Lev Shestov Essay - Critical Essays

Shestov, Lev


Lev Shestov 1866-1938

(Pseudonym of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann) Russian-born philosopher, critic, and essayist.

Often compared to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Shestov is known for his religious existentialist thought in which he rejects empirical science as a valid means for revealing truths concerning human existence. Shestov viewed reason as a "restraint" on freedom, maintaining that truth is not objective but subjective, and is accessible to the individual only through faith in God and a deep commitment to biblical teachings. Shestov's philosophical and critical essays are often praised for their coherent presentation of ideas and vigorous prose style.

Biographical Information

Shestov was born in Kiev to an upper-middle class Jewish family. His early education in Hebrew and Jewish literature, folklore, and religious teachings at the gymnasium in Kiev would later become central to his work. Studying mathematics and law at the University of Moscow, Shestov finished as a Candidate of Laws but never entered law practice because his dissertation was not approved by the Committee of Censors due to its controversial topic dealing with the Russian labor force. He went to work for his father's textile firm, and during this time began writing articles for avant-garde publications. One of his earliest essays, "Georg Brandes and Hamlet," was published in the journal Kievskoe slovo in 1895, and became the basis of his first book, Shakespeare iyevo kritik Brandes (Shakespeare and His Critic Brandes). During this period, Shestov decided to devote himself exclusively to the study of philosophy, and he read the works of Socrates, St. Augustine, Plotinus, Blaise Pascal, Martin Luther, Baruch Spinoza, and G. W. F. Hegel, as well as the Bible. In 1919 he left Russia permanently with his family, and in 1921 settled in Paris, where he taught philosophy at the Institut des Etudes Slaves and lectured at an extension program of the Sorbonne. While lecturing in Amsterdam in the 1920s he met German philosopher Edmund Husserl, and it was at Husserl's suggestion that Shestov began to read Kierkegaard, in whose work he discovered parallels with his own thought. Shestov died in 1938.

Major Works

Shestov's early writings examine philosophical and religious implications in the works of William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Anton Chekhov, and Feodor Dostoevsky. In his first major work, Shakespeare and His Critic Brandes, Shestov attacks the materialism and nationalism of Danish literary critic Georg Brandes.

In his next critical study, Dobro v uchenii Tolstovo i Nietzsche (The Good in the Teachings of Count Tolstoy and Nietzsche), Shestov discusses Tolstoy's moralistic equation of God with goodness and Nietzsche's nihilistic declaration that "God is dead." This work also generated controversy as a result of Shestov's acknowledgment of Nietzsche's honesty, courage, and spiritual quality. In Dostoevski i Nietzsche (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy), Shestov viewed Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) as the most poignant statement regarding the human experience. Apofeoz bezposhvennosti (The Apotheosis of Groundlessness), a work which was vilified for its "libertinism," consists of over 160 brief essays dealing with science, philosophy, and literature. Shestov's religious works expound on his major premise that "to find God, one must tear oneself away from the seductions of reason" because reason and faith are essentially incompatible. Na vesax Iova (In Job's Balances) uses the plight of Job in the Old Testament to exemplify the inherent tragedy of life and argue that only through faith does one discover freedom, for "faith is the ultimate source of man's deliverance from despair."

Principal Works

Shakespeare i yevo kritik Brandes [Shakespeare and His Critic Brandes] (criticism) 1898

Dobro v uchenii Tolstovo i Nietzsche: Filosofiya ipropoved' [The Good in the Teachings of Count Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching] (criticism) 1900

Dostoevski i Nietzsche: Filosofiya tragedii [Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy] (criticism) 1901

*Apofeoz bezpochvennosti [The Apotheosis of Groundlessness] (essays) 1905

†Nachala i kontsy [Beginnings and Ends] (essays) 1908

Velikie kanuny [Great Vigils] (essays) 1912

Vlast' kliuchei: Potestas clavium [The Power of the Keys] (essays) 1919

La nuit de Gethsemani (essay) 1923

Les Revelations de la mort: Dostoievski-Tolstoi (criticism) 1923

La Philosophie de la tragedie: Dostoievski et Nietzsche (criticism) 1926

Sur les confins de la vie: L 'apotheose du depaysement (essays) 1927

Na vesax Iova [In Job's Balances] (essays) 1929

Skovannyi Parmenid: Ob istochnikakh metafiziecheskikhistin [The Shackled Parmenides: On the Sources of Metaphysical Truth] (essays) 1931

Kierkegaard i eksistentsialnaya filosofiya: Vox clamantis in deserto [Kierkegaard and Existential Philosophy] (criticism) 1936

Athènes et Jerusalem (essays) 1938

Umozrenie i otkrovenie: Religioznaya filosofiya Vladimira Solovyovai drug 'lie stat'i [Speculation and Revelation: The Religious Philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and Other Essays] (essays) 1964

Sola fidetolko veroyu [By Faith Alone] (essays) 1966

*This volume was published as All Things are Possible in 1920.

†The English translation of this collection of essays was published in London in 1916 as Anton Chekhov and other Essays and in Boston as Penultimate Words.


The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "A Sceptic with a Purpose," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 784, January 25, 1917, p. 40.

[Below, The Times Literary Supplement offers a thematic analysis of the critical essays collected in Anton Tchekov and Other Essays.]

Mr. Shestov is evidently a remarkable critic, and these essays of his were well worth translating. He is, Mr. Murry tells us in his introduction, fifty years old and has written little. Criticism with him is not a hand-to-mouth business. He does not choose a subject and then to begin to wonder what he can find to say about it. His criticism is philosophy expounded by means of a particular example, and rather hinted at than expounded. One feels that he has strong convictions but is shy of proclaiming them. Mr. Murry says that he is afraid of being dogmatic. If so it is not a cowardly fear, but a desire to leave the reader to draw his own conclusions. He will lead him to the water and trust in his thirst. Mr. Murry tells us also that, when Shestov began to write nearly twenty years ago, "Karl Marx was enthroned and infallible" in Russia, and that he has always been in reaction against dogmatic materialism. His business is to hint a doubt and hesitate dislike of it. Perhaps he hints and hesitates too much; but he seems to us to make his points clearly enough, just because he leaves them to make themselves.

The first essay on Tchekov may reassure those who wonder whether all Russians are like the people in Tchekov. He was, Mr. Shestov says, a specialist in hopelessness. Something must have happened to him which killed hope in him; and after it he wrote about a world from which hope had been removed. "He refused in advance every possible consolation, material or metaphysical. Not even in Tolstoi, who set no great store by philosophical systems, will you find such keenly expressed disgust for every kind of conceptions and ideas as in Tchekov.… Finally, he frees himself from ideas of every kind, and loses even the notion of connexion between the happenings of life." One can see that Mr. Shestov has a sympathy for this utterly destructive criticism, which is hardly criticism but rather a mode of experience. It was something that happened to Tchekov, not a pose that he assumed for artistic purposes; and therefore the fact that he was able to make real works of art out of this mode of experience is itself valuable. He did, in his negative way, prove something—namely, the supremacy of the spirit of man over its own hopelessness. And he proved it all the more surely because he was not trying to do so. He really was hopeless, and wished that he wasn't. There is no luxury of woe in him. He doesn't want to rub the gilt off the gingerbread, but for him there is no gilt on the gingerbread to begin with. And yet he is interesting and must have interested himself, or he would not have continued to write. He had, by no effort of thought, but by mere calamity, attained to the last scepticism, the disbelief in, and, more, the lack of any sense of,...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)

D. H. Lawrence (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: Preface to All Things Are Possible, in Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Anthony Beal, 1955. Reprint by Viking Press, 1955, pp. 242-44.

[Lawrence was an English novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, and dramatist, who is known for his controversial and outspoken ideas on such topics such as religion, psychology, and sex. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1920 as a preface to All Things Are Possible, he identifies Shestov as the disseminator of culture that is distinctively Russian, devoid of the influence of Western Europe.]

In his paragraph on The Russian Spirit, Shestov gives us the real...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Benjamin De Casseres (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "Shestov's Challenge to Civilization," in The New York Times Book Review, October 3, 1920, p. 19.

[In the following review of All Things Are Possible, De Casseres discusses the unique Russian character of Shestov's philosophy. ]

Leo Shestov, a Russian still living at the age of 50, belongs in the high line of iconoclasts. His book, AH Things Are Possible, just translated from the Russian by S. S. Koteliansky with a brilliantly written foreword by D. H. Lawrence, is a sheaf of 166 pensees on life, literature, European civilization, Russia, and, in fact, all things. His style is clear, uncollegiate and literary.

There is,...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

David Gascoyne (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Lev Shestov After Ten Years Silence," in Horizon, London, Vol. 20, No. 118, October 1949, pp. 213-29.

[ Gascoyne is an English poet, translator, critic, memoirist, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, and editor. In the following essay, he explicates basic tenets of Shestov's thought, comparing and contrasting his unique form of existentialism with that of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. ]

As far as it is possible to judge, there exists at present among the intelligent reading public in England only a dim and confused conception of the significance of Existential Philosophy and its situation in relation to the rest of contemporary thought. It is...

(The entire section is 6622 words.)

Bernard Martin (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: An introduction to Athens and Jerusalem by Lev Shestov, translated by Bernard Martin, Ohio University Press, 1966, pp. 9-44.

[In the following excerpt, Martin discusses the basic tenets of Shestov's most important work as representative of his philosophical thought.]

In his last years Shestov brooded incessantly over what he called, in a letter to [Sergei] Bulgakov, "the nightmare of godlessness and unbelief which has taken hold of humanity." He was convinced that only through "the utmost spiritual effort," as he termed it, could men free themselves from this nightmare. His own life concentrated on a passionate struggle against the "self-evident" truths of...

(The entire section is 5277 words.)

Arthur A. Cohen (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Lev Shestov: Athens and Jerusalem," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXV, No. 22, March 10, 1967, pp. 661-62.

[Cohen is an American novelist, critic, editor, and author of nonfiction works dealing with Jewish theology. In the following review of Athens and Jerusalem, he concludes that Shestov is "innocently, marvelously, accurately on target about the human condition. ']

Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann, the son of a prosperous Jewish merchant of Kiev, chose early to be known by the pseudonym, Shestov. Shestov concealed the man Schwarzmann; the passionate, inflammatory prose of Shestov's French and Russian critical and philosophic writing, though it seems...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)

Louis J. Shein (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Lev Shestov: A Russian Existentialist," in The Russian Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, July, 1967, pp. 278-85.

[Russian-born Shein is a Canadian editor, translator, former Presbyterian minister, and author of works on theology and philosophy. In the following essay, he presents an overview of Shestov's work and stresses the relevance of his philosophical thought for contemporary readers.]

Lev Shestov is a strange and in some respects a rather unique phenomenon in the history of Russian philosophic thought. He was a man whose whole being was dominated by a "single Idea." This all-embracing idea was a passionate desire to liberate man from the tyrannical power of...

(The entire section is 3322 words.)

Michael Wyschogrod (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: A review of Athens and Jerusalem, in Jewish Social Studies, Vol. XXX, No. 4, October, 1968, pp. 291-92.

[German-born Wyschogrod is a professor of philosophy and author who specializes in Jewish theology. In the following review, he offers a mixed assessment of Athens and Jerusalem.]

Lev Shestov was a Russian Jewish philosopher who lived in Paris from 1920, the year he was forced to flee his homeland for France because of the Bolshevik revolution. He very quickly won considerable fame on the continent and, though philosophically in total disagreement, Husserl and Shestov became close friends. It was in Husserl's home that Shestov met Heidegger in 1929. At...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

Robert L. Strong, Jr. (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: A review of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, in The Russian Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, July, 1971, pp. 314-15.

[Below, Strong gives a mixed appraisal of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche.]

Beginning his adult life as a lawyer, Lev Shestov (1866-1938) came to philosophy by way of literary criticism. His first book (1898) dealt with Shakespeare and was soon followed by the two long essays which have been translated for the present volume, The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching (1900) and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1903). Written in a rambling, non-rigorous, and impressionistic...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

Czeslaw Milosz (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Shestov, or the Purity of Despair," in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, University of California Press, 1977, pp. 99-119.

[Recipient of the 1980 Nobel Prize in literature, Lithuanian-born Milosz is known for his contributions to the development of Polish poetry. In the following essay, originally published in the journal Tri-Quarterly in 1973, Milosz examines the defining characteristics of Shestov's work, and compares him to other philosophers and literary critics, in particular Kierkegaard and Simone Weil.]

Lev Shestov (pen name of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzman) was born in Kiev in 1866. Thus by the turn of the century he was already a...

(The entire section is 6981 words.)

James M. Curtis (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Shestov's Use of Nietzsche in His Interpretation of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XVII, 1975, pp. 289-302.

[Curtis is an American professor of Russian and author of works on Russian literature.]

Lev Shestov wrote two books whose titles contain a reference to Nietzsche: The Good in the Teaching of Count Tolstoy and F. Nietzsche (1900) and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1903). It often seems to the critic who wishes to do justice to these works, Shestov's second and third respectively, that such an undertaking merely shows why Nietzsche never believed in the adequacy of any single...

(The entire section is 5529 words.)

James P. Scanlan (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: A review of In Job's Balances: On the Sources of the Eternal Truths, in Slavic Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, December, 1976, pp. 752-53.

[Scanlan is an American educator and author of works concerning Russian philosophy. Below, he discusses problems with the translation of In Job's Balances.]

In light of the debt owed the Ohio University Press for making available in English over the past ten years an entire series of works by the Russian existentialist philosopher and critic, Lev Shestov (1866-1938), only a churl could greet the present (seventh) volume without at least a show of gratitude. The fact is, however, that In Job's Balances has been...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

David Patterson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Shestov's Second Dimension: In Job's Balances," in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 141-53.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines Shestov's use of biblical imagery and discusses his interpretations of the fiction of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche in his In Job's Balances.]

In his introduction to Lev Šestov's Umozrenie i otkrovenie Nikolaj Berdjaev tells us that gestov was a man for whom philosophy was a matter of life and death, for whom human tragedy, terror, and suffering form the starting point of philosophy in such a way that "the conflict of biblical revelation and Greek Philosophy became the...

(The entire section is 5622 words.)

Further Reading


Coates, Carrol. "A New Look at Shestov." Books Abroad 42, No. 3 (Summer 1968): 385-87.

Thematic analysis of Shestov's critical writings on Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy.

Davison, R. M. "Lev Shestov: An Assessment." Journal of European Studies 11, No. 4 (December 1981): 279-84.

Examines the fundamental principles of Shestov's thought, his opposition to reason in favor of faith, and the similarities between his ideas and other philosophical traditions and teachings.

Monas, Sidney. Reviews of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche by Lev Shestov and A Shestov Anthology, edited by...

(The entire section is 239 words.)