(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Nicolai Berdyaev wrote The Destiny of Man as an exile in Paris, following a long philosophical journey that began in his native Russia. Born in czarist Russia in Kiev to an aristocratic father who was a skeptical disciple of Voltaire and to a mother of French descent sympathetic to Catholicism, Berdyaev gradually moved from skepticism to Christianity in the form of the Russian Orthodox faith, following a brief infatuation with Marxism as a youth. From the first he rejected the materialism of Marxism, and he had turned to philosophic idealism before embracing the passion for spiritual freedom in certain Russian thinkers, most notably in Fyodor Dostoevski’s impressive fiction.

After reactionary forces in czarist Russia exiled him to a rural province near Kiev, Berdyaev began to engage in religious speculation with intellectual groups during residence in St. Petersburg, Paris, and Moscow before accepting the Orthodox faith. Despite his conversion, however, he explored Christian theology from a critical position, an approach that brought him into conflict with his church’s conservative hierarchy, and his lifelong support of social reform and liberal causes caused friction first with the czarist government and later with the Soviet administration.

An energetic writer, Berdyaev published numerous articles and books on religion and social issues during his fourteen years in Moscow, despite much opposition. However, after the Russian Revolution, his work brought him into irreconcilable conflict with the Communist government, thereby causing permanent exile in 1922. After a brief residence in Berlin, he settled permanently in Paris, where he became a lecturer and prolific author on theological themes and often worked to bring about rapprochement between French Catholics and French Protestants.

Berdyaev considered himself to be an existentialist because he did not believe in the validity of building a philosophical...

(The entire section is 799 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Berdyaev, Nicolai. Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography. Translated by Katherine Lampert. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950. Berdyaev’s autobiography, whose Russian title means “self-knowledge,” focuses on intellectual issues and spiritual values, though it is rather slight in its treatment of personal details, such as comments on his marriage.

Dye, James. “Berdyaev.” In A Companion to the Philosophers, edited by Robert L. Arrington. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Brief but insightful article on Berdyaev describes the theme of spirit in his work. Many of the other entries in this volume, such as the essay on Henri Bergson, should be of interest to readers of Berdyaev.

Lowrie, Donald A. Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nicolai Berdyaev. London: Victor Gollancz, 1960. A sympathetic biography by a translator and disciple of Berdyaev, describing major intellectual themes in the work. Lowrie treats Berdyaev’s turn to the Russian Orthodox faith as an “evolution” rather than a conversion.

Ree, Jonathan, and J. O. Urmson, eds. The Concise Encylopedia of Western Philosophy. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. Contains an excellent brief entry on Berdyaev, describing major concepts in his work. Also offers helpful if terse essays on philosophers who had some influence on him as well as on major philosophical movements such as existentialism.

Slaatte, Howard A. Time, Existence, and Destiny: Nichoas Berdyaev’s Philosophy of Time. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Readable and perceptive description of central themes in Berdyaev’s philosophical theology.

Vallon, Michel Alexander. An Apostle of Freedom: Life and Teachings of Nicholas Berdyaev. New York: Philosophical Library, 1960. A very informative biography in English. Vallon’s work presents Berdyaev in the context of Russian cultural history and deals in detail with his conversion.