LEV  SHESTOV (On Occasion of His 70th Year)



(On Occasion of His 70th Year)

(1936 – #410)

We are old friends with L. Shestov and here already for 35 years we have led with him a dialogue about God, about good and evil, about knowledge. This dialogue often was a fierce, though also friendly dispute. Dialogue with L. Shestov is difficult, since he is not a man of dialogue, he is a man of monologue. L. Shestov — is a man of one idea, a man of a single theme, of a single all-engulfing idea, and he can only with difficulty engage a perspective foreign to him, to immerse himself in a different problematics, in order that a dialogue struggle should ensue on one and the selfsame level. But this trait, an hindrance to dispute and a narrowing down of consciousness, comprises also an unique strength in L. Shestov, it makes his thought focused and concentrated. L. Shestov is first of all a thinker, possessing his own theme, not merely thought out by him, but also profoundly lived. He is one of the thinkers that is most faithful to himself. He stands outside of all the currents, the trends, outside the bookish effects. His thought is bound up with a whole series of great writers and thinkers — Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, L. Tolstoy, Pascal, Luther, Kierkegaard, with whom he became acquainted only in his later years, but it was determined not so much by the books and thoughts of these Shestovian heroes, as rather by their inner life experience and their tragic fate. L. Shestov is a solitary, he is not at all social, he wants to resolve his vital theme himself before God and before the mystery of existence. A transfer of L. Shestov over into the social sphere makes his thought uninteresting. He likewise is not at all a psychologist, as sometimes he is regarded, it is not over the psychology of his heroes that he occupies himself, it is upon them, upon their example in resolving all one and the selfsame theme, to which he has dedicated all his life. He therefore often inaccurately and incompletely investigates others. Through others he wants to express himself, such being his method. L. Shestov has profoundly pondered over this, how that the once occurring might instead be rendered non-occurring.

The theme of L. Shestov is religious, and Biblical. His orientation towards the Bible is quite clearly evident in the final period of his creativity. L. Shestov seeks for God, in God he wants to find free life, to be freed from the fetters of necessity, from the laws of logic and morals, which he makes responsible for the tragic fate of man. What torments him most of all is the problem of the fall through sin, such as is related in the book of the Bible. Man plucked the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. L. Shestov investigates this from the perspective, that knowledge also is the source of the fall through sin. Reason is the product of sin. Man has lost his freedom, has subjected himself to necessity and the measure of law, binding not only upon him, but also upon God Himself. And man has ceased to eat off the fruit of the tree of life, he is cast out from Paradise. L. Shestov wants to return to Paradise, to authentic life, which is situated on the other side of the knowledge of good and evil. The influence of Nietzsche was the most strong perhaps in the life of L. Shestov, it determined in part the very manner of his writing, although he was not at all a Nietzschean in the customary, banal sense of the word. And it seems to me, that the Biblical theme in L. Shestov is too very combined with the theme of Nietzsche, too much expressed in the language of Nietzsche. And a verymost difficulty for L. Shestov consists in this, that what is a purely religious theme he instead tends to express and deal with upon the territory of philosophy. This impels him at the same time to wage a struggle against philosophy, as an hindrance for breaking through to God. He is always setting in opposition Hellenic philosophy vs the Bible, Athens and Jerusalem, but he orients himself chiefly in the sphere of Hellenic philosophy, in the Athenians, whereas his Biblical thoughts and words are comparatively brief. It sometimes seems, that he puts forth philosophic demands, which can only be put forth in religious life. But these things are an indicator of the inner turbulence of spirit in L. Shestov himself. This too contributes in rendering his writings interesting and remarkable. He is an eloquent writer. This quality sometimes can get in the way of discerning the vital experience. But in L. Shestov what is always evident is the vital character of his philosophising. His philosophy belongs to the existential type of philosophy, although I myself tend to understand existential philosophy somewhat differently.

It is impossible to deny the significance of the Shestov theme. L. Shestov belongs to the sort of people, whom God torments, and who with a greatest of exertion seek God. He never actually reveals his positive faith, although faith for him is the chief thing, everything even. But the quest of seeking God sometimes stands higher than finding God. The positive faith of people has become so rationalised, so caught up in concepts, so subordinated to the generalised, that Shestov’s protest against such a faith can have a liberating significance. More than once it has been shown, that the negation of philosophy itself is philosophy, that the negation of reason can benefit reason. But this argument holds only a relative significance. Breaking out beyond the bounds of reason is possible only in an instance, if a man still makes use of reason. L. Shestov is poorly understood, and many mistakenly regard him as a sceptic. But L. Shestov merits quite closer an attention, than what up to now has been granted him. He has done much for the acquisition of an experiential philosophy, such as has not been revealed by specialist philosophers, and a philosophy to which insufficient attention has been devoted. Philosophy is an experiential knowledge and the tragic experience of life possesses an enormous significance for this knowledge. I am most at odds with L. Shestov in the appreciation of cognitive knowledge. He likewise is in the service of the act of cognition. Cognition too possesses a liberating significance. And sometimes it seems, that here in the dispute with L. Shestov too great a role is played by the question of terminology. And the most captivating aspect in L. Shestov, is that throughout the extent of his literary activity he never accommodated himself to anything nor anyone, he never vulgarised his thought, he never tried to socially conform it. In this is a mark of his nobility. Without having belonged to any current he nonetheless belongs to the Russian spiritual renaissance of the early XX Century and he is one of the most unique thinkers of this epoch. He is quite pervaded with the themes of Russian great literature, which he passionately loves and profoundly comprehends.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2002 by translator Fr. S. Janos.   For Ariane.

(1936 – 410 – en)

LEV SHESTOV. PO SLUCHAIU EGO SEMIDESYATILETIYA. Journal Put’, mar/apr. 1936, No. 50, p. 50-52.