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

4. The End of a World

This brings us naturally to the diagnosis of our time, its problems and its needs, a diagnosis which is arrived at through a study of history. As we have seen, Berdyaev's starting-point is the unity of God and man; he can be described as a Christian Humanist. As such, he looks back with a certain nostalgia on the Middle Ages as the time when his ideals were a force in the life of our continent. In those days man was soberly convinced of his dignity and status, soberly convinced because he knew that he was superior to nature only in virtue of the fact that he was created in the image of God and was subject to his rule. That account of man which meets us on the opening page of the Bible was built into the life of`medieval Europe. This was one source of the Christian Humanism of the Middle Ages, the other being classical antiquity. The New Testament had come to terms with the wisdom of the ancient world. A glance at some of the achievements of this medieval appreciation of man and nature will show us its worth: Dante's Divine Comedy and the theology of Thomas Aquinas remain among the supreme monuments of the time. And one must place beside them the figure of St. Francis with his delight in nature and in his fellow-men.

The medieval system was imposing, but it was far from perfect. Its chief defect, in Berdyaev's judgment, was "that it did not allow for the free play of man's creative energies."(10) In other words, the Catholic Church continued to treat the European peoples as its wards when they had in fact arrived at the adult stage and were eager to accept a larger measure of responsibility for their own affairs. Therefore the break with Christianity which began at the Renaissance was only in part due to man's rebellious pride, it was due in equal measure to the reluctance of the Church to abandon its position of authority. And, of course, with the Renaissance we must associate the Reformation; with these two movements the modern period begins, the period which is characterised by the fact that politics, art, commerce and various other human activities one by one set up their own standards and claim to be independent of religion. We British people can see in the plays of Shakespeare what was happening. They introduce us into a rich human world in which we feel that it is out of place to ask the question: "But what in all this is Christian?"

Of course, there were other Renaissance figures who were definitely Christian, as Sir Thomas More, Dean Colet and, above all, Erasmus. But the detachment of humanism from Christianity, of man from his origin in God, had begun and it went on at an accelerating pace. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the development of applied science and the reduction of nature to a mechanism. Newton, no doubt, regarded God as necessary in his role of Creator, but Laplace was able to dispense with the hypothesis. Rationalism dried up the springs of feeling in men and while it rendered immense service by its attack on superstition and inhumanity, it made life pathetically drab. Science at the Industrial Revolution forced man away from the world of nature and herded him instead into an artificial and forbidding world of its own, where he was reduced to dependence on his lord, the machine. Work became a matter of factory-discipline instead of individual craftsmanship and the family was broken up, one member finding employment here and another there. In fact, man was busily engaged in destroying himself.

"The putting up of man without God and against God, the denial of the divine image and likeness in himself, lead to his own negation and destruction."(11) The world in which we live to-day can be fairly described as the "end of the Renaissance," since the tendencies which date from that point in history have in our time been worked out to their logical and fateful conclusion. We live in a mechanised civilisation which knows no higher values than those of comfort and success. Ours is "an individualism that has no spiritual basis": we have forgotten the "general law that human individuality is strong, fruitful, and consistent so long as it recognizes super-individual and super-human realities and values and submits itself to them." (12) Perhaps, after war, the crowning horror of our time is the capitalist system of industry. In a very striking passage Berdyaev contrasts the kingdom of bread with that of money: the one was set up by Christ, the other is the one in which we are content to live to-day. Our concern is no longer the satisfaction of basic human needs but the acquisition of wealth. (13)

To the bourgeois spirit which animates our civilisation Berdyaev is inflexibly hostile; he sees in it that preference of slavery to freedom, of convention to reality which is the repudiation of all for which man was made by God in his image. But does he therefore acclaim Socialism as man's deliverer from this? Not at all. Rather would he say that Socialism as he knew it in Russia was the culmination of the bourgeois and capitalist mentality and not any alternative to it. Russian Communism he brands as materialistic and as threatening the complete absorption of the individual in a highly organised society. It is the realisation of the hopes of the Grand Inquisitor. "It aims at drilling souls in platoons, disciplining them till they are quite content in their human ant-hill, till they like a barrack-life and no longer look for liberty; it wants to produce a race of contented children, unaware of sin."(14) It is not the socialisation of property which is terrible in Berdyaev's eyes, it is the socialisation of conscience and the soul.

We are living to-day, therefore, at the end of the period inaugurated by the Renaissance. "European man stands amid a frightening emptiness. He no longer knows where the key-stone of his life may be found, beneath his feet he feels no depth of solidity."(15) The age we knew and in which we were so comfortable, the age before August 1914, is over and nothing like it will ever return. Instead, we have entered on a new period, a new Dark Ages, in which all sorts of strange forces are at work and we know not what shape the future will take. At the time when Berdyaev was writing, Fascism was one of these forces: it was clear evidence that the old values no longer possessed authority, that men were becoming reckless, and that a quite different social pattern from that of either capitalism or socialism was being evolved. The question which Berdyaev is concerned to ask is: Is it possible that we are moving through this hazardous and experimental period towards a New Middle Ages? By that he means a form of social life in which man will again be in contact with nature and with his fellow-men, in which the power of money will be broken, and in which above all man will find the meaning of his life and his true freedom in glad acknowledgement of his dependence upon God. Clearly, that is not only something to hope for, it is also something to work for.

10. The Meaning of History, 129.
11. The End of Our Time, 29.
12. Ibid., 35.
13. Spirit and Reality, 178.
14. The End of Our Time, 189. 15. Ibid., 17.


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Last revised: February 22, 2008