Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Nicolas Berdyaev: Man – Witness for Primordial Freedom

from Introduction to Modern Existentialism
by Ernst Breisach

Very little religious consciousness pervaded the childhood home of Nicolas A. Berdyaev (1874-1948). Its atmosphere was refined and cultivated, and in it Berdyaev grew up to become a very sensitive young man. He could not stand the military academy to which he was sent in keeping with family tradition and finally ended up studying philosophy. As could hardly be otherwise in the Russia of the turn of the century , he was drawn into the student movements directed against the Czarist regime. Arrested and exiled Berdyaev became totally gripped by the great upheaval of his time. In what he stood for at that time he reflected the most diverse elements of Russian thought: Marxism, a radically rejuvenated Orthodox Church, and a love for German idealistic philosophy, mainly Schelling, whose views he combined not as an intellectual connoisseur who gathers his ideas where he can get them but as a serious man who tries hard to come to grips with a time obviously out of joint. All of these elements were grouped around Berdyaev's great and central concern, the freedom of man. It is a further indication of Berdyaev's independence of thought and action that no partisan ever accepted him. The Russian Orthodox Church started proceedings against him which were stopped only by World War I. The Communists had no use for a man who was neither a materialist nor an obedient follower of party lines (although he supported the October Revolution for its social radicalism). When he was in exile, first in Berlin and then in Paris, the Russian traditionalists shied away from him. He was again alone and far from Russia, his home. But his great inner Strength enabled him to write great works and lecture widely. In the year 1948 this quite turbulent and creative life ended.

The philosophy of Nicolas Berdyaev carries the same mark of uniqueness and courageous loneliness which is so characteristic of his life. On the one hand the loneliness which he experienced in ample measure stems from his life as an exile and the fact that even there he was disliked by many of his fellow emigrants for his unorthodox views. On the other hand it was the loneliness which surrounds each pioneer who ventures new interpretations of man and his world and who in this pioneering is not afraid to be left alone on a strange path. Although both Berdyaev's life and work are marked by a never-wavering courage whenever it was necessary to be a lonely witness, he did not cut himself off from the long tradition of Western thinkers. He frequently acknowledged his deep indebtedness to Immanuel Kant, to the great German mystic of the seventeenth century, Jacob Böhme and, last but not least, to Dostoevski, Kierkegaard, Pascal, Nietzsche, and St. Augustine. The strongly existentialist bent of his philosophy is foreshadowed in this latter connection.

The dualism of spirit and objective world.
To call Berdyaev's philosophy a "philosophy of freedom" is to say all and also very little. So central is freedom to Berdyaev's thought that no more fervent protagonist of it can be found in Christian thought. To establish freedom in this central place Berdyaev goes radically to work on some cherished traditional Christian concepts. This appears when he does not hesitate to do away radically with the Christian preference for a monistic explanation of man and his world. The view of the world as created and ruled by God has been held by most Christian thinkers, and dualistic views which suggested the presence of a second, predominantly evil, principle not fully overpowered by God have been constantly rejected as heretical. This makes Berdyaev's belief in a powerful dualism the more startling. On one side stands the realm of freedom or spirit, a word not to be understood in the usual sense. Spirit is freedom, creative act. Berdyaev frequently warned against interpretations of his concept of spirit in any other way, especially in a manner suggesting any sort of substance. Opposed to this realm of spirit stands the world of objects (or objectivity), the world known to man through the phenomena of his daily experiences. The bridge which connects the two realms Berdyaev calls the process of objectification. This mystery of objectification, the way the objects of our world "grow" out of the realm of the spirit, the way spirit becomes "externalized," is closely connected with Berdyaev's problem and theme of estrangement. In Kantian terms, this would have been a question of how noumena (that understood by intellectual intuition) become phenomena (things experienced through the senses).

Especially care must be taken to notice all of the aspects of Berdyaev's process of objectification. For him it is not a mere problem of epistemology, that is, one connected with the processes of getting knowledge. The mystery of objectification is not exhausted by diligently searching for a solution to the question of how man as a being belonging to the realm of the spirit (or freedom) can best acquire knowledge of a world of objects outside him. Such a superficial interpretation of objectification fails to note the central fact; namely, that man himself has been objectified. In living in the world of objects he has left the realm of the spirit and, thus, become estranged from his "home." This tragic event and its consequences are much more interesting and important to Berdyaev than mere epistemological problems. Berdyaev is concerned with the metaphysical problem which constitutes the process of objectification. The momentous occurrence of the spirit ejected from its own realm and injected into that external to it interests him. He wants to discuss not the thought problem posed by it but the actual separation of objects from spirit. He does this not out of mere human curiosity but because of man's vital interest in this process of objectification. By virtue of it man and his world show a real opposition between two realms, that of spirit and freedom and that of objects. "How the two stand to each other may be put in this way; appearance is the objectified world, the natural and social world of necessity , servitude, enmity and dominance; whereas the noumenal world is spirit, freedom and creative power; it is the world of love and sympathy." 1 The tragedy of much of Western thought has been that is has overlooked the "fall" (that is the alienation of the spirit from itself) which precedes the world of objects. This has made it possible for Western thought to preoccupy itself with the world of objects without ever asking for the ground out of which they grow. What was discussed were the more or less real qualities of phenomena without regard to the "fall" which precedes and underlies everything. Accordingly the necessarily evil quality of objectification was also disregarded by taking the objects as merely given, as facts, without suspicion of their evil aspects. Truth for these thinkers was a perfect knowledge about the objective world without referring to the mystery of objectification in spite of the deep involvement of man in this "fall," of spirit externalizing itself in objects. The truth these thinkers found was, therefore, never an existential truth of man grasping his being in freedom in a world of objects, but only a technical knowledge.

The dualism in man.
The two realms of the cosmos, freedom and objectivity, are reflected in man's existence. Man is man only because he is deeply steeped in the realm of the spirit and freedom. This is the primordial cosmic or "meonic freedom" of Berdyaev and not the social and political freedom of liberalism, which can be expressed in various rights. It is a freedom which underlies man's whole existence as a challenge which calls him to see in freedom his highest obligation. This challenge is never ending, since actual man living in the world participates in the objective world and is constantly tempted to forget the freedom he is. Only by creative acts can man build and rebuild his personality and triumph over the world of objectification. All theories of personality which overlook this fundamental fact are false. So are the fashionable biological and psychological theories which try to see the forming of personality as exclusively happening in the realm of objectivity. By virtue of this man remains locked in a world of necessity .But personality is destroyed rather than formed there. What such a psychology sees is only the individual as a category of the natural world. Man understood as such an individual is submerged in the external. There he is subject to the conditions of necessity and causality and open to coercion by the social arrangement. The ideal of this level of existence is the average, the adjustment to that which is, and a subsequent loss of uniqueness.

Consequently Berdyaev says no to any humanism which relies on a naturalistic interpretation of man. Its historical value as a movement furthering the case of man he grants, but its failure to anchor man in the realm of the spirit he deplores. Those who stand in one of the Christian traditions should not, however, exclude themselves automatically from the ranks of those Berdyaev criticizes. He protests against the limitation of the freedom of the human personality advocated by those Christians who have a purely servile understanding of the divine-human relation and of religious life. In dealing with the divine-human relation Berdyaev follows new paths. That human personality must be linked to the divine is a direct consequence of the fact that God and man alike reside in Berdyaev's realm of the spirit. Man is created in God's image. We have spoken before, for example, of man as steeped in freedom and as the originator of free and creative acts. But do not all, even the greatest creations by man, end in failure? The cultures, the great revolutions, the empires all disappear eventually in the melting pot of history. Unlike Jaspers, who sees this failure as final, Berdyaev sees lasting results from human creations. These show not in the world of objectivity, however, but in the realm of the spirit. Berdyaev's eschatological orientation allows him to speak of these obviously tragic failures as contributions toward the Kingdom of God to come. Even this consolation does not take away from failure any of its tragic quality for man in the moment he experiences it. Still man remains a genuine contributor to the Kingdom of God, because that is not the work of God alone. This co-operation of God and man is further enhanced when Berdyaev talks of the divine-human personality of man. Moving man so close to God will certainly alarm a good many traditional Christians. Does not all of this closeness between God and man in the realm of the spirit contradict the view of man as the creature of God, of Jesus as the only God-man, and of God as being infinite, absolute, and all powerful?

The surprises will hardly end at this point for traditional Christians who decide to follow Berdyaev further. In his teaching about God he shows a definite connection with the German mystic, Jacob Böhme. The point of juncture is the concept of the Urgrund. For Böhme the Urgrund is an irrational principle, it is will. Urgrund is that primordial freedom which antecedes being, even precedes God himself. It represents the great cosmological mystery .Accordingly Böhme speaks about it only in the language of myth and symbol. Berdyaev's concept of God is deeply influenced by Böhme's idea of the Urgrund. God is not the "last" point of reference. He rather emerges out of that bottomless abyss which primordial freedom is. In it there is the mysterious urge of the nothing to become something. Out of the Godhead, deeply embedded in the meonic freedom, comes God, a God who no longer rules over everything and is not responsible for all happenings. He did not even create the world. To say that he did is to objectify and by it degrade the mystery of the spirit. It also diminishes the greatness of God. As creator and Lord he cannot but be responsible for all the evil and the terrible in the world.

All the theories of Divine Providence, the subtle explanations of evil as a lack of good, or the rest of the monisms which struggle so hard to preserve God's majesty and purity are in vain. God must be dissociated from the objective world. Objectification, as has been said before, is the "fall," is evil, and is that which must be overcome. God is not in the institutions of this world, however often they are pronounced "holy." He is not in disease, in terror, in any war, not even in the sense of a stern judge who uses these means to show his justice. All of this belongs to objectification, the great "fall," in which spirit loses itself in the world of external objects. God is neither subject to this process of objectification nor is he its originator. God should be thought of avoiding all images taken from society, man, and the cosmos. He must be seen as belonging to the realm of spirit alone – as spirit, love, and freedom.

God is not an absolute since this would make him self-sufficient. Far from being that, he needs the relation with man. He waits for man's answer to his call. He is not being as such, but spirit, which for man is at the same time his innermost core and a supreme mystery. Into this mystery of the spirit and God man can penetrate a certain distance. Rationality will help him for a part of his journey. The deepest penetration will result from a life led in the awareness that man is a dweller in the realm of spirit. It is in such an existence (Berdyaev's authentic existence) that the only possible communion with God is achieved, since God cannot be found in nature, which is objectification per se. God reveals himself to man in the true depth of man's personality and with the help of those moments which disrupt the seemingly smooth connection between man and the routine world (death, anxiety, and despair). The experience of God, for Berdyaev as for the other existentialists, is bound to the achievement of a full personality (authentic existence) and the awareness of estrangement (Berdyaev's "fall" or objectification) from the ground of one's being.

God, man, and the end.
Christianity has always been keenly aware of the problems of eschatology, that is, the problems of death, immortality, judgment, the last day, and resurrection, but not radically enough to suit Berdyaev. First, there has been throughout Christian history a constant tendency to de-emphasize eschatology in favor of the attempt to Christianize the world, a hopeless endeavor in a world which for Berdyaev is a fallen one and not God's own. To build "the" Christian state, with Christian institutions involving Christians, is an illusion. Such a Christianity amounts to a new crucifixion of Christ. "There is nothing more horrifying and more gloomy than the objectification in history of that fire which Christ brought from heaven. Supreme failure has defeated all the great constructive efforts of history, and all designs which planned the social ordering of man." 2 Second, man has built up vengeful and cruel eschatologies, all of which have been modeled from the objectified world. The most example is the concept of hell. Those who adhere to it fail to see that such an eschatology of vengeance leaves God powerless in one spot, namely, in the place of damnation. For their own satisfaction, derived from seeing sinners suffer, they sacrifice the grandeur of God. Hell can only be in the phenomenal, the temporal, the objective world; otherwise it has no room in Christian thought because beyond the objective world lies the realm of the spirit and freedom where hell can find no place.

Thus, for an eschatological Christian neither the depreciation of eschatological awareness nor eschatologies modeled after the objectified world will do. Eschatology must remain the basis and the end of all. Berdyaev asserts that all thought leads to the problem of the end, an end which will not occur in the ordinary vitiated time (that connected with the fallen world) nor outside of time in some other world. It is not an event to be located in time as physics uses it, namely as a fourth dimension, nor in historical time. The end occurs in existential time. "It is only in existential time, which is to be measured by the degree of vigour and tension in the condition of the subject, that the way out towards eternity can be made clear.... That which we project into the sphere of the external, and call the end, is the existential experience of contact with the noumenal, and with the noumenal in its conflict with the phenomenal. The experience is not one of development from one stage to another, it is an experience of shock and catastrophe in personal and historical existence." 3 Here Berdyaev clearly shows that the end is as much a personal event as it is a beginning of a new era, or as he puts it, the new aeon.

The end means that objectification has been overcome. It signifies the great triumph over the recurrent and tragic "fall" that is the alienation and slavery of the spirit to the realm of necessity. The world of objects, so unfortunate for man, will be ended. There will be no more cooling of the creative fire. Far from being destructive, this end is actually the source of all meaning. A world without a definite end would be a boring sequence of events which hardly matter, since none of them would really differ from another. On the other hand, death as the absolute end of man's life also would destroy real meaning. And so for Berdyaev the end remains the center radiating meaning in all directions. Quite unorthodox is his interpretation of this new aeon, ushered in by the end, as the third, the eschatological revelation. Before it went God's revelation first in nature and then in history. The third revelation is that in which God reveals himself fully and finally. It comes after a state of God-forsakenness characterized by the features so typical of our era.

It may be difficult to see at once the connection between this undoubtedly visionary and, to many, utopian view and existentialist thought. This bridge is the position which man, according to Berdyaev, takes in the great event of the end. The end is not because of a divine decree. The great decisions fall in each and every individual existence. Everybody's decision for or against freedom in his own life determines the course the future will take. The end is the common task of all men, rather than an event mankind passively waits for. Every creative work of man is a contribution to the final transformation of the world and the resurrection of every creature. In any authentic existence the end is always present as its focus. Personality is fulfillment here and now, but it also points beyond itself to the corning of the new aeon. Thus man is put back into a field of tension between the old and the new, the objective world and his participation in the realm of freedom, to live in a fallen way (given to objectivity) or to be authentic as God's co-worker toward the coming of the end. At every moment the challenge to decide is present. There is no "neutral" moment. Berdyaev demands with Kierkegaard either/or. Either living from the ground of one's being (freedom) or estrangement in a life given to the world of objectivity.

With God not the creator of the world the problem of evil has been shifted. Evil is not just something which is less real than good, perhaps just a lack of good. Evil is real. It does not belong to the realm of spirit and freedom, but has its roots in the realm of objectivity. Evil is inseparably linked to the mystery of objectification. Ethics, as the guide for man to the absolutely good, must center around man's setting himself free from the fallen world. No ethical code will do, however. For man to subject himself to a code of ethics would mean to enter a new slavery .Only freedom can give the basis for a moral life. So everyone is on his own, must be on his own. Freedom and creativity cannot be caught and expressed in rules. "Be creative" is the core of Berdyaev's ethics. No other specific admonition can be given, since to be free means to be unique in a unique situation. No concrete rule is pliable enough to fit all situations. Not fitting most of them, it results in deadly slavery for the unique and free man.

Social philosophy.
The dualism between spirit and objectification also forms the point of departure for Berdyaev's social philosophy. He acknowledges that man is a social being, that sociality is an aspect of the human life. Society has two aims: (a) co-operation in the common effort of men in the struggle for life which enables the human race to survive, and (b) community in the union of men who live authentically. Western man has been successful in his efforts toward co-operation. Tragically so, since it is especially in this sphere that the pitfalls of society become obvious. Such a society participates in the process of objectification. At its very basis is the fall. While it is useful to man, it harbors tremendous dangers for him, above all the danger of slavery to objectivity. For Berdyaev all contemporary social institutions of man are examples of this slavery .On the same level are the natural theories of society .These are wrong both in suggesting a so-called natural order underlying the social phenomena and in promising to know the perfect social order. There can be no fulfillment in this sphere of objectivity. Even a Christian society is possible not as a perfect hierarchy of power but only as a free union of men in the spirit of brotherhood. This anarchic community of free men, free in the sense of "meonic," creative freedom, is Berdyaev's suggestion for the social life of man, an anarchism which differs from ordinary anarchism in every respect.

There is one strange inconsistency in Berdyaev's social philosophy which is probably the result of his personal experiences. It appears in his personalist socialism. Berdyaev, like Buber, sees the proper order of the economic life in a socialistic organization. To him it is that order alone which can guarantee personal autonomy. Personalist socialism differs from the now prevailing collective socialism in its aim. It tries to free man from the state rather than to subdue him to it. As to its exact form, we are left with the impression that it would have as its maximum organization a community of communities similar to that suggested by Buber, if it had even that much form. The inconsistency lies in the admittance of any supposed superiority of one form of organization over another, since on his own terms they can all be only parts of the objective world. Berdyaev wrote at this point most certainly out of his deep resentment against both the ancien régime of Russia under the Czars and the communist utopia. His only valid answer to the social problem could be his always implied spiritual anarchism.

1. Nicolas Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952), p.59
2. Ibid., p. 187.
3. Ibid., pp. 231 f.


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Last revised: December 17, 2003.