Nikolai Berdyaev 1874-1948
Berdyaev is ranked among the foremost Christian philosophers of the twentieth century. Although his early philosophical leanings were toward Marxist materialism, his mature thought is primarily concerned with the possibilities for human freedom and creativity in a Christian context. Berdyaev viewed history as a manifestation of God's plan for the ultimate perfection of humanity. He thus interpreted the biblical fall as humanity's descent into objectification and the end of history as the inauguration of a divine kingdom that would transcend the limitations of objective, material reality. Berdyaev's concern with individual freedom led to his critiques of Marxism, capitalism, socialism, and other developments in modern history that he considered profance and dehumanizing. His moral system, in addition, is based on the Christian ethic of redemption, in which evil must be overcome and material restrictions surmounted so that a kingdom of God founded on love and compassion might be created.
Berdyaev was born in the town of Lipky, near Kiev, on March 6, 1874. His parents were of noble birth—his mother was a Russian princess and his father a military officer who saw to it that his son joined the Corps of Cadets as a youth. Showing little interest in a military life, Berdyaev later attended the University of Kiev, where he embraced Marxism and became involved with the Social Democrats. In 1898 Berdyaev was expelled for his connection with the Marxist revolutionary movement and two years later was banished to Vologda in northern Russia until 1903. The following year he married Lydia Troucheva and moved with her to St. Petersburg. By this time Berdyaev had broken with the Marxists and embraced Christianity, becoming a lifelong member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Over the course of the next two decades, Berdyaev undertook an intense study of philosophy and rose to prominence among the intelligentsia in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In 1920, three years after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia—and in part due to his youthful socialist leanings—Berdyaev was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Moscow. In 1922, however, he was again exiled, this time for his public criticism of the new Soviet regime, and in September of that year he left Russia for Berlin, where he founded the Academy of Philosophy and Religion. His stay in Berlin was brief and lasted only until 1924, at which time he moved to Paris to continue his literary activities. That year Berdyaev realized fame in Europe with the publication of Novoe srednevekov'e(The End of Our Time). In 1925 he founded the periodical Put' ("The Way"), which he edited until 1939. Over the course of these years in Paris his fame grew into international prominence. During World War II his writings stirred some antipathy among the occupying Nazis in France, but he was never arrested. Following the war, Berdyaev was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University. In 1948 he died of a heart attack in Paris.
Berdyaev's philosophical writings follow a line of development from Marxism and social philosophy toward idealism and the evolution of his system of religious metaphysics. As part of this process, many of his early writings demonstrate an interest in the historical movements that have brought about what Berdyaev perceived to be a crisis of individual freedom in society. In Sub'ektivizm i individualizm v obshchestvennoi filosofa, his first significant philosophical work, Berdyaev attempted to find harmony between Marxism and precepts of modern idealism. Dukhovnyikrizis inteligentsii and Filosofila svobody represent his early explorations of a religious philosophy. The latter is Berdyaev's theodicy—his statement on God's existence in spite of the hard reality of suffering and evil in the world. Smysl tvorchestva: Opyt opravdaniia cheloveka (The Meaning of the Creative Act) is an investigation of the possibilities for human freedom and creativity achieved by the collaboration of God and man. Berdyaev's exploration of the historical factors contributing to human religious development begins with Smysl istorii: Opyt filosofi cheloveckestkoi sud' by (The Meaning of History). Originally a series of lectures, the work outlines Berdyaev's eschatological view of history as a process moving toward the end of secular time and ending in the creation of the kingdom of God on earth. In The End of Our Time, Berdyaev prophesies an end to liberalism and humanism in the post-World War I era, and the birth of a "New Middle Ages" accompanied by a return to the emphasis on spirituality that characterized that earlier epoch. Filosofiia svobodnog dukha (Freedom and the Spirit) is a critique of the overt rationalism and abstract metaphysics that are hallmarks of modern philosophical inquiry. Considered one of Berdyaev's most enduring philosophical works, O naznachenii cheloveka: Opyt paradoksal' noi etiki (The Destiny of Man), contains his ethical system and thoughts on good, evil, compassion, anguish, war, and redemption. Sud' ba cheloveka v sovremennom mire (The Fate of Man in the Modern World) is largely a revision of Berdyaev's theories in The End of Our Time and confronts the issue of dehumanizing political and economic forces in the twentieth century, among which Berdyaev included capitalism, communism, fascism, nazism, and the rise of technology. Ths idea is further elucidated in O rabstve i svobode cheloveka: Opyt personalisticheskoi filosofa (Slavery and Freedom). In Dukh i real' nost' (Spirit and Reality) Berdyaev links ethical concerns to his conception of the "spirit." According to Berdyaev, the surmounting of evil, suffering, and objedification, as well as the realization of freedom and creativity, are all realized in the liberation of the human spirit. Berdyaev further illustrates his eschatological view of history in Russkaia ideia (The Russian Idea) and Au seuil de la nouvelle époque (Towards a New Epoch); both works look to a transformation and perfecting of modern man and the role that Russia has played and will play in this process. Among his three posthumously published works, Berdyaev's Samopoznanie: Opyt filosofskoi avtobiografii (Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography) departs from his other writings in that it delves into the important events in the author's personal life and their relation to the development of his existential philosophy. Istina i otkrovenie (Truth and Revelation) presents a summary of Berdyaev's thoughts on Christian revelation in conjunction with science, history, theology, and reason. Tsarstvo Dukha i isarstvo kesaria (The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar)—published from an unfinished manuscript found after Berdyaev's death—contains the philosopher's final reflections on Marxism, socialism, freedom, and world government, and proclaims his belief in the eventual "victory of the realm of Spirit over that of Caesar."
Since the mid 1920s, and particularly after his death in the late 1940s, Berdyaev's writings have continued to be read worldwide. Influenced by Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Berdyaev is thought to continue the tradition of these and writers in exploring the existential problems that have occupied philosophers of the modern era, such as alienation, objectification, and the loss of freedom. The central concerns of Berdyaev's philosophy—freedom, creativity, community, and spirituality in society, the existence of God, the nature of human personality, and the goal of history—are the enduring questions of humanity, and are approached by Berdyaev, scholars have noted, in his consistently aphoristic and systematic style.
Sub'ektivizm i individualizm v obshchestvennoi filosofa: Kriticheskii etiud o N. K. Mikhailovskom (philosophy) 1901
Novoe religioznoe sozdanie i obshchestvennost' (philosophy) 1907
Sub Specie Aeternitatis: Opyty filosopkie, sotsial'nye i literaturnye, 1900-1906 (essays) 1907
Dukhovnyi krizis intelligentsii (philosophy) 1910
Filosofiia svobody (philosophy) 1911
Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov (biography) 1912
Dusha Rossii (nonfiction) 1915
Smysl tvorschestva: Opyt opravdaniia cheloveka [The Meaning of the Creative Act] (philosophy) 1916
Nationalizm i imperializm (essay) 1917
Nationalizm i messianizm [Nationalism and Messianism] (essay) 1917
Krizis iskusstva (philosophy) 1918
Sud'ba Rosii: Opyty po psikhologii voiny i natsional 'nosti (nonfiction) 1918
Filosofiia Dostoevskogo [Dostoevskii: An Interpretation] (criticism) 1921
Konets renessansa (philosophy) 1922
Filosofiia neravenstva: Pis'ma k nedrugam po sotsial 'noi filosofii (philosophy) 1923
Smysl is torii: Opyt filosofa cheloveckestkoi sud'by [The Meaning of History] (philosophy) 1923
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SOURCE: "God-Manhood," in Nicolas Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1945, pp. 33-58.
[In the following excerpt, Lampert elucidates the concept of "God-Manhood" in Berdyaev's thought.]
[The idea of God-Manhood] summarizes the quintessence of Berdyaev's thought. He begins and ends his reasoning not with God or man, but with God and man, with the God-man, with Christ and God-manhood. This defines both the content and "style" of his thought. Without bearing this in mind it is hardly possible to discern the inner motives and trace the complex thread of his argument. "Both philosophy and theology should start neither with God nor with man, but rather with the God-man. The basic and original phenomenon of life is the meeting and interaction of God and man, the movement of God towards man and of man towards God" (Freedom and the Spirit).
Men have seldom been able to realize fully the fundamental fact of religion, namely, that God is both the wholly "Other One," transcendent and utterly beyond the world and man; and yet creates and reveals himself to man, enters into him and becomes the inmost content of man's very existence. How can that which is transcendent to man be equally immanent in him, and consequently in so far not transcendent at all? How can that which is immanent in man be transcendent and wholly beyond him? In face of such a...
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SOURCE: "Nikolai Berdyaev," in Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis, The Beacon Press, 1950, pp. 137-44.
[In the following essay, Sorokin focuses on the social and historical concerns and implications of Berdyaev's philosophy.]
Berdyaev is the author of many works in philosophy, social science, political economy and ethics: The Meaning of Creativeness (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), Philosophy of Inequality (1922), The New Middle Ages (1924), Christianity and Class Struggle (1931), Solitude and Society (1930), and many others. Most of Berdyaev's books have been translated into several languages.
Omitting the metaphysical part of Berdyaev's philosophy of history, the following empirical points of his reading of historical events should be mentioned.
(1) Methodologically, a mere description of singularistic historical events, persons, and objects only results in a dead corpse of history. "When one reads a scientific book on, say, ancient peoples, one clearly feels that from the history of cultures of these peoples their soul, their inner life are removed and one gets instead only a sort of external photograph or picture"—which does not in the least explain the why, wherefore, or even the how of all these events and persons. In order to understand these whys and wherefores, the...
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SOURCE: "F. M. Dostoyevsky, V. Solovyov, and N. A. Berdyayev," in Russian Thinkers and Europe, translated by Galia S. Bodde, American Council of Learned Societies, 1953, pp. 154-87.
[In the following essay, Zenkovskii provides an assessment of Berdyaev as a specifically Russian thinker.]
Berdyayev has gone through a complex and signal spiritual evolution from critical idealism to a religious Weltanschauung, and his books reflect various stages of Russian seekings for the truth. Centered, however, in all his ideology and creative work lie the problems of history. By examining these we can best clarify for ourselves both the evolution of Berdyaev's thought and its general principles. Of essential interest are his following works: The Meaning of History (1923), The Destiny of Russia (a collection of articles, 1918), and The New Middle Ages (1924). Some relevant material can also be obtained from his two other books: The Meaning of Creative Work (1916), and Philosophy of Inequality (1923).
The basic and characteristic trait of Berdyayev's thought is his genuine Christian universalism, seemingly inherited from Vladimir Solovyov. Having achieved a religious viewpoint and come to a definite support of Orthodoxy—the philosophy of which Berdyayev constantly strives to build—he remains equally aloof from the...
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SOURCE: "An Evaluation: 'My Ways Are Not Your Ways, '" in An Apostle of Freedom: Life and Teachings of Nicolas Berdyaev, Philosophical Library, 1960, pp. 292-313.
[In the following excerpt, Vallon offers a critical appraisal of the salient concepts of Berdyaev's religious philosophy.]
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.
Berdyaev described his philosophy as "existential" to indicate that his thought was rooted not in discursive reason, but in life experience. He never related himself, however, to any of the existential schools, and least of all to the atheistic variety represented by JeanPaul Sartre which often is erroneously identified with existentialism par excellence. He shares in the basic conviction of all existentialists, namely, that existence precedes essence, but he differs from most of them in that he derives his primary insights into philosophy and religion mainly from Boehme, Khomyakov, and Dostoyevsky instead of Kierkegaard.
Existential philosophy permeates the whole of Berdyaev's thinking. Its starting point is not an abstract concept, but the concrete person. Without keeping this in mind one cannot understand his teaching at all. To help, therefore, in performing an evaluation of...
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SOURCE: "Nicolas Berdyaev, the Philosopher of Personalism," in Christian Thought from Erasmus to Berdyaev, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 214-24.
[In the following essay, Spinka traces Berdyaev's development as a thinker.]
Among those who repudiate our secularist civilization most consistently, comprehensively, and vehemently is the Russian religious philosopher, Nicolas A. Berdyaev. Since his acceptance of the Christian world-view he had been a man in revolt against a world in revolt against God. Having rejected God, our era is now in the process of repudiating man, as far as his spiritual nature is concerned. This is seen in such movements as fascism and communism; for having rejected God, we are now renouncing man.
Berdyaev was born in Kiev of an old aristocratic family, and although in opposition to it, he retained the best features of his aristocratic upbringing throughout his life. His father, a retired officer in the Cavalier Guard, placed him in the Pages''Corpus. But soldiering was not Nicolas' chosen career; he was a serious, studious youth, eager to learn the meaning of life. Thus philosophy was his most congenial study. After graduating from the military school, he entered Kiev University. Previously, he had read philosophy "on his own." At fourteen he had already read Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel. He bears witness to the potent influence exerted on him during his later...
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SOURCE: "Nicholas Berdyaev, Captive of Freedom," in Twentieth-Century Thinkers: Studies in the Work of Seventeen Modern Philosophers, edited by John K. Ryan, Alba House, 1965, pp. 205-12.
[In the following essay, Mohan provides an overview of Berdyaev's life and thought.]
Reinhold Niebuhr once referred to Nicholas Berdyaev as the outstanding religious personality of our time. Evelyn Underhill and the late Goeffrey Francis Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, echoed this sentiment. He has also been called the "supreme Russian philosopher," passionately interested in the moods and ideas of his time. The London Times said that in a lifetime he had accepted and denied with equal vehemence more ideas than most men even fleetingly dream of. The New York Times called him the most exciting writer on contemporary religious themes. He was a man as pugnacious as Léon Bloy in his search for the Absolute, but agonizingly aware of freedom and its responsibilities, a "nay-sayer" to life at one moment, and boldly assertive the next; exhibiting an almost neurotic sensitivity at one time, and at another a stoic courage.
This spiritual anarchist, as he described himself, gives us a great insight into his personality in his Dream and Reality. He tells his autobiography is not to be a diary in the sense of André Gide's Journal or the confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau and St....
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SOURCE: "Freedom and Necessity (The Paradox)," in Berdyaev's Philosophy: The Existential Paradox of Freedom and Necessity, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1967, pp. 47-97.
[In the following excerpt, Nucho explicates the significance of such concepts as freedom, necessity, and personality in Berdyaev's thought.]
FREEDOM AND NECESSITY
1 A CONCEPTION OF MAN
Berdyaev's entire thinking is anthropocentric. The structure of his existential philosophy is erected on the foundation of his philosophical anthropology. His preoccupation with the problem of freedom arises out of his deep interest and personal involvement in man's predicament and destiny. Man is the chief object of his concern. At the heart of his thought lies a persistent attempt to understand what it means to be a person. Berdyaev's philosophy of freedom begins and ends with man.
The essential and fundamental problem is the problem of man—of his knowledge, his freedom, his creativeness. Man is the key to the mystery of knowledge.
Berdyaev's philosophical anthropology is thoroughly existential. It deals with man not as a concept but as a living person. The stress on man as an existing entity often leads Berdyaev to switch suddenly to the first person singular as in the following passage:...
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SOURCE: "The Twentieth-Century Revolt against Time: Belief and Becoming in the Thought of Berdyaev, Eliot, Huxley, and Jung," in The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe, edited by W. Warren Wagar, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982, pp. 197-219.
[In the following essay, Wood considers Berdyaev along with T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and C. G. Jung as representative of modern thinkers whose works express a "revolt against time. "]
Time the leech; time the destroyer; time the bloody tyrant; portrayed in a thousand forms, hypostatized in a thousand metaphors, described in a thousand symbols. From the dawn of civilization to the present, the same lament continues: time is a devious slayer, a traitorous provider who gives only to take away; a patron of life who wears the black cowl of death beneath a disguise of light and laughter. As an Elizabethan poet has said:
Even such is Time, which takes in trust
Our Youth, and joys, and all we have;
And pays us but with age and dust,
Which, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days .…
In the twentieth century the lament against the eroding power of time endures and frequently appears to increase in its...
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SOURCE: "The Possibilities of Creativity: Nicholas Berdyaev and Robert Bly," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1988, pp. 321-32.
[In the following essay, Randolph examines the spiritual significance that Berdyaev attached to human creativity, using the work of American poet Robert Bly to exemplify Berdyaev's criteria for genuine creativity in works of art.]
In D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, F. R. Leavis writes of Lawrence:
It is plain from the letters and other sources that he went forward rapidly once he had started on an enterprise, writing long stretches in remarkably little time as the creative flow carried him on. The first draft written, he revised, not by correcting locally or reworking parts, but by rewriting the whole with the same kind of creative elan as had gone into the earlier version (and this he habitually did yet again).
In "Symbol and Reality in Nicolas Berdyaev," Robert D. Knudsen writes of Berdyaev, "He says that he composed his writing quickly, even in a state of dizziness, not disturbing the cascade of his thought even by the consultation of books." Berdyaev himself writes in his autobiography, Dream and Reality, "Only in the white heat of creative ecstasy, when none of the divisions into subject and object had yet arisen, did I experience moments of fulfillment and...
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SOURCE: "A Jewish-Christian Rift in Twentieth-Century Russian Philosophy: N. A. Berdiaev and M. O. Gershenzon," in The Russian Review, Vol. 53, No. 4, October, 1994, pp. 497-514.
[In the following essay, Horowitz details the reasons for the ideological conflict between Berdyaev and his long-time friend M. O. Gershenzon.]
My philosophy has always been a philosophy of conflict.
(Nikolai Berdiaev about himself)
The erudite "Kulturtrèger" several times showed me the power of the elemental forces living within him.
(Andrei Belyi about Mikhail Gershenzon)
The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 found the two friends, religious philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev and historian and philosopher M. O. Gershenzon, on different sides of the conflict. Berdiaev's vehement opposition to the Revolution ostensibly caused him to sever relations with the sympathizer Gershenzon. In 1952, Gershenzon's daughter, Nataliia Mikhailovna GershenzonChegodaeva, wrote in her memoirs that her father's and Berdiaev's friendship "ended badly. During the days of the October Revolution, when my dad was completely aflame, passionately awaiting and welcoming the new, they suddenly severed relations, disagreeing over political convictions. Several painful letters remain which reflect the...
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Allen, E. L. Freedom in God: A Guide to the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev. New York: The Philosophical Library, Inc., 1951, 43 p.
Brief introductory study of Berdyaev's philosophy.
Lowrie, Donald A. Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nicolai Berdyaev. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, 310 p.
Comprehensive biographical and critical study of Berdyaev.
Wernham, James C. S. Two Russian Thinkers: An Essay in Berdyaev and Shestov. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968, 118 p.
Examines Berdyaev's thought in relation to theology, Existentialism, Marxism, and Scripture.
Additional coverage of Berdyaev's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 120.
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