The Fate of Russia, Sect. IV, Ch. 20.




(1915 – #197)


It is not about the present war that I want to speak, but about every war. Why is there war? How philosophically to make sense of war? At the superficial glance, war is a moving about and clash of material masses, physical violence, killing, maiming, the working of monstrous mechanical weapons. It would seem, that war is an exceptional submersion into matter and has no sort of relation to spirit. People of spirit sometimes readily avert their attention from war, as from something materially external, as a remote evil, bound up with force, from which one can and ought to withdraw into the higher spheres of spiritual life.

Some reject war out of a dualistic point of view, according to which there exists a completely independent material sphere, external, given to violence, separate from and opposed to the spiritual, the inward and free. But everything material is however only a symbol and sign of spiritual activity, everything external is but a manifestation of the internal, everything coercive and by force is a falsely directed freedom. To inwardly make sense of war is possible only with a monistic, and not dualistic point of view, i.e. seeing in it the symbolics of what transpires within spiritual activity. It can be said, that war happens in the heavens, within other planes of being, within the depths of spirit, and upon the flat surface of the material are seen but external signs of what is transpiring in the depths. Physical violence, the committing of murder, is not something in itself substantial, as an independent reality, — it is a sign of spiritual violence, committing evil within the spiritual activity. The nature of war, as a material violence, is purely reflective, a sign, symptomatic, not something independent. War is not the source of evil, but rather a reflection in evil, the sign of the existence of inner evil and sickness. The nature of war — is symbolic. Suchlike is the form of every material form of violence, — it is always secondary, and not primary. The particular condition of spiritual activity, wherein mankind dwells, inevitably has to make use of material signs, as implements, without which spiritual life could not realise itself. Man in the expression of his spiritual life has to move his hands, his feet, the tongue, i.e. to recourse to material signs, without which it is impossible to express love or hate, without which it is impossible to realise his strivings of will. And war is a complicated complex of material moving about of feet and hands, and of various implements, conducive to movement by the human will. On principle one can grant the possibility of spiritual life without material signs and tools, but this presupposes some other level of spiritual activity, at present unattained by mankind and the world.

There occur sicknesses, which are accompanied by a rash upon the face. This rash is but a sign of an inward sickness. The outward removal of the rash only drives the sickness inward. It might even make matters worse from the sickness. It is necessary to treat the inner sickness itself. The evil of war is a sign of an inner sickness of mankind. The material acts of violence and the terrors of war are but the rash upon the body of mankind, from which it is impossible to be healed externally and mechanically. We are all culpable in this sickness of mankind, which breaks out with war. When an ulcer with puss is discovered, then in this discovery of the ulcer itself it is impossible to see the evil. Sometimes this discovery is necessary to do something forceful for the saving of life.

Long since already within the depths of spiritual activity there was begun the World War, the world hostility, the hatred and mutual destruction. And this war, which began at the end of July 1914, is but a material sign of a spiritual war transpiring in the depths, a grievous spiritual infirmity of mankind. In this spiritual infirmity and spiritual war there is a mutual responsibility of all, and no one can be excused the consequences of the inner evil, of the inward murder, in which we all have lived. The war has not created the evil, it has just made apparent the evil. All of modern mankind has lived by hatred and hostility. The inner war has been veiled over only by the surface veil of world bourgeois life, and the falsehood of this bourgeois world, which to many seemed eternal, was bound to be exposed. The destruction of human life, as it occurs in world bourgeois life, is no less terrible, than that, which is happening in the war.


In the Gospel it is said, that it is necessary more to fear those killing the soul, than those killing the body. Physical death is less terrible, than spiritual death. And prior to the war, in peacetime life human souls were killed, the human spirit was extinguished, and this became so customary, that they ceased to note any terror in this killing. In the war they destroy the physical outward part of man, but the core of the man, his soul can remain not only undestroyed, but can even be reborn. It is very characteristic, that those who most of all are afraid of the war and the killing in the war — are the positivists, for whom the chief thing is in order that man should live well upon the earth, and for whom the totality of life consists in the empirically given. For those, who believe in the infinitude of spiritual life and in values, transcending all earthly blessings, those such the terrors of war and physical death do not so frighten. This explains why pacifists on principle are to be met with more often amongst the humanist-positivists, than amongst Christians. The religious outlook on life sees more profoundly the tragedy of death, than the outlook that is shallowly positivist. The war is a terrible evil and a profound tragedy, but the evil and tragedy are not merely in the outwardly assumed fact of physical violence and destruction, but rather quite deeper. And at this depth the evil and tragedy always obtain already prior to the war and its violence.

The war but manifests forth the evil, it thrusts it outwards. The external fact of the physical violence and the physical killing is impossible to look at, independently of the evil, as the source of the evil. The spiritual violence and the spiritual killing lie deeper. And the capacity for spiritual violence is very subtle and grasped but with difficulty. Some emotional stirrings and currents, some words, some feelings and actions, having no apparent signs of physical violence, are more murderous and death-bearing, than the crude physical violence and mayhem.

The responsibility of man has to be broadened and deepened. And indeed, man oftener becomes violent and a killer, than he himself suspects or is suspected of him. It is impossible to see the violence and killing only in war. All our peacetime life rests upon violence and killing. And prior to the start of the present-day world war we committed violence and killed in the very depths of life no less, than in the time of war. The war but made apparent and projected out onto the material plane our old acts of violence and killing, our hatred and hostility. In the depths of life there is a dark and irrational wellspring. And from it are begotten the most profound and tragic contradictions. Mankind, not having enlightened within itself with the Divine light this dark archaic element, inevitably passes through a cross-like terror and death in war. In war there is an immanent redemption of the ancient guilt. It is not given to man, remaining in the old evil and ancient darkness, to avert the immanent consequences in the form of the terrors of war. In the abstract intents of pacifism to avoid the war, while leaving mankind in its former condition, there is something ugly. This — is a desire to run away from responsibility. War is an immanent chastisement and an immanent redemption. In war hatred is smelted into love, and love into hatred. In war there intersect the limits of the extreme, and the diabolical darkness is interwoven with Divine light. War is a material manifesting forth of the age-old contradictions of existence, the discerning of the irrationality of life. Pacifism is a rationalistic denial of the darkly irrational within life. And it is impossible to believe in an eternal rational world. Not in vain does the Apocalypse prophesy about wars. And Christianity does not foresee a peaceful and painless finish to world history. In the below is reflected the same, that is above, upon the earth the same, that is in the heavens. And above, in the heavens, the angels of God contend with the angels of Satan. In all the spheres of the cosmos there storms the fiery and raging element and it brings war. And upon the earth Christ has brought not peace, but the sword [Mt. 10: 34]. In this is a profound antinomy of Christianity: Christianity cannot answer evil with evil, cannot resist evil by force, and yet Christianity is a war, the destruction of the world, the experiencing prior to the end of the redemption of the Cross in darkness and evil.

Christianity is full of contradictions. And the Christian attitude towards war in a fatal manner is contradictory. A Christian war is impossible, impossible just as is a Christian state, or Christian violence and killing. But all the terror of life is experienced by the Christian, as a cross and a redemption of guilt. The war is guilt, but it is likewise a redemption of guilt. In it the unrighteous, sinful, evil life is lifted up upon the Cross.


We are all guilty in the war, all are responsible for it and cannot escape the mutual responsibility. The evil, living in each of us, is made apparent in the war, and the war for none of us is something external, from which we can run away. It is necessary to assume upon oneself responsibility before the end. And we constantly are mistaken, in thinking that we can take off from ourselves the responsibility or not accept it at all. It is impossible in crudely an external way to understand participation in war and responsibility for it. We all in some way or other are participants in the war. Already in that I accept the state, accept nationality, the sense of mutual responsibility of all the people, or that I desire Russian victories, — I therein participate in the war and bear responsibility for it. When I desire victories for the Russian army, I spiritually participate in killing and take upon myself responsibility for the killing, I accept the guilt. It would be base to impose upon others the blame of killing, which is needful also on my behalf, and myself hold the view, that in this killing I do not participate. Those, who eat meat, participate in the killing of animals and are bound to admit their responsibility for this killing. It would be hypocritical to hold the view, that we ourselves never do violence nor kill and are incapable of violence and killing, that it is others that bear the responsibility for this. Each of us benefits having the police, it is something needful, and it would be hypocritical to hold the view, that the police are not there for me. Everyone who sincerely wants the Germans to be squeezed back beyond the borders of Russia spiritually is responsible for the killing no less, than the soldiers, who go forth in bayonnet attack. The killing — is in this case not physical, but rather a moral phenomenon, and it first of all is done spiritually. The soldier doing the shooting and slaughtering is less responsible for the killing, than that one, in whom there is the guiding will to victory over the enemy, and who nowise directly strikes the physical blow. Such an one morally blameworthy may want to be full clean and free of the guilt over the violence and the killing, and at the same time may want for oneself and for those near and dear, for one’s native land, that it be at the price of violence and killing. There is a redemption in the very act of accepting of guilt in oneself. Being guilty becomes morally higher than being pure. This — is a moral paradox, which it is proper to think upon deeply. The exclusive striving towards one’s own purity, towards the guarding of one’s own white garb is not the highest moral condition. Morally higher — is to impose upon oneself the responsibility for those near and dear, accepting the common guilt. I think, that at the basis of all culture lies the selfsame guilt, which is at the basis of war, since it all is begotten and developes in violence. But the evil, created by culture, just like the evil, created by war, — is secondary, and not primary, it — is a response to the primordial evil, to the darkness, encompassing the primal bases of life.


It is impossible to approach war in a doctrinal and rational manner. Absolutism in evaluating life always proves bereft of life, coercive, always it is a pharisaical exalting of the Sabbath higher than man. But man is higher than the Sabbath, and the Sabbath ought not to serve as the absolute principle in life. There is both possible and desirable but a vital plasticity of morals, for which everything in the world is an individually creative task. The absolute is inapplicable to the sphere of the relative. In the historical corporeal world there is nothing of the absolute. Absolute life is possible, but it is impossible to apply the absolute to relative life. Absolute life is life in love. In absolute life there cannot be war, the violence and killing. The killing, violence and war is a sign of life that is relative, historically-corporeal, not of the Divine. Within the historical body, within the material limitedness, the absolute Divine life is impossible. We live by force, insofar as we live in the physical body. The laws of the material world — are the laws of force. The absolute negation of violence and war is possible only as a phenomenon profoundly individual, and not as a norm and law. This presupposes an in-spiritising, a conquering of the “world” and its fatal law, the enlightening of the human body by the light from elsewhere. But for life within this material world it is impossible to apply the absolute, as a law and norm. The Gospel is not a law of life. The absolute is not applicable, but it is attainable. Absolute life lies within the life of grace, and is not life, filled with laws and norms. The legalistic application of the absolute to the relative is also the Sabbath-extolling, disdained by Christ.

The absolute truth about the non-resistance to evil by force is not a law of life in this chaotic and dark world, submerged as it is in the material relativeness, inwardly pervaded by discord and enmity. And grant that this world should pass over into absolute life in love. One can only but wish for this and strive towards this. Yet this would be accomplished mysteriously and unseen, just like it is that unseen cometh the Kingdom of God. But there is no sort of inward meaning to desire the external world and yet deny all external force, leaving the inner world in its former chaos, darkness, evil and enmity. This signifies but nothing. The binding of absolute law to the relative life is a doctrinalising, bereft of all inward meaning. One can but desire the inward health, and not the outward guise of health amidst inward sickness. It is impossible to stress strongly enough, that Christ’s absolute love is a new life in the grace of the spirit, and not a law for the relative material life. And herein is why infinitely complex is the problem of the relationship of Christianity to war.

War can be conceived of only as tragic and suffering. The attitude towards war can only be but antinomic. This — is an experiencing of the inner darkness of world life, of inner evil, the acceptance of guilt and redemption. A sweetly optimistic and exclusively happy attitude towards war — is impermissible and immoral. We both accept and yet reject war. We accept the war in the name of its rejection. Militarism and pacifism — are alike a lie. Both within the one and within the other — is the external attitude towards life. The acceptance of war is an acceptance of the tragic terror of life. And if in war there is brutality and the loss of the human visage, then in it also there is a great love, focused into the darkness.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2003  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1915 – 197(15,20) – en)

MYSLI O PRIRODE VOINY.  First published in literary gazette “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 26 June 1915, No. 14928.  Later incorporated by Berdyaev into his 1918 book, “The Fate of Russia” (“Sud’ba Rossii”), Section IV, Chapter 20, (p. 374-380 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).