Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Nicholas Alexandrovich Berdyaev [1874 - 1948]

from Russian Philosophy, Volume III

Edited by James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, & Mary-Barbara Zeldin;
with the collaboration of George L. Kline
University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN, 1976

Of all the philosophers who emigrated after the Revolution of 1917, and probably of all Russian philosophers, Nicholas Berdyaev is best known in the West. He was a prolific writer and most of his works have been translated into several languages. He is thought of as expressing the fundamental characteristics of Russian thought, as the spokesman of Russian Orthodoxy, as the philosopher of freedom. To what extent all this is true is debatable, but it can fairly be said that it was he who, in the decades immediately following the Revolution, introduced the West to major trends of Russian thought.

Berdyaev was born in 1874, in Kiev province. His family was of the military aristocracy, relatively liberal, not particularly religiously oriented. He studied law at the University of Kiev and soon, like many students of his time, joined Marxist circles there. His studies were interrupted in 1898, when he was arrested for his socialist activities and exiled for three years to Vologda. It was there that he wrote several articles for Die Neue Zeit, edited in Germany by Karl Kautsky. It was there also that he wrote his first book, Subjectivism and Individualism in Social Philosophy, published in 1901. The book is a critique of Mikhailovsky's "subjectivism." In the selection from it which has been included in this volume, Berdyaev's dissatisfaction with orthodox Marxism is already evident.

Berdyaev very early found Marxism insufficient as a world view. He could not accept Marxist determinism: Berdyaev has been called the philosopher of freedom; his concern was ethical and he placed the highest value on the dignity and worth the individual person. It was inevitable that with such an outlook Berdyaev should try to supplement the relativistic ethics and the determinism of Marxism. He did so from the first, seeking as many of his compatriots did, an answer in the ethics of Kant. But Marxism cannot tolerate any form of idealism. In such an impasse, Berdyaev broke with Marxism, retaining only the critique of bourgeois capitalism and much of the dialectic -- the latter, however, purified of materialism and returned to its Hegelian form. In the second selection for this volume, Berdyaev gives his evaluation of Marxism in terms of his mature philosophical view.

Turning more and more to mystical religion and to Nietzsche -- many of whose views he found highly congenial--Berdyaev successively edited two periodicals, Novuy Put (The New Way) and Voprosy Zhizni (Problems of Life). By the time he published The Meaning of Creativity in 1916, his philosophy had taken definite shape; after this it never substantially changed.

Berdyaev left Russia in 1922. He settled briefly in Berlin, then moved to Paris where he wrote most of his major works.

Aside from his early Marxism, its Kantian revision, and the influence of Nietzsche, Berdyaev mentions as authors whose thought particularly affected his own, Jacob Boehme, Dostoevsky, Solovyov, the major Slavophiles of the 1840's, and Merezhkovsky. Many of these influences are indeed evident in his work.

Berdyaev characterizes his mature philosophical outlook as existential and eschatological. It is thus a form of religious existentialism which has its roots in the philosophy of the Slavophiles and the main concern of which is for the person as a creative spirit, in contrast to the socialized role-playing individual, whom he finds "bourgeois" and banal. His philosophy thus centers on freedom, spirit, and their role in history. The majority of the selections below are intended to give the reader the essential features of this philosophy.

Berdyaev distinguishes two realms of reality -- spirit and nature, or being.(1) Spirit is opposed to nature, it is living, personal, free, creative activity. Nature is object, thing; it is necessity, passivity. To put it in more familiar terms, there is a "noumenal realm " contrasted with a "phenomenal realm," but, unlike Kant, Berdyaev envisages both realms as knowable and both realms as ontologically real. The former is knowable through free, creative activity, which indeed takes place in that realm; the latter is also real and has come to be through original sin.

Taking his cue from Boehme, Berdyaev explains the world as follows: The world was created out of nothing, but this " nothing " is not empty, it is the Ungrund, comparable to a de-materialized Aristotelian pure potency. The Ungrund, as pure potency, is irrational and free. Out of it is born God, a Spirit, suprarational, as is all that is spiritual. We can describe God only by pairs of contradictories, but we can speak of His love, which is the irrational "meonic " freedom of the Ungrund in Him. God is really present in all creative activity and has power over all His creation. Longing for an "object " of His love, God creates the world and man out of nothing (the Ungrund). Thus the world is a combination of the one characteristic of the Ungrund, namely, irrational freedom, and of God as its maker. Since God does not create irrational freedom, He has no power over it and is not responsible for it. And it is irrational freedom which gives birth to evil. It does this by violating the proper hierarchy of the world--creator over creation--when the world asserts itself (its freedom) against God.

The result is the Fall--separation from the divine, the loss of spiritual primacy, disintegration, slavery, natural being, meaninglessness, the "phenomenal " world of objects and law. The freedom of this world is the mere "freedom " of obeying law, it is "the recognition of necessity." God cannot avert the evil Of the Fall. He can, however, not as Creator, but as Redeemer, conquer evil born of irrational freedom, by descending into the world and enlightening it, by reawakening the spiritual element in the world, that element which the world cannot lose since world is the creation of spirit. In the Incarnation, therefore, God, through love, delivers man from nature. By God's act a third type of freedom is born, man's free love of God. This freedom is creative, spiritual, and thus the source of the salvb tion of man and the world.

Man, who is created a person, i.e., a spirit, as fallen becomes an object in an "objectified world," and he knows the world only objectively. Original sin is thus the source of the world or objects and of objective knowledge, and has both an ontological and an epistemological effect. In this situation, object is alien to knowing subject, personality is submerged in the general, man is socialized, determined by natural laws, true communication of persons becomes impossible, and only mediated approximations through concepts are left. This is the world of science and corn. mon sense. It is the world of the Philistine and bourgeois, of facts, of substances, categories, logical laws, and all the trappings of metaphysics. In fact, it is Hell.

Fortunately, the divine in man remains. Insofar as man is a creative being, has creative activity, he is still spirit. In such activity, man is a citizen of the realm of spirit. He knows instinctively spiritual reality which, in contrast to fact, is value and meaning. For creative activity is love: it is the energy with which God created man, the force of Grace, and love is a capacity to fuse and yet to be a person; in love the relation is not one of I-to-it, but, to use Buber's terminology, of I-Thou.

And insofar as this is possible, man is now saved, a spirit; the Kingdom of God is now for anyone who would but look with the eyes of spirit. For time itself, as we know it, is a result of the Fall. Time is division into past and future.

Berdyaev's view of time is given in the last selection. He distinguishes three kinds of time: cosmic, the cyclical time of the objectified natural world; historical, in which man acts and in which, insofar as man, acts creatively, spirit intrudes and the chain of necessity is really broken; existential, which is creative time, the time of the spiritual realm in which all creativity originates The three kinds of time may be symbolized in geometric terms as a circle, a line, and a point. History, then, can be seen as a conflict between irrational freedom and its effects on the one hand, and the free love of God on the other. Thus it is a mixture of necessity and freedom, evolution and revolution.(3) It is a drama which starts with the Fall and which will end with the ultimate Salvation of the world. And ever present behind it, in existential time, is "meta-history," which is simultaneously the goal of history, the meaning of history, and the end of history. Revolutions are breaks of meta-history into history, "little apocalypses," and with them history becomes a "revelation of noumenal reality."(4) The most significant break, after the start of history, is the Incarnation (an eighth day of Creation). After it the conflict of freedom and necessity becomes more and more evident as necessity becomes more and more pervasive at each historical stage. Man is freed from pure nature, but reacts by also freeing himself from God; his severance from God leads to the invention of the machine. The machine, in turn, mechanizes man. At present man, by his very attempt at salvation, is not only dehumanized, but de-natured; he is not even a mere natural thing, he is an artifact. In extreme contrast to the spiritual life of free communion and love (sobornost),(5) man is now subject to compulsory service to society for material needs. The process of history is thus dialectical and, Berdyaev feels optimistically, is rapidly reaching its final phase, when this world will necessarily end in an ultimate conflict and man, all men, will obtain emancipation from objectification.

1. See above, Vol. 2, pp. 188-198.
2. Berdyaev's terminology is not always consistent. "Being " is normally used interchangeably with "nature," the objectified state, but sometimes it is used to include all realms of reality. In this introduction it will be used only in the former sense.
3. The Beginning and the End, trans. R. M. French, New York, I957, p.167.
4. The Origin of Russian Communism, trans. R. M. French, Ann Arbor, 1960, p. 131; The Meaning of History, trans. George Reavey, New York, 1916, p. 16.
5. See above, Vol. 1, pp.161-162.


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Last revised: January 29, 1999