On Nikolai Berdyaev

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Nikolai Berdyaev
This is from a series of lectures on the Russian religious philosophers given in 1989. The translation is by Fr Stephen Janos and with permission. He also tells me that has completed that entire series of lectures by Fr Men which he hopes to have published as a book. For more information on Berdyaev, see his Nikolai Berdyaev website.

In Peterburg at the beginning of the XX Century there occurred an important event -- the Peterburg Religio-Philosophic Gatherings began their work. These meetings of the most brilliant representatives of the Intelligentsia together with the representatives of the Church happened on the initiative of the outstanding activists of Russian culture -- Dimitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Nikolaevna Gippius. Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev journeyed there, and afterwards over the expanse of several decades, the themes, which had been debated at the Gatherings, remained constantly present in his works.

The first collection of his articles was entitled, “From the Point of View of Eternity”, or “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”. He puts forth the question about the importance of spiritual culture, about the importance of human worth. This for him was not a conditional perhaps and maybe, these human aspects of worth flow forth from the utmost upreaches of the spiritual nature of the human “I”, of the person. Berdyaev afterwards called himself a personalist. He felt, that within the person spirit expresses one of the chief properties. Not in the mob, not in the sum total, but -- in the person. It is person that accomplishes the greatness of man, which is manifest of his nature. In the mob, when people lose control of themselves, they fling themselves backwards. He ponders in this book over the destinies of Russia, over the fate of the Intelligentsia, -- questions, which agitated him always. Berdyaev journeys on to Moscow. For a certain while there he roams about, but in the end he finally settles in the Arbat quarter, on Bol’shoe Vlas’evsk, and he gets together with the young, with original and energetic people, who seek a return into the bosom of the Orthodox tradition. Here both is Rachinsky, a very original translator, and homegrown thinker; and here also is the known writer Vasilii Vasil’evich Rozanov, who tosses about between a passionate love for Orthodoxy, for Christianity, and just as passionate an hatred for it. Here is Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov -- a Marxist (not simply in the peripheral circles, like Berdyaev, but fundamentally so), the author of an enormous investigative work “Capitalism and Agriculture”, a man, who at the beginning of the century traversed the path from Marxism to Idealism, and then from Idealism to Orthodoxy, to Christianity. They got together so much, that people often began to call them the brothers Dioscuri, the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, but here these were people quite different.

Bulgakov, raised in Orlov province, the son of a provincial priest, having made his way upwards, having broken away from the backwaters, and keen for knowledge, tremendously erudite, haughty, fiery, a bit naive, despite his political learning, -- and Berdyaev, the aristocrat, who never was able to join anything as a follower, and even the word “we” was awkward for him! This was, certainly, the tragedy of his life. He departed the revolutionary circles. After the Revolution of 1905 he was already quite definitely a Christian, for him truth manifests itself in the Person of Christ, in the Person in Whom is incarnated the personal Divine principle, and in front of the Divine Person there stands reflected within It this Divineness of the person of man. Therefore, having become a Christian, Berdyaev could not become a man churchly in the typically usual sense of this word. He journeyed to monasteries, he prayed in the churches, he communed the Holy Mysteries, but when the repentant Intelligentsia went to various startsi-elders and lovingly accepted their words as on the order of the utterings of an oracle, -- Berdyaev could not bear to do this, he considered that this was not his pathway. And he always remained not so much a theologian, as rather a free philosopher. He spoke thus: “I think independently, I proceed from my own “I” and its own intellectual experience and intuition”.

In 1911 he gets together with the group “Put” (“The Way”). In Moscow, not far from the church of Christ the Saviour, was the stand-alone house of the millionairess Margarita Kirillovna Morozova, who provided capital to the benefit of both Russian and translated books of religio-philosophic content. Under the publishing activity of Put’ there first came out the remarkable work of Florensky, “The Pillar and Bulwark of Truth”, under this publisher there first came out the almost complete for those times Chaadayev, in it there appears also Solov’ev, dead but a short while, and also Bulgakov, and Berdyaev... In his house many people constantly gather, and he himself is a ready and willing participant in various circles. In 1911 he writes his book, “The Philosophy of Freedom”. This is the book of a young man, still not yet age forty. But it seems to me, if we go not into details, this book contains within itself everything, that throughout the distant future would be themes of Berdyaev. And he wrote much indeed. He died in the year 1948. And over these years he penned tons of books, and hundreds, if not a thousand articles. His Bibliography (only an enumeration of his works) comprises an expansive book (it came out in Paris)[1] . Nikolai Aleksandrovich has been translated into twenty languages, and in many lands they gather together symposia and congresses, devoted to the study of his creativity. He himself before death spoke somewhat woefully: they consider me for the Nobel Prize, I have now the title of Doctor, I have become known throughout all the world, except for my “Rodina” native-land. And here now after the space of forty years his vision returns to his Rodina to be realized.

“The Philosophy of Freedom” has only recently come out in our country. And for each of you, who want to become acquainted with the fundamentals of Christian philosophy, I would heartily recommend reading this book with all due attention. Berdyaev -- is a brilliant stylist, he is a journalist, he writes vividly, aphoristically, but there too is his fiery temperament, his spirit, which all the time bubbles up like a volcano, he provides it words, and he can repeat one and the same word fifty times on one and the same page. He literally, as some of his friends say, “shouts out” with some of his books. And therefore because of the absence of a certain systemization, of deduction, of connection of the parts, because of this it is not easy for everyone to read him, but this is indeed great philosophical poetics, deep wisdom!

The book “Philosophy of Freedom” develops the chief thesis of Berdyaev: at its basis lies spirit, spirit is that which is impossible of definition; spirit -- this is that genuine real power, which is hidden within us, and never can rational abstract cognition be in any condition to contain it fully in any sort of mere points of definition. Spirit realizes itself within life. But always, when it realizes itself, or as Berdyaev expressed it, “becomes objectified”, it loses something. I would add also a similar comparison (I do not remember, if it was from Berdyaev, but it is fully in line with him): spirit -- is the inexhaustible flowing waters of a river, whereas objectification -- is the same waters, but frozen in place. Berdyaev had a certain sense... of repulsion from life, from reality. It quite pained him to see the degradation of man, the ugliness of life, everything dirty and stifling, even that which is stiflingly oppressive in our flesh. This was a spirit, who could be termed “a chained-down spirit” (and thus Marina Tsvetaeva termed Andrei Bely, an acquaintance of Berdyaev). So here also, this was a “chained-down spirit”, which languished in its prison. And therefore he had a very unique understanding of love. Read his letter to his spouse Lydia, it is printed in a small collection of the works of Berdyaev, published by “Prometheus” Press, under the title “Eros i lichnost’” (“Eros and Person”). Love for Berdyaev was also a spiritual act. In general he was as it were on the outside of everyday life, on the outside of matter. He always was weighed down by actuality, but amidst this he loved the world madly. He was neither an anchorite, nor a man of renunciation, he took delight in nature, he loved it. As one of his acquaintances remembers, he could not pass by a single dog on the street, without talking to it. Another of his acquaintances related to me, that when they lived in Paris, Berdyaev was always out on the street with a dog or two, and the dogs he had were huge. And there was the cat (in Paris still), Muri (i.e. Purry), which he loved powerfully much. This cat died in his arms. Berdyaev experienced the agony of this living creature such that he wrote about this and tells about his cat with complete seriousness in a profound philosophical book of his, how through the death of this beloved living creature he comprehended the terror of non-being, the terror of dying.

People tended to see Berdyaev differently. The majority loved him during these years. There was in him, certainly, something haughty, but on the other side, as Marina Tsvetaeva reminisces, there was no man more gracious and open. He could mix in beautifully with peasants, with craftsmen, he went to “Yama” (“The Pit”) and there he conversed with various sectarians (“Yama” -- was an inn where various God-seekers from among the people gathered). And as an aristocrat he was keener to the language of the simple people, than were the Intelligentsia.

One time (I speak here about the period before the First World War) Berdyaev was close with Dmitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovsky. But gradually the circle of Merezhkovsky became stifling for him. And Merezhkovsky, having become disenchanted with historical Christianity, with the historical Church, conceived a plan with his wife Zinaida Nikolaevna Gippius (to say it more accurately, the wife thought this up) to create their own “Church”. And they gathered together at home and made a sort of do-it-yourself divine-service: they set out flowers, they offered up wine -- a sort of pseudo-Eucharist... remember, this was an epoch of decadence! An epoch, when the Symbolists were all the rage, and after them came the Acmeists, all the rage! Merezhkovsky actually brought Berdyaev to Orthodoxy. How so, you ask? Merezhkovsky began to invite him to these vigils of his, these gatherings. And suddenly Nikolai Aleksandrovich sensed, that this was false, that this was something abnormal, a do-it-yourself sort of thing, and that he needed the genuine, the authentic Church. And so he did as it were just the opposite, he became an Orthodox man (to the very end of his life). Such was his paradoxical pathway.

At this point you will hear several lines about him from the mouth of one of his contemporaries, Evgenia Kazimirovna Gertsyk (Herzig), an authoress, who was very fond of him, and esteemed and understood him. As she herself said in her writings, of everything she lost in those times (the beginnings of the 1920’s), her loss “most of all” was him. Several lines, so that you can see this person, this man. This is from her memoirs. “Evening. The well-known Arbar alley-ways -- to Berdyaev. The square room with the red wood furniture. The mirror in the antique oval frame, over the couch. All that are there are but the two beautiful and gracious ladies -- Berdyaev’s wife and her sister. He is not at home, but with a casual step I go into his study. I go over to sit at his large writing table: of a creative disorder there is none. Everything is set out tidy on the table: only to the left and right are piles of books. How many there are! Closer -- are the ones being read, bookmarked, and farther -- the supply for the future. Quite various: the Kabbala, Husserl and Cohen, Simeon the New Theologian, works on physics, a little pile of French Catholics, and further off likely a novel for the night, something found second-hand... I walk about the room. Over the wide couch, where at night it serves him as a bed, there is a crucifix of blackwood and ivory -- we bought it together with him in Rome. Farther on the wall -- is a water-color: a depiction of a starets-elder’s cell, drawn by the reverent hand of Berdyaev’s grandmother, a Kiev native. Quite recently a Christian, in Moscow Berdyaev sought association with those, not inclined towards the literary salons, but with the genuine people’s life of the Church... And how different Berdyaev is from the other newly-illumined, the newly-converted, who are so ready to renounce both reason as well as human pride! He stands firm in this, that forswearing reason would not be true to the Glory of God. He stands for the might and the way of life of thought, he fights for it. A sharp dialectician -- he gives blows right and left. There is nothing stuffy or ultra-holy about him. And his sense of humour never left him. On occasion we smile with him past the head of his then like-minded fellows, the ever so devout Novoselov and Bulgakov. The philosophical thought of Berdyaev one might characterise as that of the knight chivalrous. The decision of the problem of love for him is never dictated by smouldering insult, by fear, by hatred, as there was, we might say, in Nietzsche, or Dostoevsky... And in life he bore his own dignity as a thinker, as did once his ancestor, the ernstwhile Count Choiseul: brandishing the fancy laces, reckoning, that a sharp word of deep thought -- is nothing reproachful; without effort, without strain, preserving for himself a certain throe of contradiction, sometimes -- of philosophical desperation. In this is his strength, and his weakness”.

When this period was coming to a close, Berdyaev wrote one of his books in summation of his pre-war period, which he titled “The Meaning of Creativity”. Creativity was for him not a simple function of human thought and life, but from life itself. He wrote: “Spirit is creative activity. Every act of spirit is a creative act. But the creative act of the subjective spirit is an egress from oneself into the world. In every creative act there is an element of freedom introduced, an element, not definable by the world. The creative act of man, always issuing forth from spirit and not from nature, presupposes the material of the world, presupposes the manifold human world. He descends into the world and bears into the world the new, the formerly non-extant. The creative act of spirit has two sides: an ascent and a descent, spirit in the creative impulse and taking flight soars upwards over the world and conquers the world, but it likewise also descends into the world, it is pulled downwards by the world, and in its products it conforms itself with the condition of the world. Spirit objectifies itself within the production of creativity and in this objectification it associates itself with the given condition of the manifold world. Spirit is fire! The creativity of spirit is fiery! Objectification however is a chilling down of the creative fire of spirit. Objectification within culture always signifies accordance with others, of a leveling of the world, with the social middle ground. The objectification of spirit within culture is its socialization”.

Further on Berdyaev speaks about, how that our customary concepts about God, about the duty of man, is very often sociomorphic, that it is built upon the example of social life, reflecting affliction or self-affirmation, or still other yet moments of the human manner of life. It is necessary to snatch off the sociomorphic trappings, so as to penetrate into the depths of being, both of man, and of the Divine. For Berdyaev the mystery of God was always a mystery unfathomable. In this he was in full agreement with Christian theology. But the mystery of man also remained just as unfathomable. The mystery of man for him takes on an extraordinarily close connection with the mystery of the Divine. Here is one of the vulnerable sides of Berdyaev’s metaphysics. He writes: “According to the Bible, God breathed into man the spirit. Therefore the spirit is not a creation, but is rather that begotten of God”. This is very imprecise. This is extremely disputable. This is practically an identification of our spirit with the Divine Spirit. But Berdyaev speaks about this in the heat of polemics, trying to exalt spirit, which is constantly being degraded by both materialism and by religious thought. And he in his paradoxical polemics reaches to suchlike an expression: “For us the path is not only Golgotha, but also Olympus”. Certainly, at the first glance by a reader it would seem strange what this has in common. But he wanted to point out, that the beauty of the world, the beauty of the flesh has value for God (even if it be embodied in pagan Olympus), since that it likewise is a form of creativity.

Is salvation the manifest goal of the life of man? -- he asked. If by this there be understood something purely utilitarian and namely, whether man wind up in the “better” place after death or in the “worse”, whether he wind up in paradise or in hell, -- Berdyaev radically comes out against such an understanding of salvation. He said, that the task of man -- is altogether not in suchlike a salvation, not ego-centric, nor egoistic, not the search for some sort of bliss, but rather creativity. God has lodged within man a tremendous potential, and man ought to create, and then from this would flow forth both an utmost moral understanding, and a nobleness of spirit. It was difficult, certainly, to hear out these keen, paradoxical, not always successful expressions of Berdyaev within the circle of his colleagues.

He then writes his book, “The New Religious Consciousness and Society”, and he tackles there questions of sex, social questions, and he ponders the Revolution. He says about it, that revolution can be reactionary. He, having already a certain record of revolutionary struggle, he brings out here and quotes the remarkable words of Mikhailovsky, the populist, with whom he had much engaged in polemics. And in these suchlike words, Mikhailovsky says: I am impoverished, of my house there is nothing, besides the shelves with books and the bust of Belinsky. If even this the people, in whose service I devoted all my life, were to rush in here, in order to burn my books, and to smash this bust, I would defend this to my last breath. And here these words of Mikhailovsky were to prove extraordinarily true for Berdyaev. He spoke about the violence, which happens above on the side of those having power, and also of that below, on the side of those, who are not given to think over the rights of the person of man -- the trampling of freedom is possible from both sides.

And here ensues the Revolution. Berdyaev awaited it. And he awaited many a stormy event. Still back in 1909 he had participated in the anthology “Vekhi” (“Signposts”). He was not a poor prophet. In the year 1917 he participates in the anthology “Iz glubiny” (“From the Depths”), which undertakes a sketch of all the elapsing epoch. He actively participates in social life. They elect him into the university. I have people close to me, who heard Berdyaev lecture, they saw, how he stood out. He produced a tremendous impression upon his audience. (The sole thing, which interfered, was the nervous tic on his face, which spoilt it somewhat). He participated in the Vol’phila (Free Association of Culture), the Free Spiritual Academy. He thought intensely.

During these years the German philosopher Oswald Spengler wrote a book, “The Decline of the West” (or as we tend to translate it, “The Decline of Europe”) -- a book, which shook Europe and the world. It spoke about the inevitability for civilisation of a period of decline: just like an organism passes through periods of childhood-youth-decline, and just like in nature there are the seasons Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter, so also it is inevitable that civilisation will pass into decline, which nothing and no one can stop. The West today, wrote Spengler, is in decline. But Berdyaev together with his like-minded compatriots answered this book brilliantly! He pointed out that fate, historical destiny, -- which actually can lead a civilisation to ruin, that it is not something singular, which stands before mankind. Spirit can conquer fate. Christianity, Berdyaev writes, hurls challenges to fate and never can it be reconciled with the mechanistic, the morbid, the fatalistic. It can be said, that in Berdyaev immortality lived as an actualisation of that, which is always present. Within him there was constantly a tempest of thoughts. He was able to bring interesting ideas to the masses, ideas that came to mind for him. We might speak, for example, of his viewpoint on the division within the Church. There existed various viewpoints: Khomyakov’s -- that the sinful Latins fell away; the Old Catholics -- that it was the unworthy schismatics, the raskolniki, who fell away; and there were those, who wanted to re-unite these fragmented parts and grieved on account of the division of the Church. Berdyaev was the first to genuinely to take a profound look at this problem. He pointed out, that the Christian West and the Christian East each had their own particular consciousness and realisation of spiritual life. In the West there was always a strong striving towards God, as up and above, as though, in Berdyaev’s expression, a falling in love with Christ, an imitation of Christ externally on the outside. From this, he says, is the striving and stretching upwards of the Gothic churches, and the arrow-shaped windows. In contrast to this, the East senses Christ as being here, and intimately close. Therefore the Eastern churches as it were embrace a going-inward, the light burns within, the Spirit of God is present within. These two types of spirituality had to develope themselves independently, and the evil of the separation of Christians was not a matter of Divine Providence wherein Christianity should be all jumbled together in an impersonal one-sided massive-lump throughout all the earth, but rather that the concreteness of the multiple-blossomings of Christianity should flower forth ultimately, in spite of the sorrow of division.

Eventually, in the year 1922 they threw Berdyaev out of Russia and banished him. By this time he was already the author of numerous articles, the author of the books “The Meaning of Creativity” and “The Philosophy of Freedom” and a series of others. For a certain while he settles then in Berlin, and then he winds up in Paris. At Clamart, near Paris, he stays a long time. And there he writes his most important works, their number being too long to list here. I shall mention only the chief ones.

The “Philosophy of the Free Spirit”, a work in two volumes,[2] written with an extraordinary acumen, -- this is a developement of the idea of his philosophy of freedom. He turns especial attention in this book to his metaphysical treatment of freedom. He says about it, that freedom is situated within the depths of God, that this is an unique mystery. In this he had investigated the sources of the XVII Century German mystic Jacob Boehme about a sort of Abyss, which lies at the basis of everything. For Berdyaev this concept was not altogether precise, and sometimes he identified it with God. God is situated on the other side of the understanding of good and evil (as with Boehme). But Berdyaev then separated God from the Abyss and identified the Abyss with that fitful, monstrous, irrational, incomprehensible, but mighty and impulsive freedom, which cannot be defined, save only as nothing. This dualistic representation is scarcely perhaps distinct from Christianity, since Berdyaev said, that God created the world from nothing, but the “nothing” -- this is not “nothing”, but rather that dark chaotic world of uncreated freedom, like God uncreated. We stand from Biblical times from the point of reference, that nothing uncreated exists, except the Creator. At one of the congresses, studying the legacy of Berdyaev, at Paris, it was said that the striving of Berdyaev to give such an interpretation was rooted in his desire to create a new theodicy, a conception, which would reconcile the mystery of God and the mystery of suffering. The mystery of evil was for Berdyaev exceptionally acute, and all his life was tormented by it. And he spoke thus: God is not culpable in worldly evil, God is not all-powerful in this. He does not rule within the world, but He conquers the dark chaotic principle, which is co-eternal to Him, having been always.

You say, and how then does it manifest itself? Berdyaev answered: as nothing, for this is impossible to name, this is that which is situated beyond the bounds of thought. Actually the mindless, irrational striving towards evil is sufficiently difficult to bring into any sort of logical order. And Dostoevsky, whom Berdyaev so loved, often pointed out the irrational and mindless character of evil. It is mindless... And thus here, if God be not somehow almighty, but only conquers the darkness, Berdyaev advances another concept, disputable from the Christian point of view, that God has need of the world, that He seeks us out, seeks out mankind, to sustain Him. Berdyaev one time heard words of the French writer Leon Bloy in regard to this, that God -- is as a Great Loneliness, and he experienced this as some sort of inner experience. In this he had the sense not in the plenitude of God, but in a certain Divine metaphysics of suffering. And the suffering of the world he experienced as... a break with the Divine Unity. For us the Creator is necessary, but we are also infinitely needful for Him. There is much that is striking, profound, enigmatic and subtle in these discernments of Berdyaev, although from the theological point of view there are, certainly, debatable aspects.

Berdyaev was of a deeply eschatological outlook, and for him the essential condition of the world is as something deadened, objectified! History -- is a matter of statues and corpses... Everything then and only then will realise itself, when the world casts off from itself this here ossification resulting from objectification. Therefore the meaning of history -- is in its annulment, its taking away; it is in that, what we aspire to, like an arrow, towards the future, where the mortality of objectivised being will be conquered, where the creative spirit will triumph fully, where it will come into play, where it will blossom! Eschatology therefore, which is a teaching about the end of the world, for Berdyaev is not something ominous, dark, terrifying. He said about it, that man mustneeds come nigh the end of the world, that man ought to strive towards this moment of the transfiguration of being. And everything dark would be annihilated.

People have an incorrect understanding of the idea of Providence, Berdyaev says, they understand the words of Christ the Saviour literally, that He keeps a watchful eye on each one. Although, if a man strive toward Him, there is realised the unity of Christ and man. But in general God does not rule within the world. The Kingdom of God is not in the world. He does not rule in cholera, in plague, in treason, in catastrophes. The world is full of evil! And in this regard Berdyaev is right. And it is difficult not to agree with him, that God hath not realised Himself, in an Armenian earthquake or an American earthquake. Certainly not! And herein it is profoundly true.

Christian theology investigates this from another angle: that freedom is given us for a belittling of the Divine. God has ceded to us a certain expanse within being, and in this expanse there act already (here Berdyaev was completely right) both the Will of God, and the human will, and the blind elements, and fate (fate or destiny not in the mystical sense, but in the sense of the foreordained, the physical, the psychological, the historical, the social). Berdyaev was a philosopher of history. His book, “The Meaning of History”, -- is one of the most remarkable. It came out when he was already in the emigration. For him history was a movement forward, but he emphasised the radical distinction of the Biblical world-view from that of antiquity, and from that of the ancient Indian. India and Greece did not know history as movement. Only the Bible tells us, that the world has a teleology, an end-purpose.

Berdyaev likewise wrote a book, which we have long regarded as extremely odious, -- “The Philosophy of Inequality”. He wrote it during the revolutionary years, at the beginning of the 1920’s, and here, in his Rodina native-land he wrote it for those representatives of the Intelligentsia, who like Blok were prepared to go encounter the dark destructive element. He called them betrayers of the spirit, betrayers of culture, desolators, collaborators of transgressive deeds. And we know today, that these deeds were transgressive, but Berdyaev raised his voice and shouted about it back then. It mustneeds be said, that Berdyaev adopted, sort of, the general principles of socialism, and he was a despiser of the bourgeois. He considered that the bourgeois -- is a spiritual sickness. Even before the Revolution he had written about it, as concerning the abasement of consciousness, an abdicating of humanity. The spiritual bourgeoise -- is a primitivisation, a smugness, a residue of the spiritual current within man -- for him all this was just as contemptible as atheism.

The Person of Christ was for Berdyaev infinitely precious. It is because in Him there was realised the Divine in fulness, and in the fulness also of that before which He condescended Himself to come down, -- in front of the person of man... Christ hath revealed to us the humanness of God. Prior to this we would have thought, that there could be nothing human about God, but here through Christ we have come to recognise it. Berdyaev conceived of the mystery of the Trinity as something dynamic, for him the life within God was dynamic! Although, certainly, man is unable to penetrate into this mystery. For Berdyaev the cognition of the world, the cognition of God, the cognition of mystery -- this is not simply a logical process, not simply the manipulation of a certain intellectual judgement. But rather it is an act, which involves the whole of the nature of man, the whole of his being! -- his intuition, his anguish, his senses, all bound up together. Only thus can we comprehend reality, wholly, and not merely in its separate aspects. And this intuitive, vital, wholistically integral approach was also a chief property of the philosophy of Berdyaev.

Many people have been surprised at the scope of this man, especially since in France there have been no few philosophers, historians, theologians, publicists, with each occupying their own little cubby-hole. But Berdyaev moved freely across all these worlds. His brief noticing of some knotty aspect of Christian theology could result sometimes in a precious whole tome. Well, let us say, he was speaking about Biblical criticism -- he would point out its purest significance. I shall not digress here further, but this phrase can reveal and show, how he could hit upon the chief things for us in the sphere of the knowledge of Scripture.

Life did not go so simply for him. Because there was both misfortune, and there were also difficulties. But he did not give up. He created the journal “Put’” -- (“The Way”), of which he was the editor from the 1920’s up to the war years. This is not a journal, this is a treasure-trove of thought! Its sixty issues comprise a wealth, an inheritance, which we today are receiving, and God grant, that this should pass down to our descendants. He gathered, he grouped around himself representatives of Christian thought. Such people as Frank, and Bulgakov, and Nikolai Lossky and Boris Vysheslavtsev, a remarkable thinker very little known here and who died in 1964, and there were many representatives of free philosophical thought, Protestants, Catholics, but basically the Orthodox. It is interesting, the dramatic moments of history that Berdyaev lived through in the setting of the war, personally. What happened in the year 1917? -- He was about to be thrown into prison, but the February Revolution saved him. What happened with him on the eve of the Second World War? -- Everyone was attacking and cursing him. The first time, in 1917, he came out in defense of the monks of an Athos monastery, which the Synod persecuted. Nikolai Aleksandrovich wrote his article, “Gasiteli dukha” (“Quenchers of the Spirit”), for which they took him to criminal court. And before the Second World War there began attacks on his close friend, a professor from the Paris Theological Institute -- Georgii Petrovich Fedotov. And why did they attack him? -- for his activities. We shall speak with you later on separately about Fedotov.

Fedotov had the audacity to give an objective analysis of Soviet politics, for Stalin -- very serious stuff, very insightful. And they wrote him off as being a “red” (or “rosy”, as they then said), although this was completely inaccurate. Ultimately they shoved him, they pushed him out, so to speak, out of the Theological Institute, wherein many of his colleagues, professors, knowing that he was not guilty of such things, they bandied about and signed petitions. This was a stiflingly oppressive moment. And then Berdyaev exploded with an article, which was entitled “Does there Exist freedom of Conscience within Orthodoxy?” And he, with the exceptional shrillness and pathos peculiar to his pen, pounced upon those craven cowards. He himself was fearless.

In 1937 he wrote a book, “The Sources and Meaning of Russian Communism”.[3] This book provides a quite analysis of the situation. He does not come off in it as a rampant anti-Communist, he generally in no way was given to any sort of the “rampant”, not some champion of the idea, but rather he attempts to show, how things came about. Berdyaev was hostile to every sort of dictatorship, whether in the end it be the Nazi-ist, the Frankist, the Stalinist. And when the Germans occupied Paris, he as an already very well known figure was involved in all sorts of things, to show people, how much he disliked this Nazi-ist power. He wrote much against the Nazi ideology, coming out openly and sharply against it. He was swept up to be arrested, but people came forward even in the Gestapo, who knew his fame, and he was let go. He cautiously worked with collaborators for the front, the resistance. His soul was one together with the Red Army, together with Russia, he always wanted only that it be victorious, in spite of everything. When the war ended, he began entertaining thoughts, whether or not he should return home. He began to mix in with people, who had journeyed from Soiuz, from the Soviet Union, he met with both soldiers and civilians and he was somewhat shocked and taken aback. “It would seem, that the materialism is still with us, -- he said jokingly, -- and here I had thought, that it would have been thrown out in the days of my youth”. He said: “Revolutionaries, really indeed? These are now all dignitaries, in their decorations”. These meetings for him were interesting, and also somewhat tragic. He could not return, perhaps, and amidst all the indecision he was already a man well up in years. But he worked to the end and died at his writing table.

Over the course of many years we had not a word about him, only some occasional histories, or very scant references in an encyclopedia. Then there appeared a critical work, and here now starts a whole new run of works. I so to speak, envy each of you, who now are just beginning to read Nikolai Aleksandrovich. This is a matter of profound delight for both thought and for the heart, when you get into the world of this free, this beautiful and lofty thought, into the world of this man, a philosopher of person and creativity and freedom who bears upon himself the seal of incomparable excellence.

Rather recently there seems to have opened a Museum in the name of Berdyaev, a museum which has files in Paris and also among us here. And again certainly, though only on paper, he actually consoles and agitates. Into this museum will be gathered both photographs of those times, and perhaps, photographs of those people, which were so bound up with that epoch, and its matters. I see here present the one managing the museum, and I think he will not be offended, if I turn to you with a request: if you stumble upon old discoveries from the 1910’s, from the 1920’s, any sort of things -- whatever, that might shed light upon this period, come forth with it. the museum is starting from nothing. The Paris files will be based, I hope, in that very room (it is empty at present), where Nikolai Aleksandrovich died.

His autobiographical book “Samopoznanie” has come out twice: it appeared first as a separate Paris edition, and then later it was republished as the first volume of the Paris collected works. This collection of works now comprises only three volumes.[4] But there is being readied a Soviet edition of this remarkable work, where the person, the image, the tragedy of this exceptional, this excellent, this contentious and fascinating man is to be given in all its stature. The edition is to be done first-hand from the original text, since the archive of Berdyaev at present in large part has been transferred to Moscow. I have given you today only some rough points, some sketchings, trail lamps, which you can bring to bear for the knowing of the creativity of this great writer, thinker, critic. And in conclusion, I want to quote for you some of his aphorisms, so that you can get a feel, as to how he tended to express his thoughts: “The sovereign ruling power -- this is (he says about the genuine holding of power) an obligation, and not a right”; “Faith and knowledge -- are one selfsame thing”, i.e. the possession of the fullness of real being (he often spoke in paradoxes); “The criterion of truth in the spirit is itself a manifestation of the spirit”; “The Gospel is the teaching about Christ, and not the teaching of Christ”; “Tolstoy did not know Christ, he knew only the teaching of Christ”; “Love is a sharing of life in God”; “The principle of evil manifests itself as non-realized good”; “Not only is there a maliciousness against good, but there is also a maliciousness against evil which despoils the spiritual world of man”; “The existence of evil is a proof for the existence of God, a proof of this, that this world is not the sole and ultimate one”; “Of necessity there is a fallen freedom”; “The moral consciousness begins with the question of God “Cain, where is thy brother Abel?” and it ends with the question of God “Abel, where is thy brother Cain?”; -- (I will not comment on this, instead I want, that you yourselves can sense the meaning of these expressions); “Religion ought not to be made moralistic, but rather morality made religious”; “Religion is the relationship to God of sinful mankind”; “Freedom is the freedom not only from masters, but also from slaves”; “There exists not one, but rather two freedoms: the first and the last -- the freedom of the choosing of good and evil and the freedom in good”; “The autocracy of the people -- is a very terrible autocracy, since the will of one or the will of several can no wise so extensively spread its pretensions, as does the will of all”; “It is not man that demands freedom from God, but rather God demands it from man”; “Being is begotten of freedom, and not freedom from being”.

What is conscience according to Berdyaev? -- “This is a mindfulness about God”, “Conscience is at a depth of person, where man comes in contact with God”. What is humility according to Berdyaev? “Humility is the discovering of the soul in its reality”; “To regard one self the most terrible of sinners is suchlike a self-opinion, as to regard oneself holy; “Humility is not the annihilation of the human will, but rather its enlightening and free submission to truth”; “Socialism is the ultimate truth and the ultimate justice of the bourgeoisie” (a paradox!); “Suffering is the consequence of sin and the redemption of sin”; “The meaning of Golgotha is not the deification of suffering, but rather in the victory over death and suffering”.

Such was Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev. I wanted, that you should get a feel of his soul and style. His books you still have to read. But we can regard today a special day of celebration of our culture, in that this man has returned to us. In life it seemed simply a matter of luck for me, that I could read him in my youthful years, but back then this was purely a matter of chance. But at present he stands before us in his full stature.

© 2000 by translator Fr. S. Janos

  1. trans. note: the YMCA Press 1978 Tamara Klepinine Berdiaev Bibliographie lists 483 separate Berdyaev entries, plus those “sans signature”, and articles missed here by Klepinina have also surfaced.
  2. trans. note: published in English in one volume under title “Freedom and the Spirit”.
  3. trans. note: published in English under the title “The Origin of Russian Communism”.
  4. trans. note: five volumes as of 1999.