On Nicolas Berdyaev

 The following is a paper I wrote for a Metaphysics class several years ago… 

 

An Expositional and Critical Introduction to Some Metaphysical Themes in Nicolas Berdyaev

 

K.C. Stewart

March 28, 2003

THS 563F

When considering any of the three major “divisions” of philosophy, it soon becomes clear that the three cannot be isolated from one another for very long.  For example, discussions of metaphysics, of any appreciable length or depth, will necessarily involve some overspill from epistemology and axiology.  One can, of course, control the amount of overspill somewhat by focusing on one division and letting the encounter with the others be seen as incidental contact.  But in the writings of Nicolas Berdyaev, this is not even attempted.  From start to finish, Berdyaev’s books meander and swirl their way through all three of these philosophical categories and more.  This can make it difficult to pinpoint Berdyaev’s metaphysical notions.

 

Metaphysics as eschatology

            Perhaps the best point of entry, then, is to view the structure of Berdyaev’s philosophy of history.  He is emphatic on the point that, properly done, metaphysics is an eschatological enterprise.  That is not to say that he is only interested in reality at the end of time.  Rather (as the titles of some of his books suggest) he is greatly interested in both the course, the goal, and the meaning of history, summed up in Berdyaev’s term meta-history.  History has three major parts.  It moves from paradise at the beginning, to the current world – or cosmic – process, and then finally, back to paradise at the end.

Original paradise was characterized by blissful ignorance.  Among the many things of which man is originally unaware are the concept of the God-man and the consequent deification of man.[1]  Also, man is unaware of the distinction between good and evil, but this is because it does not yet exist.  “Life in paradise was all of a piece and there was nothing outside it so long as there was no distinction between good and evil.”[2]

The current cosmic process is characterized by the traumatic separation of man from God and the phenomenon of the distinction between good and evil.  Here in this fallen world, we now have the sad memory of paradise and the introduction of the idea of hell.  But here we also have an encounter with the God-man, and we have the hopeful expectation of paradise once again.

The ultimate, eschatological paradise is characterized by a return to bliss, but not a bliss of ignorance.  The bliss of paradise in eternity is one that has come through the fiery ordeal of the cosmic process.  Yet all things have been restored to their original state of wholeness.[3]  So paradise, both at the beginning and at the end, is beyond good and evil.  It is only in the midst of the cosmic process that the distinction has any meaning. 

            When searching for a single image to use in reference to the noumenon of paradise, Berdyaev seems to think that it is “life” which serves best.  Yet he demonstrates that all such images come short, because they are all mere symbols.  “’Life’ may become for us the symbol of the highest value and the highest good, but these are in their turn but symbols of true being, and being itself is but a symbol of the final mystery.”[4]

Berdyaev also distinguishes three kinds of time, all of which are involved here in this current world process.  The most basic is cosmic time, which is cyclical; it is seen in the ongoing rotations of the seasons and in the idea that history seems to repeat itself.  Historic time moves forward in a line; events occur and then are gone.  Existential time occurs in its own way and is outside of time as we normally think of it. 

Events which take place in existential time… intrude upon the events of historical time, and interrupting the determined series of historical events, impart to them a higher meaning and throw light upon the destiny of man.  To this process we may give the name meta-historical and it comes to pass out of the existential depth… .  Thus the appearance of Jesus Christ is the meta-historical event par excellence.  It took place in existential time, but it broke through into the historical.[5]

            Through this forceful intrusion of meta-history into this cosmic phase of history , the eschatological nature of metaphysics is experienced, if only to very finite degree, in the here and now.

 

Being and non-being

            Borrowing heavily from the German Christian mystic, Jacob Boehme, Berdyaev takes up the notion of the Ungrund – non-being.  God is said to be born out of the Ungrund (though this should not at all be taken to mean a literal event occurring in time).  God creates the entire universe, including man, out of this non-being.  Though He can create from it, God has no power over the Ungrund, because it is no thing over which to have power.  It, and all things which proceed from it, are seen to have complete and total freedom – called meonic freedom after the Greek phrase mh. o;n.  So it is out of his meonic freedom that man falls into sin.

            In the Fall, man is in motion back toward the nothingness from whence he came.  “All rebellion against God is a return to non-being which assumes the form of false, illusory being, and is a victory of non-being over the divine light.”[6]

            Restated in other key Berdyaevian terms, this is the triumph of objectivity over subjectivity, or of phenomenon over noumenon.  The ‘objective world’ is not at all deserving of the title ‘real world.’  “There is no greater mistake than to confuse objectivity with reality, The ‘objective’ is that which is least real, least existential.”[7]

What we normally refer to as ‘objective truth’ is anything but.  “One must definitely refuse to apply the adjective ‘objective’ to truth.  What is called objective truth is that which is furthest removed from the Truth.”[8]

            Man’s greatest problem is that he has come to view himself and his fellow man as objects in this world.  But man is not an object.  Man is a subject.  And it is in his subjectivity, his freedom to be a creative and determining agent that man lives out the call and the image of God.

            According to Berdyaev, all philosophy that focuses on the object is to be deemed rather dubious, if not discarded altogether.  And most philosophy takes just such an approach.  It looks at the phenomena of the world about us and asks What is there?  This focus, which most philosophers take to be a key and basic question for ontology is, for Berdyaev, an absurd commitment to objectification.  He has some occasional praise for certain such philosophers, but for the most part, ontology is treated as idolatry, given the cultic title of ‘ontologism,’ and swept aside.

This valuation of the subjective over the objective leads Berdyaev to be quite a fan of Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s great discovery… consists in this, that what refers merely to appearances and phenomena must not be transferred to what is noumenal, to things-in-themselves. . . .  [Kant] makes an end of metaphysics of the naturalistic rationalist type, metaphysics which are derived from the object, from the world, and he reveals the possibility of metaphysics based on the subject, of a metaphysics of freedom.[9]

            But Kant comes short of a full understanding of the relationship between the subjective and the objective.  “It was a fundamental mistake in Kant that he recognized sensuous experience, in which appearances are the data, but he did not recognize spiritual experience, of which the data are noumenal.”[10]  While it may be true that ‘objective’ knowledge is worthless or even impossible, subjective knowledge is completely possible because of the existence of spirit.

            Spirit receives much importance in Berdyaev’s writing, as he looks for a term to supplant the overused and misapplied word being.  “Spirit is not being, but the existent, that which exists and possesses true existence, and it is not subject to determination by any being at all.  Spirit is not a principle, but personality, in other words the highest form of existence.”[11]

            The task of man, then, is to embrace the truly existent.  Through his god-endowed creativity and through his existence as spirit, man is to bring freshness and newness to the world.[12]  In doing this, man takes his proper primacy of place as subject and determines the make-up – indeed, even the reality – of the objective world, rather than being enslaved by objectification.  This is easier said than done, however, because of the seemingly superior strength of the objective world.  “But the acts of the creative subject meet with the opposition of the objective world, and the strength of freedom measures itself against the power of this resistance.”[13]  The imperative given to man, according to Berdyaev,  is to enter a partnership with God, to create as He does out of the wild and free Ungrund: “…act as though you could hear the Divine call to participate through free and creative activity in the Divine work…”[14]

 


A critical reflection on Berdyaev

            On page after page of both of the Berdyaev books which I have recently combed, I have found myself nodding my agreement.  At times I have been wide-eyed with amazement at the similarity of Berdyaev’s ideas to ideas of my own. 

“It can be said that the whole material world, the whole natural world, is a symbol of the spiritual world, a sign of events which take place in the spiritual world, of division, alienation, and ejection into a state in which causality operates from without.”[15]  This expresses a metaphysical conviction which has been firmly in place in my mind for quite some time.  Even more, in a rare use of an example Berdyaev says vary nearly the same words I have used myself: 

“Father”, “son”,  “birth” are words borrowed from our earthly life, but they are used, rightly and inevitably, to express the truth about the Divine life.  God as being-in-itself is neither “father” nor “son” and no birth takes place in Him; and yet something expressed by those symbols has an absolute significance.[16]

            In these and many other Berdyaev passages, I have found a very kindred spirit.  In most cases, though, there is a difference between us in the terms used and the angle taken.  For example, while Berdyaev’s emphasis in the discussion of the two worlds is often put forth in temporal terms, my own is presented in spatial terms.  That is, he will speak of historic versus existential time, whereas I speak of earthly versus heavenly realms.

            Moreover, there are many matters that surface in Berdyaev with which I must take issue in a more stark manner.  Some of this is on logical grounds.[17]  A key example of this for this paper is connected to Berdyaev’s notion that the Kingdom of God, or paradise, is beyond good and evil and that such distinctions are only the property of this current cosmic process.  I am forced to ask:  How could man ever have done anything to spoil paradise?  Perhaps he acted out of meonic freedom, but that does not explain how one violates a non-existent standard.

            While Berdyaev has much to say about the importance of mysteries and against rationalizing them, an enormous amount of his philosophy is based on overlooking or rationalizing them.  The Ungrund and meonic freedom are clever concepts, but they only arise from the human effort to justify God in light of the problem of evil.  Ironically, this puts Berdyaev in the company of such thinkers as the Thomists and Covenant theologians – thinkers who are brilliant enough to construct elaborate, well-reasoned systems of philosophy or theology which tend to leave the Scriptures themselves far, far behind.[18]

            In his protracted discussion of Boehme’s Ungrund[19] and elsewhere throughout his writings, Berdyaev paints such a vividly descriptive picture of the non-being, that it begins to seem much more like something than nothing.  The Ungrund  has quite a few characteristics for a non-existent . . . thing?

            The over all tone of Berdyaev’s voluminous treatment of meonic freedom has a (no doubt unintended) emasculating effect on God.  Over and over we read that God is powerless against meonic freedom.  All in all, the effort to make us creative, subjective collaborators with God leaves us with a rather diminutive and scrawny divine partner.

            Ultimately, the gravest of faults in Berdyaev all stem from a basic error about the relationship of philosophy to Scripture. 

Revelation is present in philosophical knowledge as a light from within.  Philosophical knowledge is essentially human and always contains an element of freedom.  It is not Revelation, but man’s free cognitive reaction to revelation.  If a thinker is a Christian, and believes in Christ he is not in the least bound to make his philosophy conform to the Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant theology; but he may acquire the mind of Christ and this will make his philosophy different from that of non-Christian thinkers.  Revelation cannot force upon philosophy any theories or ideal constructions, but it may give it facts and experiences which enrich knowledge.  If philosophy is to be at all possible, it must be free; it brooks no constraint.[20]

While it may be useful to give philosophy temporary exploratory license, it must ultimately be subject to revelation, or we have not really believed in revelation.  I opt for a more fideistic approach in this regard.

 

 

 

Works Consulted

 

 

Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Beginning and the End. Trans. R.M. French. New York: Harper

            & Brothers, 1952

 

 

_____. The Destiny of Man. Trans. Natalie Duddington. New York: Harper & Row, 1960

 

 

Edie, James M., James P. Scanlan, & Mary-Barbara Zeldin, eds. Russian Philosophy,

Vol. 3. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1976  —  as found at www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Sui-Generis/Berdyaev/essays/edie.htm

 

 

Smith, Brian. “The Epistemology of Nicolas Berdyaev.” Academic paper prepared for

            graduate credit at Western Seminary, 2002

 

 

 


[1] Perhaps on this point more than any other, Berdyaev shows his Orthodox underpinnings.

[2] The Destiny of Man (hereafter, DOM), p.285

[3] Interestingly, even the very idea of hell – in fact, any possible existence of a hell – has been removed.

[4] DOM, p.22

[5] The Beginning and the End (hereafter, B & E), pp.166-7

[6] DOM, p.26

[7] B & E, p.53

[8] Ibid., p.54

[9] B & E, p.9

[10] Ibid, p. 14

[11] Ibid, p. 103

[12] This preeminence of creative newness may be the reason that Berdyaev is so often interested in lauding other philosophers for making new developments, beign the first to posit a given idea, etc.

[13] B & E, p. 170

[14] DOM, p.298

[15] B & E, p.65

[16] DOM, p.18

[17]  Berdyaev’s criticism of Thomism is a good example of this, but it lies a bit beyond the confines of this paper’s subject matter.  But the basic point is this:  To spell out the shortcomings of scholastic philosophy in too much detail is, in my mind, to repeat its error.

[18]  This, I believe, is one of the great strengths of my own system of theology/philosophy.  At present, I call it Christo-protagonism; it centers around story (specifically Scripture) and remains narrative from start to finish.

[19]  B & E, p.105-11.  This whole passage reads like something out of the Silmarillion!

[20] DOM, p.4

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