raskrytija voprosa (Asceticism according to the Orthodox Christian Teaching, vol. 1, Fundamental. Book 2: The Experience of Systematic Disclosure) (St Petersburg, 1907), p. 75, cf. p. 692.

24 Ibid., pp. 75–6, n. 42.

25 Florensky, Pavel, ‘Otoshedshie. Arhimandrit Serapion (Mashkín) (Zhizn' myslitelja)’ [Those Who Have Gone. Archimandrite Serapion (Mashkin) (Life of the Thinker)], Symbol 68–9 (2016), p. 259Google Scholar.

26 Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, p. 438.

27 Archimandrite Serapion (Mashkin), ‘Sistema filosofii: Opyt nauchnogo sinteza. V dvuh chastjah. Chast' I’ [A System of Philosophy: An Attempt at a Scientific Synthesis. In two parts. Part I], Simvol 67 (2016), pp. 267, 421, 463. This publication, from only a few years ago, is the first edition of A System of Philosophy. It represents only the first part of the last revision of A System of Philosophy by Serapion. The second part, according to Florensky, ‘remains in the form of separate fragments and even in the form of jottings that are barely legible owing to the indecipherability of the handwriting’ (Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, p. 439).

28 Archimandrite Serapion (Mashkin), Sistema filosofii, pp. 422–3.

29 Ibid., p. 541.

30 Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, pp. 533, 570.

31 Zarin, Asketizm, pp. 405–7, see also pp. 93–4, n. 118. It is interesting, that, expounding the Palamite teaching about the distinction of the unparticipable essence and participable energies in God, Zarin refers to the dialogue Theophanes and the treatise 150 Chapters by Palamas and quotes them (Asketizm, pp. 403, 406). At the same time, as we can see from the texts, the first Russian religious philosopher who, when he got interested in Palamism, turned directly to the dogmatic texts of Gregory Palamas, was Sergei Bulgakov, the closest friend of Florensky. See Bulgakov, Sergei, Svet Nevechernij. Sozercanija i umozrenija [Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations] (Moscow: Respublika, 1994), pp. 111–13Google Scholar; cf. Hegumen Andronik (Trubachev) (ed.), Perepiska svjashhennika Pavla Aleksandrovicha Florenskogo so svjashhennikom Sergiem Nikolaevichem Bulgakovym [Correspondence between Priest Pavel Florensky and Priest Sergiy Bulgakov] (Tomsk: Vodolej, 2001), p. 78 (Bulgakov's letter to Florensky from 15 Feb. 1914). I think it is very probable that Bulgakov, when he turned to the philosophical-dogmatic content of the Palamite doctrine, relied on Zarin's book.

32 On synergy in this sense in Florensky see e.g. Florensky, Pavel, Filosofija kul'ta (Opyt pravoslavnoj antropodicei) [Philosophy of Cult (Experience of Orthodox Anthropodicea)] (Moscow: Akademicheskij proekt, 2014), pp. 384–5, 396Google Scholar.

33 Florensky, Imeslavie kak filosofskaja predposylka, p. 256.

34 Ibid., p. 257.

35 Ibid. I want to point out that, after the concept of synergy was entered in Florensky's lexicon, it appeared in the works of Sergei Bulgakov as well: this concept was actively used at least in the late work of Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (written in 1939, the first edition in 1945, in Russian). Bulgakov uses it in the technical sense (i.e. in the context of speaking of the correlation between God and the created world; see, first of all, section I, chapter 4, ‘God and Created Freedom’; section II, chapter 7, ‘God and Afterlife Existence’; and section III, ‘Eschatology’). For this reason, this notion was used in The Bride of the Lamb in the form ‘synergism’, which in Russian theological literature, as we have seen, traditionally referred to the aforementioned technical sense.

36 Florensky, Imeslavie kak filosofskaja predposylka, pp. 256, 259.

37 Gregory Palamas’ teaching presumes that the energies in the divinity (and, accordingly, the difference between the divine essence and energies) exists regardless of the created world. In this sense we can say that relativity is not inherent to the category of energy in historical Palamism. But at the same time Palamas’ doctrine includes the teaching about the kind of divine energies which exist only in their relation to the created world. These are the ‘creating’ energies, by which various kinds of created beings are produced and in which they participate (see Gregory Palamas, Triads, I.3.27; III.2.5–7; 150 Chapters, 72–3, 113, 140; on the structure and hierarchy of these ‘relational’ energies in Palamas see Biriukov, ‘Hierarchies of Beings in the Patristic Thought’, pp. 294–303). This means that Palamas’ doctrine includes the kind of energies which are ‘relational’, although this property of ‘correlativity’ within the frames of Palamism does not apply to the category of divine energy as such.

38 Using the formula ‘only non-being does not have energy’, Florensky refers to the anathemas against Barlaam and Akindinos from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy: Uspensky, Sinodik v nedelju pravoslavija [The Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy], p. 31 (for the modern edition, see Gouillard, Jean, ‘Le Synodikon de l'orthodoxie: Édition et commentaire’, Travaux et mémoires 2 (1967), p. 83.589–90Google Scholar). Pavel Florensky, ‘On the Cultural-Historical Place and Premises, Lecture Seventeen’, in At the Crossroads of Science and Mysticism, p. 126.

39 Florensky, Imeslavie kak filosofskaja predposylka, p. 255.

40 This publication was made possible through the support of a grant ‘Philosophy in Neopatristics: New Figures and New Interpretations’ from The National Science Centre of Poland (2018/31/B/HS1/01861).

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