Concerning the Spirit of Despondency


Concerning the Spirit of Despondency

(1915 – xxx)

During Great Lent we pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian,1  — that the Lord grant us not the spirit of despondency, of despair. In Christianity despair has always been considered a great sin. People that are non-believers, the positivists and materialists, often think, that despair is an objective condition, is connected with some unsightly activity, a scrupulous admitting of it without any prettying or idealisation. This — is a self-deception and self-justification. A despondent apperception of life is an indicator of a despondent spirit, of a lowered vitality, weakness and infirmity. One, to whom everything seems depressing, is himself depressed. And for one to whom everything in the world is a matter of despair, is he himself in despair, his soul is enveloped with darkness. Such is the truth, that the despondency of despair — is within us, and not outside us, and that it — is through our fault, as particularly discerned in perceptions and outlooks on the war. How infinitely varied are the impressions on the war! No two accounts come out the same. Each sees the war in his own way and tells about the war in his own way. And the most contrary accounts are simultaneously accurate. Accurate is much that is fine. Accurate is much that is bad. The war can be perceived, as a meaningless chaos, as purely an external series of frightful factours, in nothing enlightened. A man gets devastated by such a perception of the war and often in good conscience thinks, that his perception — is the most objective and true. But this — is a self-preoccupation of the weak and of those incapable of seeing the light. The ultimate truths are always discerned at the heightened, and not at the lessened perceptions, in the active perceptions, bearing meaning and light. For a spirit devastated in the mystery of life they become hidden — they are discerned only in an upsurge of spirit. And I believe definitely, that only heroic natures know the genuine truth about the war. The war has to be perceived in creatively spiritual a manner. The perception itself of the war is a doing, an activeness of spirit.  A perception of the war is a trial of strength of spirit. Every grey detail itself of the war says nothing about the war. For a manly, active, heroic spirit the war — is otherwise, than it is for a weak, sickly, passive spirit. Even the dull routines of the war for other people can be experienced in an atmosphere of emotional uplift.

I think, that the ideal attitude towards the war should be that of one, who is fearless in gazing into the eyes of actuality, who loves truth without embellishment or idealisation in dealing with the most murky facts, preserving boldness of spirit, the will to victory and faith in Russia. Not so long ago I heard an account about the war from an old acquaintance of mine, having come from the front for a few days in Moscow. In each word of this brave man, full of energy, was felt such an ideal and eager account towards the war. A former social democrat, disillusioned in the groundings of revolution, having experienced a religious crisis and having arrived at an apocalyptic religiosity, he formed heroic an outlook and is applying his technical knowledge to the military effort. Many accounts given by my acquaintance produced an impression of a picture right out of Dante’s Inferno. He is nowise inclined to idealisations or embellishments. He well sees all the deficiencies, all our material and moral defects. Yet all the same his outlook is courageous, positive, believing, he sees a profound meaning in everything happening. The accounts from such a man tend to uplift, and not depress. A youth, who heard these accounts, exclaimed: “Now it would not be so frightful for me to go to war”. And indeed, what was told had much in it that was frightful, much that was bad. But everything consisted in this, in what emotional atmosphere this was told. An inwardly enlightened approach towards the terrors of life leads to an uplift, to a surmounting of all the despondency. Only in too unenlightened a yielding of oneself to the terrors is there a plunging into the darkness. It is necessary to love the truth and to look directly at all the terrors of the war and all our defects. But despondency is something we ourself insert into the perception of life, and not something we receive from life. The despair is always our sin, our self-sufferance towards it. And insofar as despondency exists for us in the rear, it is to our disgrace. In the army, judging from all accounts, there is no despondency.

There is a faith in the Russian people and in Russia, which surmounts all the most distressing facts about Russia. This — is a faith in the soul of Russia, in its great potentials, in its great destiny in the world. Such a faith has no need of self-deceptions and is not afraid of self-criticisms. The faith has to be fearless. Fear is always bound up with non-belief. Only one, who believes in himself, in his people, in his deed, is afraid of nothing. It is impossible to defeat the spirit of despondency by closing one’s eyes to actuality. We need to exert a struggle against the servile spirit of despondency. The despondency — is from within us, and a terrible culpability lays upon those, who exhale the magical vapours of despair and by this poison the atmosphere. It is as though up to each citizen in this regard to attend to himself to inspire within himself a sense of responsibility for his own emotional state. Totally irresponsible and apathetic emotional an outlook is unbecoming for Russia. What transpires within the soul of the individual man transpires also in the soul of the people. Each exhales from himself vapours either positive or negative, bright or dark. Emotional oppressedness, heightened pessimism, lack of faith and hopelessness tend to poison the soul of the people. Having despair in the atmosphere, is in the objective world a matter of having us ourself giving rise to the spirits of darkness. And then they come back to us anew. And we meet again with a spirit of despondency, attached to us in the objective actuality. This self-deception process has to be dispelled via a bright self-awareness. And we shall then perceive the despondency, merely as an objectification of our own particular weakness and incapacity. The war has to engender within us a new type of attitude towards life — fearless, truth-loving and heroically enlightened. Grant it that no sort of darkness have the power to overshadow the light emitted from us. And that we shall again the yet oftener repeat the words of the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian.

N. A. Berdyaev.



©  2012  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1915 – xxx – en)

N.B. This is an article missed by the authoritative 1972 YMCA Press Tamara Klepinine Berdiaev Bibliographie.

O  DUKHE  UNYNIYA.  Article originally published in weekly gazette “Birzhevye vedomosti”,  28 nov. 1915, No.15237. Republished in the anthology of N. Berdyaev articles entitled, “Padenie svyaschennogo russkogo tsarstva, Publitsistika 1914-1922”, Izdatel’stvo Astrel’, Moskva, 2007, p. 373-375.

1 trans. note — the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian:
“O Lord and Master of my life! Grant not unto me the spirit of sloth,
of despondency, of lust for power, nor of vain chatter. (Poklon)
But bestow unto me, Thy servant, the spirit of chastity,
of humble sagacity, of patience and of love. (Poklon)
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to perceive my own transgressions
and judge not my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen. (Poklon)”

“Господи и Владыко живота моего, дух праздности,
уныния, любоначалия и празднословия не дажд ми. (Поклон)
Дух же целомудрия, смиренномудрия, терпения и любве
даруй ми, рабу Твоему. (Поклон)
Ей, Господи Царю, даруй ми зрети моя прегрешения
и не осуждати брата моего, яко благословен еси во веки веков. Аминь. (Поклон)”

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