Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality

Berdyaev 03 Elsk-Berdiaev-Tsankov-c1930-400

Nicolas Berdyaev (Right) with Friends (ca. 1930)

In the view of the Russian religious thinker and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), freedom arises from no causality whatever – for if freedom arose from causality, it would operate under determination, in which case it would be shackled, not free.  Freedom belongs to spirit, which is to say that it belongs to the person; and the person, bearing within himself the image of God, exercises his freedom positively by the Imitatio Dei of willing the good in the two closely linked modes of love and creativity.  Through love and creativity, moreover, people differentiate themselves from one another.  Some people distinguish themselves as more capable of love than others; these people – some of whom number among the saints – reap in higher degree than others both the delights of love and the tragic pathos that attends love in the mortal realm.  Likewise some people distinguish themselves as more creative than others, whether in the arts or in business or in scientific endeavor; or, simply, in the ability to socialize and to form friendships and initiate sodalities spontaneously.  Those who can create at a high level, like those who can love prodigiously, form a justified, if not an acknowledged, aristocracy, and while indeed they enjoy satisfaction in their creativity, they also experience its annoyances, not least of which is to fall under the resentment of lesser talents of invidious proclivity who cannot measure up to, much less surpass, the standards that emerge from the self-working-out of genius.  Because freedom emerges from no causality whatever, it partakes in mystery.  To treat freedom as a concept rather than living it, to find an explanation of it, would be to reduce freedom to a mere natural phenomenon and thereby fully to ensconce it in the domain of causality.  According to Berdyaev, freedom springs forth from the same Ungrund, or endlessly self-replenishing abyss, as the boundless will-to-goodness of God; and it springs forth as the Will and the Gift of God.

As freedom partakes in mystery, it entwines itself with faith.  As freedom produces inequality, it entwines itself with politics.  In freedom, then, faith and politics find themselves in conflict.  Faith on the one hand corresponds to a spiritual condition, which struggles ever to remove itself from the trammels of the fallen world so as to seek the good, and to create it, freely, beyond causality.  Politics, on the other hand, corresponds to an adaptation in respect of that selfsame fallenness.  In politics, men experience the temptation to exercise freedom minimally by yielding freedom to an objective – or as Berdyaev would put it, an objectivized – authority or totality.  Politics, as the present moment so clearly demonstrates, always tends towards an authoritarian totality.  Because politics adapts itself to humanity’s fallen condition, it necessarily adapts itself to envy and resentment, which it attempts to placate.  The only way, however, to placate envy and resentment is to limit the scope of genius – and that means to limit the scope of love and creativity in the realm of freedom.  Politics thus always declines, not only towards an authoritarian totality, but at the same time towards a leveling, egalitarian totality; politics as an authoritarian-egalitarian totality positions itself as essentially anti-person and anti-freedom.  This tendency in politics is magnified by the incomprehensibility to the faithless of the paradox that evil must share the same prerogative as good because otherwise freedom would annihilate itself.  The faithless believe that through the imposition of the authoritarian-egalitarian totality they can prevent evil.  Berdyaev recurred to these themes and propositions throughout his authorship.  His early Philosophy of Inequality (1923) treats of them; so do his middle-period Spirit and Reality (1939) and his late-period Slavery and Freedom (1944).

New Planet (1921) Konstantin Yuon

Konstantin Yuon (1875 – 1958): A New World (1921)

I. The Philosophy of Inequality. Letters to my Contemnors, Concerning Social Philosophy, to cite its subtitle, appeared in English only in 2015 as part of Father S. Janos’s Herculean effort to make available to the Anglophone readership all those titles by Berdyaev that have hitherto remained untranslated. The biographical context of The Philosophy of Inequality, which Father Stephen addresses in his Translator Comments, bears relevantly on its content and therefore deserves a bit of exposition. Berdyaev wrote his book during the months of 1918 while still residing in Russia.  The fourteen Letters and Conclusion of Inequality summarize Berdyaev’s first-hand experience of revolutionary politics and an insurgent revolutionary totality during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century.  The regime twice arrested Berdyaev for propagating criticism of the Bolshevik policy both in his private seminars and in his publications.  On the second occasion, none other than Felix Dzerzhinsky, the homicidal founder of the OGPU, interrogated Berdyaev directly.  Berdyaev gave no ground on the occasion; he compromised none of his theses.  Had Berdyaev, an aristocrat by birth, not held a reputation outside of Russia, the regime would probably have sent him off to die by punishing labor in one of the Arctic prisons.  Instead, in 1922, the Central Committee rounded up the prominent dissenters, consigned them on tramp-steamers, and sent them to Germany. Berdyaev transferred his household to Clamart, a southwestern suburb of Paris, in 1923, where he remained for the rest of his life.  A Russian expatriate press published Inequality in that year.  Father Stephen writes of Inequality in his Postscript to the book that it “burst[s] forth in all its passionate intensity,” giving expression to “all the acute feelings of utmost repugnance, revulsion and disgust experienced within the actual revolutionary atmosphere” of its time.

The First Letter, “Concerning the Russian Revolution,” finds Berdyaev drawing on the insights of Joseph de Maistre, René de Chateaubriand, and Thomas Carlyle in regard to the French Revolution.  Berdyaev sympathizes especially with Maistre’s view of revolution as providential.  “For J. de Maistre,” Berdyaev writes, “the revolution was a mystical fact… sent down from above for the sins of the past.”  As did Carlyle and Chateaubriand, de Maistre in Berdyaev’s view “saw in [the revolution] the consequences of non-belief, the loss of the organic center of life… the payback for a prolonged going off the path.”  When Berdyaev applies a name to that “going off the path,” the name is the Eighteenth Century, with its insipid claim to a unique enlightenment advertised as the basis of a new, rational arrangement, or rather rearrangement, of society.  “Revolution,” however, “is the end of the old life, and not the beginning of a new life.”  There is, in Berdyaev’s assessment, something entropic about revolution, which tears down and levels but creates precisely nothing.  Nor may one blame the revolution entirely on the revolutionaries: The latter find their opportunity in the failure and inertia of the ancien régime.  Bourbon intransigence played a big role in provoking the events of 1789 and afterwards; and likewise the missteps of the Romanovs in part drew forth the catastrophe of November, 1917 and afterwards.  “What precedes revolutions is a process of dissolution, the collapse of faith, the loss within society and the people of a unifying spiritual center to life.”  Berdyaev insists on an important adjustment of vocabulary.  Revolution is the true reaction; what the Left calls reaction is in fact the corrective and creative response to the purely negative, resentment-inspired insurrection against traditional order.

Berdyaev emphasizes the nihilism implicit in revolutionary doctrine.  In a traditional civilized order, the institutions and mores, which conform to a hierarchy, root themselves deeply in the past and embody a vital wisdom.  Elsewhere in Inequality than the First Letter, Berdyaev refers to the ancient and venerable cult of the ancestors.  Christianity, in Berdyaev’s view, never abolished Paganism – which would have been a revolutionary act – but rather it redeemed Paganism, which contained many truths both of the practical and philosophical varieties.  In its concept of Resurrection, Christianity links the past to the future and establishes the present as the dependent midpoint that balances itself between the two temporal poles.  Where institutional Christianity, which once celebrated its rites in the catacombs, has played down the ancestor cult, it has also diminished itself; it has assimilated itself to the shallow, modern perspective from which only the indulgences of the passing moment count and in which, in fact, those very indulgences must often be postponed, or sacrificed, to an unrealized future.  The past – in the wisdom of the ancestors – offers to the present the only possible storehouse of accumulated wisdom.  Among the things that revolution tears down is the past.  In the First Letter, Berdyaev writes, “The revolutionary rift between the present and the past can only be a splitting away of the surface aspect from the depths, a departing of the spiritual center of life.”  He uses theological vocabulary, characterizing the Revolution as “a splitting apart between the sons and their fathers as regards hypostasis, a denying of paternity, that is, an affirmation of death and decay in place of eternal life.”

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the sea of fog (1818)

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840): The Wanderer (1818)

For Berdyaev, the person stands foremost in the hierarchy of the good.  God wills only the good: God therefore wills that each person should become maximally himself or herself, cultivating his or her talents and thereby locating himself or herself in the spontaneous aristocracy that emerges from positive endeavor.  An ethics of the person will be an ethics of quality, which opposes itself emphatically to e-quality.  A passion for equality demonstrates only a deep-seated and demonic resentment over success in positive endeavor; when human beings strive they also differentiate themselves and they do so by becoming who they are.  Identity thus entwines itself inseparably with differentiation, which always occurs in the vertical dimension.  Berdyaev identifies the dark Puritanism of the revolutionary mentality.  “Ye never had love for creativity,” he writes, addressing the apologists of the Revolution; “to you it seemed an improper luxury.”  In words that apply stunningly to the North American socialists of the Twenty-First century, Berdyaev opines that “social day-dreaming has become a debauchery.”  Of course, debauchery inveigles sectarian complaint as soon as it announces itself in its bacchanal of righteousness.  “The attempts at the realization of an earthly paradise have always led to hell on earth, to malice, to hatred, to mutual destruction, to blood, to violence, to orgy.”  Berdyaev cites the Anabaptists in Münster, and their murderous, self-indulgent agenda to establish a New Jerusalem on earth as an example.  “Man has no right,” Berdyaev justifiably declares, “to be… a wastrel in his sentimentality.”

In the Second Letter, “Concerning the Religio-Ontological Fundamentals of the Social Aspect,” Berdyaev discusses the chaos implicit in the ideology of equality.  Hierarchy for Berdyaev is both a social and a cosmic principle.  The ancients rightly guessed that order in the terrestrial realm works best when it models itself, as much as possible, on order in the celestial realm.  Equality levels – it would tear down hierarchy.  Equality shows itself as anti-cosmic; it seeks to dissolve order into chaos.  Socialists never admit that they relish chaos demonically over order.  They speak rather of “freedom and liberation.”  However, “the liberation of the chaotic element is not [the] liberation of man; the chaotic element cannot be the subject of liberation, for it – is the source of enslavement.”  This particular notion of Berdyaev’s relates back to his condemnation of sentimentality in the First Letter.  Subjugated under chaos man becomes “pulverized by passions, debilitated by sins.”  He relinquishes his personality, descending to the level of a non-sentient atom bouncing aimlessly in a congeries of random collisions.  To seduce people into embracing its agenda, egalitarianism employs a vocabulary of extreme Nominalism.  For Berdyaev, Nominalism is the chaos-producing disease of language.  Addressing the propagandists, Berdyaev writes, “Your world-concept and world-view [are] in denial of all ontological realism.”  It so falls out, indeed, that the sentiment-driven denial of the real has real consequences: “But when ensued the hour of your dominion, ye manifest[ed] an unheard of cruelty; you transformed your land into a sea of tears and caused your people an innumerable quantity of sufferings.”  One revolution repeats the pattern of its precursor.

In the Seventh Letter, “Concerning Liberalism,” Berdyaev returns to the heart of his argument: “Freedom is first of all the right to inequality.”  In the corollary, “Equality is first of all an infringement upon freedom, a limitation of freedom.”  Berdyaev rejects any basic opposition between liberalism and socialism, seeing in the two phenomena merely phases of degeneration.  Moreover – the liberalism and socialism interpenetrate one another.  They are “relative and temporal principles.”  Liberalism in particular designates, in Berdyaev’s analysis, the same historical development as humanism.  Both trends cut themselves off from the continuum of culture.  As much as revolutionary ideology, which they precede and produce, liberalism and socialism denounce any transcendent orientation and in doing so assume inevitably a materialistic orientation.  To cut oneself off from the tradition – which, for the West and for Russia, is the Christian tradition – is to cut oneself off from the ontological sources of the person, or spirit and God.  Berdyaev insists that the rights of man only coexist with the rights of God; and rights only coexist with duties.  Rights never emerge from nature, as Rousseau falsely claimed.  “Humanism,” Berdyaev writes, “has falsely gotten the ‘natural’ man confused with the spiritual man, with the graced rebirth and sonship with God, and at its limit has arrived at the denial of man.”  In an age of technology, a purely material society will inevitably become a mechanistic society.  Following the materialistic, utilitarian agenda, the ideal of the mechanistic society will devolve towards efficiency for its own sake.  Ontologically, the person has nothing to do with efficiency, which subordinates the part of the mechanism, entirely disposable, to the whole.  The person is always-already a whole, Berdyaev argues, even when the person only appears privatively as the sinful, inveterately unrealized man, making efficiency, that idol of managerialism, anti-person hence also anti-human.

Boris Atzybasheff Machinalia

Boris Artzybasheff (1899 – 1965): Machinalia (1930s)

George Seaver, in Nicolas Berdyaev – An Introduction to His Thought (1950), makes a number of remarks that offer themselves as apropos of The Philosophy of Inequality even though they do not specifically address that title.  “Every attribute of a man,” as Seaver writes in summary of his subject, “such as soul or reason or bones or flesh, is something that he holds in common with other men – but not Personality; this alone is not a common denominator, since it is not the attribute of a man; it is the man himself.”  Berdyaev argues, according plausibly to Seaver’s reading, that any reduction of man to the merely empirical, which happens as soon as the transcendental references pass under deletion, results in destruction of the only part of man that truly constitutes him as man.  “All the doctrines of sociology,” Seaver writes, “are erroneous because they are based on a false estimate of man, namely as an object among other objects; as a member of society which is itself an impersonal object and a theoretical abstraction.”  As Seaver reads Berdyaev, “in the political sphere, the extreme as well as the most logical outcome of organized society is the totalitarian state in which citizens, like machines, are mass-produced.”  Berdyaev himself later expressed ambiguous feelings about Inequality.  Perhaps it struck him as too rhetorical, on the grandiose model of Maistre’s St. Petersburg Dialogues.  In his Essay in Autobiography (Opus Posthumous 1950), he confesses that “the only thing about the book which I am not prepared to recant is the fact that it was written out of an intense concern for freedom over against the spiritual – rather than social – egalitarianism let loose by the Revolution and the reign of the ‘common man’ and the ‘collective mind.’”  Time has vindicated Inequality over its author’s latter-day doubts.

II. Spirit and Reality. In the Essay in Autobiography, Berdyaev categorizes Spirit and Reality as belonging, with Solitude and Society and Slavery and Freedom, to “the most radical and revolutionary” of his books. In retrospect and despite Berdyaev, the earlier Inequality might well take its place in the same category. Father Stephen, its translator, characterizes Inequality as the book in which the fully mature Berdyaev first appears.  What of Spirit and Reality?  In Chapter I, “The Reality of Spirit – Spirit and Being,” Berdyaev begins by remarking the tendency in modernity to reject the very idea of spirit or, at best, to envision spirit as “an epiphenomenon,” say, of a biological origin, even though “no adequate explanation has ever been offered of this process.”  (James Reavey’s translation)  At the level of philosophy the modern thinker “glosses over the real difficulties by attributing to matter all the qualities inherent in spirit – namely, reason, freedom, energy.”  This is true even of Henri Bergson’s Vitalism, Berdyaev argues, which subordinates the person to the élan vital.  All of these modern tendencies try to make of spirit an object among other objects that might then be studied as science studies the phenomena of the external world or nature.  Spirit defies direct perception, but it is not a Ding an Sich.  Intuition accesses spirit through symbolization, but Berdyaev detects therein a danger.  The investigator, having symbolized spirit, tends towards externalizing and thus also towards objectifying the symbols, which he then mistakes for the real thing and places erroneously in nature.  Spirit absolutely resists objectification; no power can externalize it.  Then again, while “spirit is revealed in the subject,” and only in the subject, spirit is other than subjective in the usual, jejune meaning of that term.  As Berdyaev puts it, “Pure spirituality exists independently of the intellectual opposition of subject and object.”  Spirit consists in “a reality of another kind, an immeasurably greater one, a more primal one.”

In Chapter II of Spirit and Reality, “The Attributes of Spirit,” Berdyaev repeatedly identifies his terms spirit and person as almost synonymous.  This identification links Spirit and Reality to The Philosophy of Inequality, but then Berdyaev’s authorship boasts a remarkable unity.  To spirit, as to the person, belong such qualities as “freedom, meaning, creativity, integrity, love, value, [and] an orientation towards the highest Divine world and union with it.”  Freedom, the first quality of spirit, hence also of the person, wells up from “the depths of pre-existential being,” such that indeed, “freedom exercises a primacy over being which is already a state of inert freedom.”  God gifts man with spirit, which makes of spirit “a Divine emanation”; but receiving that “emanation” and ascending into personality the recipient “can reply to Deity in terms not dictated by It.”  Spirit graciously lifts man above the realm of naturalistic determination.  Spirit also reveals God as willing the freedom of his creatures.  (Berdyaev everywhere rejects any monarchical or dictatorial notion of God.)  The person repays the gift of spirit through the exercise of his genius, by which gesture he engages in the Imitatio Dei.  “The subject does not create the world,” Berdyaev writes, “but he is called upon to create in the world.”  In the fallen world, people were not always aware of spirit’s existence, but were for long millennia immersed in psychic infancy, or “the religion of motherhood and earth, associated with matriarchy and primordial communism, with the reign of the chthonic gods.”  Berdyaev acknowledges Johann Jakob Bachofen as his source, but he might as well have acknowledged Hesiod, whose Theogony makes the same analysis although in mythic terms.

Magna Mater

The Magna Mater (ca. 22,000 BC)

Berdyaev’s Bachofen-reference explains a series of assertions in Inequality to the effect that there is something feminine or effeminate in the revolutionary mentality, which assertions in their turn connect with the description of revolution as a sundering of the father-son succession.  In North America in the Twenty-First Century the revolutionary mentality has manifested itself in some significant degree as Suffragism and feminism.  Many institutions, especially those involved in education and social-services, are nowadays female-dominated and ergo – radically leftist.  Having foisted on the nation the so-called empowerment of women, feminism next devoted its advocacy to multiculturalism and the sexual fluidity agenda.  Feminism in its phases has never been other than collectivist.  Feminism in its phases has also never been other than authoritarian in its tactics – with a restoration of matriarchy as its goal.  Insofar as the varieties of revolutionary activism qualify as collectivist and authoritarian, Berdyaev with perfect justification sees in them a flight from full personality, which incorporates the masculine traits of the Father and Son, back into the childlike tribal passivity implied by the regime of the Great Mother.  The prime archaeological symbol of the “primeval matriarchy,” the famous Venus of Willendorf, dominates by sheer corpulence.  She is the flesh, the biological matter of determinism, whose ethos of minimal consciousness, of “cosmic forces,” and the enforced equality of her numerous offspring, must always, in myth, be overthrown by the male principle before civilization can begin.  According to Berdyaev, spirit never conquers or subdues flesh; rather – it transfigures flesh, as it transfigures all matter.  “Spirituality, Berdyaev writes, “is not opposed to body or material”; on the contrary, spirit proposes a synthesis or “the realization of the highest quality of the whole man – his personality.”  One would never associate the Paleolithic Venus with personality.  In her mater-iality, she smothers the person, just as do her contemporary acolytes, the Title IX administrators.

Readers of Berdyaev will have noticed that for him such vocabulary items as object, objective, objectified, objectivized, and even substance bear a mainly negative connotation.  For Berdyaev the spiritual world, the dwelling-place of the person, transcends the material world dimensionally and qualitatively.  In his passivity, unleavened by God’s gift of spirit, man submits to external forces; he becomes, for example, fascinated by some external object until he mistakes that object, not only for reality, but for the whole of reality.  A concept, a prejudice, or a shibboleth is as much an object, an item in the external world, as a fetish or idol, and it can as readily as any fetish or idol fascinate.  So powerful is this tendency to submit to the determinism of externals that, in Spirit and Reality’s digest of intellectual history, philosophy itself, in the Nineteenth Century and the Twentieth, became convinced that externality or materiality functioned determinatively for consciousness – and it dogmatized its conviction.  The obvious case is Marx’s dialectic of materialism, but no less was Freud’s sexualism, with its inescapable Oedipus complex, a dogma.  Whether in the case of Marx or Freud, it entailed more, however, than a paltry dogma; it entailed a nihilistic worldview, which reduced consciousness to a pathetic illusion.  And if one regarded consciousness as an illusion, why would one foster consciousness?  (See contemporary education at all levels.)  Berdyaev understood this.  His implacable skepticism of or even sometimes hostility to the types of objectivity – sects, societies, and institutions, including the church – stems from that understanding.  So too does his sympathy for heretics, especially those of the mystic variety, who always stand in tension with the human, all-too-human collective.

In Chapter VI of Spirit and Reality, “Mysticism – Its Contradictions and Achievements,” Berdyaev devotes the discussion to the telos of personhood.  The mystic positions himself at the maximum distance from the social aspect of the objectivized and objectifying world.  Personality exercises itself through freedom, through the voluntary acts of loving and creating; personality seeks the intensification of its awareness and the magnification of “I-Thou” relationships all the way up to God.  Personality thus attains its highest degree in the mystical endeavor.  The contradictions of mysticism never undermine mysticism.  If mysticism were “opposed to social and objectifying processes”; if it “contradict[ed] historically manifest religion with its social and objectified institutions and hierarchical organization,” it would also function, at least potentially, as antidote to the impersonal, leveling tendencies therein implicit.  Mysticism utters the call to transcend, to leave behind the insipidity of the social construction.  As Berdyaev sees it, organized religion qualifies only as “democratic”; whereas mysticism qualifies as “aristocratic.”  But the aristocracy of mysticism, an instance of radical inequality, stems not from the hereditary principle.  It stems from the uncaused freedom of personality, to which it donates a renewed vitality and depth.  Another distinction between mysticism and organized religion is that the former “is a preoccupation with primal realities,” while the latter “treats only of socially consecrated symbols.”  From this tension springs the habitual claim by organized religion that mysticism departs from orthodoxy.  Berdyaev’s attitude is – but of course mysticism departs from orthodoxy.

Lux in Tenebris Bo Yin Ra

Bo Yin Ra (1876 – 1943): Lux in Tenebris (mid-1930s)

Berdyaev stresses that mysticism contradicts social religiosity and even contradicts itself because it exists outside the realm of delimitation in a domain of “non-objectified existence.”  In mysticism, as Berdyaev writes, “Spirituality reveals the divinity inherent in man; but this, in its turn, proves to be profoundly human.”  Mysticism, in the exposition of Spirit and Reality, gains authenticity with Christian revelation.  In the Dionysian ecstasy, the Greeks rather fled from the determinism of the world than transcended it.  In the merging of Brahma and Atman in Hinduism, Berdyaev sees not the redemption or transfiguration of the person; he sees only the obliteration of the person.  Neither does Berdyaev see any trace of a charismatic presence in the Bacchic fugue-state or in the psychic fusion of the Brahman’s tat tvam asi.  “There is no love,” he writes, “without personality, for love is a radiation from one person to another.”  Love is equally non-present in the Plotinian vision of the One although Berdyaev has reasons for appreciating the Enneads.  Berdyaev nevertheless suspects all monisms of hostile impersonality or anti-personality.  The “I-Thou” relation, implicit in the very grammar of the New Testament, supplies one of the “primal realities,” on which human existence bases itself.  Monism excludes any such relation.  But it goes beyond that – for if one of the two elements disappears then effectively the other must disappear along with it.  Monism thus blends into nihilism, which is quite explicit in the notion of nirvana.  Now monism expresses itself in Epicurean and Marxian materialism as much as in the Plotinian doctrine of the One.  And the monism of matter’s dialectic, put forward by Marxism as an unquestionable premise, can only be hostile to individuality, hence also to personality, and to the person.  As much as Berdyaev would have disliked hearing it his conclusions in Spirit and Reality lead back to and latterly affirm his conclusions in The Philosophy of Inequality.

III. Slavery and Freedom. In Slavery and Freedom, Berdyaev revisits the themes of The Philosophy of Inequality and indeed he rewrites the earlier title so as to redeem what he sees as its imperfections.  Berdyaev’s authorship opens him to the critical charge of repetition, not only in respect of each title, chapter by chapter, but in respect of the overall output, book by book.  Yet it is always a case of repetition with variation.  In a musical analogy, one might think of Berdyaev’s oeuvre as a vast set of symphonic variations on multiple themes, rather like Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West.  In the early titles the themes or leading motives – and they proliferate – emerge.  In the subsequent titles, Berdyaev continuously develops those themes and motives in new and ever more fascinating polyphonic patterns.  Each subsequent title communes with the others, both by prolepsis and analepsis, such that the literary personality of each title gains in richness and distinction.  Berdyaev knew well that each of his books marked the increasing clarity in his developing sense of the world.  In the foreword to Slavery and Freedom, “Concerning the Inconsistencies in my Thought,” Berdyaev declares: “After I had begun writing this book I looked back over the past and became aware of the necessity of making clear, both to myself and to other people, the road along which my mind and spirit have traveled; and of understanding the inconsistency which has made its appearance in my thought in the course of time.” (R. M. French’s translation) Consistency betokens a system or institutional consensus external to the thinker that tends to determine his thought.  “I was never a philosopher of the academic type,” Berdyaev continues, “and it has never been my wish that philosophy should be abstract and remote from life.”  A degree of inconsistency testifies, in fact, to the integrity of the man.  Only the free subject can change his mind.  Only the fool, enslaved by his folly, or the slave, rejecting his freedom out of fear, never changes his mind.

Berdyaev arranges for Slavery and Freedom to fall into four large sections.  The first section takes as its title “Personality.”  In it Berdyaev revisits what had, by 1939, become the central theme of his theo-anthropological view of man and the world, the person.  Now with the person in Berdyaev’s work two other themes intertwine themselves, forming a trinity.  These are freedom and inequality, the latter certifying itself as much as the two others under a positive sign.  For the person to prevail, to exercise and fulfill itself, freedom and inequality must also prevail; the three are always, in effect, simultaneously co-present.  For Berdyaev, “personality is not a substance but an act, a creative act”; and further, “personality is activity, opposition, victory over the dragging burden of the world, the triumph of freedom over the world’s slavery.”  The only alternative to personality hence also to freedom and inequality is that same slavery.  Enslavement entails determination by the objectivized world.  For example, “personality is rational being, but it is not determined by reason and it cannot be defined as the vehicle of reason.”  An abstract and wholly objectivized reason, when perceived erroneously by the subject as the real reason, acts on the subject determinatively, but it never acts in the subject, as an element of personality.  “The self-realization of personality,” Berdyaev writes, “presupposes resistance; it demands a conflict with the enslaving power of the world, a refusal to conform to the world.”  Berdyaev cautions his readers not to assimilate him to Hegel, whose Geist stands outside the person and whose dialectic subsumes man.

Asher Durand Kindred Spirits (1849)

Asher Durand (1776 – 1886): Kindred Spirits (1849)

Berdyaev’s self-realization of the person cannot be reduced to solipsism, nor can the person, when he becomes aware of himself, rest in himself solipsistically.  As Berdyaev puts it, “The realization of personality in man is [in the] continuous transcendence of self.”  Personality achieves transcendence, among other ways, through the communion of the “I-Thou” relationship – with those others in whom it recognizes an active moral existence.  Personality also aspires upward, to what Berdyaev calls the “suprapersonal,” but personality never serves as a “means to which suprapersonal values are the end.”  Berdyaev emphasizes, however, that suprapersonal values exist in the subjective world of the person, not in the objective world of externality.  If the person were the realissimum, as Berdyaev argues, the definition of those terms, subjective and objective, would require radical revision.  To the objective world belong the characteristics of falsehood, illusion, and idolatry.  It is with falsehood, illusion, and idolatry that the person comes into conflict ab initio in confronting the abstractions and objectivizations that constitute externality.  Even society partakes, for Berdyaev, in illusion.  Society possesses no entity; it does not exist in the way that the person exists.  Man may be an individual in society, but not a person.  Who reifies society submits to the determination of the aggregate.  “Personalism transfers the center of gravity of personality from the value of objective communities – society, nation, state – to the value of personality,” Berdyaev writes; but his use of the word personality “is profoundly antithetic to egoism.”

The second and third sections of Slavery and Freedom discuss the forms of slavery and the allurements to slavery.  In the second part, readers will encounter subdivisions on the slavery of man to being, the slavery of man to God, the slavery of man to nature, the slavery of man to society, the slavery of man to civilization, and the slavery of man to himself.  In the third part, readers will encounter subdivisions on the lure of sovereignty, the lure of war, the lure of nationalism, the lure of aristocracy, the lure of property and money, the lure of revolution, the lure of collectivism, the lure of the erotic and sex, and the lure of beauty, art, and nature.  Some of the topics are provocative.  How can one be enslaved to God?  One can be enslaved to a false image of God, as to an idol.  Berdyaev despises those Protestant and Puritan sects that see in man only the wretched sinner and who see in God only the warden of a penitentiary.  He quotes the Biblical saying that God made the Sabbath for man and he points out that fundamentalism in many cases reverses the principle.  If God made man for the Sabbath, then the Sabbath subordinates man.  The Sabbath’s servant man would then be.  One grasps more readily the slavery of man to society.  A degree of social conformity undoubtedly corresponds to necessity, but in extreme conformity conscience and volition disappear and the individual has become a slave of the aggregate.  In what way or ways do beauty, art, and nature constitute an allurement to slavery?  Think merely of the “Deep Ecologists” who put nature over man to the extent of calling for the elimination of the human race.  One can be besotted by beauty and art, as in Paterian aestheticism.  By its very design an idol fascinates.

Slavery and Freedom is of a piece with Berdyaev’s authorship as a whole in yet another way.  Throughout its chapters and their subdivisions Berdyaev undertakes a critique of modernity, as did his contemporaries such as René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, and Oswald Spengler.  The discussion of Spirit and Reality invoked the Paleolithic cult of the Magna Mater, to which the book devotes a trenchant paragraph.  In Slavery and Freedom Berdyaev characterizes the totalitarian trend in modernity as the recrudescence of an ancient, cultic – that is to say, sacrificial – sub-mentality.  He writes in the third section, in the subdivision on sovereignty and the nation, of “a new symbolism of sacred power” and makes a reference to James G. Frazer’s Golden Bough.  “At the foundation of power and dominion,” according to Berdyaev, “there lies a totemistic idea of monarchy.”  Caesar or his modern functional equivalent such as the Duce or the Führer requires for his effectiveness the accompaniment of a mystique, as in “the mystical idea of the nation, of the community, of the party.”  Big Brother might well profess atheism, but in Berdyaev’s view “the leader-dictator of the present day is again turning himself into a magician.”  As in Vladimir Soloviev’s Antichrist which Berdyaev knew and admired the messianic despot postures as a miracle-worker; he claims to channel occult forces that guarantee his regime.  Given his quasi-divine status a taboo preempts any criticism of him or of his concupiscent agenda.  Berdyaev quotes Alexander Hertzen on ideology: “The subjection of personality to society, to the people, to humanity or to an idea is an extension of the practice of human sacrifice.”

Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883) House of Caiaphas (1875)

Gustave Dore (1832 – 1883): House of Caiaphas (1875)

For Berdyaev, “the death of one man, of even the most insignificant of men, is of greater importance and is more tragic than the death of states and empires.”  The utilitarian calculation that would justify the expenditure of one life in order to preserve the state or empire thus proves itself, not merely inadequate, but wicked.  As Berdyaev avers, “the state always repeats the words of Caiaphas,” which the judgment of Creon against Antigone already anticipated.  Only in the case of Captain Dreyfus was the injustice reversed.  At the time of the writing of Slavery and Freedom, moreover, national moral conscience had weakened on all fronts.  Berdyaev disapproves of anarchism, but he sees in it a redeeming quality: “The rightness of anarchism as against the wrong of the state consists in the fact that the state ought not to set ‘great’ ends before itself and sacrifice men and women and the people as a whole for the sake of these supposedly great ends.”  The state, in setting itself before the dignity of the person, takes on a “Satanic,” a “demonic” color.  So too within the state the various bureaucracies take on a sanguinary cast.  Berdyaev feels contempt for those who call themselves statesmen or who praise their leaders as statesmen.  He would redefine the word as indicating one “devoid of feelings of humanity… who looks upon man as merely a tool to serve the power of the state.”  Étatisme figures for the author of Slavery and Freedom as a type of idolatry “demand[ing] human sacrifice as all idols do.”  The words are not metaphorical.  The French and Russian revolutions suggest rather their literal application as does also the carnage of World War I.  When Slavery and Freedom appeared, World War II had entered its fifth year.

Berdyaev’s sacrificial account of modernity links up with his advocacy of inequality.  The modern totalitarian state is invariably a socialist state, and socialism is collectivism, in which the quantitative mass dominates the qualitative person.  Under socialism, the quantitative mass exists in a state of putative equality.  The forced minimization of differences under the egalitarian regime lessens not resentment, which belongs to man’s fallen nature, but only increases it.  The equality of the individuals who constitute the quantitative mass falls far short of perfection so that the petty differences which remain stoke envy out of all proportion.  A socialist society exists by consequence in a state of constant social disequilibrium.  Societies have immemorially addressed such disequilibrium by scapegoating, which provides the formal structure of human sacrifice.  The socialist gesture of regularly producing enemies of the people seeks to alleviate the crisis of resentment by focusing a general envy against a specifically targeted enemy of the people. It thus, if only temporarily, restores the solidarity of the mass.  The regime represents the enemy of the people as guilty of having gained or sought to gain a manipulative unequal advantage over the mass — to disrupt the utopian equality.  The regime then immolates the enemy of the people in a public spectacle.  This happened in the French and Russian revolutions; in the totalitarian social democracies (so-called) of the Twentieth Century; and it happens through “social media” on a cosmic-orgiastic scale today.  Berdyaev has the insight, which he gleans from the Passion, from Dostoevsky, and from Ibsen, that in such situations, as Doctor Stockman says, the majority is always wrong.  It is not merely wrong, but Satanic or demonic.  It dehumanizes itself.  In the structure of sacrifice, only the victim rises to human status.  And of course the result is only ever temporary.  The sacrificial cycle is just that, a cycle.  It is endless repetition of the same – an eternal recurrence from the Grand Guignol of which Calvary grants man his sole exit.

2 thoughts on “Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality

  1. Pingback: Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 07/28/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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