Economic Metaphors in St. Seraphim of Sarov

Mikhail Gronas, Dartmouth College

Pierre Bourdieu has been often criticized for his misuse of economic metaphors; according to these critics, such notions as “symbolic / cultural capital” or “market of symbolic goods” provide an illusory sense of affinity with a “harder science”(economy) at a price – namely by distorting the nature of the object. Irrespectively of the validity of this criticism, it is worth mentioning that Bourdieu was by no means the first to apply economic notions to the conspicuously non-economic matters. The rhetoric interchange between the economical and non-economical domains has been attested in the history of languages (cf. “dorogoj” or “dear” meaning both “expensive” and “cherished” in many Indo-European languages, etc). In literature this tradition can be traced back to evangelic parable about talents and well beyond.

In the first part of my presentation I will focus on a paradoxical instance of the application of economic rhetoric to the radically non-economic subject found in Conversations of one of the most revered Russian saints, Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833). The famous passage on “the acquisition of the Holy Sprit” contains the following definitions: “Acquiring is the same as obtaining […] Do you understand what acquiring money means? Acquiring the Spirit of God is exactly the same […] The acquisition of God’s Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.”

St. Seraphim’s doctrine of the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit” provides an interesting comparison with Benjamin Franklin’s Advice to a Young Tradesman, considered by Max Weber an epitome of the spirit of capitalism. Both texts are structured around an oscillation between the economic and ethical/religious semantic poles. However, the differences between these texts might be more revealing than the similarities. In the second part of my presentation I will propose a thought experiment: What would Weber’s reading of St. Seraphim’s “spiritual capitalism” look like?