NIKOLAY ALEXANDROVITCH BERDYAEV (6. 03. 1874, Kiev 24. 03. 1948, Clamart) The life of Berdyaev spans the momentous events of the first half of the twentieth century in Europe. He was no ivory tower philosopher but was intimately affected by these events throughout his life and drew his inspirations from them regarding the nature of the human condition. His writings bear the imprint of the catastrophic situations within which he was destined to live.
His family on both sides descended from nobility tracing their ancestry to the Middle Ages. Alexander Berdyaev, his father, was the offspring of military gentry described in Berdyaev's autobiography as 'old, fighting, monastic Russia.' His mother, Princess Alexandra Kudesheff, stemmed on one side from aristocrat French emigres fleeing the Revolution and from Polish land-owning gentry on the other. It was a cosmopolitan household; French was the preferred language and German spoken often on extended trips to central Europe. Berdyaev spoke and read both these languages from childhood in addition to his native Russian. These linguistic abilities stood him in good stead during his many years of exile from Russia.
The main family home was Kiev where Berdyaev was born and where he received his early education. Following family tradition, he attended military school but was an indifferent student and did not take to military life. In his early teens, he discovered philosophy and soon resolved that this would be his life's work. However, he managed to graduate military school and enrolled at the University of Kiev. There he became involved with illegal Marxist activities with the result that he was sentenced to exile in a town in northern Russia. His family connections shortened his period of exile and he was able to return to Kiev after a few years. He was never fully accepted by Marxists because of his individualistic attitudes and eventually broke his ties with them. Soon he became attracted to the intellectual life in St. Petersburg, moving there in 1904.
In St. Petersburg, he became intimately involved with the brilliant artists, writers and religious figures prevalent in Russia just prior to World War I. Although Berdyaev was not brought up in a religious household, he found himself turning in that direction. Moving to Moscow, he joined the intellectual Moscow Religious-Philosophical Society. His philosophical publications attracted interest and he began to establish himself as a religious philosopher. He was, however, no better able to adapt to the established Russian Orthodox Church than he had to the Marxists. An article of his entitled 'Quenchers of the Spirit' (referring to the Church) resulted in his second arrest, this time for blasphemy, an offense automatically punishable by lifetime exile to Siberia. Only the onset of the First World War saved him from this fate.
Surprisingly, Berdyaev was able to write, lecture and publish for five years after the October Revolution of 1917. He was once detained and interviewed by the fearsome head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Although he was released, the Bolsheviks gradually realized that Berdyaev was unassimilable to their cause and gave him a choice, along with a group of other intellectuals, of exile or execution. Reluctantly, Berdyaev chose exile to Berlin. He was never again to return to Russia.
The last 24 years of Berdyaev's life were spent in exile, the first two years in Berlin and thereafter in Paris. He interacted with many of the important intellectual figures of continental Europe. With Russian emigres, however, he adapted little better than with the Orthodox clergy or the Bolsheviks, largely because of his refusal to totally condemn the Soviet Union. All of his important philosophical works, excepting Meaning of the Creative Act (1915), were published during his exile. In spite of his open hostility to the Nazi regime in Germany, he chose to remain in Paris during the German occupation. Amazingly, he was left unharmed by the Germans, some say due to a secret admirer in high circles of the government. He himself attributed his survival to the inbred German respect for philosophy, which even Nazi ideology could not eradicate. After the war, he became widely recognized as a prophetic figure in philosophy although in his homeland, his works were proscribed by the Communist authorities. The failure of his writings to be recognized in his native Russia was a source of great sadness to him. At age 74 years, Berdyaev died suddenly while writing at his desk at his home in Clamart, a suburb of Paris.
It is easier to describe Berdyaev's life than his philosophy. This is because he never seriously attempted or valued systematic exposition in his writing. He was the intuitive thinker par excellence. He himself states on numerous occasions that he thought and wrote intuitively rather than discursively. According to Donald Lowrie, his principal biographer who also knew him personally, he wrote (by hand) extremely rapidly and hardly edited his manuscripts other than rewriting for legibility. Although in his later writing (e.g. Truth and Revelation, 1953) he aspired to more systematic presentation, he was never capable of writing in such a manner. Inconsistencies were inevitably detected in his books. As he said in his introduction to The Beginning and The End, 'It is not so much that I arrive at truth as that I take my start from it.' Berdyaev's stature derives from the profundity of his ideas and the originality of his expression rather than from construction of a philosophical system. He has always been and will be appreciated by those who value intuitive depth over rigorous analysis.
There are certain features of Berdyaev's thought that characterize his writing. Above all, he believed in the reality and significance of spirit. In his first important book Meaning of the Creative Act, where most of his later development is anticipated, he begins by asserting, 'The human spirit is in prison. Prison is what I call this world, the given world of necessity.' Thus early on he establishes his dualistic type of thinking, an aspect of his thought that has precluded his acceptance by academic philosophers devoted to the science of cognition. However, Berdyaev's dualism is really not between spirit and matter, it is between good and evil, which distances him still further from modern philosophy. Matter for him is degraded spirit, putting it in the category of evil. Spirit is always regarded by him as primary being that must be valued, developed and allowed full range of its creative possibilities.
The primacy of spirit leads naturally to other facets of his philosophy. The subjective world is what Berdyaev is concerned with, the object world being a degraded form of spirit. He states his position clearly in Solitude and Society (the literal translation of the Russian title is Myself and the Object World English editors have taken many liberties with Berdyaev's titles). Here he states, 'It is important to grasp first of all, that the objective world is a degraded and spellbound world a world of phenomena rather than one of existences [which are subjects RS]. Object processes abstract and disrupt existence. They substitute society for community, general principles for communion and the empire of Caesar for the Kingdom of God.' It is absolutely necessary to read Berdyaev's own words to get a sense of his style and substance. English readers are fortunate in that Berdyaev has generally had sensitive translators.
Berdyaev's important concept of 'freedom' is closely bound to his spiritual orientation. Freedom is the sine qua non for creative spiritual energy to express itself. He asserts in The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar, 'Freedom presupposes the existence of a spiritual element, not determined by either nature or society. Freedom is the spiritual element in man. If a man is a being completely determined by nature and society, there can be no freedom.' It is obvious how far Berdyaev is removed from a scientific Weltanschauung. He makes his own approach to the methods of science very clear early in his philosophical career and never strays from it. In the first chapter of The Meaning of the Creative Act can be found his challenge to the modern, scientific worldview, 'The scientific not science is bondage of the spirit to the lower spheres of being, the constant and ubiquitous consciousness of the power of necessity, of dependence on things of this world.' He explains the scientific causality principle as 'man's reaction for self-preservation; man, lost in the dark forest of the world's life.'
From this nucleus of metaphysical concepts, Berdyaev developed a remarkable set of writings on topics such as time, history, personality, Russia, nationalism, communism, the cosmos and God. Most of his ideas reappear often in his books since he was not one to stick to clearly defined themes in his writings. His attitude toward religion exemplified the originality and independent nature of his thought. He considered himself to be a Christian, an identity that he did not assume until well into adulthood. However, his Christianity was of a sort that did not fit any of the established churches. He said he preferred the Russian Orthodox Church to the other major Christian denominations because he felt there was more latitude there for his own views on the need for freedom and creativity in religious life. Still, he was usually regarded with suspicion by the Orthodox clerical establishment, especially during its period of communist domination.
Berdyaev has been categorized as a Christian existentialist and a mystical philosopher. He never avoided the label of 'mystic' since he felt it was the mystics of the world who came closest to understanding the role of spirit. Many of the philosophers he quoted were mystics Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius and especially Jacob Boehme. The influence of Dostoevsky was central to his thought. Nevertheless, Berdyaev is not a naively irrational thinker; he brings an enormous fund of philosophical knowledge combined with the profundity of his own thought to support his view of existence. There are no dogmas in his writings to offend one's intellectual conscience. A memorable passage in his autobiography Dream and Reality (literal translation of the Russian title is Self-Knowledge) sums up his feelings about the mystical aspect of human existence:
'I see myself immersed in the depths of human existence and standing in the face of the ineffable mystery of the world and of all that is. And in that situation, I am made poignantly and burningly aware that the world cannot be self-sufficient, that there is hidden in some still greater depth a mysterious, transcendent meaning. This meaning is called God. Men have not been able to find a loftier name, although they have abused it to the extent of making it almost unutterable. God can be denied only on the surface; but he cannot be denied where human experience reaches down beneath the surface of flat, vapid, commonplace existence.'
The most detailed biography of Berdyaev by someone who knew him and translated some of his works still is the book by Donald A. Lowrie, Rebellious Prophet, London: Victor Gollancz, 1960. An extensive bibliography of Berdyaev's books including translations and his articles is found in Michel Vallon, An Apostle of Freedom, New York: Philosophical Library, 1960. An up-to-date bibliography of books by and about Berdyaev can be found on the website of Dirk Kelder: http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Sui-Generis/Berdyaev/
The following is a list in English of Berdyaev's more important works. Where a title deviates significantly from the Russian, a literal translation is given in parentheses. The year indicates the date of appearance of the first Russian edition.
1915 The Meaning of the Creative Act
1923 The Meaning of History
1923 Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky's World-View)
1924 The End of our Time (The New Middle Ages)
1927 Freedom of the Spirit (Philosophy of the Free Spirit)
1931 The Destiny of Man
1934 Solitude and Society (Myself and the World of Objects)
1939 Slavery and Freedom
1947 The Beginning and the End (Essay on Eschatological Metaphysics)
1949 Dream and Reality (Self-Knowledge)
1949 The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar
© Richard Schain 2005