Uncommon Tasks: Russian Cosmism and Longtermism

“And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”

Matthew 24: 6.

What does it mean to take a long-term view of things? Might it mean a hundred years? Five hundred perhaps? Even the wildest of speculative fictions rarely dare to extend themselves more than a few hundred or thousand years into the future. There are notable exceptions of course. For instance, nearly a century ago science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon produced his monumental novel Last and First Men—a history stretching hundreds of millions of years in which species after species of hominids evolve, perish, and succeed one another. In his later novel Star Maker, Stapledon would take this even further, outlining a cosmic history of trillions of years, and multiple universes. Some readers may also know of C. M. Kosemen’s astounding 2015 self-published All Tomorrows about a deep future of alien genetic engineering. 1 1 It is rather clear that Stapledon has exerted a profound formative influence on Kosemen as even the most casual reader should be able to detect. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote So too perhaps the 2002 speculative film The Future Is Wild about life on Earth in hundreds of millions of years’ time. 2 2 There is also a fan-made wiki for the program. Moreover, as the Youtube channel Curious Archive attests, the pastime of deep time speculative biology is undergoing something of a small but intense renaissance of late. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

While thinkers might attempt to leap hundreds of millions of years into the future, their long-term visions are still products of a particular historical moment. Nor are such thinkers capable of predicting the reception of their work—for example, let’s consider Stapledon. Today he is known as one of the fathers of modern speculative fiction, but it was Stapledon’s preoccupation with hive-mind species and telepathy that influenced Irving J. Good to first consider networking computers and Paul Baran to theorize the distributed networks of the internet. 3 3 According to George Dyson in Darwin Among the Machines. It is also worth noting that George’s father, Freeman Dyson, developed his now well-known concept of the Dyson Sphere from a very similar device in Stapledon’s Star Maker, although this is curiously not mentioned in Darwin Among the Machines.  Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote No one, especially Stapledon himself, could have predicted such influence. No one can predict what history will do with an idea, no matter how “fictionally” futuristic, even within the span of a century. 4 4 I like to ask people to name examples when they say that sci-fi writers have influenced or predicted technology we have now. It is very surprising how few they can come up with. Robert Heinlein’s prophecy of the waterbed is a banal example of a reasonably true case, though there is an earlier example of a very similar real-world device used in a hospital in 1873. Another well-known sci-fi prophecy said to be fulfilled is the curious fact that southern Florida is used to launch the rocket to the moon in Jules Verne’s From The Earth to The Moon. The Zucc decision to call his rickety VR world the Metaverse after Snow Crashmight also be suggested, but is probably just a hilariously ham-fisted attempt to “force a meme” very badly. Can the reader think of some more? Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

Here one might pose the following proposition. Successful long-term thinking not only thinks ahead to the far future, but the thinking itself often lasts a long time too, continuing to evolve and mutate in unexpected ways. One of the most successful examples is Christianity, which endlessly produces new variations on its theory of history. Since it has long since decided exactly what the End of History looks like—the Final Judgement, the New Jerusalem, the Second Coming, the Resurrection of the Saved—it is permitted a certain liberty towards the course the future will take to get there. Long-term thinking is as natural to Christianity as endless disappointment when the future doesn’t materialize. Should a Marxist be told that Full Communism shall not be won for another ten thousand years and seventeen more modes of production, he would cry his eyes out in despair. And so would the space-aficionado were he to be told that the singularity is not near, but very far away. For a Christian, waiting ten thousand years to get to The Point would simply be par for the course. 5 5 The same is true for the Jews, who have survived all manner of iniquities the past two thousand years while waiting for their messiah to appear. Similar things might also be said concerning Islam. Indeed, the Abrahamic messianic-apocalyptic vision of time is powerful and creative despite making claims that it knows exactly how it will all end. However, neither Islam nor Judaism has passed through quite the same explosively creative secularization process as Christianity did in Western Europe. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

As it has always done, Christianity will continue to change in ways that many people might find difficult to accept. Upon close scrutiny, many of modernity’s political movements, especially those that advertise themselves as secular, are clearly genealogical descendants of Christianity. During the birth pangs of modernity, Christianity’s old dreams, fantasies, and metaphysics were quietly poured into the container of the secular. 6 6 A phenomenon sometimes referred to as “political theology”, and a topic on which I have written on numerous times elsewhere. Most clearly in Divine Invasions. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote One of the most obvious things the modern West inherited from Christianity is a future-oriented belief in the overthrow of the old fallen world and the arrival of paradise on earth—the Restitution of All Things. 7 7 On the subject of modern progressive thinking as a secularisation of Christian time and the repercussions of this the reader might like to consult Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History and Eric Voegelin’s, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 5: Modernity Without Restraint. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote This is the assumption of progress: the idea that the further one moves forward in time, the nicer things shall be. From this simple premise, Christianity has been an Echidna mother of all manner of monsters. Perhaps it is only getting started, and there shall be even weirder things to come than secular modernity, a small blip among bizarre formations that we cannot begin to imagine.

Signs have begun to appear that long-term visions might be going through something of a small boom in interest online. In this essay I analyse and contrast two of these in light of their debts to Christianity. The first of these is the Russian intellectual movement called “Cosmism” which flourished between the late 19th-early-20th centuries. Russia at this time was a melting pot of all manner of odd ideas, new and old which fused to create something thoroughly unique. Cosmism was a synthesis of Orthodox Christian mysticism, faith in scientific progress, and the cutting-edge philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche. The movement’s father, Nikolay Fyodorov, thought that it was the duty of the living to raise from the dead all who had ever lived. Some, like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, dreamed of spacecraft and colonising other worlds, while others outlined complex theories about the influence of cosmic energies on the rise and fall of societies. 8 8 See the Cosmist Aleksandr Chizhevsky. For a brisque but highly accessible overview of cosmism in all its complex modes and offshoots see George M. Young’s The Russian Cosmists. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote For most of the Soviet Era, Cosmism was almost wholly forgotten and virtually unknown beyond the Russian-speaking world. In the past few years it has found renewed interest, especially among leftist art theorists, as an unmined source of futuristic aesthetics that are alien yet recognisable.

The other phenomenon is Longtermism—a form of utilitarian philosophy concerned with the future of the human race. 9 9 I will be using “Longtermism” (one word) in the narrow sense used by William MacAskill in What We Owe the Future. All MacAskill quotes are from that book. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Effective Altruism (EA), an associated utilitarian movement, aims to increase well-being across the planet, since many of the most beneficial interventions are not located in first world countries. Utilitarianism is a moral theory that seeks to maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. If EA is utilitarianism applied to spatially distant people, than Longtermism is utilitarianism applied to temporally distant people. According to longtermism.com, three key ideas come together to produce the Longtermist moral worldview. The first is that the lives of the people of the future are as equally important as those of the present and the past. 10 10 It is very interesting that “those who lived thousands of years ago” should garner a mention from such a future-oriented philosophy. Then again, perhaps this is only because of the second key Longtermist thought: the vastness of the future. In light of such a conceptual vastness we are both the ancients and the minority. In comparison, the Romans saw their ancestors as the majority, referring to their inherited customs as the mores majorum. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote The second is that the human future could well be “vast”— the majority of human beings to ever live have not yet been born. The third, and perhaps the most important, is the conviction that “our actions may predictably influence how well this long-term future goes.” As a result, much of Longtermism is taken up with attempting to prevent existential catastrophes while encouraging long-term growth.

Unfortunately, the majority of public criticism of the movements has concentrated on its popularity among the extremely wealthy, especially those in the tech-sector. As a result EA has been called everything noxious under the sun, from being empty performativity to an outright scam. A notable exception to this is Eric Hoel’s “Why I am Not an Effective Altruist” which focuses on its utilitarian roots. Hoel argues that the problem with utilitarianism lies in the repugnancy of trade offs which contaminate every strictly utilitarian claim. For instance, trading off five human lifes to save seven, in a trolley problem, or butchering five to save seven in the rogue surgeon thought experiment. 11 11 There are similarly bizarre anti-utilitarian thought experiments such as Robert Nozick’s “utility monster” in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote According to Hoel, the utilitarian must either water down the repugnancy until he is left with vapid things like “we should help people” that just about everyone would agree with, or he must swallow the “poison” whole.

One of the most straightforward problems with utilitarianism is its reductive assumption that well-being is capable of being aggregated and quantified. Despite invoking numinous quantitative units of pleasure such as utils and hedons, one person’s happiness cannot be easily compared or aggregated with someone else’s. As virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre once famously put it, “The pleasure-of-drinking-Guinness is not the pleasure-of-swimming-at-Crane’s-Beach… appeal to the criteria of pleasure will not tell me whether to drink or swim and appeal to those of happiness cannot decide for me between the life of a monk and that of a soldier.” The idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number is “a notion without any content at all. It is indeed a pseudo-concept available for a variety of ideological uses, but no more than that.” 12 12 From Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. MacIntyre’s virtue ethics is grounded in the idea of shared narratives about what it means to live a flourishing life. From these modelled and imitable virtues become apparent. Even though MacIntyre’s theories are not perfect, I agree with them in principle and would call myself a virtue ethicist. See my two-part essay “Idiot Places". Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

The utilitarian foundations of Longtermism set it apart from the manifold inspirations of Cosmism. However, the Longtermist idea of “value lock-in” is innovative and well worth considering in comparison with Cosmism. As Will MacAskill explains, “lock-in” is a theoretical event that would cause:

…a single value system, or set of value systems, to persist for an extremely long time. Value lock-in would end or severely curtail the moral diversity and upheaval that we are used to. If value lock-in occurred globally, then how well or poorly the future goes would be determined in significant part by the nature of those locked-in values. Some changes in values might still occur, but the broad moral contours of society would have been set, and the world would enact one of only a small number of futures compared to all those that were possible. 13 13 How he calculates these likelihoods is not explained. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

According to MacAskill the chance of human civilization eventually arriving at value “lock-in” is greater than 80%, and there is a greater than 10% chance of it happening this century. MacAskill is particularly concerned that AI could be the agent of “lock-in” and used to pursue totalitarian control and immortality. He and argues that what we really need is a “long reflection” “spending many centuries to ensure we’ve really figured things out before we take irreversible actions like locking-in values or spreading across the stars.”

Might Christianity itself be a variety of “lock-in”? After all, it has lasted for two millennia, and its influence is global in scope. Curiously, in What We Owe the Future, MacAskill chooses Confucianism as his example of lock-in, only mentioning the “value persistence” of the Abrahamic religions in passing. One possible reason that Christianity is not MacAskill’s go-to example of “lock-in” is because it also mutates quickly, constantly producing extremely diverse values and ideas within its lingeage. One of the most fascinating aspects of What We Owe the Future is its attention to the Quakers of the 18th-19th centuries and their then deeply eccentric belief that chattel slavery was morally wrong. Due to their tenacity and the increasing spread of liberalism, so MacAskill argues, Quaker values eventually won out. Indeed, even among Christians, the Quakers are very strange, a product of the Radical Reformation of the 17th century in which every Christian belief, ritual and certainty was brought into question as all manner of sects mushroomed up and rapidly disappeared without a trace. For the Quakers, personal conscience and revelation became the supreme arbiter of Christian life rather than tradition or scripture. There is not a single line in the Bible against the practice of slavery, but the Quakers simply felt in their hearts that all people were equal in the eyes of God—especially once they had become Christians—and owning people went against such equality.

Nevertheless, were one to somehow re-run Christianity from day one like a computer simulation, the likelihood of the Quakers appearing again would probably be slim. All manner of strange mutant “heresies” might appear, but the birth, survival and flourishing of George Fox’s little group would require many stacked historical contingencies which no post facto analysis will ever fully comprehend. It is one thing to survive the Interregnum, another to survive the next four hundred years during which sects come and go like mayflies. 14 14 On the many fascinating but short-lived radical Christian sects of the English Civil War and Interregnum, from Quakers to Diggers, Ranters and Familists see Christopher Hill’s classic study, The World Turned Upside Down. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote This sort of anomaly is the very stuff on which belief in divine providence is built. Be it God, or simply mindless mathematical complexity, the notion that anyone among us can predict what shall lock-in seems very foolish indeed. Rather than locking-in the right values, as MacAskill and Ord would have us do, Christianity locks in a malleable evolutionary process. We are still Christians, at least genealogically.

Of all the bizarre episodes in the strange history of Christianity, there are perhaps few as original, as that of Russian Cosmism and its visions of the long-term future. Cosmism is an extremely useful case study of long-term thinking for three reasons. The first is that it epitomises what Christianity can invent given unique historical and cultural conditions. The second is to illuminate how the reception of an idea can change across time and space. The third is that some of the ideas of the Cosmists curiously seem to overlap with those of the Longtermists.

In what follows we shall mostly be looking at the father of Cosmism, Nikolay Fyodorov—an obscure 19th century Muscovite librarian who exerted a powerful influence over an entire generation of Russian intellectuals. Fyodorov had a single and very powerful idea. To him there is only one true goal for humanity—to resurrect from the dead everyone who has ever lived. For Fyodorov, nothing good can be said about death at all; it is the ultimate evil and source of all misery. 15 15 Similar to Bostrom’s Dragon Tyrant. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Since everyone who has ever lived was brought to life by their parents, we are under the utmost obligation to return the favour to all of our ancestors back to the very beginning. This is the obshchee delo, or “common task”, of all mankind—our divine mission on Earth:

By recognising ourselves, according to Christian criteria, as the mortal sons of all the deceased fathers, we would recognise the transcendence of God (His externality to the world), but this could only be the case if we, the living sons of deceased fathers failed to consider ourselves to be the instruments of God in the task of returning our fathers to life (the immanence of God). One should not remove the Immortal Being from the world…. The Creator restores the world through us and brings back to life all that has perished. 16 16 Fedorov quotes (unless otherwise noted) come from What Was Man Created For? The Philosophy of the Common Task translated by Elisabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

Science, so Fyodorov believed, will eventually advance to the stage where it will become possible to find and recombine the exact atoms of those who have ever lived in order to bring them back to life. Sadly, he does not describe the fantastical machinery that will enable this, but he does describe other futuristic machines, such as huge energy towers in the Pamir Mountains that will control the weather, protect the earth from cosmic forces, and allow the planet to be piloted through the universe like a spaceship. Ultimately, Fyodorov believed “one way or another… the solar system must be transformed into a controlled economic entity.” The Russians were talking about Spaceship Earth long before Buckminster Fuller. One of Fyodorov’s students, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a deaf kid from a small rural village who dreamt of rockets and colonising the solar system, would go on to become the father of the Soviet space program and a prominent Cosmist in his own right. 17 17 Interestingly, as George M. Young notes in The Russian Cosmists, Tsiolkovsky claimed that he and Fyodorov never once talked about space travel together. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

If everyone who has ever lived was resurrected, overpopulation would be a real problem. 18 18 According to Toshiko Kanada and Carl Haunb, “About 117 billion members of our species have ever been born on Earth.” Fyodorov never gives an estimate to how many people he assumed had ever lived, or would have lived by the time the common task was accomplished, but it would be extremely unlikely if he had imagined it to be this high. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Space colonisation would become a necessity along with control over the weather, and perhaps even the sun, in order to maximise food production and avert natural disasters. Fydorov also believed that Nature was the next greatest source of human suffering after death. Nature, he believed, existed simply to be mastered and colonised by conscious mankind. An integral part of this is Fyodorov’s belief that the cosmos is empty of life and that it is our divine mission to fill it with human consciousness. “All periods of history have witnessed aspirations that reveal humanity as unwilling to remain confined within the narrow limits of our Earth,” so he wrote, “the so-called states of ecstasy and ravishments into heaven were manifestations of such aspirations.” The true Kingdom of God is to be found among the stars. In short, Fyodorov’s happiness maximisation is thoroughly maximal, requiring complete control of life and its environment to be achieved throughout the entire universe.

Here one might compare and contrast Fyodorov’s views on population ethics with those of MacAskill. In What We Owe The Future MacAskill argues that expanding the population of happy people is good, by the sheer weight of their aggregate happiness: “a civilisation that is twice as long or twice as large is twice as good.” Such a proposition also serves as a “moral case for space settlement.” So he writes: “The future of civilisation could be literally astronomical in scale, and if we will achieve a thriving, flourishing society, then it would be of enormous importance to make it so.” Nonetheless, as we have already seen, MacAskill does not want us to rush into this due to concerns that we might take the wrong system of values to the rest of the cosmos. While Fyodorov thinks in terms of a single divine task to achieve human flourishing, MacAskill thinks of quantitative increase; while Fyodorov would have us head to the stars as soon as possible, MacAskill would deal with our historical baggage first. He might regard an idea like Fyodorov’s common task to be just the sort of thing to avoid “locking-in”.

A key reason for this would likely be Fyodorov’s obsession with immortality. One way that “lock in” could occur, is if an elite develops superior technology that makes them immortal. 19 19 The problem of immortal evil dictators. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Fyodorov is clear on the issue of resurrection: nobody is allowed to remain dead. If anyone who has ever existed is still dead, the chief task of human existence remains incomplete; we remain orphans cut off from our ancestors. He viewed this as a duty to the past—in fact, he believed that the pursuit of progress at the expense of the past was juvenile. While Longtermists address themselves to the happiness of those still to come, for Fyodorov it is all about those who have already been. 20 20 Fyodorov believed it was vital to build public museums and libraries. This would render those in the past “real”, while also spreading the good news about the common task to the general public. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote There are two ways to miss dinner then: to be too late or to be too early.

Two world wars, the threat of nuclear armageddon, and the growing awareness of technology’s downsides has dampened ideas of human greatness that were much more common in Fyodorov’s time.  Longtermism, on the other hand, was forged in an age in which man knows that he is mortal, flawed, and could face extinction from any number of catastrophes. And yet, Longtermists generally remain optimistic, perhaps more so than most. 21 21 See especially MacAskill’s faith in our ability to survive and deal with climate change in Chapter 6 of What We Owe the Future. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

It is interesting that much of the recent revival of interest in Cosmism over the last several years online has not been by those interested in the future of humanity, but by self-described “posthumanists” in journals such e-flux. 22 22 In the late 2010s the online leftist theory organ e-flux began a serious revival of interest in cosmism. Several collections of primary sources and essays by contemporary thinkers were produced, such as Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism and Russian Cosmism. In 2019, a research project titled The Institute of the Cosmos was started alongside an interesting occasional series titled Cosmic Bulletin. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Posthumanism is simply one more attempt to deconstruct the Enlightenment—in this case, the anthropomorphic idea that humans are the center of history. In her e-flux article on the legacy of cosmism, Natalya Serkova criticizes the Christian universalism of the Cosmists as problematic. What Serkova praises, however, is the Soviet-era Cosmist Aleksandr K. Gorksy’s vision of genetically re-engineering the human race into worm-like creatures who could survive in deep space. But only as a metaphor for aesthetic experimentation. Perhaps it is a little sad that Cosmists, who held their radical ideas sincerely, have been reduced to aesthetics. But no one knows how their ideas shall be received.

With all its weird sci-fi theories about resurrecting the dead and colonising the universe, Cosmism cannot help but appear as dangerous hubris, or as buffoonish kitsch belonging to lost futures. For instance, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s images of little aerostats soaring up to other worlds, might seem  quaint to us, perhaps even sad, given that a century later we have not gone beyond our moon. But then we alight upon his plans to reshape the human race for space colonisation—a massive eugenics program in which a huge proportion of the world’s population is deemed unfit and exterminated. As Michael Hagermeister summarises:

The controlled selection of the fittest, their artificial reproduction, and the liquidation of all inferior beings would, in Tsiolkovskii’s view, give rise to a species of super-humans, who were infinitely superior to today’s humans in all respects: physically, morally, and aesthetically. Tsiolkovskii condemned sexual reproduction as “humiliating”, as it is based on “low animal passions”, which only lead to decay. According to him, it should be replaced by artificial fertilization or parthenogenesis. The biblical “legend” of the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary he interpreted as an “ideal of the future woman, who will provide children, but will not be subject to animal passions.” 23 23 From Michael Hagemeister’s essay “Konstantin Tsiolkovskii and the Occult Roots of Soviet Space Travel,” in The New Age of Russia: Occult and Esoteric Dimensions. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

Somehow the little aerostats perhaps don’t seem quite so cute after that. One might contrast this with Alexey Ulko’s recent call in e-flux’s Cosmic Bulletin to “decolonize” Cosmism of its Russianness due to the fact that “figuratively speaking, every missile hitting Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Lviv, has the name of Tsiolkovsky engraved on it.” Could Tsiolkovsky have ever known that his pioneering work in space travel and rocketry would have such an application? How strange that it should be for this, and not his beliefs about human reproduction, that he should be impugned.

Fyodorov’s common task, our divinely-given destiny to conquer nature and death, is  based on the belief that the scientific method will help achieve theosis (Rus. obozhenie). Theosis is an important idea in Orthodox Christianity: that by becoming holy, man actually becomes divine. 24 24 A reversal of the process whereby Christ became human. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Theosis is not a particularly Faustian concept, which is why Slavoj Žižek’s claim that Cosmist ideology and theosis is behind contemporary Russian nationalism is so wrongheaded. Firstly, there is no ground for believing that Cosmism has any influence whatsoever on current Russian politics. 25 25 One can at most accept that Putin and his circle seem passingly fond of Soviet anthropologist Lev Gumilev’s claim of the unique passionarnost’ (passionateness, high energy) of the Russian people. Gumilev is not only very late compared with the Cosmists, but the only Cosmist thinker who seems to have influenced him was V. I. Vernadsky with his theories of the biosphere and noosphere—the latter concept borrowed from Teilhard de Chardin to describe human consciousness as an emergent global phenomenon transforming the planet. It is also highly debatable whether Gumilev thought that modern Russians had the “high energy” of their colonial ancestors from the 16-18th centuries. See Gumilev’s Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote Second, Žižek’s belief that the positive view of human potential contained in theosis leads to imperialism, simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

Fyodorov’s powerful fusion of theosis with 19th century scientific humanism proved irresistible to many of his better-known contemporaries. 26 26 One might suggest that 19th century humanism, epitomised by thinkers like Auguste Comte, with its emphasis on progressive time, the central role given to human beings in cosmic history, and belief that the cosmos is filled with discoverable truths, is also one more of Christianity’s children. Karl Löwith in Meaning in History certainly argues as much. For this reason, scientific progressivism fused back into mystical Christianity without immense difficulty in Russia where the mystical Christian progressivism of Hegel and Schelling had a powerful effect in the 19th century. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote These included Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and even Vladimir Solovyov—often said to be the greatest Russian philosopher. Christian existentialist Nikolay Berdyaev admired Fyodorov so greatly that he kept a picture of him on the wall beside one of Nietzsche. But why did such clever men become so taken with such far-fetched ideas? The power of the common task, like the Christian promise of resurrection, lies in its simplicity. It taps into our darkest fears and feelings of loss—in the 19th century, like our own, science was merely a convincing means to achieve this ancient religious desire. 27 27 Catholic transhumanist Teilhard de Chardin saw the emergence of global electronic communications networks as indicating an “Omega Point.” On the millenarianism of Chardin and his influence on contemporary transhumanism and techno-optimism see my article, “Voegelin Among the Machines: Teilhard de Chardin, Olaf Stapledon and the Millenarian Kernel of Transhumanism.” Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

Importantly, Fyodorov’s common task is also a scientifically processed theory of universal salvation. The traditional Christian assumption concerning salvation has been that those who repent will be saved and inherit the Earth; those who do not shall burn eternally. In spite of this, there have been a few thinkers, 28 28 Most notably the early church fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote who held that all people will be saved by God… eventually. For those who have grievously sinned, it will merely take a very long time to atone. Similarly, under Fydorov’s common task, everyone will be resurrected regardless of their character. Fyodorov never mentions how to deal with the wicked being raised up alongside one’s grandma. Maybe he hoped that our ancestors would be so grateful at being resurrected that they would turn over a new leaf and join the common task?

If Fyodorov’s imperative might make the reader feel a little worried (“Everyone is resurrected—even Gilles de Rais and Pol Pot?!”), one can relate to how unsettling universal salvation has been to most Christians. The reason Christians loathe universal salvation is because it seems to cheapen the notion of redemption. They don’t like a God who fails to keep the moral score. People like people being punished; they like a vengeful God. For example, the father of the modern fantasy genre and Anglican minister George MacDonald, who lived at the same time as Fyodorov, was demoted for his advocacy of the idea. His most influential work, the weird gothic novel Lilith about a world where the dead sleep for long aeons to work off their sins, exerted a profound formative effect on both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Even in 2019, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart caused a great deal of upset among Christians when he argued for universal salvation. 29 29 See Hart’s book That All Shall Be Saved. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote

The common task, since it involves universal resurrection and immortality, is also a repudiation of the biblical Day of Judgement. From the beginning of Christianity, it has been assumed that the Day of Judgement, and reign of the Anti-Christ beforehand, are unavoidable. But according to Fyodorov, God has given humans the chance to resurrect themselves and give history a new ending from the one where most people are left behind to rot. As Nikolay Berdyaev recognised, this was Fyodorov’s greatest and most unique contribution to the history of theology: “Never before has such a bold and dizzying idea been expressed in the Christian world about the possibility of avoiding the terrible judgment and its inevitable consequences through the active participation of man.” 30 30 Nikolay A. Berdyaev, “Tri Yubileya: L. Tolstoy, Gen. Ibsen, N. Fyodorov,” Put’, 11, 1928, pp. 76-94. In Russian. Expand Footnote Collapse Footnote The common task is also the indefinite postponement of judgement day through human effort and technology.

Since we’re no longer consciously tuned into theological distinctions, such debates may not seem particularly relevant today. But consider Longtermism, with its very similar beliefs that none of the catastrophes that might await us, from terminal stagnation to extinction, are fixed in stone. That through common organisation and participation the dangers of AI and climate change might be averted and we shall all have a long, bright future among the stars. So MacAskill would boldly declare: “Abolitionism, feminism, and environmentalism were all ‘merely’ the aggregate of individual actions. The same will be true for Longtermism.” And yet, Fyodorov was a singular individual who accomplished remarkable things. One may well regard him as ridiculous, dated, or even dangerous, but he was able to put together ideas in a way that no one in two thousand years had. His common task stands as an example of the uncommon task that all of us living out Christianity's lock-in should be charged with: to hack the Christian long-term vision and its conception of historical time in unique ways, to start some completely different tangent, even if it shall be lost almost immediately only  to resurface a century later in some mutated form. This is perhaps the ultimate lesson concerning all long-term visions—that despite one’s intentions, one’s preferred ideology will itself mutate. If it doesn’t become a locked-in value system, Longtermism will not be able to predict what Longtermism shall become. Maybe it will just end up a hip retro-aesthetic like Cosmism. But perhaps the first uncommon task, the first heresy which will trigger a cascade of further mutations, is a very obvious one: rip out the utilitarian wiring. Go on, I dare you.

About the author

Jonathan Ratcliffe

Jonathan Ratcliffe is a scholar of Mongolian epic literature and blogger.

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