Nikolai Berdyaev Essay - Critical Essays

Berdyaev, Nikolai


Nikolai Berdyaev 1874-1948

Russian philosopher.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Novoe srednevekov'e. Razmyshlenie o sud' be Rossii i evropy [The End of Our Time, Together with an Essay on the "General Line" of Soviet Philosophy] (nonfiction) 1924

Konstantin Leont'ev [Leontiev] (biography) 1926

Filosofiia svobodnogo dukha. 2 vols. [Freedom and the Spirit] (philosophy) 1927-28

O dostoinstve krhistianstva i nedostoinstve khristian (nonfiction) 1928

Marksizm i religiia. Religiia, kak orudie gospodstva i ekpluatatsii (nonfiction) 1929

Krhistianstvo i klassovaia bor'ba [Christianity and Class War] (nonfiction) 1931

O naznachenii cheloveka: Opyt paradoksal'noi etiki [The Destiny of Man] (philosophy) 1931

The Russian Revolution: Two Essays on Its Implications in Religion and Philosophy (essays) 1931

Russkaia religioznaia psikhologiia i kommunisticheskii ateizm (nonfiction) 1931

O samoubiistve. Psikhologischeskii etiud (nonfiction) 1931

The Bourgeois Mind, and Other Essays (essays) 1934

la i mir ob'ektov: Opyt filosofa odinochestva i obshcheniia [Solitude and Society] (philosophy) 1934

Sud'ba cheloveka v sovremennom mire [The Fate of Man in the Modern World] (philosophy) 1934

Dukh i real'nost'. Osnovy bogochelovecheskoi dukhovnosti [Spirit and Reality] (philosophy) 1937

O rabstve i svobode cheloveka: Opyt personalisticheskoi filosofa [Slavery and Freedom] (philosophy) 1939

Russkaia ideia: Osnovnye problemy russkoi mysli XIX veka i nachala XX veka [The Russian Idea] (philosophy) 1946

Au seuil de la novelle époque [Towards a New Epoch] (philosophy) 1947

Ekzistentsiial'naia dialektika bozhestvennago i chelovecheskogo [The Divine and the Human] (philosophy) 1947

Opyt eskhatologicheskoi metafiziki: Tvorchestvoi ob'tivatsiia [The Beginning and the End: An Essay on Eschatological Principles] (philosophy) 1947

Samopoznanie: Opyt filosofskoi avtobiografii [Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography] (autobiography) 1949

Tsarstvo Dukha i isarstvo kesaria [The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar] (philosophy) 1949

Istina i otkrovenie: Prolegomeny k kritike otkroveniia [Truth and Revelation] (philosophy) 1953

Istoki i smysl russkogo kommunizma [The Origin of Russian Communism] (nonfiction) 1955

Christian Existentialism: A Berdiaev Anthology (essays) 1965


Evgueny La m pert (essay date 1945)

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...

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Pitirim A. Sorokin (essay date 1950)

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...

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V. V. Zenkovskii (essay date 1953)

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...

(The entire section is 2559 words.)

Michael Alexander Vallon (essay date 1960)

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.

—Galatians 2:20

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,...

(The entire section is 7825 words.)

Matthew Spinka (essay date 1962)

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;...

(The entire section is 3995 words.)

Robert Paul Mohan (essay date 1965)

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...

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Fuad Nucho (essay date 1967)

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.]


(The Paradox)


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...

(The entire section is 11245 words.)

Douglas K. Wood (essay date 1982)

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...

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Robert M. Randolph (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 3625 words.)

Brian Horowitz (essay date 1994)

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...

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Further Reading

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...

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