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Nicholas Berdyaev

Nicholas Berdyaev

One kind of weird but enticing academic puzzle for me is discovering and delving into the works of interesting figures of the 20th century who have been largely forgotten. And, by “interesting figures,” I mean especially those who espoused types of religious humanism and their allies.TIC mastermind Winston Elliott feels the same way, and one of the purposes of founding TIC was to bring the memory of these humanists back to the public and honor each as a vital ancestor to our own broad cause in the twenty-first century.

Everyone remembers, for example, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and, more recently, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Even if one hasn’t read any of their respective works, their names circulate with familiarity even in the darker corners of American civilization.

At a different, slightly lower level hover Irving Babbitt, Hilaire Belloc, Paul Elmer More, Willa Cather, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Josef Pieper, Walter Miller, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Russell Kirk.

But only a very few remember eccentrics such as T.E. Hulme, Aurel Kolnai, Leo Ward, Sister Madeleva Wolff, Wilhelm Roepke, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Owen Barfield, Theodore Haecker, David Jones, Tom Burns, and Bernard Wall.

Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), a member of this last group, has been sadly neglected as well, at least by those in conservative and libertarian circles.

He was, not surprisingly, connected to many Christian Humanists of his day. He knew the Maritains well, and while C.S. Lewis mostly dismissed his work as a sideline show, Christopher Dawson considered Berdyaev’s thought central to the restoration of the 20th-century West.

The trump card, here, though is from a fellow Russian. A figure no less important or heroic than Alexandr Solzhenitsyn discussed Berdyaev briefly in volumes II and III of The Gulag. He was, Solzhenitsyn wrote, offering perhaps the highest praise possible, “a man.”

In volume II, he described Berdyaev as the ultimate person to reject Soviet terror.

So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared? What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap? From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. As the very threshold, you must say to your self: ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die–now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. But how can one turn one’s body to stone? Well, they managed to turn some individuals from the Berdyayev [sic] circle into puppets for a trial, but they didn’t succeed with Berdyayev. They wanted to drag him into an open trial; they arrested him twice; and (in 1922) he was subjected to a a night interrogation by Dzerzhinsky himself. Kamenev was there too (which means that he, too, was not averse to using the Cheka in ideological conflict). But Berdyayev did not humiliate himself. He did not beg or plead. He set forth firmly those religious and moral principles which had led him to refuse to accepted the political authority established in Russia. And not only did they come to the conclusion that he would be useless for a trial, but they liberated him. A human being has a point of view!”

In volume 3 of The Gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote simply: Berdyaev was a “philosopher, essayist, brilliant defender of human freedom against ideology.”Exiled from Russia in 1922 after surviving three Soviet trials against him, Berdyaev settled in Paris, living there until his death in 1948.

While in Paris, Berdyaev became an integral part of the Jacques and Raissa Maritain circle. Indeed, as Berdyaev remembers it in his fine autobiography, Dream and Reality, he and Jacques served as equal poles in the creation and perpetuation of the group. Though Maritain’s extreme Thomism struck Berdyaev as a form of Catholic ideology, he respected the French philosopher immensely. He did joke, however, that Maritain’s fear and rejection of Protestantism and Protestants was a strange element of the convert, implying a certain irrationality.

When Christopher Dawson and Tom Burns first formed the Order group in Chelsea, London, employing the resources of the publishing house Sheed and Ward to unify all humanists of British and Europe backgrounds, Dawson immediately sought out Maritain and Berdyaev. Each contributed to one of the best book series of the last century, the 16 volume Essays in Order. As it turned out, Essays in Order served as the one attempt in the twentieth century to bring all Christian Humanists together into a unified Republic of Letters.

When Essays in Order folded, Dawson continued the same project with a second friend, Bernard Wall, publishing a journal, Colosseum. Again, Dawson and Wall sought out and received the contributions and acclaim of Berdyaev and Maritain.

One of Berdyaev’s most interesting books–and presumably the reason Dawson thought so highly him–was his The End of Our Time, written between 1919 and 1923 and published for the first time in English in 1933 by Sheed and Ward. In almost every way, though clearly a Russian and a member of the Eastern Orthodox faith, Berdyaev anticipated the major arguments of the English-Welsh Roman Catholic Dawson.

In particular, Berdyaev stressed the primacy of culture and theological issues over politics and economics as truer forms of reality. Almost the entire western world, Berdyaev argued, had embraced some form of materialism after the collapse of Christendom. And, this moved the world rapidly toward unreality.

“We must begin to make our Christianity effectively real,” Berdyaev wrote, “by a return to the life of the spirit.” Economic matters, he continued, “must be subordinated to that which is spiritual, [and] politics must be again confined confined within their proper limits.”

As with Dawson, Lewis, and others, Berdyaev feared that the new states of the twentieth century–regardless whether democratic or vicious–would be totalitarian, something new in the world. These emerging states of the 20th century would be something that St. Paul had not anticipated when he wrote Romans 13 but would instead resemble something that St. John envisioned but could not explain beyond a dream-like mysticism. These new states would render all to Caesar, establishing themselves as religious bodies and entities. The result: a “New Leviathan. And all the ends and real values of life are swallowed up in this malignant and terrifying collectivism, all spiritual culture is wiped out. Such a monster has not got a human soul, for it has got no human soul [ ] at all.”

Only when society has realigned itself–individual by individual and community by community through free will and persuasion, for Berdyaev rejected all forms of statist coercion (whether outright socialistic or through some form of state-capitalism or capitalistic cronyism)–”towards divine objects” could humanity save itself. Berdyaev wrote in terms reminiscent of Dawson and other quasi-mystics since the French revolution:

The substance of life can only be religious. It is an entering into the life of God, that is, into true Being. The will of the people, the proletarian will, is a sinful will; it therefore pertains to notbeing and can bring about only a kingdom of notbeing.

One can read hints of Burke, Novalis, de Maistre, and de Tocqueville in Berdyaev’s criticisms of the new ideological states of both the so-called left and right.One can also see elements of Berdyaev’s mysticism in his claim that the Russian people, while freely choosing “comradeship in AntiChrist,” have now (as of 1917) provided incontrovertible proof of evil in the world and demonstrated what the loss of Christendom really means the world.

As with de Tocqueville who a century earlier had believed that Americans could choose a democracy of excellence or one of mediocrity, Berdyaev thought the same choice was being presented to the 20th century West. Just as de Tocqueville had feared Americans would choose poorly, Berdyaev believed the same about the West of his day.

At the conclusion of The End of Our Time, Berdyaev once again stressed the unreality of politics–as a distraction and a hindrance from that which really matters, the order of the human soul towards the highest things, especially God and eternity.

Or, as Berdyaev put it, politics attempts to remove us from “the interior life.”

For the Christian to assume victory over the next century, he concluded in 1923, would be sheer folly. Throughout the West, in every type of regime (free and unfree), he feared ruin. Far from establishing a century of progress, God was calling Christians back into “the catacombs, and from there to conquer the world anew.”

As Christians–of whatever stripe–”we are entering an epoch of ill-omened revelations and we must fearlessly face up to realities. And there is found the meaning of our unhappy joyless age.”

Reading Nicholas Berdyaev is not uplifting, but it is truly enlightening, in the best sense of this distorted word.

Certainly, looking back from 90 years after Berdyaev wrote these words, one would be hard pressed not to see not only the mystic but also, perhaps even more importantly, the prophet.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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14 replies to this post
  1. This is outstanding. Great lists of authors also. I just recently added two books by Owen Barfield to my queue (after reading very high praise of him by John Lukacs….Lukacs, incidentally, should be on everyone's list!).

  2. Peter and Mark, thanks. I first encountered Berdyaev about a decade ago–when I discovered how much Dawson appreciated him. So many forgotten folks who fought the good fight.

  3. Dr. Birzer – I think another leading light (scientist, historian of science and philosopher) is Pierre Duhem. Lukacs also turned me on to him and I received just today a book by Stanley L. Jaki titled Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem.

    Duhem (1861-1916) is another giant!

  4. Dr. Birzer,

    An excellent post, particularly this:

    "At the conclusion of The End of Our Time, Berdyaev once again stressed the unreality of politics–as a distraction and a hindrance from that which really matters, the order of the human soul towards the highest things, especially God and eternity.

    Or, as Berdyaev put it, politics attempts to remove us from 'the interior life.'”

    This is exactly what I recently discovered in my own life. Politics is largely unreal and a distraction from the interior life. It is the radical holiness of a sound interior life that moves mountains and changes the world. It is St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Theresa of Calcutta, and St. Damian of Molokai that change the world through their radical love of God and their fellow man. No earthly power can contain such love. It is this that we must seek.

    Seek ye first the Kingdom of God . . .

    Thanks again.

    Will B

  5. Just flipping through the bibliography of my just acquired "History, Guilt and Habit" by Owen Barfield. The second entry? The Meaning of History by Nicolas Berdyaev…..

  6. Brad,this is a nice introduction to a very fine Russian thinker. Our readers might also be interested to know that Berdyaev was an important contributor to one of the great collections of social and religious essays in Russian history, "Vekhi" (Landmarks), published in the spring of 1909 in the wake of the 1905 revolution. Other contributors included Peter Struve, Sergei Bulgakov, and Semyon Frank. (Think of this as a Russian version of "I'll Take My Stand" by 12 Southerners.) This collection of essays had a profound influence on Solzhenitsyn who arranged a similar type of collection in 1974, "From Under the Rubble" (Iz pod glyb).

  7. Brad,

    I know more of Berdyaev than of any other writer who has appeared here, which really doesn't say much. "Humanism" seems to be a wide-ranging term around here, and that is probably for the best, I think, for Berdyaev. In fact, I think his "humanism" is most proper: a theandric humanism, the divinized human (not in a Nietzschean sense, but in a particularly Eastern sense). What I enjoy so much about Berdyaev is that his latent Marxism creeps up everywhere, most especially in his critiques of socialism, which he labels as the most bourgeois of bourgeoisness. He often turns Marx's critiques against capitalism (which he found to be Marx's only expression of a personalism and humanism) against Marx. Here's an excerpt from his "Class and Man" (1918); it's really a perfect introduction into his critique of politico-economics:

    "The class struggle, the original sin of human societies, tended to deepen and change during the XIX Century. In this progressive century human society became very materialised, it lost its spiritual centre, and the beastly greedy man attained an extreme intensity and expression. The moral character of the bourgeois-capitalistic century makes the struggle of classes for their interests all the more brazen, than in former centuries. And this is connected not with the fact of industrial developement, which is a good per se, but with the spiritual condition of European society. The spiritual poison in this society went from the top down, from the dominating classes to the oppressed classes. The materialistic socialism of Marx and others, having concentrated in itself all the poison of the bourgeois godlessness, failed to restrain itself amidst a more acute perception of the fact of class struggle, — it sanctified this fact and ultimately subjected man to the class. The means of struggle ultimately eclipsed the higher aims of life. Materialistic socialism, enslaved by the economic aspect of capitalistic societies, denies both man and human nature in common, it acknowledges only the class-man, only class collectives. There is begotten an altogether peculiar sense of life, it is only the masses that feel and they altogether cease to sense the individual man. Class represents quantity. Man however represents quality. The class struggle, elevated into an "idea", has obscured the qualitative image of man. In our harsh era, with all the veils torn away, the naively amusing old mode of idealism is already an impossibility, impossible too is a turning away from the ugly fact of class struggles, from the perceiving of class antagonisms and class solidifications, distorting the nature of man. Class antagonisms and class distortions play an enormous though unappreciated role in social life. But upon this fact of nature ought not to depend our moral judgements and our reflections concerning the spiritual image of man. Human nature can be distorted by the class position of a man, the outward aspects of a man can become determined by class greed and class limitation. But the spiritual core of a man, the individual human image never is determined by class, is not dependent upon the social medium. And anyone, who denies this, winds up denying man, and commits a spiritual homicide. It is godless and immoral, in place of man with his good and bad traits, to see only some collective substance of bourgeois or proletariat. Such an idea of class kills the idea of man. This murder theoretically is committed in Marxism. Within elements of the Russian Revolution it gets to be committed practically and for real in dimensions yet unseen within history. The "bourgeois" man and the "socialistic" man cease to be people for each other, brothers by the One Father of the human race. Within this revolutionary element there cannot be a true liberation of man, since man is negated within his primal basis. The liberation of class as it were constrains and enslaves man."


  8. Continued . . .

    Like you, Brad, he was often skeptical of Church hierarchy and, unlike you, was actually accused of blasphemy by a synod of Bishops (around 1912-13, I think), though nothing ever really stuck. The Bolsheviks first admired him because he opposed the Tsar (and was a Marxist intellectual) but then sent him into exile because he utterly opposed their philosophy with his own existentialism of personhood.

    On a final note, just to demonstrate his wonderful Russianness (though this may damage the analogy between him and the 12 Southerners, Mr. Davis, but maybe not), he was also vehemently opposed to capital punishment and was a universalist.

    Thanks for this, Brad.


  9. Dr. Birzer,
    Enjoyed this piece very much! Have you ever read an exquisite little volume by two Russian intellectuals, V.I. Ivanov and M.O. Gershenzon written in 1920 called ‘Correspondence Across a Room’?…It is an overlooked small masterpiece.

  10. Does anyone know of any references to CS Lewis mentioning Berdyaev or vice versa?
    These are two thinkers who influenced me the most at different stages of my life, so I wonder what they had thought of each other.

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