home    intro    texts    links    biblio

Czeslaw Milosz

or the Purity of Despair

From Emperor of the Earth: modes of eccentric thinking, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, pp. 99-119

There was once a young woman by the name of Sorana Gurian. She emigrated to Paris in the 1950s from her native Rumania after adventures about which, she felt, the less said the better. In Paris her life of poverty as a refugee did not particularly disturb her. In fact of the group of students, young writers, and artists among whom she lived she was the first to make her way; a good publisher, Juillard, accepted her first and second novels. Then, all of a sudden (how could it have happened if not all of a sudden?), she discovered that she had breast cancer. An operation followed, then another. Although cases of recovery are rare, they do occur; after the second operation, her doctors were optimistic. Whether Sorana had complete confidence in them I do not know. In any case, one battle was won. Being a writer she had to write about what concerned her most, and she wrote a book about her illness—a battle report on her fight against despair. That book, Le Récit d'un combat, was published by Juillard in 1956. Her respite, however, lasted only a year or two.

I met Sorana shortly before her death; through mutual friends she had expressed a wish to meet me. When I visited her in her small student hotel on the Left Bank, she was spending most of the day in bed with a fever. We talked about many things, including writers. She showed me the books on her night table; they were books by Shestov in French translation. She spoke of them with that reticent ardor we reserve for what is most precious to us. "Read Shestov, Milosz, read Shestov." The name of Sorana Gurian will not be preserved in the chronicles of humanity. If I tell about her, it is because I cannot imagine a more proper introduction to a few reflections on Shestov.

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 mature man, the author of a doctoral dissertation in law, which failed to bring him the degree because it was considered too influenced by revolutionary Marxism, and of a book of literary criticism (on Shakespeare and his critic Brandes). His book Dobro v uchenii grafa Tolstogo i Nitsshefilosofia i proponed' (The Good in the Teaching of Count Tolstoy and Nietzshe: Philosophy and Preaching) was published in 1900. In the same year he formed a lifelong friendship with Nikolai Berdyaev, one that was warm in spite of basic disagreements that often ended in their shouting angrily at one another. His friendship with Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov places Shestov in the ranks of those Russian thinkers who, about 1900, came to discover a metaphysical enigma behind the social problems which had preoccupied them in their early youth. Shes-tov's philosophy took shape in several books of essays and notes written before 1917. His collected works (1911) can be found in the larger American libraries. The fate of his writings in Russia after the revolution, and whether their meaning has been lost for new generations, is hard to assess. In any case Shestov expressed himself most fully, it seems to me, in his books published abroad after he left Russia in 1919 and settled in Paris, where he lived till his death in 1938. These are Vlast' klyuchei: Potestas Clavium (The Power of the Keys), 1923 and Na vesakh Iova (In Job's Balances), 1929; those volumes which first appeared in translation, Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle, 1938 (Russian edition, 1939), and Athènes et Jérusalem: un essai de philosophie religieuse, 1938 (Russian edition, 1951); lastly those posthumously published in book form, Tol'ko veroi: Sola Fide (By Faith Alone), 1966, and Umozreniïe i otkroveniïe: religioznaya filosofia Vladimira Solovyova i drugiïe stat'i (Speculation and Revelation: The Religious Philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and Other Essays), 1964. [1]

Shestov has been translated into many languages. Yet in his lifetime he never attained the fame surrounding the name of his friend Berdyaev. He remained a writer for the few, and if by disciples we mean those who "sit at the feet of the master," he had only one, the French poet Benjamine Fondane, a Rumanian Jew later killed by the Nazis. But Shestov was an active force in European letters, and his influence reached deeper than one might surmise from the number of copies of his works sold. Though the quarrel about existentialism that raged in Paris after 1945 seems to us today somewhat stale, it had serious consequences. In The Myth of Sisyphus—a youthful and not very good book, but most typical of that period—Albert Camus considers Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Husserl to be the philosophers most important to the new "man of the absurd." For the moment it is enough to say that though Shestov has often been compared with Kierkegaard he discovered the Danish author only late in his life, and that his close personal friendship with Husserl consisted of philosophical opposition—which did not prevent him from calling Husserl his second master after Dostoevsky.

I am not going to pretend that I have "read through" Shestov. If one is asked whether one has read Pascal, the answer should always be in the negative, no matter how many times one has looked at his pages. In the case of Shestov, however, there are obstacles other than density. His oeuvre is, as Camus defined it, of "admirable monotony." Shestov hammers at one theme again and again, and after a while we learn that it will emerge inevitably in every essay; we also know that when the theme emerges, his voice will change in tone and sustain with its usual sarcasm the inevitable conclusion. His voice when he enters an argument is that of a priest angry at the sight of holy vessels being desecrated. Convinced that he will not be applauded because his message seems bizarre to his contemporaries, he does nothing to diminish our resistance, which is provoked most of all by what Lévy-Bruhl, in a polemic with him, called "hogging the covers." Shestov was often reproached for finding in Shakespeare, in Dostoevsky, and in Nietzsche much that is not there at all, and for too freely interpreting the opinions of his antagonists (numerous, for these included practically all the philosophers of the past three thousand years). He dismissed the reproach with a laugh: he was not such a genius, he would say, that he could create so many geniuses anew. Yet the reproach is not without validity.

He knew he was not understood; probably he did not want to be overly clear. But the difficulty in assimilating him is not caused by any deviousness on his part or by any levels of ironic meaning or aphoristic conciseness. He always develops a logical argument in well-balanced sentences which, especially in their original Russian, captivate the reader with their scornful vigor. Shestov is probably one of the most readable philosophic essayists of the century. The trouble lies in his opposition to those who separate the propositions of a given man from his personal tragedy—to those who, for instance, refuse to speak of Kierkegaard's sexual impotence or of Nietzsche's incurable disease. My guess is that Shestov, too, had his own drama, that of lacking the talent to become a poet, to approach the mystery of existence more directly than through mere concepts. And although he does not mix genres, or write "poetic prose," one feels that at a given moment he falls silent and leaves much unsaid because the border of the communicable has been crossed. That is why in self-defense he sometimes quotes Pascal: "Qu'on ne nous reproche donc plus le manque de clarté, puisque nous en faisons profession"—"Then let people not blame us any more for our lack of clarity, since we practice this deliberately."

To associate Shestov with a transitory phase of existentialism would be to diminish his stature. Few writers of any time could match his daring, even insolence, in raising the naughty child's questions which have always had the power to throw philosophers into a panic. For that reason such questions have been wrapped in highly professional technical terms and, once placed in a syntactic cocoon, neutralized. The social function of language is, after all, both to protect and to reveal. Perhaps Shestov exemplifies the advantages of Russia's "cultural time lag": no centuries of scholastic theology and philosophy in the past, no university philosophy to speak of—but on the other hand a lot of people philosophizing, and passionately at that, on their own. Shestov was a well-educated man, but he lacked the polite indoctrination one received at Western European universities; he simply did not care whether what he was saying about Plato or Spinoza was against the rules of the game—that is, indecent. It was precisely because of this freedom that his thought was a gift to people who found themselves in desperate situations and knew that syntactic cocoons were of no use any more. Sorana Gurian after all was an agnostic, largely beyond the pale of religious tradition, and not a philosopher in the technical sense of the word. Whom could she read? Thomas Aquinas? Hegel? Treatises in mathematical logic? Or, better still, should she have tried solving crossword puzzles?

What does a creature that calls itself "I" want for itself? It wants to be. Quite a demand! Early in life it begins to discover, however, that its demand is perhaps excessive. Objects behave in their own impassive manner and show a lack of concern for the central importance of "I." A wall is hard and hurts you if you bump against it, fire burns your fingers; if you drop a glass on the floor, it breaks into pieces. This is the preamble to a long education the gist of which is a respect for the durability of "the outside" as contrasted with the frailty of the "I." Moreover, what is "inside" gradually loses its unique character. Its urges, desires, passions appear to be no different from those of other members of the species. Without exaggeration we may say that the "I" also loses its body: in a mirror it sees a being that is born, grows up, is subject to the destructive action of time, and must die. If a doctor tells you that you are dying of a certain disease, then you are just another case; that is, chance is a statistical regularity. It is just your bad luck that you are among such-and-such a number of cases occurring every year.

The "I" has to recognize that it is confronted with a world that follows its own laws, a world whose name is Necessity. This, according to Shestov, is precisely what lies at the foundations of traditional philosophy—first Greek, then every philosophy faithful to the Greeks. Only the necessary, the general, and the always valid will merit investigation and reflection. The contingent, the particular, and the momentary are spoilers of unity—a teaching that dates back to Anaximander. Later Greek thinkers exalted the all-embracing Oneness and represented individual existence as a crack in the perfectly smooth surface of the One, a flaw for which the individual had to pay with his death. From a Shestovian perspective, Greek science and morality both follow the same path. The sum of the angles in a triangle equals two right angles; the general, eternal truth reigns high above breeding and dying mortals just as eternal good does not change whether or not there is a living man to aspire to it.

The "I" is invaded by Necessity from the inside as well, but always feels it as an alien force. Nevertheless the "I" must accept the inevitable order of the world. The wisdom of centuries consists precisely in advising acquiescence and resignation. In simple language, "Grin and bear it"; in more sophisticated language, "Fata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt"—"The Fates lead the willing man, they drag the unwilling." Stoicism, whose very essence is to curb the shameful pretense of transitory individual existence in the name of universal order (or, if you prefer, Nature), was the final word of Graeco-Roman civilization. But, says Shestov, stoicism has survived under many disguises and is still with us.

Shestov simply refuses to play this game of chess, however, and overturns the table with a kick. For why should the "I" accept "wisdom," which obviously violates its most intense desire? Why respect "the immutable laws"? Whence comes the certainty that what is presumably impossible is really impossible? And is a philosophy preoccupied with ho anthropos, with man in general, of any use to fis anthropos, a certain man who lives only once in space and time? Isn't there something horrible in Spinoza's advice to philosophers? "Non riders, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere"—"Not to laugh, not to weep, not to hate, but to understand"? On the contrary, says Shestov, a man should shout, scream, laugh, jeer, protest. In the Bible, Job wailed and screamed to the indignation of his wise friends. Shestov (and he was not the first, for Rozanov had already made the same suggestion) believed that Dostoevsky's most significant work was Notes from Underground, and considered the major novels that followed as commentaries and attempts to solve the riddle set forth in the Notes. He expressed this opinion in an essay written in 1921 for the hundredth anniversary of Dostoevsky's birth. Shestov believed that the true critique of pure reason was not Kant's achievement but Dostoevsky's, and in the Notes specifically. He admired Dostoevsky's philosophical genius without reservation—and accepted as true the disparaging rumors about his personal life, rumors spread mostly by Strakhov. It also suited his purpose to see such characters as the Underground Man, Svidrigailov, Ippolit in The Idiot, Stavrogin, and Ivan Karamazov as Dostoevsky's true spokesmen, and even to a large extent autobiographical portraits; and to dismiss Father Zosima and Alyosha as lubok (cheap block prints). To Shestov peace of mind was suspect, for the earth we live on does not predispose us to it. He loved only those who, like Pascal, "cherchent en gémissant"—who "seek while moaning." This approach to Dostoevsky should appeal to those critics who believe the Notes reveal much that this conservative publicist and orthodox Christian tried to stifle in himself. There is, however, one basic difference between Shestov and those who think of Dostoevsky as a humanist, often mentioning the vision of earthly paradise (modeled on Claude Lorrain's painting "Acis and Galatea" in the Dresden gallery) in his later writings. The vision, they believe, is proof that a young Four-ieriest was still alive in the conservative author of The Diary of a Writer. Shestov does not agree with this "humanistic" interpretation.

The narrator of Dostoevsky's Dream of a Ridiculous Man visits in his sleep, in a state of anamnesis perhaps, a humanity living in the Golden Age before the loss of innocence and happiness. Now for Shestov the story of the Garden of Eden, because of its unfathomable depth and complexity, spoke for the superhuman origin of the whole Scripture. Explanations of the Fall advanced by both theologians and the popular imagination seemed childish to him when compared with chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. Dostoevsky's intuition enabled him, Shestov felt, to guess at a metaphysical state of man before the Fall, not just to visualize a happy Rousseauistic society: "their knowledge was higher and deeper than the knowledge we derive from our science; for our science seeks to explain what life is and strives to understand it in order to teach others how to live [the italics are mine], while they knew how to live without science. I understood that, but I couldn't understand their knowledge. They pointed out the trees to me, and I could not understand the intense love with which they looked on them; it was as though they were talking with beings like themselves. And, you know, I don't think I am exaggerating in saying that they talked with them!" (David Magarshack's translation). Shestov doesn't hesitate to speak of man before he tasted from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as possessing omniscience and absolute freedom. What, then, was the Fall? A choice of an inferior faculty with its passion for a distinguo and for general ideas, with pairs of opposites: good, evil; true, untrue; possible, impossible. Man renounced faith in order to gain knowledge. Shestov names his enemy: Reason. He even says the fruits of the forbidden tree could just as well be called synthetic judgments a priori. And if Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground occupies a central place for Shestov, it is because the hero screams "No!" to "two and two make four" and wants "something else."

According to Shestov, Hellenistic civilization could accept neither the God of the Old Testament nor Christ of the New Testament. It had to adapt the scandalous particularity of a personal God to its general ideas, shaped as they were through speculation. "The good is God," "Love is God"—to such equations the Hellenized citizens of the Roman Empire could give assent. But the equations are nonsensicial, says Shestov, for here the abstract is put before the living. He reminds us with relish that Saint Augustine hated the Stoics as much as Dostoevsky hated the liberals; both the Stoics and the liberals recommended a morality of self-sufficing Reason.

The gnosis, when it absorbed Christian elements, was nothing more than an attempt to trim the Scriptures of their "capri-ciousness," of their antigenerality equated with untruth. The heresy of Marcion in the beginning of the second century, inspired by the gnosis, altogether rejects the Jehovah of the Old Testament as an evil demiurge because his incomprehensible behavior seems offensive to an enlightened mind. But similar Hellenization of the Scriptures continued throughout the Middle Ages. Where the Scholastics affirmed that God created the universe by making use of some preexisting laws of Nature (two and two make four, the principle of contradiction, and so on, as eternal principles) they in fact put Necessity (universal laws) above the God of Genesis. They paved the way for the modern attitude that calls religion before the tribunal of Reason. The modern mind, Shestov affirms, is completely under the spell of formulas found in their most perfect form in two representative thinkers: Spinoza and Hegel. The latter said: "In philosophy religion receives its justification. Thinking is the absolute judge before whom the content of religion must justify and explain itself." And the reader who does not share Shestov's belief in the Garden of Eden should be aware of the basic issue; by voicing his disbelief he takes the side of knowledge against faith.

Shestov opposed Jerusalem to Athens in a most radical, uncompromising manner. Those names stood for faith versus reason, revelation versus speculation, the particular versus the general, a cry de profundis versus the ethics of, as Ivan Karamazov said, "accursed good and evil." Shestov liked to quote Tertullian: "Crucifixus est Dei filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est. Et mortuus est Dei filius; prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est. Et sepultus resurrexit; cerium est quia impossibile est"—'The Son of God was crucified; this does not bring shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died; again this is believable because it is absurd. And having been buried, he rose from the dead; this is certain because it is impossible." Contemporaries of Tertullian, perhaps no less than their remote descendants of the twentieth century, disliked everything in the New Testament which was in their eyes "pudendum," "ineptum, " "impossibile. " Shestov's men were Pascal because he had faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not in the God of philosophers; Martin Luther because he relied on "faith alone" and because he used to say that blasphemy is sometimes dearer to God than praise; Nietzsche because he saw through the speculative nature of ethics devised to supplant the killed God; and, finally, Kierkegaard.

Shestov's articles attacking Edmund Husserl in La Revue Philosophique had an unexpected effect: a meeting of the two men, at the philosophical congress in Amsterdam in 1928, which developed into a friendship. They respected each other, always stressing that they stood at opposite poles in their concept of philosophy. It was Husserl who literally forced Shestov to read a thinker with whom he himself disagreed—Kierkegaard. Shestov thus found out that he was less a maverick than he had thought. It must have been quite a surprise for him to learn that Kierkegaard saw the source of philosophy not in amazement, as did the ancients, but in despair, and that he too opposed Job to Plato and Hegel. Those were Shestov's own most cherished thoughts. A remark by Kierkegaard testifying to his stake in the Absurd, "Human cowardice cannot bear what insanity and death have to tell us," could have been made by Shestov as well. From Kierkegaard he took the name applicable ex post to his own meditation, "existential philosophy" as distinguished from speculative philosophy.

No wonder Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, when invoking the protagonists of paradox and the Absurd, mentioned Kierkegaard and Shestov first of all. The similarities, however, between the Parisian existentialism of the 1940s and 1950s on the one hand, and Kierkegaard and Shestov on the other, are superficial. Camus, it is true, was perhaps no less fascinated than was Shestov with Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, even to the extent that his last book, The Fall, is essentially the Notes rewritten. Yet Shestov, convinced as he was that the Underground Man deserved salvation because of his longing after "something else," would not leave him a victim of his desperate, crazy, solitary ego. Certainly he was skeptical of the alternatives proposed by Dostoevsky—the peasant pilgrim Makar Dolgoruky, Father Zosima, Alyosha. Nevertheless, he was a man of the Scriptures. He would probably have gladly accepted the epithet Plato often hurled at his opponents in a dispute— Misologos, a hater of reason—but only to stress the absurd of the human condition, which is masked by Reason. There was a way out: "The good is not God. We must seek that which is higher than the good. We must seek God." Which means that the despair that seizes us when we are faced with the Absurd leads us beyond good and evil to an act of faith. There is nothing impossible for God and for those who truly believe in him. An absurd affirmation, for who ever saw a mountain moved by prayer? But do we have a choice? The fruits of the tree of knowledge bring only death. It should be noted that Shestov was not a preacher; he tried only to present a dilemma in all its acuteness. Most definitely he was neither a moralist nor a theologian.

For Camus, despair was not a point of departure but a permanent state of existence not excluding happiness. He wanted us to believe that even Sisyphus could be happy. He was drawn thus by the French moralistic tradition toward some sort of accommodation with a world deprived of meaning. Perhaps it sounds strange, but his atheist existentialism is less radical than Shes-tov's precisely because of that moralistic (Greek, after all) bent. To Camus Shestov's God seemed capricious, wicked, immoral, and as such was rejected. "His [God's] proof is in his inhumanity." For the humanist this was unacceptable. In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus defines the difference between his Parisian contemporaries' position and that of Shestov: "For Shestov reason is useless, but there is something beyond reason. For the absurd mind, reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason." Camus preserved that complete bereavement till the end. In The Fall, his last book, the narrator and hero settles down in a bar near the port of Amsterdam in an underground private hell where there is no aspiration and no promise.

Either/or. Shestov's categorical opposition between faith and reason reminds one of the theory of two parallel truths, elaborated in the thirteenth century; but, in fact, he rejects the truth of reason completely;[2] the world of the "laws of Nature" is, as he says, a nightmare from which we should waken. His criticism is directed primarily against those who eschew the fundamental "either/or" and who, even though they pronounce themselves for faith, imperceptibly move to the side of their adversary. Thus the case of all devisers of theodicy: since the world created by God is not a very happy place, something should be done to lift from God the responsibility for evil—and thence the attempts at a "justification of God" accomplished by means of human reason. This aspect of Shestov's struggle is well represented by his essays on Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Berd-yaev in his posthumous volume Umozreniïe i otkroveniie. Let us concede that his severe, unornamented style makes Solovyov sound by contrast verbose if not wooly, and Berdyaev, frequently rhetorical. But Shestov also argues well. Without detracting from Solovyov's imposing stature, he accuses him of nothing less than an unintentional falsity. He "placed on his banner a philosophy of Revelation, but practiced, like Hegel, a dialectical philosophy." 'The idea of a 'philosophy of Revelation' seduced Solovyov as if it were itself the Revelation and, without his noticing it, took the place of the Revelation, just as for Hegel the rational took the place of the real." What happened to Solovyov had happened before; when a mind introduces rational order into the Revelation which defies order ("For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God," I Corinthians 3:19) it ends by taking refuge in an ethical system, in a moral ideal, to be realized of course in some future kingdom of God on earth. Solovyov, contends Shestov, came gradually to conclusions quite similar to the moralistic and antimetaphysical teachings of Tolstoy—then woke up and took fright. Solovyov's last book, Three Conversations (1900), is a complete reversal. It is directed at Tolstoy, but perhaps the author really settles accounts with himself. After all, its focus is the story of the Antichrist who comes disguised as a lover of mankind. Such a change in Solovyov's orientation was to Shestov's liking. The pivotal points in his interpretation of the Scriptures were the Fall and the renewal of man by his partaking from the tree of life as promised in the Apocalypse. The last event was to occur, however, in a metaphysical rather than purely historical dimension. We cannot be more specific, because we simply do not know what Shestov meant in his references to the Revelation of St. John; we have to respect his silence. In any case, Solovyov was guilty in Shestov's opinion of an inadmissable attachment to ethics at the expense of the sacred and of bowing before the tribunal of reason, as had Spinoza and the German idealistic philosophy.

The essay on Berdyaev is most revealing. The exaltation of human freedom gave to Berdyaev's writings their tone of unbridled optimism; mankind called to collaborate with God would attain "Godmanhood" ("Bogochelovechestvo"); in this respect he may be counted among many of Teilhard de Chardin's predecessors. But for Berdyaev, the belief that free action can transform the face of the earth had its roots in the eschato-logical and apocalyptic orientation of the Russian nineteenth-century mind, continuing the line of Slavic messianism. When in the last pages of The Russian Idea Berdyaev praises the Polish messianic philosopher August Cieszkowski and his voluminous work Our Father, he confirms this estimation. It is precisely this lofty notion of human freedom and man's unlimited possibilities in the pursuit of good that Shestov attacks. He suspects that for his friend freedom is an expedient means of explaining away the horror of existence. Evil in the world results from man's freedom, man could only have been created free, thus Berdyaev does not go beyond the Christian doctrine. Yes, but his teachers are German mystics—Meister Eckhart, Jakob Boehme, Angélus Silesius—who affirm that a sort of dialectical movement preceded the creation of the universe. The ideas of these mystics were to inspire the whole of German idealistic philosophy which Shestov belabors now in the person of its precursors. According to the German mystics man's freedom—meaning the possibility of evil, which has existed since before the beginning of time—is due to the dark force of the preexisting Naught that limits the power of God. Indeed, above God the mystics put Deitas, an eternal law. But this is the gnosis!, exlaims Shestov. In striving to equate the good with God, Berdyaev made God depend on man in his struggle against a dark preexisting nothingness to such an extent that man, absolutely necessary to God, began to play the central role. Why should "Godmanhood" succeed where God fails? Why not transform "Godmanhood" into "Mangodhood"? And that, Shestov feels, is what Berdyaev does in fact. His philosophy of freedom, presumably an existential philosophy, deals with the illusory, exaggerated freedom of the Pelagians and is not existential; the latter is a philosophy de profundis recognizable by its refusal to explain away suffering and death, no matter which "dynamic process" is supposed to achieve the victory of the good. When Ivan Karamazov says that the tear of a child outweighs all the possible harmony of the universe, he cannot and should not be answered with historical dynamism.

Perhaps Shestov in his polemic with Berdyaev "pulls the blanket to his side" a little. Yet if we compare his essay on Berdyaev with his essay on Husserl (his last, written in 1938 to honor the memory of his friend who had just died) we must conclude that, contrary to appearances, Shestov probably had more in common with Husserl than with Berdyaev, even though in the Great "either/or" Husserl opted for science. Husserl thus intended Reason to be an instrument for discovering absolute and eternal truths untouched by relativism, truths valid for gods, angels, and men, on earth and in the universe. By "more in common" I mean the sternness proper to both men. Shestov admired Husserl precisely because he was a man ready to accept a verdict of reason even if it provided him with no comfort at all. If he himself chose the Scriptures, it was not because they brought him comfort but because he believed them to contain the truth.

Future studies of Shestov, it seems to me, should not devote more than a very limited space to the French intellectual scene, even though Shestov lived in Paris for nearly two decades. There is one exception, however. The oeuvre of Simone Weil throws some of his propositions into relief, and conversely Shestov enables us to see her basic premises better. Not that they knew each other. Perhaps Shestov used to pass her in the Latin Quarter when she was a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Her colleague there was Simone de Beauvoir, and the fate of these two women provides us with an awe-inspiring lesson. Simone de Beauvoir was responsive to the intellectual and literary fashions of the day and became a famous but not first-rate writer, one of those who make a lot of splash in a lifetime but are soon forgotten. Simone Weil—antimodern, aloof, quixotic, a searcher for the ultimate truth—died in London in 1943 at the age of thirty-four completely unknown, but her notes and maxims published posthumously secured her a permanent place in the history of religious ideas. My mention here of Simone de Beauvoir is not totally arbitrary. Immediately after World War II she, with Sartre and Camus, was promoting the "existentialist movement." Yet the very problems that concerned Shestov remained outside her sphere of interest. To apply any epithet to Weil's philosophy would be futile; that she, as it seems, read some Shestov is not material either. What matters is a similarity of temperament in the two thinkers, expressing itself in their classicism and nakedness of style, and in general in the same attitude toward time. Shestov wrangled not only with Spinoza as if he were his contemporary, but also with Plato, and saw the last three thousand years practically as one short moment. Simone Weil's notebooks are full of quotations in the original Greek, of mathematical equations, and of references to Hinduism, Zen, and Taoism—which did not hinder her in her passionate twentieth-century commitments. But there is something else that authorizes us to speak of Shestov and Simone Weil in one breath. It is the central theme of their thought, the phenomenon of suffering and death. These are her words: "A Discourse of Ivan in the Karamazovs. Even if that immense factory brings the most extraordinary marvels and costs only a single tear of a single child, I refuse. I adhere completely to that feeling. No matter which motive people might offer me, nothing could compensate for the tear of a child and nothing will make me accept that tear. Nothing, absolutely nothing conceivable by intelligence. One thing only, intelligible only to supernatural love: God willed it thus. And for that reason I would also accept a world of pure evil, the consequences of which would be as bad as one tear of a child." [3] Shestov could have written these lines, but they would have had a different meaning to him.

Although Simone Weil was Jewish, she was raised in an areligious family and was unacquainted with Judaism. In Kiev Shestov absorbed Jewish religious literature, including legends and folklore, at an early age. Simone Weil's sacred book was Homer's Iliad; her thought was inspired by Plato, later by the New Testament. She was as thoroughly Hellenized as it was possible for pupils of the French lycées in the early decades of our century to be. And, had Shestov lived to read her work, he would have quoted her as an example confirming his thesis about the irreconcilable feud between Athens and Jerusalem. With the exception of the Book of Job, Simone Weil did not venerate the Old Testament and spoke harshly of the God of the Old Testament and of the Jews, reproaching them for cruelty and superstition. She was totally on the side of Athens; besides, she believed Greek and Hindu metaphysics to be identical in essential points. Her God was Greek. She even hinted at the possibility of Dionysus having been an incarnation of God, before Christ. And the gnostic penchants typical of early Hellenized Christians can be easily detected in her work. For instance, in her historical essays the indignation with which she describes the French crusade against the Albigensians and the conquest of the land speaking Oc, meaning Occitan (now the south of France), is due not only to her sympathy for the massacred and the oppressed but in large part to her identification with Albigensian Christianity related through Manichaeism to the gnosis of Marcion.

Future investigation—and I do not doubt that there will be one—should be centered in the first place on Shestov's and Weil's concept of Necessity as well as on different treatments of the relationship between Oneness and the particular. For Shestov, universal Necessity was a scandal. He felt that its horror was best described by Dostoevsky in The Idiot where there is talk of Holbein's painting of the Deposition from the Cross: "Looking at that picture, you get the impression of Nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it might seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up—impassively and unfeelingly—a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of Nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a cold, insolent, and senselessly eternal power to which everything is subordinated." Shestov wanted man to oppose that beast with an unflinching "No.". Simone Weil's attitude, on the other hand, was similar to the wonder a mathematician feels when confronted with the complexities of numbers. A few quotations will suffice to show this: "Necessity is a veil of God"; "God entrusted all phenomena without exception to the mechanism of the world"; "In God not only is there an analogy of all human virtues, but also an analogy of obedience. In this world he gives necessity free play"; "The distance between necessity and the good is the very distance between the Creation and the Creator"; "The distance between necessity and the good. To contemplate it without end. A great discovery made by the Greeks. Undoubtedly the fall of Troy taught them this"; "God can be present in Creation only in the form of absence"; "God is not omnipotent because he is the Creator. Creation is an abdication. But he is omnipotent in the sense that his abdication is voluntary; he knows its effects and wants them." [4]

For Simone Weil the "terrifying beauty" of the world was mysteriously linked to mathematical Necessity. Yet she would not disagree with Shestov when he denounced "the beast," since she believed that the determinism of Nature is the domain of the Prince of this World acting on God's authority. But as a philosopher (also a college professor of philosophy) whose intellectual antecedents were essentially Greek, she would not turn against Reason. Applying ideas of reduction, she conceded as much as possible to the immutable structure of the world. The power of God to act through Grace is, by his own will, infinitely small but sufficient to save man. It is the mustard seed of the Gospel (or the silence of Christ in the "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor"). It makes it possible for us to accept an existence which, when looked at rationally and soberly, is unbearable. Shestov fumed against Greek wisdom which led to stoical resignation. He even reproached Nietzsche, whom he esteemed, with amor fati, a final blessing given to fate. Simone Weil interpreted "Thy Kingdom come" as a prayer asking for the end of evil, for the end of the world, and "Thy will be done" as an assent to the existence of a world bound by the laws of Necessity. Moreover, that heroic assent was in her view the very core of Christianity: "Just as a child hides from his mother, laughing, behind an armchair, so God plays at separating himself from himself through the act of Creation. We are God's joke"; 'To believe that reality is love, seeing it for what it is. To love what is impossible to bear. To embrace iron, to press one's body against the cold of hard metal. That is not a variety of masochism. Masochists are excited by fake cruelty. For they do not know what cruelty is. One must embrace, not cruelty, but blind indifference and blind brutality. Only in such a manner does love become impersonal." [5]

Why should love become impersonal? Here again Shestov would not agree. In the Jansenist "Le moi est haïssable"—"the I is hateful"—of Pascal, with whom he otherwise agreed, he suspected a glimmer of the old Greek nostalgia for the immutable, eternal, general Oneness in which the particular disappears. Why should we hate "I"? Was it not the "I" of Job that complained and wailed? Was not the God who would demand such an impossible detachment from us a God of philosophers rather than a God of prophets? Simone Weil's response to these questions points to her latent Platonism and to the Platonic myth of the world as a prison of souls longing after their native land, the empyrean of pure ideas. Many of her maxims amount to a confession of guilt, the basic guilt of existing, and to a desire for self-annihilation. "My existence diminishes God's glory. God gave it to me so that I may wish to lose it." [6] She was aware that a self-imposed renunciation of the "I" was nearly impossible, and yet she rated the very aspiration to achieve renunciation as a high spiritual attainment. She referred more than once to two lines in Racine's Phèdre (again we are in a Jansenist climate):

Et la mort à mes yeux ravissant la clarté
Rend au jour qu'ils souillaient toute sa pureté.

[And death, ravishing the light from my eyes,
Gives all purity back to the day they defiled.]

This is, however, an essay on Shestov, not on Simone Weil [*]. Their judgments often converge, yet in general these two move in realms that bear only a tangential relationship to each other. Not only was she passionately interested in social problems (she worked as a laborer in the Renault factory and participated in the Spanish civil war) but her religious, even mystical, experience was drawing her to Roman Catholicism and to a discussion of religion as an institution. For very personal reasons she decided not to receive the sacrament of baptism. Nevertheless, Catholic theology and the history of the Roman Catholic church occupy a prominent position in her writings. Shestov was dominated by a violent scorn for speculative philosophy because he believed that although it pretends to bring solace, in truth its consolations are illusory. Paradoxically he waged his war as an antirationalist using rational argument as his weapon. We know nothing about his confessional options and not much about the intensity of his personal faith.

What could Sorana Gurian, a young woman dying of cancer, get from her reading of Shestov? Not the promise of a miraculous cure. He did not maintain that you can knock down the wall of Necessity by beating your head against it. To the sober-minded who criticized the Absurd of Kierkegaard and his faith in the impossible, he used to reply that Kierkegaard knew perfectly well the weight of reality: Regina Olsen would not be restored to him. Yet there is a great difference between our looking at ourselves as ciphers on a statistical sheet and our grasping our destiny as something that is personal and unique. Simone Weil, though she advocated the voluntary renunciation of the "I," also considered the destruction of the "I" by an external force as a sign of utter misfortune: prisoners and prostitutes are compelled by others to visualize themselves as objects, statistical ciphers, interchangeable units. Shestov did not fight science. Yet in his rebellion against philosophy we may sense an implied rejection of the terror exerted by a whole purely quantitative, scientific Weltanschauung. Such a scientific code of self-perception, imposed by education and the mass media, eats up our individual substance from the inside, so to speak.

To Sorana the God of the Scriptures defended by the stern priest Shestov would probably not have meant an afterlife and a palm tree in Heaven. He must have appeared to her as he did to the Russian author, as pure anti-Necessity. The question was not the existence of Heaven and Hell, not even the "existence" of God himself. Above any notions, but revealed by his voice in the Scriptures, he is able to create anything, even a personal heaven and earth for Sorana Gurian. Or for each one of us.


[1] The English-language reader has at his disposal A Shestov Anthology, edited with an introduction by Bernard Martin (Ohio University Press, 1970). Also available are the following translations of books by Shestov: The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching; Part I of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, trans. Bernard Martin (1969); Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy, Part II of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, trans. Spencer Roberts (1969); Potestas Clavium, trans. Bernard Martin (1968); Kierkegaard and Existential Philosophy, trans. Eleanor Hewitt (1970); Athens and Jerusalem, trans. Bernard Martin (1966). All these were published by Ohio University Press. Chekhov and Other Essays (1966), was published by the University of Michigan Press.
[2] In the Eastern Church this radical antirationalism goes back to St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662).
[3] Cahiers, III, 31-21.
[4] All quotations are from La Pesanteur et la grâce.
[5] La Connaissance surnaturelle.
[6] Ibid.
[*] In the book, the essay on Simon Weil follows immediately after - my note, AK.
[**] This article was originally published in English in TriQuarterly. Evanston (Illinois, Northwestern University). Fall [oct/dec.] 1973, n. 28, pp. 460-480 - my note, AK.

website © 2002 ArianeK