Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Philosophy ... is the creative perception by the spirit
of the meaning of human existence.
-- Solitude and Society



Biographical Note
    by E. L. Allen
Brief Biography
    by Nino Langiulli

Berdyaev's Philosophy

Berdyaev Quotes
8th Day of Creation

Articles & Essays


Discussion List




Freedom in God
A Guide to the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev
by E. L. Allen

3. Freedom

I have spoken more than once of that passion for freedom which is characteristic of Russia and which bulks so largely in Berdyaev. We have to remember that the specifically Russian contribution to Socialist theory in the nineteenth century was not Communism but Anarchism; more than once, the Russian Bakunin crossed swords with the German Marx over this very issue in some meeting of the International. I remember once hearing Stephen Graham describe the difference between the Russians and ourselves by saying that if a dozen Englishmen were given a job to do, they would make one of themselves their foreman and get on with the job, while if a dozen Russians were similarly situated, they would gesticulate and argue, and nothing would be done! The present rulers of Russia have very cleverly so arranged matters as to give satisfaction to this desire on the part of the ordinary person to discuss and talk, while they reserve the actual control of affairs to themselves.

Berdyaev makes an important distinction between two senses of the world freedom, between freedom as a means and freedom as an end. By the first we mean freedom to direct one's own life, to choose between good and evil as one understands them; by úthe second the freedom which consists in liberation from one's lower nature for the service of what is highest and best. As Berdyaev puts it, we mean by one and the same word "either that initial and irrational liberty which is prior to good and evil and determines their choice, or else that intelligent freedom which is our final liberty in truth and goodness." We contend for the first when we argue that the will is free, we have the second in mind when we quote the Gospel saying: "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Religious thinkers have been inclined to stress the second kind of freedom and to regard the first as non-essential. Thus Luther argued that man's will is like a horse which either God or the devil rides; he has no power of self-determination. He was able to acquiesce in such a view of human nature because the only liberty for which he cared was that which grace confers.

Such a sacrifice of the first kind of freedom to the second is objectionable enough in the realm of theory; when it enters the realm of practical affairs, it menaces us with tyranny. For what was the argument of the Grand Inquisitor if it was not that in order to bring people to what is good for them it is necessary to take from them the right to choose for themselves between good and evil? "Man is freed from the burden of freedom of choice in the interests of the peace and happiness of society and the organisation of human life." (9) The modern dictator contends that if men are left their freedom, they will misuse it, therefore deprive them of freedom. But it is mistaken to suppose that the liberty which consists in the love of God and the service of his truth can be arrived at otherwise than by exposing men to the risk of error. That God is prepared to take that risk the whole of human history shows, and it is not for us to imagine that we can improve upon his wisdom.

But freedom, just because it is dynamic and always seeks for self-expression, is exposed to grave perils. It is in itself purely spiritual, but it cannot remain in the spiritual world; it must enter the world in which we live and must take shape therein. In the process freedom always suffers loss; it may begin as molten lava pouring torrent-fashion from the volcano, but soon it begins to slow down and in the end it hardens to a solid and motionless mass in the valley. That is the fall which attends upon all creativity. The vision of beauty which hovers before the artist's mind can never be expressed on canvas without something being lost in the process; the idea which at first was bold, original, and arresting becomes eventually an organisation and a convention. The French writer André Gide tells us what a shock he experienced when he found, on visiting Russia, that the Communism which had always been for him a fiery creed of revolution had become in Russia a highly respectable and orthodox creed, the profession of which was of great advantage to anyone making his career. In the moral sphere, we lose the force of fateful decisions and settle down to ease, security and the acceptance of the standards of our society.

Berdyaev distinguishes between symbolic and real expressions of the spirit. There is a symbolic morality which consists in making certain gestures, while one abstains from actually doing what those gestures imply. A Christian church, for example, may call its members to the Lord's Table as brothers in Christ, but all the while it accepts without questioning them the class-distinctions of the society around it. A constitution may declare that all men are born free and equal, while in fact all non-white persons are liable to be held as slaves and it enters no one's head to confer political rights upon women. We keep up certain conventions which are in the nature of play-acting; because we have agreed to pretend that we do certain things, we hold ourselves excused from the necessity of actually doing them. Whereas the creative spirit of freedom longs all the while actually to transform the world according to its own pattern. It craves for a community of persons in love and alas! obtains only an organisation of individuals on some commercial or political basis.

There is something here of the utmost importance at the present time. One of our best authorities on the Russian attitude to life has told us that the deepest impulse of the Russian people is their longing for the realisation on earth of truth and righteousness. They are not interested in having these embodied in a legal code -- that is only in their eyes what Berdyaev would call symbolism and convention -- they wait for a community in which men may live together as brothers, with all exploitation ended and no distinctions recognised of class or race. The Communist hope of a classless society stems from this ancient Russian dream, and the dream in turn goes back to the Gospels, as everyone knows who has read Tolstoi or Dostoievsky. To the Russian our freedom and democracy seem formal and empty; he is by no means convinced of their reality. As one reads what Berdyaev himself has written in The End of Our Time on democracy one is staggered by his lack of understanding: if this is possible in one who lived more than a decade in Western Europe, what can we expect of those among the Russian leaders who have never set foot outside their own country? Yet somehow we must find a way to convince them that our democracy is vital and not merely nominal; and to that end we must be concerned more than ever to make it such.

9. Freedom and the Spirit, 133f.


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Last revised: February 22, 2008