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

5. The New Middle Ages

It would be completely to misunderstand Berdyaev at this point to suppose that what he is calling us to is the creation of some improved social organisation. Organisation belongs for him in the secondary sphere, while the primary sphere is that of the spiritual life. It is therefore a new spirituality which he is concerned to promote and in so far as he trenches upon the political sphere he does so in the name of his principle of the supremacy of the spiritual over the political. We have seen that one of Berdyaev's fundamental positions is that the spirit seeks after an adequate expression of itself in the world of space and time and human relationships, but so often achieves something very much less. It does not succeed in incarnating itself, in becoming the flesh of actual social life, but it is petrified or enslaved in institutions which do not do more than symbolise it, maintain a set of conventions which pretend to express it. What is needed is clear; it is a break-through of the spirit, so that it may refashion the forms of organised society till they become at last adequate to it.

Here we must pause to draw attention to some important distinctions. The first is that between individuality and personality, and in this Berdyaev is in line with Maritain and other contemporary French thinkers. The person differs from the individual by the fact that he does not hold his life as his own, he knows he is the bearer of values which transcend himself, so that he has worth only as their servant and to them he should be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice himself. In the second place, we must distinguish between society as an agglomeration of individuals who are organised in some sort of external relation and community as a fellowship of persons between whom there is communication in self-giving. Finally we may not confuse culture and civilisation. The distinction was already made shortly after the first World War in the pessimistic philosophy of Spengler, for whom civilisation is the death of culture. Culture, we may say, is spiritual and even religious in origin; it is the flowering of the human spirit in great works of art, philosophical systems, heroic personalities, and noble types of morality. But culture develops away from these religious foundations -- here we see a generalisation of what was earlier worked out in connection with the Renaissance and the rise of the modern world. "Culture develops a tendency to disintegrate in its religious and spiritual foundations," it becomes critical and this-worldly, with an interest in power and money. "Civilisation is the passage from culture, contemplation, and the creation of values" to a more practical and utilitarian attitude, with "the will to power at all costs" as "its principle" and economic materialism as its working creed.(16)

Russian Communism belongs, on this view, not to culture but to civilisation, and as such it cannot satisfy Berdyaev. Still, he would call himself a Christian Socialist, but his Socialism is of a distinctly "personalist" type. That is to say, he wishes society to be organised in such a way as to release to the full the potentialities of the person, in such a way also as to make genuine communion possible between persons. Genuine communion arises in a relationship of love, when we do not merely make contact with each other in virtue of some social function, as employer and worker, as producer and consumer, but share life with our whole selves. This vision of a society in which slavery is replaced by freedom, symbolism by incarnation, will bring, if we serve it faithfully enough, the new Middle Ages.

When Berdyaev comes to outline for us the new social forms which he hopes will arise out of the confusion of our time as men turn again to God, he is apt to be very unsatisfying. Some of his recommendations read too much like the "corporate state" of Mussolini. Again, we are led to regret that he is unable to appreciate the spiritual aspect of democracy; it is not merely a middle-class weapon in the struggle for power, it attempts to do justice to that appreciation of freedom and that reverence for the work of God in man that we admire so much in Berdyaev. But the spirit which actuates him is one which cannot but appeal to us, and I close with some sentences which give it noble expression: "Knowledge, morality, art, all must become religious, not by external constraint but freely and from within. . . . No ecclesiastical hierarchy can now rule and regulate society and the life of the state, no clericalism is able to make use of external force. Nevertheless I cannot re-create the state and a decayed society otherwise than in the name of religious principles. . . . Not for anything in the world would I be free from God; I wish to be free in God and for God. . . . God must be again the centre of our whole life -- our thought, our feeling, our only dream, our only desire, our only hope."(17)

16. The Meaning of History, 213f.
17. The End of Our Time, 105.


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Last revised: February 22, 2008