Nicolas Berdyaev on the Despiritualization of the West

Berdyaev 01 Portrait Face Forward

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.

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The Form of Forms is Itself Formless

That which has no form cannot be conceived – and vice versa. It’s easy to see that this is so when we try to think of what a square circle is like, or a four-sided triangle.

But, let’s talk about God.

To put the same thing another way: that than which no greater can be conceived by any mind cannot be conceived by any mind. If that than which no greater can be conceived could be conceived by any mind, then that mind would insofarforth understand how its conception of that thing could be surpassed, and would realize that in conceiving of it he had not yet quite conceived of that than which no greater can be conceived. He would realize that he had not been thinking of the unsurpassable. He would, i.e., realize that he had been thinking, not of God, but rather of something like Gaunilo’s Island, than which always some greater island might be conceived.

So, here’s the shocking consequence of these considerations: Not even God can conceive himself.

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Incarnation & Transubstantiation are Formally Analogous

Transubstantiation stymies us in the same way, and for the same reason, as the Incarnation. In both cases, God takes embodiment in a finite creaturely vessel. The Logos takes the form of man and of bread (and likewise of Church, and Word – but tace re them for the nonce). These forms remain what they were. Jesus the man is still a man – Good News for us, since only qua man could he make strictly human reparation to God for the sins of Man, thus healing the cosmic wounds particularly inflicted by men – and the bread is still just as bready as ever – again, good, or we could not eat him, and so partake his Body and its sacrificial redemption of all our predicaments. The human nature is not driven out of the man by the divine nature, and the breadiness of the bread is not driven out by the divinity of it. On the contrary, they are each perfected. When God becomes man, a man – and, so, Man in general – becomes the God, so that men (can) become gods. Likewise, when God becomes bread, the bread becomes the supersubstantial Bread of Heaven: it becomes the God, who is the manna that feeds the angels, and the other members of God’s Body. Us.

We are what we eat, deo gracias.

In both cases, the soma remains soma; and, so, as soma, divine participant and influence in this world – a solid, as heavy as any stone, and so therefore scandalous to any who would pass by.

The true question is this: why should either Incarnation or Transubstantiation so scandalize us? Is it not only, merely, that these Incorporations of the divine into his creation are difficult for us to comprehend?

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The Resurrection of the Body: A Simple Explanation for Children

Much of what follows is a literal transcription of a recent conversation with my four year old granddaughter.

Poppy walked out with his granddaughter and her little brother to play. There was a series of lawns, connected by grassy paths. On one lawn, his granddaughter spotted a tiny, perfectly camouflaged toad hiding in the sand. It was almost impossible to distinguish the toad from the surrounding sand.

She wanted to mess with the toad, but Poppy told her that was a bad idea, because to the tiny toad she seemed like a monster a hundred times bigger than the great fir tree just yonder seemed to us. The poor little toad was so scared of us, that if she just touched him with a blade of grass, he might be scared to death.

She left the toad in peace, even though that was very hard for her to do. Her little brother left him in peace, too.

Then, she found another tiny toad, hiding in just the same way as the first. She looked at it, but left it alone, even though she really wanted to pick it up and pet it. Her little brother left that toad alone, too.

Then, she found a dead toad out on the grass. It was not hiding in the sand. It was quite dried up. She and her brother squatted to look at it. So did Poppy. They poked it with a twig, because Poppy said that the toad could not feel bad about anything anymore.

She asked, “What’s the matter with it, Poppy?”

“It’s dead, sweetie.”

“Yeah. Why is it dead?”

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The Interpenetration of Worlds is Born to Us: Hosanna in the Highest!

When we forget, and begin to think that this world is all that there is, it is easy to wax now and then discouraged – which is, to wane in spirit, in vim and vigor, and so to disappoint our mundane debts, that could have been satisfied by steadfast courageous virtue, of the worldly, merely manly sort, had we but kept our guts. Forgetting that there is more than the current petty defeats we all daily suffer at the hands of our deluded purblind incompetent adversaries, so numerous and so dull and so stupid to life as it plainly is and to things as they obviously are, it is all too easy to say, “forget it, never mind, sorry, going away now.”

And, “to Hell with you.” And, then … to go away. To leave the fight. To simply down arms and walk away.

Fortunately, thanks be to God, there is Christmas.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Eternity

The notion of eternity is difficult to reconcile with our experience of time, of change and of happening. This makes it difficult to understand; and that makes it difficult for us to think about eternity without getting it all muddled up with time. The muddles can be so nettlesome that some thinkers try to clear them up by rejecting either the notion of time and change, on the one hand, or of eternity, on the other.

The reason we get into these muddles is that we try to extend our natural ways of thinking about temporal events to thinking about eternity. We naturally take time as basic, and generalize from it to eternity.

Thinking about the Eternal One, for example – for the *only* example, for as there can be only one Ultimate, so there can be but one eternality – it is all too easy to fall into thinking that his life is an infinitely extended series of finite moments, like ours except that it had no beginning. It is easy to think that God went on for quite a while enjoying himself alone, but then eventually decided to create the world, then redeem it, then destroy it, then judge it, and so forth.

This is exactly backward.

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Creatio ex Nihilo

Materialism suggests that when a new whole – such as a person – appears in the cosmos, it is as a result of the combination of preexistent parts that come together to form that whole. Persons, then, are on the materialist account somehow artifacts or characteristics of their constituent components, or are emergent from their componence. They are nothing but the combination of their components.

But notice that to say that a whole is only the combination of its parts is just to say that a combination combines in virtue of its combination. It is a dormitive virtue “explanation.” It is, to put it bluntly, a proposition that proposes nothing, an “explanation” that explains nothing.

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The Truth That Founds the Error of Pantheism

One of the reasons that pantheism is so appealing is that this world is indeed a lively actuality transcendent to everything within it, supersidiary thereto, and regnant thereof. There is indeed a world soul. This is to say no more than that the cosmos has a definite form and character – that it is an orderly, coordinated cosmos that hangs together coherently and integrates its constituents in a whole, rather than a disordered jumble that does not (and that is not therefore a world in the first place). And it has furthermore a personal order, for such personal orders are numbered among its constituents, and it could hardly take proper account of them except insofar as it was itself a personal order.

But pantheism errs in its eager inference that that world soul is God. It is not; it is only a god; a creature.

Truth versus the West

At least since Nietzsche, modern European pagans of the more reckless jejune sort have been wont to proclaim that Christianity gutted Europe of her original, chthonic, manly, distinctive culture. The process took millennia, they say, but it has now been pretty much completed. Europe has been unmanned by the pale Galilean who had already sapped Rome and the wider Hellenic world with his flaccid Oriental mysteries, and lies now prone before her Mohammedan conquerors.

It’s a silly conceit. For one thing, the West began her precipitous Modern decline at exactly the moment that her formerly deep and utterly preponderant Christian faith began to weaken and splinter – thanks in no small part to that madman, Nietzsche himself (and to a few other madmen, such as Voltaire). For another, if Christianity really did gut Europe of such a vigorous exuberant cult, then … that cult must have been rather weak after all, mutatis mutandis – and so, by its own lights, deserving of death.

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Of Possible Interest

Waltari

Mika Waltari

My essay A Novel for Our Time appears at Baron Bodissey’s Gates of Vienna website.  The “novel for our time” is Dark Angel (1952) by the Finnish writer Mika Waltari (1931 – 1979), a fictionalized account, drawing on historical sources, of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.  Waltari’s work is today largely forgotten, but during his lifetime it received widespread appreciation and made itself available to non-Finnish speakers through translations in a dozen languages.  (Waltari’s novel The Egyptian, for example, would become the basis of a lavishly produced Hollywood film of the same name.)  Dark Angel is partly allegory, being a study in loyalty to civilization and its opposite; and it is partly a call to its audience to remember an event that is increasingly obscure or entirely unknown to most Western people.  Most importantly – and most relevantly from the perspective of sixty years later – Dark Angel is an attempt to grasp the essence of Islam.  Waltari’s characterization of Islam stands at an angle to a number of assumptions that critics of that creed at  the present time make of it – and in a way that heightens the claim of radical incompatibility between Islam and the West.