Nikolai Berdyaev Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.