Lev Shestov Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."