(1917 – #256(15))


   Much in the mentality of our social and populist psychology leads to sad considerations. And one of the saddest facts needful to recognise is the indifference towards ideas and towards ideational creativity, to recognise the ideational backwardness of broad segments of the Russian Intelligentsia. In this is evidenced a desiccation and inertia of thought, a dislike for thought, a disbelief in thought. The moralistic frame of mind of the Russian soul begets a suspicious attitude towards thought. Life amidst idea is accounted by us as a luxury, and in this luxury they do not see any essential relationship to life. In Russia from quite contrary points of view is preached an ascetic abstinence from ideational creativity, from the life of thought, from going over beyond the limits of the necessary useful for goals social, moral and religious. This asceticism in relationship to thought and to ideational creativity is affirmed for us simultaneously both from the religious perspective, and from the materialistic perspective. This is quite characteristic to Russian populism, taken both in its extreme left, and its extreme right forms. This frame of mind for the Russian soul has been clearly expressed by the Tolstoyans. Some reckon it alone sufficient for us that minimum of thought, which is enclosed in the Social-Democrat brochures, while with others, — that which can be found in the writings of the holy fathers. The brochures of the Tolstoyans, the brochures of the “Religio-Philosophic Bibliotek” of M. A. Novoselov and the brochures of the Social Revolutionaries all show a completely identical dislike and contempt for thought. The value in itself of thought is denied, the freedom of ideational creativity was cast under suspicion at one point from the perspective of the Social Revolutionaries, and at another point from the perspective of the religious guardians. They love for us to have only catechisms, which superficially and simply are applied to every instance of life. But the love for catechisms is also a dislike for independent thought. In Russia there was never a creative abundance, there was never anything of a renaissance, there was nothing of the spirit of the Renaissance. How sad and melancholy has Russian history been constituted and rendered for the soul of Russian man! All the spiritual energy of Russian man was directed to the sole thought about salvation, about the salvation of his soul, about the salvation of the people, about the salvation of the world. In truth, this thought about universal salvation — is a characteristically Russian thought. The historical destiny of the Russian people has been sacrificial — it saved Europe from the invasions of the East, from the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, and in it there did not take hold the strength for free developement.

Western man creates values, he forms rich cultures, and he has an independent love for values; Russian man searches for salvation, and the creativity of values for him is always a little suspicious. Not only do believers of Russian soul seek salvation, the Orthodox and the sectarians, but it is also the Russian atheists, the socialists and anarchists, they all seek after salvation. For the matter of salvation catechisms are necessary, but free and creative thought is dangerous. It is a mistake to think, that the best, the most sincere element of the Russian leftist revolutionary intelligentsia is social in accord with the directives of its own will in concern with politics. It is impossible within it to find the least signs of social thought, of a political consciousness. It — is apolitical and non-societal, by distorted paths it seeks salvation of soul, purity, to be able to seek out ascetic deeds and service to the world, but bereft of the instincts of civil and social organisation. The “social” world-concept of the Russian Intelligentsia, subordinating everything of value to politics, is merely the result of a great confusion, a weakness of thought and awareness, an hodgepodge of the absolute and the relative. The maximalism, the revolutionism, the radicalism of the Russian Intelligentsia is a peculiar form of moralistic asceticism in relation to the civil, the social and historical life generally. It is very characteristic, that Russian tactics usually take the form of boycotts, strikes and work-stoppages. The Russian intelligent is never certain, whether he ought to accept history with all its tormenting, violent and tragic contradictions, none the more correct, or whether to repudiate it entirely. He refuses to ponder over history and its tasks, and he prefers to moralise over history, to impose upon it his own sociological schema, very reminiscent of theological schema. And in the Russian intelligent, torn away from his native soil, he remains characteristically a Russian man, having never the taste for history, for historical thought and for the drama of history. Our social thought has been intensely primitive and elementary, it has always striven after simplicity and feared complexity. The Russian Intelligentsia has always been confessing some sort of doctrine, containable in a pocket catechism, and an utopia, promising an easy and simplistic method of universal salvation, but it was not fond of and it feared creative thought as being of value in itself, before which might open infinitely complex perspectives. Among the broad masses of the so-called radical Intelligentsia, thought was not only made simplistic, but also neglectful and flippant. The reduction of old ideas among the half-indifferent masses — was poisonous. The catechisms are tolerable only for an heated atmosphere, and it is in the hot-house atmosphere that they are produced and born. Creative thought, which posits and considers all ever new and newer tasks — is dynamic. Russian thought however has always been too static, despite the shifting of various beliefs and currents. This is valid identically both in regard to the theocratic-guardian doctrines, and in regard to the positivist-radical and socialist doctrines.


The Russian dislike for ideas and indifference towards ideas is often transformed into an indifference towards truth. The Russian man does not very much seek truth (istina), he seeks just-truth (pravda), which he thinks of now religiously, now morally, and then socially, he seeks salvation. In this there is something characteristically Russian, and there is its own genuine Russian just-truth (pravda). But there is also a danger, there is a turning-away from the paths of knowledge, there is a tendency towards a populism-based churlishness. Bowing before an organic wisdom of the people has always paralysed thought in Russia and cut short ideational creativity, wherein the person tends to be on his own responsibility. Our conservative thought has been still a native thought, and in it there has been no self-consciousness of personal spirit. But this self-consciousness of personal spirit also has little been sensed in our progressive thought. Thought, the life of ideas was always subordinated to the Russian soul-emphasis, a mixing up of rightful-truth (pravda-istina) with rightful-justice (pravda-spravedlivost’). But the Russian soul-emphasis was not subordinated to spirituality, it did not pass through spirit. Upon the basis of this soul-emphasis unfold all sorts of psychologism. Native thought, thought, connected with the element of the soil, is always of soul, and not spiritual thought. But the thinking of the Russian revolutionaries has always transpired in an atmosphere of soul-emphasis, and not spirituality. The idea, the meaning reveals itself in the person, and not in the collective. And the people’s wisdom reveals itself at the summits in the spiritual life of persons, expressing the people’s spirit. Without great responsibility and the daring of personal spirit there cannot be realised developement of the people’s spirit. The life of ideas is the uncovering of the life of spirit. In creative thought spirit transcends the soul-body elements. The exclusive dominance of soul-emphasis with its brutal heatedness opposes itself to the liberating life of spirit. The greatest Russian geniuses were afraid of this responsibility of personal spirit, and from the heights of the spiritual they fell downwards, they fell all the way to the ground, and they sought salvation in the elementary wisdom of the people. Thus it was with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and thus it was with the Slavophils. In Russian religious thought only Chaadaev and Vl. Solov’ev stood out as exceptions.

The Russian people’s elemental soul-emphasis has assumed very manifold, very contradictory forms — the protective and the seditious, the nationally-religious and the internationally-socialist. This — is at the root of Russian populism’s hostility to thought and ideas. In the mentality and the tendency of the Russian people’s soul-emphasis there is something anti-gnostic, holding the process of cognition under suspicion. The heart has been victorious over the mind and the will. The Russian populist soul-emphasis type is moralistic, it applies to everything in the world a moralistic evaluation. But this moralism is incapable of results of a personal character, it does not create the tempering by spirit. In this moralism there predominates a vague soulfulness, a tender cordiality, often very charming, but there is no sense of courage of will, responsibility, self-discipline, firmness of character. The Russian people, perhaps, is the most spiritual people on earth. But its spirituality floats on some sort of elemental soulfulness, even moreso on corporeality. In this spirituality, the masculine principle adrift does not embrace the feminine principle, it does not give it form. But this means also, that spirit does not embrace the soulful. This is valid not only in regard to the “people”, but also in regard to the “intelligentsia”, which is broken away and external to the people, but preserving very characteristic features of the people’s psychology. Upon this ground also is born the mistrust, the indifferent and hostile attitude towards thought, towards ideas. Upon this very ground also is born moreover the reknown weakness of the Russian will, of the Russian character. The far right Russian Slavophils and the far left Russian populists (to them with few exclusions mustneeds on the basis of soul mentality be included also the Russian Social Democrats, dissimilar to their Western comrades) both alike rise up against “abstract thought” and demand thought that is moral and salvific, having essentially a practical application to life. In the rising up against abstract thought and in the demand for integral thought there has been very great truth and the presentiment of an higher type of thought. But this truth has foundered on the adrift soul-emphasis and the incapacity for analysis and differentiation. Human thought upon the pathways of the human spirit ought to proceed through dichotomy and analysis. The primordial organic integrality cannot be preserved and carried over into an higher type of spirituality without a tortuous differentiation process, without a falling-away and secularisation. Without the consciousness of this truth organic integral thought passes over into an hostility towards thought, into thoughtless nonsense, into an obscure moralism. The unique originality of the Russian soul cannot be killed by thought. Such a fear displays a lack of belief in Russia and in Russian man. The non-differentiation of our conservative thought has carried over into our progressive thought.


In Russia a genuine emancipation of thought has still not been accomplished. Russian nihilism has been an enslaving, not liberating, thought. Our thought has remained servile. Russians fear the sin of thought, even when they do not believe in any sort of sin. Russians have still not altogether risen up to the awareness, that in living creative thought there is light, a transfigurative element, transfixing the darkness. Knowledge itself is life, and therefore it is impossible to say moreover, that knowledge ought to be subordinated to life in an utilitarian manner. There mustneeds be for us a liberation from Russian utilitarianism, so enslaving for our thought, be it religious or materialistic. The slavery of thought has led in wide circles of the Russian Intelligentsia to an ideational poverty and an ideational backwardness. The ideas, to which many still continue to point to as “foremost”, in essence are very backward ideas, which do not measure up to the heights of contemporary European thought. The adherents of a “scientific” world-concept have lagged half a century behind the actual developements in science. Both the intelligent and the half-intelligent masses also attempt to live by antiquated ideas of stuff, long already relegated to the archives. Our “vanguard” intelligentsia remain hopelessly behind from the developements in European thought, hopelessly behind from the all more and more complicated and intricate philosophic and scientific creativity. It believes in ideas, which were current in the west more than fifty years back, and it is quite seriously capable of confessing the positivist world-view, the old theory of the social mean, etc. But this is the ultimate terminus and ossification of thought. Traditional positivism long ago already tumbled down not only in philosophy, but also in science itself. If it be never possible to speak seriously about materialism, as a directive for the half-literate, then it is impossible too to speak seriously about positivism, and soon it will be impossible to speak about criticism of the Kantian type. And it will be likewise impossible to support that radical “sociologism” of world-sense and world-concept, which all the masses of the intelligentsia in Russia still adhere to. New “cosmic” perspectives of world-sense and world-concept are unfolding. The social cannot be sundered and isolated from cosmic life, from the energies, which spill forth into it from all the planes of the cosmos. Thus impossible is even the social utopianism, always grounded in a simplification of thought concerning social life, in the rationalisation of it, whilst disregarding irrational cosmic forces. Not only in creative Russian thought, which in a small circle survives the period of transition, but also in Western European thought there has occurred a radical shift, and the “vanguard” in thought and consciousness appears altogether otherwise, than what too many among us continue to believe — idle and inert thoughts.

The uppermost of mankind has already entered into the night of  a new Middle Ages, when the sun ought to shine itself within us and bring us towards a new day. The external light fades out. The crash of rationalism, the rebirth of mysticism is also of this nocturnal moment. However, when the crash of the old rational thought occurs, it is quite necessary to appeal to creative thought, to a revealing of the idea of spirit. The struggle moves to the spiritual summits of mankind, it is there that the fate of human consciousness is determined, it is a genuine life of thought, a life of ideas. In the middle yet prevails the old inertness of thought, there is no initiative in the creativity of idea, and shreds of the old world of thought drag on in their miserable existence. Middling thought, imagining itself as the intelligent, arrives at a condition of complete absurdity. We are endlessly bumping up against static thought, while dynamic thought is nowise apparent. But thought by its nature is dynamic, it is an eternal developing of spirit, before it stand eternally new tasks, eternally new worlds are disclosed, and it mustneeds bestow eternally creative solutions. When thought is made static — it shrivels up and dies. For many of our foremost Westernisers thought came to a stop 60 years ago, and they — are the guardians of this old thought, they halted at a very elementary stage of enlightenment, which arose back in the West during the XVIII Century. These people in the area of thought are neither progressive nor revolutionary, they are rather conservators and guardians; they aspire backwards, towards the rational enlightenment, they re-warm long since chilled-down thoughts and are hostile to any heated blazing of thought.


The creative developement of ideas does not occasion for itself any sort of strong interest in the broad circles of the Russian Intelligentsia community. For us it has even included the conviction, that for social actions ideas are altogether unnecessary or needed only in minimum supply, which always it was possible to find in the supplies of the traditional, the long ago cooled-off and static-ossified thought. All our developements in 1905 were not inspired by vitally creative ideas, it fed itself off ideas that were tepidly warm-cold, but was torn asunder by heated passions and interests. And this ideational poverty has been fateful. In the last fifty years for us there has been expressed many a creative idea, and ideas not only abstract, but of life and concrete. But surrounding all these ideas there has still formed no sort of cultural atmosphere, nor has there arisen any sort of social stirring. These ideas hold on in a few circles. The world of ideas and the world of sociality remain disconnected. On the part of the social element there has been no demand for ideas, there were no commands for ideational creativity, it had enough with the pitiful remnants of the old ideas. All the abnormality and sickness of the spiritual condition of our society was particularly sensed, when the world war started, requiring the exertion of all powers, not only material, but also spiritual. It was impossible to engage the world tragedy with the stock of old enlightenment ideas, of the old rationalist-sociological schemata. Man, armed with but these antiquated ideational armaments, was left to sense himself crushed and cast off onto the beehive of history. The humanitarian-pacifist current, always very elemental and simplistic, was powerless before the gruesome face of the historical destiny, the historical tragedy. If for us there had been an insufficient material preparation for the war, then also there was not a sufficient ideational preparation. The traditional ideas, for decades prevailing for us, were completely useless for the measures being played out in the world of events. Everything was shifted from its usual place, everything requires a completely new creative work of thought, a new ideational inspiration. Our social element during the time of unprecedented world catastrophe was poor in ideas, insufficiently inspired. We are paid back for the long period of indifference towards ideas. The ideas, upon which the old authority rested, have ultimately crumbled. It was impossible to revive them by any means. No sort of poisoned mystical justifications can help, drawn forth from the old supply. But the ideas of the Russian social element, appealing for the rebuilding of Russian life and the renovation of authority, had become chilled off and weather beaten earlier than the hour which transpired for their realisation in life. It remains to turn things around towards a creative life of idea, which imperceptibly impends in the world. Shaken loose are the ideological bases of Russian conservatism and Russian radicalism. There is need to pass over into another ideational format.

In the world struggle of peoples the Russian people ought to have its own idea, ought to bear into it its own tempering of spirit. Russians cannot be content by negative ideas of repelling German militarism and gloomy defeat by an internal reaction. Russians in this struggle ought to rebuild not only civilly and socially, but also to rebuild ideationally and spiritually. The shameful indifference towards ideas, reinforcing the backwardness and stony petrification of thought, ought to be replaced by a new ideational inspiration and ideational ascent. The soil is harrowed loose, and the time is propitious for ideational propagation, upon which all our future depends. In this very difficult and demanding hour of our history we find ourselves in a condition of ideational anarchy and muck, in our spirit takes place a rotting process, bound up with the putrefaction of thought both conservative and revolutionary, of ideas both of the right and of the left. But in the depths of the Russian people there is a living spirit, concealing great possibilities. In the loosened soil there ought to sprout the seeds of new thought and new life. The maturing of Russia towards a world role presupposes its spiritual rebirth.

Nikolai Berdyaev

(Jan.) 1917

©  2001  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1917 – 256(15,9) – en)

OB  OTNOSHENII  RUSSKIKH  K  IDEYAM.  First published in the journal “Russkaya mysl’”, Jan. 1917, p. 66-73.  Republished in 1918 Berdyaev’s anthology text of articles, “Sud’ba Rossii” (“The Fate of Russia”), Ch. 9,  (p. 295-302 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint). Article reprinted also in 1989 YMCA Press Tom 3 of Berdyaev’s writings, — “Tipy  religioznoi  mysli  v  Rossii”, p. 50-59.