The Fundamental Idea of the Philosophy of Lev Shestov
by Nikolai Berdyaev
Published in Put, no. 58 (November 1938-January 1939). This essay was written by Berdyaev shortly after Shestov's death on 20 November 1938. Translated by Bernard Martin.
I have already written several times about Lev Shestov in the pages of Put. But now there is a need to speak of him differently and to honor his memory. Lev Shestov was a philosopher who philosophized with his whole being, for whom philosophy was not an academic specialty but a matter of life and death. He was a man with an idée fixe. His independence of the tendencies of the time in which he lived was astonishing. He sought God and the liberation of man from the power of necessity. And this was his personal problem.
Shestov's philosophy belongs to the type of existential philosophy, i.e., it avoids objectifying the process of knowledge and does not tear it away from the subject of knowledge but connects it with the wholeness of man's fate. Existential philosophy signifies a keeping in mind of the existential nature of the philosophizing subject, a subject who includes his existential experience in his philosophy. This type of philosophy presupposes that the mystery of being is comprehensible only in human existence. For Lev Shestov human tragedy, the terrors and sufferings of human life, the experience of hopelessness, were the source of philosophy.
One must not exaggerate the novelty of that which presently, thanks to certain tendencies of contemporary German philosophy, is called existential philosophy. Its basic element was present in all the genuine and important philosophers. Spinoza philosophized according to the geometric method, and his philosophy may produce the impression of being a cold, objective one. But philosophical knowledge was for him a matter of salvation, and his amor Dei intellectualis in no way belongs to objective, scientific truths. Incidentally, Shestov's attitude toward Spinoza was extremely interesting. Spinoza was his enemy, with whom he struggled throughout his life as with a temptation. Spinoza is a representative of human reason, a destroyer of revelation. Nevertheless, Shestov cherished a great love for Spinoza, called him to mind constantly, and quoted him frequently.
In the last years of his life Lev Shestov had a highly significant encounter with Kierkegaard. Previously he had never read him, knew him only through hearsay, and it is out of the question that Kierkegaard should have had any influence on his thought. When he read the work of the great Danish thinker, he was profoundly moved and shaken by the affinity between Kierkegaard and the basic theme of his own life. Shestov reckoned Kierkegaard among his heroes. His other heroes were Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Luther, Pascal, and the biblical figures - Abraham, Job and Isaiah. As in the case of Kierkegaard, the theme of Shestov's philosophy was religious. And, also, as with Kierkegaard, his chief enemy was Hegel. He went from Nietzsche to the Bible. More and more he turned to biblical revelation. The conflict between biblical revelation and Greek philosophy became the fundamental theme of his thinking.
Lev Shestov subordinated everything that he thought, spoke, and wrote to this fundamental theme of his life. He could consider the world and evaluate the thinking of others exclusively from within his theme; he referred everything to it and constructed the world according to its relationship to it. Shestov was shaken by this theme. How was it to be formulated? He was shaken by the power of necessity that rules human life and that engenders the horrors of existence. Not the crude but the refined forms of necessity interested him. The power of ineluctable necessity had been idealized by the philosophers, as had reason and morality, as had the self-evident and universally binding truths. Necessity was generated by knowledge.
Shestov is completely carried away by the idea that the fall into sin is connected with knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil. Man ceased to feed on the Tree of Life and began to feed on the Tree of Knowledge. And so Shestov attacks the power of knowledge, which subordinates man to law, and he does so in the name of the liberation of life. There is in him a passionate rush toward paradise, toward the free, paradisaical life. But paradise will be gained through the sharpening of conflict, through disharmony and despair.
Lev Shestov is essentially not at all opposed to scientific knowledge, to reason in everyday life. This was not his problem. He is opposed to the pretensions of science and reason to decide the question of God, the question of the liberation of man from the tragic horrors of human fate, insofar as reason and rational knowledge wish to limit possibilities. God means, above all, unlimited possibilities; this is the basic definition of God. God is not bound by any kind of necessary truths. Human personality is a victim of necessary truths, of the laws of reason and morality, of the universal and generally binding.
Over against the domain of necessity, the domain of reason, stands God. God is not bound by anything, He is not subject to anything. For God all things are possible. Here Shestov poses a problem that had already disturbed the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. Is God subordinate to reason, the truth and the good, or is only that true and good which God considers such? The former point of view derives from Plato; it was also that of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The latter standpoint was defended by Duns Scotus. The former point of view is connected with intellectualism, the latter with voluntarism. There is a certain affinity between Duns Scotus and Shestov, but Shestov formulates the problem in far more radical fashion. If there is a God, then all possibilities are open, the truths of reason cease to be inevitable, and the terrors of life are conquerable.
Here we touch upon the chief point of the Shestovian theme. Connected with it is that profound shaking which characterizes all of the philosopher's thought. Can God bring it about that that which has been becomes something which has not been? For reason this is the most incomprehensible of things. Shestov can very easily be misunderstood. The poisoned Socrates, so he says, might have been resurrected - the Christians believed this; Kierkegaard might have had his fiancée returned to him; Nietzsche might have been cured of his horrible sickness. But it is not this at all that Shestov wishes to say. He means rather that God might have ordained it so that Socrates would not have been poisoned, that Kierkegaard would not have lost his fiancée, that Nietzsche would not have been stricken by the horrible sickness. An absolute victory is possible over that necessity which rational knowledge imposes on the past. Shestov was tortured by the inevitability of the past; he was tortured by the horror of what once happened.
With the same theme of necessary, coercive truth is connected the setting of Athens over against Jerusalem, of Abraham and Job over against Socrates and Aristotle. When people attempted to unite reason, discovered by Greek philosophy, with revelation, as theology always attempted to do, an apostasy from faith took place. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was replaced by the God of the theologians and the philosophers. Philo was the first traitor. God was subordinated to reason, to the necessary, universally binding truths. Then, Abraham, the hero of faith, was lost. Shestov was very close to Luther, to the Lutheran idea of salvation through faith alone. The liberation of man cannot come from himself but only from God. God - He is the liberator. Not reason, not morality, not human activity frees men, but faith. Faith means, for the necessary truths of reason, a miracle. Faith can move mountains. Faith demands madness. This the apostle Paul already said. Faith affirms - as Kierkegaard liked to say - conflict, paradox. Shestov brought to expression, with great radicalism, a truly existing and eternal problem. The paradoxicality of thought, the irony to which he constantly resorts in his way of writing, prevented people from understanding him. At times he was understood in a sense completely opposite to that which he intended. This was the case, for example, with so distinguished a thinker as Miguel de Unamuno, who had much sympathy for Shestov.
Lev Shestov's philosophical thinking encountered enormous difficulties in its expression, and this gave rise to numerous misunderstandings. The difficulty consisted in the inexpressiveness of words regarding what Shestov thought about the basic theme of his life, the inexpressiveness of the most important thing. He frequently had resort to the negative form of expression and was more successful with it. What he struggled against was clear. But the positive form of expression was more difficult. Human language is too rationalized, too much adapted to the thinking engendered by the fall into sin - the knowledge of good and evil. Shestov's thinking, directed against universal bindingness, itself involuntarily assumed the form of universal bindingness. And this easily gave weapons to the hands of criticism.
We stand here before the very profound and still little explored problem of the communicability of creative thought to another. Is the most primordial and ultimate communicable, or only the secondary and ephemeral? This problem was first genuinely posed by existentialist philosophy. For it, this is the problem of the transition from "I" to "Thou" in authentic relationships. To a philosophy that considers itself rational, inasmuch as it assumes the existence of a universal reason, this problem does not present itself as disturbing. For a universal reason that remains one and the same does, indeed, make possible the adequate transmission of thoughts and knowledge from one person to another. In reality, however, reason has gradations; it is, at times, qualitatively different and depends on the character of human existence, on existential experience. The will defines the character of reason. And so arises the question about the possibility of the transmission of philosophical thoughts otherwise than through rational concepts. Indeed, rational concepts do not really establish communication from one person to another.
Shestov did not directly interest himself in this problem, nor did he write about it; he was completely absorbed by the relationship of man to God, and not by the relationship of man to man. But his philosophy makes this problem a very acute one; indeed, it becomes itself a problem of philosophy. His inconsistency lay in the fact that he was a philosopher, i.e., a man of thought and knowledge, and while he denied knowledge, he came to know the tragedy of human existence. Against the tyranny of reason, against the power of knowledge, which drove man out of paradise, he battled on the territory of this very knowledge with the weapons of this very same reason. Herein lies the difficulty of his philosophy, which wishes to be existential. In the sharpening of this difficulty I see Shestov's merit.
Lev Shestov struggled for the personality, for the individual-unrepeatable, against the power of the universal. His chief enemies were Hegel and the Hegelian universal spirit. In this he is kindred to Kierkegaard, kindred thematically to Belinsky with his letters to Botkin, and especially to Dostoevsky. In this struggle lies Shestov's truth. In this struggle against the power of the universally binding he was so radical that he considers what, for one, is correct and saving, is, for another, incorrect and non-obligatory. He believed essentially that every man has his own personal truth. But with this, the problem of communicability again became acute. Is communication among perSons possible on the ground of the truth of revelation, or is this communication possible only on the ground of the rational truths adapted to the everyday, on the ground of what Shestov - following Dostoevsky - called "omnitude"?
To the last days of his life Lev Shestov maintained enthusiasm of thought, agitation, and intensity. He presented an example of the triumph of the spirit over the feebleness of the body. It may be that the books he wrote in the last period of his life - Kierkegaard and the Existentialist Philosophy and Athens and Jerusalem: An Attempt at a Religious Philosophy - are the best of his works. Now is not the time to criticize the philosophy of my old friend Lev Shestov. I would like to say only one thing. I have a great sympathy for Shestov's problematic, and the motive of his struggle against the power exercised over human life by the "universal" is dear to me. But I have always had another view than he in the evaluation of knowledge, in that I do not see in it the source of the necessity hanging over our life. Only existentialist philosophy can explain what the case here is. Lev Shestov's books help give an answer to the basic question of human existence; in them there is existential significance.