Jean Grenier, Essai sur l’esprit d’ orthodoxie.  Gallimard.

Journal Put’, aug./oct. 1938, no. 57,  p.  84-86.


Jean Grenier, Essai sur l’esprit d’ orthodoxie.  Gallimard.

(1938 – #435)

The book of Grenier mirrors the inner drama of French intellectuelles. The title itself can lead to a misunderstanding.1 The book is written not about religious orthodoxness,  but rather about Marxist orthodoxness, which far more onerously weighs upon the consciousness and conscience of the creators of spiritual culture. The French intellectuelles still do not know that terrible tyranny, which accompanies the triumph of orthodoxness in life, they know only the ideological preliminaries. Moreover, it mustneeds be said, that every triumphing orthodoxness is tyrannical. The Marxist orthodoxy, after Marx already taking form by means of the myth-creating process, bears a formal affinity with the old religious orthodoxies, but it is more impudently brazen in the realisation of its pretensions. The drama of the intellectuelles, sympathetic to the social aspirations of Marxism and Communism, yet not consenting to accept the tyranny of orthodoxness, was acutely experienced by A. Gide and he with honour left off from the contradiction, set before him. A man, who strives for truth and values truth, cannot accept any sort of a binding social orthodoxness, even though he be sympathetic to the social aims, with which this orthodoxness is connected. A man, not bereft of his conscience, cannot accept lies, obligatory, as a social duty. Grenier is such a man of conscience, he values truth, for him the knowledge of truth has value, irrespective of the social struggle and practical aims. He is an idealist. It was with agitation that I read his book, since it reminded me of my youth. I was moreso a Marxist, than Grenier, but I could not accept the Marxist orthodoxy out of a love for truth, independent of the class struggle. In philosophy I was not a materialist, I was pervaded by the ideals of German Idealism, chiefly by Kant and partly by Fichte, I believed in the unconditional character of truth and good, rooted in the transcendental consciousness. This led me to a break with Marxism, which I fully sympathised with socially. Already then, though there still did not yet exist the Communists, they demanded an orthodoxy, the acceptance of Marxism, as a totalitarian system. The Marxist orthodoxy could tend to produce the impression of an intellectual doctrine, but it was foremost a weapon of the revolutionary struggle. Orthodoxy always was a weapon for struggle, and suchlike also was the Christian orthodoxness. The orthodoxness bears a sociological character. Religious orthodoxness is bound up with the social-organising side of religion. The purely religious experience of the encounter of man with God does not beget dogmatism. Dogmatism is the by-product of the socialisation of religion. The orthodoxy of Marxism is bound up not with the scientific nor even with its political side, but rather with its religious, its religiously inverted side. In Soviet Russia all the philosophic disputes transpire not under the standard of the discerning of truth and error, but under the standard of a discerning of orthodoxy and heresy. The categories of orthodoxness and heresy however are neither scientific nor philosophic, but the rather religious, more specifically so theological. The Marxist orthodoxy, one of the most intolerant orthodoxies in the history of human thought, is a theological scholasticism. In the book of Grenier one can find many accurate critical observations concerning Marxism and its orthodox pretensions. Yet his opposition to Marxist orthodoxy is not a matter of agitation, only but purely intellectual. He defends first of all the independence and freedom of culture and cultural values. And in his defending of humanistic culture he is a typical Frenchman. His book ends with an open letter to Malraux, who moreover is not so much a Marxist, as rather a Nietzschean.

All the thoughts of Grenier, evoking disquiet as regards modern orthodoxies and totalitarianisms, lead to an acknowledging of the primacy of spirit. Consciousness for him is determinative of being. But he does not get down at depth at the philosophic side of the problem. He displays chagrin at the conformism of the intellectuelles, who get caught up in the temptation of totalitarianism. I think, that this is determined not by that the intellectuelles tend to sense the social truth of the totalitarian movements, but rather their asocial character, their dread of struggle. The intellectuelles ought to realise, that they are representatives of spirit, and not of society, not of the state, not of the people, not of a class. They ought to speak words of truth and right, not dependent upon utility, nor altogether socially indifferent. On the contrary, they ought to stand up for the socially just-truth, and not consent to lies, though these be in the name of the realisation of this just-truth. Marx and Nietzsche, two of the most influential thinkers in the modern world, variously and in the name of differing aims have altered the understanding of truth. Truth became a by-product of the social struggle or of the will to power. And herein arose a crisis in the relationship of man to truth. Communism and Fascism alike deny the existence of truth in the old sense of the word and they do this in the name of their totalitarian principle. And one mustneeds understand, that this signifies a pretentiousness to the totalitarian outlook, since in it there is a distorted truth. Christianity is likewise totalitarian, it is a total truth embracing all the whole of life, but this sort of totalitarianism has nothing in common with Marxist orthodoxy nor with totalitarian states. Spiritual truth is totalitarian and it relates to the human person, not to society, the state, the nation, the collective, the class, all matters in which everything is partial. Society does not comprise it nor can it make pretense to integral wholeness and fullness, only the person can make such a claim, and it is as a task, not as a given. From whence also is evident the fatal error of an orthodoxy. An orthodoxy acknowledges society (be it religious, or national or social a collective) as the bearer of the integral wholeness of truth, which is bindingly obligatory for the person. But in society everything is partial, not integrally whole, not totalitarian, whereas the integrally whole totalitarian truth is a task, facing the person, which it has to resolve in common with other persons, in a communitarian spirit. Christian totalitarianism, so very distinct from formal liberalism and individualism, presupposes freedom, as the setting of the verymost totalitarian truth. Totalitarianism be it Marxist or Fascist denies freedom, i.e. it admits only of such a freedom as appears the offspring of necessity of the social or national organisation. The perspective, which has to be set in opposition to the orthodoxness and totalitarianism, is not individualism, as such egocentric and indifferent to truth, but rather personalism, comprising in itself an universal content, i.e. a communitarian personalism. The pathos of orthodoxness is nowise the pathos of truth, for it signifies moreso an indifference towards truth and the manipulation of intellectual doctrine for purposes of struggle and the ends of the organisation. An orthodoxy, as the fullness and integral wholeness of truth, is not a given and cannot be as such bindingly obligatory with any sort of societies, even though religious, for it reveals itself upon the “pathway” and in “life”. The book of Grenier leads towards these thoughts and in this is its merit.

Nikolai Berdyaev.


©  2005  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1938 – 435 -en)

(NOVIYA KNIGI:) JEAN GRENIER, ESSAI SUR L’ESPRIT D’ORTHODOXIE. GALLIMARD. Under “New Books” section in Journal Put’, aug./oct. 1938, No. 57,  p. 84-86.

1 trans. note: Berdyaev uses here the term “ortodoksiya” for “orthodoxy” or “orthodoxness” rather than the Russian Orthodox Christian term “Pravoslavniya” for “Orthodoxy”.