Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948)
My long-term ongoing project involves reading backwards into the critique of modernity, resurrecting from the archive writers who fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred years ago, intuited prophetically where such trends as democracy, utilitarianism, and the technocratic conception of science were taking mankind – and who foresaw accurately just how deformed morally and socially Western civilization was likely to become. The writers in question, with a few exceptions, are today largely forgotten or are remembered under a false image or for spurious reasons. The names of Karen Blixen, Gustave Le Bon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julius Evola, René Guénon, Hermann Keyserling, Peter Ouspensky, Oswald Spengler, T. Lothrop Stoddard, and Sigrid Undset, among others, have appeared in a series of articles, most of them at The Brussels Journal. I wish, however, to devote the present occasion to a renewed discussion of the Russian writer-philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whom the encyclopedias of ideas classify variously, not to say confusingly, as a Christian Existentialist, a Russian Nietzschean, a Neo-Platonist, a follower of Vladimir Solovyev, or an out-and-out mystic and subjectivist. Berdyaev is perhaps a bit of each of these, while being also much more than any of them. Academic philosophers have either never heard of Berdyaev or, knowing of him at second hand, perhaps from an encyclopedia article, and being unable to fit him into any Positivist or Postmodern framework, dismiss him summarily.
One might fairly assert that Berdyaev did himself little good publicity-wise by cultivating a style of presentation which, while often resolving its thought-processes in a brilliant, aphoristic utterance, nevertheless takes its time, looks at phenomena from every aspect, analyzes every proposition to its last comma and period, and tends to assert its findings bluntly rather than to argue them politely in the proper syllogistic manner. In Berdyaev’s defense, a sensitive reader might justifiably interpret his leisurely examination of the modern agony as a deliberate and quite appropriate response to the upheavals that harried him from the time of the 1905 Revolution to the German occupation of France during World War II. If the Twentieth Century insisted on being precipitate and eruptive in everything, without regard to the lethal mayhem it wreaked, then, by God, Berdyaev, regarding his agenda, would take his sweet time. Not for him the constant mobilized agitation, the sloganeering hysteria, the goose-stepping and dive-bombing spasms of modernity in full self-apocalypse. That is another characteristic of Berdyaev – he is all at once leisurely in style and apocalyptic in content. Berdyaev was quite as apocalyptic in his expository prose as his idol Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his ethical narrative, and being a voice of revelation he expressed himself, again like Dostoevsky, in profoundly religious and indelibly Christian terms. Berdyaev follows Dostoevsky and anticipates Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that no society can murder God, as Western secular society has gleefully done, and then go its insouciant way, without consequence.
The titles of Berdyaev’s numerous books, especially when taken in chronological order, tell a story all by themselves: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), The End of Our Time (1924), Christianity and Class War (1931), The Destiny of Man (1931), The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Christianity and Anti-Semitism (1938), Slavery and Freedom (1939), Spirit and Reality (1946), and The Beginning and the End (1947), among many others. There is also a posthumous Truth and Revelation (1954). I call attention to the earliest of the listed titles, The Meaning of the Creative Act. Berdyaev began his career as a philosophical writer (he never completed his doctorate) with an ambitious study of aesthetics, his theory of which locates the purest manifestation of the highest value of his worldview, freedom, in the labor that generates the work of art and beyond that in all the highest effects of the artwork in its context. At the end of Berdyaev’s life, he wrote the essays that constitute Truth and Revelation, one of his several ventures into the philosophical-theological sub-genre of theodicy, in which he invokes a “creative response to the appeal of God.” Whereas in the Catholic and even more so in the Lutheran and Calvinist variants of Christianity there is, according to Berdyaev, a strong “sociomorphic” or “legalistic” distortion of Christian doctrine; in Russian Orthodox commentary, by contrast, “the coming of the Christ has been understood not as a reparation for sin, nor as the offering of a ransom, but as the continuation of the creation of the world and the appearance of the New Adam.” In Berdyaev’s view, “What God expects from man is not servile submission, not obedience, not the fear of condemnation, but free creative acts.” Berdyaev adds in an aside that, “I wrote on this subject some while ago in The Meaning of Creativeness,” that is, The Meaning of the Creative Act. Thus Berdyaev’s work exhibits a remarkable closure, returning at the end to its beginnings, linking as it were its omega with its alpha.