N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
On the Prestige of Holding Power
(1916 – #221)
One of the paradoxes of Russian life can be formulated thus: our ruling power does not have prestige namely because, that being so obsessed with the idea of the prestige of power, it discredits itself namely because, that it is so afraid to harm itself. This almost maniac-like and choking idea of the prestige of power has very ancient sources. The religious sources of the idea have already become parched and withered, but the idea itself continues still to hold sway over souls. That which already has ceased to be organic, tends mechanically to choke. In suchlike the view, in whatever the idea of prestige at all still prevails in Russia, it presupposes an almost metaphysical opposition between the power and the people, the society, man. The power, according to this idea, is not of human a potential and the worthiness of power is not human a worthiness, but rather supra-human, of angelic or divine a worthiness, transmitted by the priesthood into life civil, societal, familial. All the old Russia, the settled-down portion, and not the nomadic Russia, rested upon the idea of the hierarchical prestige of power downwards and upwards, the prestige of ranks and not of the man, of position in society, and not the qualitative best. The prestige of power and position is not only a thrill and a delight for its bear. This likewise — is his vexing worry, his onerous duty. In the name of the prestige of power and position not infrequently they tend to sacrifice their human interests, their tranquility, their natural attachments. This — is an eternal vigilance, of glancing round oneself, an intense dreading to harm prestige. In the name of this prestige good people commit atrocities, they suppress within themself human feelings, parents torment children, an authority torments subordinates, even though this be contrary to their nature. Every of itself reasonable concession represents shame, every emotional outburst has to be suppressed, when the discussion involves the position of the authority.
It is a mistake to think, that the aspiration to the prestige of power — is always greedy an aspiration, it can be totally ungreedy and even sacrificial. When a man becomes obsessed with this idea, when it is inherited by him from a succession of generations and boils in his blood, it is difficult to refuse it, sometimes even more difficult, than life itself. Life is not dear and not needful, when the prestige of position falls, when there falls into disgrace an authority, a master, a father. People tend totally and entirely to live with fictions, and the fictions possess greater a power over their souls, than do immediate vital interests. The consciousness of the prestige of power, of position, of rank, had its roots in the old religious world-feeling. It passed also into Christianity from the pre-Christian consciousness, and the new and cleansed Christian consciousness can nowise accept this idea in its old form. But the old idea of the prestige of power, of rank and position, and not the worthiness of the man nor value supra-human, — all still in Rus’ tends to direct the police inspector in relation to his district, the governor in relation to his gubernia, the government minister in relation to all Russia, parents in relation to children, pedagogues in relation to students, land-owners and owners in relation to peasants and workers. The old Russia has not yet passed away, it lives on still within modern people.
The remnants from the dying off of the old days do not go away quite so easily. People all still remain martyrs to their sense of prestige, their hierarchical position in society, they — are slaves to this obtrusive idea, they themself do not know freedom and to others they grant not freedom, they are unable to live thus as they night wish, creating in life that, to which their inner voice calls them. The opposite side to this in Russia is manifest in the anarchistic contempt towards all authority and its full negation. Western people have gotten free from the old idea of prestige and authoritative hierarchical position, but they are infected by the new idea of bourgeois prestige and bourgeois hierarchical position, in which likewise perishes the human person, its divine dignity of worthiness.
The old idea of the prestige of power is false at its primal basis, or more accurately, it corresponds only to a certain age of mankind. It is inherited from times, when there was not yet an awareness of the dignity of the worth of the man, when the religious value of the person was not yet affirmed. But the power of authority ought to have worth, ought to inculcate esteem, ought to be endowed of the gift of holding power for real, and not merely formally. These necessary traits our powers of authority do not possess. The powers of authority, situated upon prestige, do not enjoy confidence of esteem, do not possess the gift of manifesting power, and are bereft of human worth. In order to possess prestige, it is not necessary to strive after it as towards a self-sufficing aim — what instead is needful is to strive towards a creativity of values in societal life, towards a realisation of truth, towards service. With prestige occurs the same thing, as with glory. One who strives in whatever to come to glory, as a singular and self-sufficing goal, tends not to receive the glory. Fate dispatches glory only to one, who strives with all his being to create values in the area of his calling, i.e. to strive towards knowledge, towards the realisation of justice, towards the creation of beauty. To hold power does not mean the exerting of violence. The exerting of violence is always an ungiftedness, a lack of vocation for power. The gift for power — is a great gift, an altogether special bestowal. And with us there are almost none thus bestown, to our great misfortune. A power of authority, residing merely upon prestige, is always ungifted and powerless. Puffing oneself up, pomposity, the love for the outward trappings of respect and bowing signifies always indeed the absence of real power, of inner might, of authenticity and accomplishment. Every genuine and real power is a power over souls, over the collective soul of the people. One who holds power only over bodies and is able to move about the atoms of matter of the outer world and purely so by external means, that one holds no true power and is already toppled. The ontological essence of power itself presupposes an inner connection with that over which one exercises the holding of power. When this connection is sundered, the holding of power is rendered dead.
The old prestige of power, based upon a supra-human hierarchical structure, upon an hierarchy of ranks, and not upon people, is already bereft of life. This — is a left-over remnant. In suchlike an hierarchical order, atavistic instincts are already in operation. The old and decaying prestige of power clashes against our religious sensibility, and in it there is no faith. And that historical power, in which faith has been lost, is hence powerless, it can exert violent force, but it does not have power of authority. Now at present the dignity of worth and the strength of power can only be based upon human an hierarchism, upon the dignity of man, upon his qualities and values, upon his vocation. This means, that we can bow before a great man, but to bow before a great rank we cannot. Needful for us is a cult of greatness, needful is a selection of the high qualities of the person. In all the spheres of life and of exerting power over life there has to be for us an advancement of the persons most creative, gifted, energetic, with genuine a calling in their affairs. The human material in the matter of power ought downwards and upwards to be reborn, renewed, increased. This human material has sunk to too already low a level. The very idea of power, of every sort of power, has been compromised. The striving after the prestige of power has been to the impairment of power. And now at present a strong and respected power can only be that of the finest, a power based upon human qualitativeness, a power of genuinely a calling and selection, esteemed by the people, serving the trust of the people. Thus it ought to be in both state and society, downwards and upwards. The holding of power by the finest is not something readily attained and no sort of perfection is possible in this area. But in principle, power can be posited only upon oneness with the people and with mankind, not in opposition to the people and mankind. It has to be something immanent, an inner human potential. The counterpart to power, to every power, not the civil only, but also the societal, the familial, to lifestyle or to man, represents a slavery of man or childishness of man. The holding of power can only be as a value, affirmable by man from within and realised by his energy. It can be rendered sacred only immanently, and not transcendentally, not through a theocratic mindset, but only through an awareness of the Divine within man. The prestige of power represents a duty of power, its service, its human greatness and value, and not its conceited pretension. Every lower and unworthy sort of holding power — that of the police inspector, governor, father, owner, government minister — ought to be deprived of prestige.
N. A. Berdyaev
© 2013 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1916 – 221 – en)
O PRESTIZHE VLASTI. Article originally published in weekly gazette “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 18 jan. 1916, No.15330. Republished in the anthology of N. Berdyaev articles entitled, “Padenie svyaschennogo russkogo tsarstva, Publitsistika 1914-1922”, Izdatel’stvo Astrel’, Moskva, 2007, p. 387-390.