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Revisiting Nikolai Berdyaev.

TRANSACTION PUBLISHERS has performed an important service in recently reissuing Nikolai Berdyaev's The Meaning of History: An Essay on the Philosophy of Human Destiny, which appeared in an English translation in 1936. The Russian title, Smysl istorii, originally published in 1923, was the outgrowth of a series of lectures Berdyaev delivered in Moscow at the Liberal Academy of Spiritual Culture in 1919-1920. He added an Epilogue, "The Will to Life and to Culture," which he wrote in 1922 and constitutes an essential aspect of his conception of the philosophy of history. Berdyaev was decidedly engrossed in the eschatological problem and apocalypsism, distinguishing Russian philosophical thought from Western thought and giving it a strong religious flavor.

George Reavey, the translator of the book, in a short Note, catches both its temper and direction when he writes that, in reacting to the "complete spiritual disorientation of modern life and civilization," Berdyaev was to underline a dynamic and integral interpretation of the general principles of a Christian dialectic. He can best be described as a twentieth-century religious, social, and moralist philosopher who in his lifetime, 1874-1948, witnessed epochal historical events--three Russian revolutions and two world wars, and who, according to one Russian critic writing during the years of perestroika and glasnost, "expressed with great force a feeling of catastrophism, lack of continuity of being, and the process of its qualitative dramatic transformations." (1)

The Transaction Edition contains a new introduction by Professor Maria Nemcova Banerjee that first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Modern Age under the title "Nikolai Berdiaev and Spiritual Freedom." A balanced and penetrating "reconsideration" of the Russian thinker's achievement that no student of Berdyaev can ignore, Banerjee's essay places and assesses Berdyaev's overall contribution and significance as an existentialist philosopher and an original interpreter of Russian philosophical and religious thought. Following the collapse of Communism, Banerjee stresses, "with religion resurgent in all societies, it is his vision of humano-divinity that speaks most urgently to what ails us." Berdyaev, she shows, "tells us that the failed apotheosis of the secular man calls for the supremely creative venture of theosis, a mystical process through which the human self meets the divine without disappearing in it."

More than half a century after his death in exile, Berdyaev remains very much our contemporary whose judgment, especially as it is registered in The Meaning of History, pertains to issues and attitudes that dramatize acute idolatrous deformations, currently accentuated by deconstruction and anti-historicism. In this respect, he continues and even vindicates the warnings voiced by Fyodor Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century in his great novels, about which Berdyaev wrote with appreciation in his classic study, Dostoevsky's World Outlook (1923). In The Meaning of History, Berdyaev examines "the crisis of humanism" and the bankruptcy of the humanist ideal in relation to "the advent of the machine" and "the disintegration of the human image." This crisis, he said, has "doomed us to be tragic realists" and constitutes a kind of meta-spiritual crisis in which the "accursed questions," with which Dostoevsky as artist and metaphysician wrestled, have become extinct.

Today Berdyaev's writings should also make us more aware of a radicalized New Moral Order in which any longing for transcendence and the pursuit of virtue is betrayed by the false prophets and false gods touted by a new hegemony and a geopolitical consciousness divorced from spiritual roots. He speaks of this process as "the de-animation of history and the annihilation of its inner mysteries," and the repudiation of "historical tradition [which] is transposed into historical destiny."

At the same time he adverts to the challenges that Christianity faces. "A Christianity given over to stereotyped rhetoric," Berdyaev writes in his book on Dostoevsky, "formal and spiritless in its rites, debased by clericalism or laicizing, cannot be a life-giving force." And yet it is from Christianity that the renewal of the spirit must come: "... if it is truly the timeless and eternal religion, then it has to be the religion of the new age that is upon us, and there must arise within her a creative movement such as the world has not known for a long time." In Dostoevsky as religious artist and in Berdyaev as religious philosopher, we are exposed to a prophetic consciousness fundamentally concerned with the fate and future of Christian civilization--and with the new epoch of the Holy Spirit.

Dostoevsky, Berdyaev further observes, "prepared souls for this remaking and fiery baptism: he sweetens the ground for a spiritual renaissance in which the new and eternal covenant, living Christianity, should be made manifest." In Dostoevsky, writes Berdyaev, we enter the "spiritual depths" and "the inward abysms of man." These words essentially characterize Berdyaev as a religious seeker-prophet who has wrought a universal and spiritual understanding of human existence.

In his many writings, in his testimony, Berdyaev defines and fulfills his office as a modern religious existentialist thinker who conveys his philosophy of history, or what he calls "the metaphysics of history" and "inner contact with the mysteries of the historical life." He emphasizes that the "enlightened reason of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a self-assertive and limited reason .... not in communion with the reason of universal history," that is, with a higher and historical reason from which it had broken away and which it unilaterally condemned. Hence, Berdyaev declares with force of authority and truth, "The blindness of the 'enlightened' reason was the inner penalty it paid for its self-assertiveness and for the egoism with which it enslaved both the human and the superhuman."

That we have not been capable of freeing ourselves from this captivity, and to grasp the life-stuff of the "historical," underscores the power of hubris in ousting the virtue of sophia and in abrogating a world anchored in biblical faith and sacred tradition. In his metaphysical position as a whole, he was deeply concerned with "eschatological metaphysics," with the kind disclosed in the spirit of Dostoevsky. At the heart of Berdyaev's philosophical thinking (as opposed to system) is a passion for freedom singularly separated from the ideas of the secular modern world and the prevailing influence of "masses, quantities, and technological science, and by the dominance of politics over the life of the spirit."

A "believing philosopher," Berdyaev chose to participate in "the fight of the spirit against necessity." A Russian and a mystic, who also described himself as "a pilgrim philosopher" living in an "alien realm," he sought for the Kingdom of God founded on love rather than rights, laws, creeds, dogmas. His religious outlook, both holistically and historically, aspired to the world of spirit accessible through intuitive, spiritual, and mystical experience. Understandably, Berdyaev endorsed the Slavophile idea of sobornost', corresponding to the Greek concept of "catholicity," developed by the Russian lay-theologian Aleksei Khomiakov (1804-1860), who affirmed that "the church is one."

Berdyaev disdained rigid hierarchical systems and authoritarianism. Though generous in his praise of creative thought in Russian Orthodoxy, he inevitably discomfited traditionalists who saw him as a "victim of his time" who harbored, from his early Marxist days, anti-clerical sentiments, an excessive anthropocentric propensity to glorify human powers of creativity, a romantic inclination to blur the lines between flawed human nature and divine perfection, and an idiosyncratic tendency to hold views akin to Gnosticism. The late emigre Russian philosopher Sergei Levitsky, in fact, posed the question whether Berdyaev was a prophet or a heretic, though he unhesitantly concluded that he was a "noble heretic motivated by the highest ethical considerations." (2) Standing to the "extreme left" of Orthodoxy, he readily acknowledged the significant influences of Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx, and of Thomas Carlyle, Henrik Ibsen, Leon Bloy, and the German theosopher and mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), "one of the greatest mystics of all time," Berdyaev contended.

Frequently referred to as "The Philosopher of Freedom," Berdyaev was censorious of collectivism and as early as 1906 predicted that Bolshevism would produce a system devoted to the "fabrication of souls." Certainly, too, he was adamant in his criticism of the theoreticians of the idea of "endless progress," in which he discerned the victory of materialist objectification. He was no less critical of capitalist society as alienating and dehumanizing, the pragmatical and utilitarian approach of which, he claimed, contained "the real source of atheism and spiritual bankruptcy." In a "bourgeois age of technical civilization" he foresaw the power of technology reaching "the limits of the objectification of human existence."

To defeat the power of diabolic ideas and doctrines Berdyaev insisted that man must recover a true sacred tradition. "It is a resuscitating memory through which the link with what is eternal in the past is preserved." Berdyaev's philosophical and religious position evolved from Marxism to Idealism to a deeply mystical Christianity that proclaimed the unity of God and man. Indeed, he can be counted among the premier Russian religious thinkers of the early twentieth century--Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Father Pavel Florensky, Father Sergius Bulgakov, Nikolai Lossky, Simon Frank, Vyacheslav Ivanov. What most highlighted this illustrious movement is the amazing path its exponents followed in their symbiosis of theology and philosophy. In any case, what must be remembered in weighing Berdyaev's religious judgment is that it is not based on dogmatic theology but on personal intuitions and rational clarifications. Dogmatism, religious or socio-political, was abhorrent to both his world view and his expectant vision of "cosmic divine transfiguration." "Man, personality, freedom, creativity, the eschatological and messianic solution of the dualism of the two worlds are my basic themes," he wrote at the end of his life.

If there is one central, interconnecting principle that Berdyaev applies to an understanding of the meaning of history, it is found in his condemnation of economic and historical materialism and of kindred abstract interpretations that degrade the life of the soul and enshrine what Martin Buber termed the state of "thingification."

For Berdyaev the historical is not empirical and phenomenal but a revelation of the deepest essences of a concrete universality and a noumenal reality, a process of communion with historical memory, that is, the data of which constitute our spiritual past and our ultimate source of Divinity and Eternity, our beginning and our end: "The aeon of the end is the revealing of the Spirit," when the objectified everyday world of determinism comes to a close and the freedom of spirit is discovered--when universal meaning and personal meaning achieve union in the face of death, and when existential time triumphs over historical and cosmic time.

The end, Berdyaev iterates, "is perceived and accepted not as a fated doom, but as freedom ... it is the discovery of personality and freedom in the concrete universality of spiritual existence, in eternity." History is the wondrous fusion of the temporal and the eternal; in turn, human-divine destiny constitutes a terrestrial and celestial revolution and a communion of the spirit in the higher context of the God-man process, which Berdyaev, echoing Solovyov, envisioned as a dynamic process of "the genesis of God in man and of man in God." There is no opposition between man and history: "Man is in the highest degree an historical being. He is situated in history and history is situated in him."

"I look at myself as pre-eminently an emancipator," Berdyaev reflected, "and I am in sympathy with every emancipation. Thus it was that Christianity presented itself to me and called upon my allegiance as emancipation." He was unyielding in his critique of social organization founded on compulsion and necessity, "from a compulsory Catholic or Byzantine theocracy to compulsory Communism." "The destiny of man implicit in the origins of history involves a super-historical goal," he believed, "a super-historical consummation of history in eternal time." Hence, too, he viewed higher spiritual culture as being endangered by the adoption of quantitative principles, or reductionisms, and by empirio-critical suppositions that betray "the world as an organic whole" and replace the "kingdom of the spirit" with the "kingdom of enmity," to use Lossky's phraseology.

Berdyaev pinpoints in this matrix of affliction the modern experiment that strives to master technique and the power of organization and to remove man from "communion with the inner life and soul of nature." The prophetic articulations in Berdyaev's religious vision dramatically underscore his significance as our contemporary, as one who speaks directly to our spiritually destitute circumstances in the early years of a new millennium. In this respect, The Meaning of History is particularly worthy of study since it alerts one to the signs, conditions, and terrors of our present fate and to the pattern of our moral and spiritual declension.

Our modern "slavery to fallen objectified time" is characterized by the extremisms of technique, organization, and the productive processes discerned early on by Berdyaev, when assertions of the will to life are interlinked with promises of a "false eternity." For Berdyaev, the passage from culture, with its sacred patrimony and symbolic character, to technical "spirit-slaying" civilization, is strewn with great hazards to an organic relationship between man and nature, to man's social environment and ultimate destiny, to what Solovyov termed a "metaphysics of all-unity." The inveterate enemies of the permanent things especially thrive in an industrial and mechanistic environment that revolves around universal domination and organization.

In uniting the "historical sense" and the "eschatological sense," Berdyaev was to reach the conclusion that the end of the world is a divine-human enterprise capable of illumination and transformation, the continuation of creation, and "entry upon a new aeon." The path of ontological transfiguration lies within the orbit of the mission of Christianity and leads to "authentic being." Neither the earthly failure of Christianity, Berdyaev believes, can be used as an argument against its supernal truth, nor can the failure of history signify the aimlessness and the emptiness of history. True religious consciousness cannot submit to "the idea that anything truly living can die or disappear."

The paramount contribution of Christianity, Berdyaev avers, is that of freeing man from a baser elemental nature and the power of evil through Christ and the mystery of Redemption; of recognizing the infinite value of the human soul; of restoring to man spiritual freedom, and thus inaugurating a new era in his destiny by making possible the apprehension of the human personality and its inherent dignity. Prominent in Berdyaev's thinking is his reverence for the sacredness of the human being. Recalling Boehme's notion of the "primal dark abyss" as the theogonic well-spring of all things (Ungrund), Berdyaev wrote: "Beyond any given being lies a still deeper being, and transcendence is always an attaining of a deeper being." Berdyaev is not simply an affirmer of the Absolute but also of human dignity, an assent inherent in the principle of Godmanhood that figured considerably in the multiform "Russian Religious Renaissance," as Berdyaev called the movement that reached its pinnacle in the early years of the twentieth century and is also referred to as the Silver Age of Russian philosophy.

The special importance of the philosophy of history, Berdyaev reminds us, lies in the clues it provides of man's tragic destiny. When he warns that "modern man in pursuit of his aim to dominate the world has become its slave," Berdyaev speaks to us in a way that makes him so authentically our contemporary. It is a restorative experience to revisit the work and thought of Nikolai Berdyaev and to consider anew the intimate relationship between the human condition and the condition of the soul. His meditations have the integral power to turn our attention to quintessential issues of life and belief that are too readily dismissed or scorned in an age that worships at the altar of impiety. His testimony becomes in effect all the more necessary in the growing absence of moral principles and spiritual values.

It becomes painfully evident that we are at the mercy of publicists spewing forth falsehoods, promoting the cause of inessentials, and abetting the narcissist self. One searches in vain for a living religious philosopher of existence who struggles with the universal themes and perennial problems announced in the very titles of Berdyaev's works: "the divine and the human"; "freedom and spirit"; "the meaning of the creative act"; "slavery and freedom"; "man and the machine"; "spirit and reality"; "solitude and society"; "the fate of man in the modern world"; "the beginning and the end."

Berdyaev did not simply agonize over ultimate questions, he imparted sapient lessons in "the meaning of history." However immense the tragedy of the modern world and however dismaying the war against the Word of God, he persevered in his belief that it is "the spiritual in man which battles against the final objectivization of human existence, the definite objectivization which issues in death for man by submerging him finally in the death-dealing stream of time." These brave words epitomize the moral impulse and the spiritual goal of Berdyaev's quest, making him an extraordinary illuminator of philosophical and religious thought.

1. Valery A. Kuvakin, "Nikolai Berdyaev," A History of Russian Philosophy (Buffalo, New York, 1994), Volume II, 571-591. This is a substantial overview of Berdyaev's achievement as is James P. Scanlan's "Berdiaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich (1874-1948)," Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London and New York, 1998), Volume I, 726-732. See also Victor V. Bychkov and Oleg V. Bychkov, "Russian Religious Aesthetics," Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (New York and Oxford, 1998), Volume 4, 195-202. 2. See Sergei Levitzky, "On Some Characteristic Traits of Russian Philosophic Thought," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Volume 13, Number 3 (1969), 3-15. See also Levitzky's significant assessment, "Berdiaev: prorok ili eretik?," Novyi zhurnal, 1975, 119:230-253.

GEORGE A. PANICHAS is the author, most recently, of Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision (2005) and editor of The Essential Russell Kirk (2006).
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Title Annotation:Russian philosopher
Author:Panichas, George A.
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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