1874 - 1948
from Introduction to Modern Existentialism
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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Last revised: December 17, 2003.