Nicolas Berdyaev And Modern Anti-Modernism

A paradox of modernity is that, from its beginnings in Eighteenth Century rationalism, it has been accompanied by a veritable polyphony of dissent. The advocates of rationalism – and of progress – have inveterately denounced this heterogeneous arousal of dissident judgment under the sweeping term reaction; but that term, reaction or reactionism, applies much more appropriately to the Enlightenment itself than it does to the critique of the Enlightenment, or to the critique of the Enlightenment’s swift self-transfiguration into Revolution.

Already in the early Nineteenth Century various strands of Romanticism partook in the gathering critique of rallying progress. The development of a poet like William Wordsworth from a youthful admirer of the Jacobins to a Tory, whose ballad-like poems celebrate tradition against the encroachments of method, offers a case in point; and Wordsworth’s French contemporary Alfred de Vigny despised the Revolution as a recrudescence of primitive violence springing from hatred of all dignity and form. Deeply rooted custom is not necessarily arbitrary. On the contrary, tradition implies wisdom beyond the reductively rational for which method, political or technical, is a paltry and counterproductive substitute. Community likewise differs from and comes prior to the state, which in comparison to the community is abstract and even alienating. While it is true that there was a decidedly leftwing Romanticism – Percy Shelley in England and the Junges Deutschlandpoets in the German principalities – largely the movement was, in its context, traditionalist, sometimes stridently so.

The same could be said for the mid-Nineteenth Century developments of Romanticism. Charles Baudelaire was not a liberal and neither was his Danish contemporary Søren Kierkegaard. Friedrich Nietzsche early associated the modern world with superficiality and mediocrity; later, modernity appeared to him as active nihilism.

Nicolas Berdyaev

The Western European response to the burgeoning rationalization and politicization of life had echoes in the East. Alexander Pushkin took repeatedly as his theme the chaos, psychological and moral, that results from the modern abolition of custom and form; the same could be said of Mikhail Lermontov, whose medium was prose, and whose archetypal anti-heroes, most notably Pechorin in A Hero of our Time (1840), body forth the symptoms of modern anomie. Pechorin has no place in the rational, bureaucratic Russia of his time, but he also lacks the resources of traditional form and custom: Pechorin becomes demonic; he can believe in nothing outside himself, while that very self remains unformed, immature, and incapable of supporting an existence of the disposition, mens sana in corpore sano. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s demonic men all resemble Pechorin, being the orphaned offspring of a stricken world. When Russia “received” Nietzsche in the 1890s, the rich Slavic soil was well prepared. None received the Götzendämmerung-message so eagerly as Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948). As Lesley Chamberlain writes in Motherland (2007), Berdyaev was “the Russian Christian answer to Nietzsche,” who “believed in the spiritual benefits of culturally nourished imagination.”


I. In Chamberlain’s seemingly positive judgment, Berdyaev “was terribly necessary in Russia,” a crisis-wracked nation fated to live out its version of the Western crisis in an exaggerated, parodic, and tragic form. Chamberlain reminds her readers that Berdyaev “fought Communism in Russia as a moral evil much as Nietzsche battled against herd mentality and cultural leveling in the West.” Berdyaev also paid the price for his outspokenness, when Lenin exiled him in 1922 along with a boatload of philosophers and intellectuals. Chamberlain concludes, however, that, despite Berdyaev’s insight that, “knowledge and ethics have to be created for the good of mankind,” and despite his insistent critique of pragmatism and utilitarianism, he should “be stripped of an unconvincing attempt to rank himself alongside Plato and [Immanuel] Kant.” Chamberlain charges Berdyaev with “vagueness” and “extreme reluctance to be pinned down.” She borrows Berdyaev’s own qualified term “mystical anarchist” to describe the philosopher tout court, linking him, beyond Nietzsche, with Angelus Silesius and Jakob Boehme, and implying a kind of nebulous religiosity. Not incidentally, Berdyaev himself acknowledged the Boehme and Silesius connections and frequently justified them. Chamberlain’s remarks communicate with a second-hand idea of Berdyaev as prolix and unsystematic writer in whose rambling books self-opinion ran too high.

As for Berdyaev in Berdyaev’s eyes, the autobiographical Self-Knowledge (opus posthumous, 1950) declares him stylistically an aphorist. The truth lies somewhere between the modern, skeptical writer’s casual pejoratives and Berdyaev’s own sometimes wishful self-estimate. Aphorisms appear in his work, but they take their place in a species of prose that never exactly hurries to put a period. Blame in these matters lies more with modern impatience than with Berdyaev’s manner of exposition. With Berdyaev, patience pays off.

Chamberlain rightly recommends Self-Knowledge, which she refers to under its British title of Dream and Reality, as the best introduction to Berdyaev. In Self-Knowledge, Berdyaev writes of his intellectual Pilgrim’s Progress and he confesses his intellectual debts. In the chapter that Berdyaev devotes to his tentative Marxism and his subsequent deliberate break with revolutionary circles, he acknowledges his relation both to the Romantics, Russian and otherwise, and their successors. “What does romanticism really mean,” Berdyaev asks. He answers, “If it is the opposite of classicism I must undoubtedly style myself a romantic.” Dissociating himself strongly from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Berdyaev nevertheless considers that “romanticism stands for everything that is human” insofar as it constitutes an intuitive critique of imperious rationality, dogmatic method, and abstract system. On the other hand, Berdyaev does not want anyone to mistake his own Romanticism for “high-pitched and spectacular emotionalism,” or “self-indulgence in the imaginary depths of life,” which is how he evaluates the author of the Confessions.

Being a Romantic means for Berdyaev that one takes a transcendental perspective. “I proceeded from Kant in my conception of the theory of knowledge,” Berdyaev writes; yet Berdyaev is also a Platonist, who thinks that, with respect to the noumenon or “thing-in-itself,” “Plato is right whilst Kant is wrong”: Direct knowledge of the “thing-in-itself” is possible, according to Self-Knowledge.

Berdyaev adds another twist when he avers that, “Kant is a profoundly Christian thinker, more so than Thomas Aquinas,” presumably more so than Plato despite the assimilation of Plato in Patristic writers like Justin Martyr and Augustine. Above all, however, and because Berdyaev has “put Freedom, rather than Being, at the basis of [his] philosophy,” he regards himself as a Christian philosopher, or more particularly as a Christian Existentialist. In an aphorism: “The mystery of the world abides in freedom: God desired freedom and freedom gave rise to tragedy in the world.” It is the case, according to Berdyaev, that, “freedom alone should be recognized as possessing a sacred quality, whilst all other things to which a sacred character has been assigned by men since history began ought to be made null and void.” It follows that Berdyaev, in his role as philosopher, sees himself “as pre-eminently a liberator,” Christianity itself “Having called upon my allegiance as emancipation.” Berdyaev even ventures a paradox, writing that, “a Russian bishop once said of me that I was ‘the captive of freedom.’” Remarking Berdyaev’s dedication to his singular principle, one easily sees how, at first, he could embroil himself with Marxists and revolutionaries and how, inevitably, he would revolt against them and reorient himself spiritually and intellectually.

In sum, if a summary were possible, Berdyaev stands in a Romantic tradition and in a contemporary relation to a species of Existentialism stemming from Kierkegaard, with further antecedents in Plato and Augustine, and his thinking is strongly yet qualifiedly flavored by Nietzsche’s critique of modernity.

Like Plato and to some extent like Kant, like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and even like Marx, Berdyaev thought that philosophy might exercise its emancipating power through the revelatory clarification of ideas, by a gesture that amounts to epistemological shock therapy. Like Plato with his opposition of opinion to truth and like Marx with his assignment of truth to the cognizance of a particular social class, Berdyaev begins his philosophical analysis by discerning types of awareness. “I came to assume,” he writes, “a ‘primary’ and a ‘secondary’ form of knowledge and, correspondingly, a ‘primary’ and a ‘secondary’ consciousness, from which knowledge springs.” Whereas the “primary consciousness” relates to the existing subject, with the individual, and with an accessible world in which the individual participates, the “secondary consciousness” relates to “the process of objectification, whereby reality is seen as broken up into the realms of subject and object.” In Berdyaev’s later work another term, “estrangement” (ostrananie), comes into usage in connection with the term “objectification.”

As the narrowly scientific or experimental view of the world extends its sway, as it insists on treating everything as though it were an object, people, in imitating and internalizing the false conviction, experience alienation from the world. The assumption that people are cut off from the world sure enough mucks up their relation to that world so that they experience a feeling of isolation and forlornness. For Berdyaev, “the objective world is the product of estrangement: it is the fallen world, disintegrated and enslaved.” Berdyaev uses what, even for conservatives today, is an aggressively religious vocabulary.

Life in revolutionary circles heightened Berdyaev’s own sense of estrangement. In Self-Knowledge, Berdyaev remarks how “the revolutionary intelligentsia seemed to live all the time under the shadow of military discipline… But I preferred to fight on my own, and would not agree to accept military orders or organized group-morality.” Although exiled by the Czarist regime to Siberia along with others adjudged guilty of insurrectionism, Berdyaev could not identify with the radicals. What he calls “their asceticism, their narrowness, their moral rigorism and their stuffy political religiosity” repelled him. He concluded that, “every political revolution is doomed and becomes stupefied by its own surfeit,” and that, ‘the subject of true revolution must be man, rather than the masses or the body politic.” Indeed, in the passage, Berdyaev amends his own vocabulary, prescinding from the categorical man to the unique instance of the person: “Only a personalistic revolution can properly be called a ‘revolution.’” In a similar formulation he writes, “I understood that ‘spirit’ signifies freedom and revolution, while ‘matter’ spells necessity and reaction, and spreads reaction in the minds and hearts of the revolutionaries themselves.”

Berdyaev foresaw as early as 1917 that the Bolshevik revolution would demand the humiliating “sacrifice” of all individual prerogatives and every speck of actual political or any other kind of freedom.


II. While piling up names perhaps discommodes the reader, it seems not impertinent to mention how harmoniously Berdyaev’s thinking chimes with that of others who began to make themselves known in traditionalist-conservative circles the West in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the 1914-1918 War and the Wilsonian, “progressive” agenda for reconstructing the world. Berdyaev records his perception, at that time, of a shattered cosmos. So too in The Waste Land, published in the year when Berdyaev arrived, a refugee, in Berlin, T. S. Eliot portrayed a frgmented world and an atomized, estranged humanity, living anxiously in want of the spiritual nourishment, the redemption, that only the inherited forms of tradition, now obliterated, might have supplied. So too Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1919 & 1922) and René Guénon in The Crisis of the Modern Age (1927) wrote of the dominion of technique, which reductively understands everything on the model of billiard-ball mechanics and under the sign of pure quantity. In Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923), George Santayana, a former teacher of Eliot, defended the value of custom and faith in the conduct of life.

Berdyaev belonged to that prophetic moment. Looking back on his career in June 1940 – when, as he wrote, “whole worlds are crashing in ruin, and other worlds, unknown and predictable, are coming into being” – he questioned “whether this fallen and stricken world, which paralyses and crushes man by its inexorable necessities, can be possessed of true, original reality,” or “whether man is not driven by the very nature of things to look for a reality that transcends this world.”

Berdyaev inclined to answer yes to his own question. His career consisted of four decades of contemplation, in preparation for writing, for the purpose of filling in the details of his answer. In Self-Knowledge, on which the labor seems to have been long, he tells of his recognition that for him the religious impulse would be fulfilled in Russian Orthodoxy, while yet he suspected, rather as Kierkegaard had, that Christendom, Orthodox or otherwise, had “become a sociological phenomenon,” and as such dispirited and denatured. Nor does he spare the clerisy from criticism: Priests being men, they are fallible; some are even obnoxious, and bishops are intolerable bores. For Berdyaev: “God is freedom” and “God never operates through necessity, but always through freedom; and he never forces recognition of himself.” That is an observation more apt in our time even than in the 1940s. “It is a grave fatal error,” Berdyaev writes, “to ask for and rely on safety devices and infallible criteria in our religious life, since this life involves all the boundless possibilities, risks and insecurities of freedom.” In Self-Knowledge, Berdyaev also conveniently nominates five of his books that best complete his intention to explain himself: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1914), The Destiny of Man (1937), Solitude and Society (1934), Spirit and Reality (1946), and Slavery and Freedom (1939).

The Meaning of the Creative Act was Berdyaev’s second book, written during the declension of his revolutionary period, partly in Italy, where he traveled with his companion Lydia just before the outbreak of the war. Berdyaev devotes a chapter of Self-Knowledge to summarizing this ambitious authorial sally and to critiquing it for attempting too much. In Berdyaev’s improvisatory, non-systematic, worked-out-over-a-lifetime philosophy, creativity maintains an indissoluble bond with freedom. Creativity, not limited to the obvious forms of artistic creativity but best exemplified by them, works by spontaneous volition. The creator chooses to create. He chooses to work in reference to the plastic canons of esthetic law; so while creation is not a spasm, it is also not a mechanical act. In the retrospective discussion of The Meaning of the Creative Act in Self-Knowledge, creativity finds a place in the tension between Romanticism, with which Berdyaev qualifiedly identifies, and Classicism, for which he lacks sympathy.

The “gift of creativity” having its source “from God,” man exercises that gift “by virtue of his freedom, and in his capacity of creator”; never is man as creator a “mere passive object in the hands of God.” Creativity maintains relation also to “redemption and salvation,” and not only because it is a type of Imitatio Dei. According to Berdyaev, the “fallacy of classicism,” recognizable as the fallacy of the Enlightenment and its utopian offshoots, consists in the mania for “perfection in the finite, within this contingent and fallen world of ours.”

For the Romantic, by contrast, “the creative act… is eschatological,” pointing to that which lies beyond finitude. The sagacious mortal creator, knowing that flaws and incompleteness will mar his creation, reconciles himself to this knowledge. Berdyaev developed his “eschatological” view of existence, in which a transcendental orientation conditions the sense of life and informs the principled indictment of objectification, in one of his last books, The Beginning and the End (1947; English edition, 1952).

Berdyaev sometimes called himself a “Personalist” and his philosophy, insofar as it cohered, “Personalism.” A creator, artist or otherwise, must first of all become a person. A person, moreover, defines himself at first by negation, through specifying his difference from the cue-seeking masses; and that differentiation is itself a witting, creative act. In The Beginning and the End, Berdyaev writes, “He who is most individualized comes tumbling down into the conditions of socialization at its maximum,” entering the realm of “coercive objectiveness.” Berdyaev assumes always a fallen world. Because society belongs to the world, society too is fallen. Modern man especially “lives in a disintegrated world” where an artificial and enslaving “collectivism” or “sociomorphism” has imposed itself in default of a vanished “true community,” which oriented itself to “the Kingdom of God.” For the self-aware person, solitude beckons urgently. Solitude, “a late product of advanced culture,” operates in the modern context as monastic asceticism did in the medieval context.

In solitude the individual person overthrows “sociomorphism” and rediscovers the grace of his freedom. The “Personalist” will therefore also be an aristocrat, a label that Berdyaev never rejected, but that indeed he applied unapologetically to himself even though critics held it against him.

In The Meaning of the Creative Act, before the worst of the cataclysms that impinged on his life, Berdyaev had written concerning the Renaissance of the Quattrocento that, “in it Christianity encountered paganism, and this encounter deeply wounded the spirit of man.” The earlier Renaissance of the Trecento was, by contrast, “all tinged with Christian color,” as in Giotto and the religious painters and the philosopher-mystic Joachim di Fiora. For Berdyaev, that early Renaissance was not only Christian, but by virtue of its Christianity, “Romantic”: It bodied forth in plastic and in thought the Christian-Transcendental impulse – the infinity-seeking impulse – that the Gothic Middle Ages derived from the Gospel. The sudden welling-up of antique motifs therefore suggests to Berdyaev a catastrophic diremption. Indeed, he sees the Quattrocento as the beginning of modernity precisely in the sense that it is the beginning of a whole series of cultural fault lines, which thereafter proliferate and widen in the fractured substrate of Western life. The Pagan, for Berdyaev, is much more of this world, of finitude and limitation, than the Christian. The Christian would overcome nature through spirit; the Pagan would accord itself with nature.

In a fascinating analysis of Sandro Botticelli, Berdyaev remarks how his Venuses ascend towards heaven while his Madonnas descend to the Earth, an irresolvable contradiction: “In the whole life work of Botticelli there is a sort of fatal failure.” If the viewer cannot but approach Botticelli’s canvasses “without a strange inner trepidation,” that is because Botticelli’s is an art of trepidation, in which the “canonical” takes fright before the spirit’s soaring impulse, preventing that impulse from fulfilling itself. Rationality strangles creativeness in its crib.


III. Implicit in Chamberlain’s characterization of Berdyaev is the sameness of his books, a characterization that the books themselves swiftly belie. The Beginning and the End is abstract, avoiding specific references; The Meaning of the Creative Act is replete with specific references. Self-Knowledge, although reticent, is personal; The End of Our Time (1924; 1933) and The Meaning of History are historically specific, immersed in the actual. While Berdyaev’s themes persistently recur in book after book, his total range of knowledge, interest, and reference might easily humble his readers. His range approaches Spengler’s range of knowledge, interest, and reference. Like Spengler, Berdyaev never earned a degree; he kept failing his examinations and eventually abandoned the attempt to pass them. He nevertheless knew more than his professors, as The Meaning of the Creative Act showed just before the outbreak of the Great War. Berdyaev was a philosophy faculty, a literature faculty, and an art-history faculty bodied forth in one perpetually self-educating and slightly eccentric person. In his appreciation of the French Symbolist School in poetry, for example, he anticipates the vindication of those artists in the best of their post-World War Two exegetes, such as Anna Balakian and Robert Greer Cohn. When Berdyaev makes a late-in-life appearance (posthumous, in fact) in Jean Wahl’s Short History of Existentialism (1949) as a respondent to Wahl’s lecture, he ventures a sharp assessment of the formidable figure of Martin Heidegger, whose philosophical ancestry in Kierkegaard Wahl had proposed.

Berdyaev denies that Heidegger stems from the Dane. As for Heidegger, he aimed at a “rational ontology,” whereas Berdyaev praises Kierkegaard because “he did not wish to create an ontology or a metaphysics.”

Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and the Symbolists – it is dizzying. Berdyaev’s name remains bound up with Russia, however, with the agony of the Revolution, and with the betrayal of freedom in the Soviet Union under the Communist Party. Berdyaev’s discussion of these matters has naturally attracted most of the attention that commentators have directed to him over the years. Although Berdyaev ended up a victim of Bolshevism (not as abjectly as some did, of course), yet in his exile he refrained from contributing to overt public condemnation of the Soviet Union and, while criticizing the Communists, argued that the Party, almost despite itself, represented the Russian and affiliated peoples. Yet Berdyaev devotes much of The End of Our Time (three out of five chapters) to the USSR, and comments unsparingly. Berdyaev sees the Marxist regime not as an isolated phenomenon but rather as one instance of the staggering cultural and spiritual corruption of the West in the aftermath of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

In The End of Our Time, Berdyaev writes: “The Renaissance came to nothing, the Reformation came to nothing, the Enlightenment came to nothing; so did the Revolution inspired by the Enlightenment. And thus too will Socialism come to nothing.” Again, “Bolshevism is rationalized lunacy, a mania for the definitive regulation of life, resting on the elemental irrationality of the people.” This last phrase should be considered in connection with Berdyaev’s skeptical judgment of Heidegger. A “rational ontology” is for Berdyaev necessarily a “rationalized lunacy”; a “rational ontology” is a betrayal of freedom. Consistent with the idea that the Will to Power is pathological and demonic is Berdyaev’s assessment of revolutionary egalitarianism: “When societies begin to hanker after equality any kind of renaissance and harvest of creation is at an end. For the principle of equality is the principle of envy, envy of the being of another and bitterness at the inability to affirm one’s own.” What Berdyaev writes about the Bolsheviks applies with equal validity to any ideological faction then or now because each one is nothing less than “an envious denial of the being of another.”

What Berdyaev calls envy Nietzsche called ressentiment; and ressentiment, or envy, is ultimately, for Berdyaev, a satanic principle. The notion that revolution springs from the “Satanism” of envy unalloyed, a type of cosmic resentment, a world-hatred founded in the subject’s outrage that, in the issue of creation, the deity never consulted him: This notion permeates Berdyaev’s comments on Bolshevism and Communism in Russia in The End of Our Time. The revolutionary regime behaves, in Berdyaev’s coinage, in “the muzhiko-military style”; the regime, “brutal and ferocious in its methods, has declared war on all quality in favour of quantity,” a fact that assimilates it to trends in industrial capitalism in the West. No less than industrial-capitalist society, Soviet society sets itself implacably against “all fine culture.” Soviet – or let us say, Communist – society is the paradoxical triumph of bourgeois philistinism.

The pre-Bolshevik elites of Russia are, in this, for Berdyaev, as blameworthy as the Bolsheviks for the Revolution; the elites were weak and out of touch equally with the people and with Truth, by which Berdyaev always means first and foremost the Truth of the Gospel. “Bolshevism corresponds to the moral condition of us Russians and displays outwardly our inward crisis, our loss of faith, our religion in danger, the hideous weakening of our moral life.”

The Russian Revolution represents for Berdyaev, as the French Revolution represented for Joseph de Maistre, something “visited on the people for their sins.” This implies not, however, that the Revolution lies beyond moral judgment. On the contrary, all responsible people, especially all responsible followers of the Gospel, must judge it. How much of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is prefigured in Berdyaev? A great deal. Berdyaev, acknowledging the prophetic power of literature, writes: “The Russian revolution has turned out just as Dostoyevsky foresaw.” Dostoyevsky went to the heart of the matter in The Devils: “He understood that Socialism in Russia was a religious matter, a question of atheism, and that the real concern of the pre-revolutionary intellectuals was not politics but the salvation of mankind without the help of God.”

So too Communism: This godless cult mirrors religion atheistically, and with Manichaean ferocity. Communism, fundamentally a doctrine of covetousness, as befits a pure materialism, “is warfare against the spirit,” and therefore against the freedom that corresponds to spirit. In Communism, “envy, that black passion, has become the determining force in the world.”

Berdyaev nevertheless disdains strident counter-revolutionary rhetoric. With de Maistre, he urges only “a peaceful and bloodless, even a gentle counter-revolution.” He hopes that the post-revolutionary society will emphasize spirit over matter and, while restoring property, will not make it life’s grand fetish. (This did not happen.)

The final chapter of The End of Our Time bears the title, “The ‘General Line’ of Soviet Philosophy.” Berdyaev added it to the book for a revised edition in 1933. The comments that Berdyaev makes on “Soviet Philosophy” are trenchant, coolly observed, and – once again – broadly applicable to all ideological discourse, whether of 1930 or the 2011. “Soviet philosophy is a theology,” Berdyaev writes; “it has its revelation, its holy books, its ecclesiastical authority, its official teachers [and] it supposes the existence of one orthodoxy and innumerable heresies.” The central thesis of the Marxist-Leninist “revelation” is the famous dialectic of materialism, which Berdyaev, in his brilliant analysis, shows to be unable to define itself; but the orthodoxy is less important in the discourse of “Soviet philosophy” than are the deviations from it: “Marx-Leninism has been transformed into a scholasticism sui generis, and the defense of orthodoxy, of eternal truth in its integrity, and the distinguishing of heresies has attained a degree of refinement difficult for the uninitiated to imagine.”


IV. An earlier estimate might be revised. Berdyaev is not merely a writer whose case calls for patience and who rewards patience modestly. He is a compelling writer, a Nietzschean whose critique of Nietzsche is sharper than a blade, an anti-Communist who is equally scathing in his critique of the capitalistic-industrial order, and a Christian who is capable of asserting that moral norms are tyrannical. (He means, of course, the “sociomorphic” norms; and he is arguing an ethics of Gospel-centered social non-conformism.) The Destiny of Man and Slavery and Freedom, his two most ambitious works, as challenging as they are, belong under the generalization. The Destiny of Man is Berdyaev’s ethics, but it is also his meta-ethics, his critique of historical and reigning ethical theories. An example of Berdyaev on Nietzsche will give some of the flavor of Berdyaev’s modus operandi in criticism. “Suppose I say that good is not good… that it is evil,” as Nietzsche asserted in The Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere; “that will mean that I make a valuation of the ‘good,’ and distinguish it from something which I oppose to it.” But this gesture now entails that, “I distinguish between the higher and the lower.” Thus: “Nietzsche was a moralist, though he denied it.” Yet Berdyaev stands with Nietzsche in the conviction that, “true morality is not the social morality of the herd.”

In The Destiny of Man, Berdyaev distinguishes between three hierarchical levels of ethics. Beginning with the lowest, these are “the ethics of law,” “the ethics of redemption,” and “the ethics of creativeness.” Law, which distinguishes sin from righteousness, results, Berdyaev argues, from “the Fall”; good and evil come into existence with “the Fall.” Law is necessarily “sociomorphic,” coercive, and in its dudgeon tyrannical. Law encourages mere individualism, that is, the responsibility of the individual to observe the law at all times; but law hinders personality, a higher value than individuality. Law expresses the collective mentality of the aggregate, the Nietzschean “herd.” Law is not unjustified; it is merely morally limited, as the Crucifixion, perfectly legal, showed. Redemption, in existential terms, manifests itself at first as the individual’s recognition in law of a makeshift at the lowest level and as his insight that personality, which partakes in grace, finds no nourishment there.

In striving for redemption, however, the individual easily distorts the grace to which his struggle responds; he then becomes a Puritan, like Henrik Ibsen’s priest-fanatic in Brand, or like convinced Communists and multiculturalists. As Berdyaev remarks, Jesus kept company, not with the perfecti, but with taxmen, tavern-keepers, harlots, and thieves.

The applicability of Berdyaev’s line of thinking to the contemporary liberal utopia will be evident in an aphoristic construction like this one: “Absolute perfection, absolute order and rationality may prove to be an evil, a greater evil than the imperfect, unorganized, irrational life which admits a certain freedom of evil.” Creativeness, in contrast both to law and redemption, admits of imperfection; it also always traffics in freedom. Creativeness often expresses itself in love, and love must contradict itself whenever it admits of coercion. The codification of polities partakes originally in creativeness, which is why the codifiers find their place in myth, but when once the code has fossilized and become an end rather than a means, it has ceased to be creative. Tragically, however, all human creation invariably falls back into this world. Failure is this worldly; and this world is a fallen world. The very failure of enterprise tempts men to employ coercion.

Slavery and Freedom likewise develops Berdyaev’s tragic optimism and his notion that clarification in eschatology is necessary for clarification in ethics. Personality remains, for Berdyaev, the highest value; personality, which has its source outside the dominion of objectivity and causality, never becomes integrated in any natural or social hierarchy. “God is always freedom,” writes Berdyaev; and “God acts, not upon the world order as though justifying the suffering of personality, but in the conflict, in the struggle of personality, in the conflict of freedom against that world order.” In the utopian idea of “world harmony,” as well as in the parallel theological idea that pain and humiliation belong to God’s plan, Berdyaev sees a character “false and enslaving.” Whether as atheistic collectivism or as theocracy, the vindication of force and suffering through reference to Being or Unity strikes Berdyaev as, itself, irremediably evil.

Berdyaev also anticipates the tyranny implicit in the “green” or environmentalist utopia. “Cosmicism,” as Berdyaev calls this type of idolatrous “pandemonism,” so fervently “exalts the idea of organism and the organic” that in its insistence “man becomes a mere organ” of nature and “the freedoms of man… are abolished.”

Every doctrine, environmentalism no less than socialism, has society as its context and tends more or less strongly to seek the total ordering of society under its precepts. Doctrines or ideologies belong with “sociomorphism,” that demand of the collectivity that everything personal should subordinate itself. Berdyaev quotes with agreement Alexander Hertzen’s assertion that “the subjection of personality to society… is an extension of the practice of human sacrifice.” The cases of Socrates and Jesus supply the prime historical examples of the Hertzen-observation but the dramatic scenarios of Ibsen must also have occurred to Berdyaev in this regard. Dr. Stockman in Enemy of the People comes to mind, as does pathetic little Hedvig in The Wild Duck, the victim of Gregers Werle’s beautiful vision for the Ekdal family. In the analysis in Slavery and Freedom, the West has been moving in the direction of totalitarianism since the Sixteenth Century at least, just as it has been moving ever further into the de-spiritualized state of “objectivization.” As applied science seeks sovereignty over nature, the realm of objects, politics seeks sovereignty over humanity; the state thus makes relentless war on personality.

Berdyaev offers no political program or scheme – that would contradict his elevation of personality to the highest value. But Berdyaev does make consistent statements that converge with the minimalist formula for a polity, such as that promulgated by America’s Founding Fathers. The calling of the personality is to exercise itself in creative acts, by which it fulfills itself, or, as the Preamble to the Constitution puts it, pursues happiness. The wisdom of the Constitution and of Berdyaev is the same: A man must be free to pursue what he can imagine, but once any external agency presumes to guarantee to him the possession of what he pursues, he has sold his birthright. He is enslaved. It is true that Berdyaev regarded America with suspicion. On the other hand he admired England, on whose common law tradition the American minimalist formula for a polity arose. The politically centripetal America of the 1930s that Berdyaev disliked had already, itself, betrayed its own minimalist foundation.

Berdyaev remains today one of the most radical of Twentieth Century philosophers. He must offend liberal and libertarian, militant atheist and Christian literalist alike. For all that Berdyaev shares with Nietzsche, he will offend those, and they are many, who have turned Nietzsche into one of the idols of the Götzendämmerung. Veteran anti-Communists and Cold Warriors will meanwhile undoubtedly take exception to Berdyaev’s occasional ameliorative attitude to the Soviet Union, which peremptorily exiled him in 1922. The offended parties should, however, strive to reconcile themselves with the man’s Christian Existentialism, or Christian Anarchism, the latter of which might be a better description of his attitude. I was struck, in reading Berdyaev’s exposition of personality and freedom as the true vocations of man, by its echoes in Geert Wilders’ summary of his defense before the faceless judges who, at last, on Wilders’ second trial, acquitted him: “We must live in the truth… Truth and freedom are inextricably connected. We must speak the truth because otherwise we shall lose our freedom.”

Who knows whether Wilders has any consciousness of so recondite a figure as Nicolas Berdyaev? Why should he? Nevertheless, Wilders’ words resonate with the radical, uncompromising paean to conscience and freedom that is the work of Nicolas Berdyaev.


I would like to acknowledge Capodistria’s kind remarks on the Berdyaev piece.  There is a good deal more to say about Berdyaev, naturally, than I have been able to say inside the limits of my essay.  Due to the diligence and optimism of an enterprise calling itself Semantron Books, virtually all of Berdyaev’s books are currently available, in a publish-on-demand format.  (The volumes are quite handsome.)  One thing that I would add to what I wrote is that Berdyaev understood something that conservatives have taken a long time to understand, and that many do not yet understand.  The liberal state encourages a type of monopolistic crony-capitalism, which collaborates with socialism in annihilating the spontaneously organizing market.  Many conservatives naively use the term “capitalism” in their discourse, and they reflexively defend almost all of corporate activity.  “Capitalism” is a Marxist coinage.  It seems to me that advocates of minimal government and maximal freedom need to reacquaint themselves with the term market, and with what the term designates.  Berdyaev’s critical remarks on the USA stem from his perception, which history has vindicated, that a sinister alliance is possible between a centralizing, self-aggrandizing national government and a few great corporations, who collaborate with the government in plundering a nation’s productivity.  Best to Capodistria. 

Berdyaev and Free Will

"Finally – in Berdyaev’s vision, although history is end-oriented, the end does not preordain events; there is no element of coercion in the influence of spirit on human events in time."


Dr Bertonneau's essay and comment provides exceptional insights into an often underappreciated 20th century thinker and Russian exile. I for one would appreciate a revival in interest in Berdyaev rather than let's say an Ayn Rand, another Russian emigre, who I believe is fundamentally anti-American, despite her adoring "Life of Brian"public - we are all individuals, we are all individuals.....


In the above quote from his comment to Mpresley, I think Dr.B identifies precisely the beauty and genius of Berdyaev's writing his recognition and witness to God's greatest gift to Man: Free Will. 


Thank you Professor B, I suspect people unfamiliar with your writing who read these profound thoughts on Berdyaev will soon be asking : Who is Thomas Bertonneau



Berdyaev had a keen sense of history as end-oriented.  For Berdyaev, the Classical or Mediterranean civilization had worked itself through and exhausted its creative power; the Gothic-Christian or Western civilization that succeeded the Classical civilization was sui generis.  This did not mean, however, that it did not borrow from the precursor-civilization; but what it borrowed, it borrowed as appurtenance, not as essence.  Berdyaev thus saw post-classical attempts to revive classicism, and to substitute it for Western civilization, as misguided, impossible, and bound to issue in deformity.  Ditto any attempt to substitute a revived paganism for Christianity.  He was especially convinced that there could be no return to paganism; that Gospel had created an absolute rupture in the development of human possibility.  It is also the case that Berdyaev uses the terms classic and classicism in somewhat idiosyncratic ways – as implying the false idea that human being, essentially free, can be brought to static and eternal perfection by restricting freedom.  Berdyaev sees the Borgia-type of city-state of the Sixteenth Century as the dark and tragic denouement of the brilliantly begun yet foredoomed Renaissance, but also as the prototype of the modern, ideological utopia.  Readers of Spengler will remark that The Decline of the West also characterizes the Renaissance as an imbroglio.

For Berdyaev, the Romantic is more or less correlated with the Christian.  Both Romanticism and Christianity (the forming stemming from the latter) are form breaking, infinity seeking, and transcendent in orientation.  They stand opposed to the static, finite ideal of the Classical worldview.  I would emphasize, however, that none of these judgments involves turning one’s back on the achievement of antiquity.  The tragedians and Plato play important roles in Berdyaev’s discourse in all his books.

One of the characteristics of Berdyaev that has endeared him to me is his non-systematic authorship.  Often he plays fast and loose with terms; nowhere is he of a mind to construct a system of philosophy or to set out the dogmas of some philosophical substitute for religion.  Finally – in Berdyaev’s vision, although history is end-oriented, the end does not preordain events; there is no element of coercion in the influence of spirit on human events in time.

Whether this clears matters, I doubt.  I remain open to further inquiry.


@ professor Bertonneau

Thank you for the additional material. 

I was really not specifically commenting so much on what you wrote, which in my view was exceptionally clear, but only making a rather loose associative comment.  Perhaps I should have made that clear, but sometimes a quick paragraph or two in a blog combo-box, and as the idea first arises, leads to a loss of context.

I do believe that a casual interpretation of the romantic spirit (or general inferences taken from its chief features) may seem to often highlight an undisciplined emotionalism at the expense of rational thinking.  The emotive uber alles, as it were.  At the same time, within Enlightenment thinking (and its earlier precursors) we readily see the rise of scientism, misplaced scientific reductionism where it does not belong, and the general idea that our problems, social, spiritual, and otherwise are simply problems to be solved via technique. 


I am very happy to read this concise essay, however two concepts providing a certain difficulty are the distinctions between a romantic spirit and classicism.  If the former is simply the "opposite of classicism," and if one must choose, then how much is missed?  It is often helpful to paint in broad strokes, but at times finer lines are necessary.

I am reminded of the witch Diotima schooling the young Socrates on Love.  After elucidating polar opposites (is he mortal or immortal?) Diotima explains that, instead, Love is an intermediate spanning the chasm between man and the divine.

Now, Socrates and his method have  been accused of ushering in the hyper-rational, the Apollonian, the Nietzschean critique parroted by more contemporary romantics such as Ludwig Klages.  But if man is a going over and a going under, then surely one cannot abandon exclusively either the classic or the romantic.