Berdiaev, Nikolai

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BERDIAEV, NIKOLAI (18741948), Russian philosopher and spiritual thinker. Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdiaev is one of the distinguished Christian existential philosophers of the twentieth century. His major themes were freedom, creativity, and eschatology. Born in Kiev, he died seventy-four years later in Clamart, a suburb of Paris, without realizing his desire to return to his homeland. Yet Berdiaev was first and foremost a Russian and a mystic, despite his indebtedness to the West.

Berdiaev's life can be divided almost evenly into three quarter-centuries: the years in Kiev, the years in Vologda, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow, and the years abroad in exile (primarily France). Berdiaev was the scion of a privileged family. His father held high military honors; his mother, born Princess Kadashev, had French royal blood. The family's means and status were quite comfortable; yet Berdiaev was restless. From his early youth he was disposed to regard the world about him as illusory, and to consider himself a part of another, "real" world. The child's consciousness of his spiritual aptitudean eschatological and mystical yearningwas later to find expression in his principal works. He spoke of his early outlook in his autobiography, Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography (1949): "I cannot remember my first cry on encountering the world, but I know for certain that from the very beginning I was aware of having fallen into an alien realm. I felt this as much on the first day of my conscious life as I do at the present time. I have always been a pilgrim" (p. 1).

Berdiaev's pilgrim personality is revealed in the following significant works (all available in English translation): The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), Dostoevskii (1923), Freedom and Spirit (1927), The Destiny of Man (1931), Solitude and Society (1934), The Origin of Russian Communism (1937), Slavery and Freedom (1939), and The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar (1951). Throughout these works, he philosophized as an existentialist on the concrete human condition from a Christian perspective that was at times mystical and nonlogical.

Berdiaev's insights, reinforced by personal example, made him both a lonely and a prophetic figure among his contemporaries. He identified himself as belonging to the Russian intelligentsia of the turn of the century, who were permanently in search of truth. He inherited the traditions of both the Slavophiles and the westernizers, of Chaadaev, Khomiakov, Herzen and Belinskii, and also of Bakunin and Chernyshevskii. He saw himself in the line of Dostoevskii and Tolstoi, as well as of Vladimir Solov'ev and Nikolai Fedorov. In summarizing the traditions that influenced him he declared, "I am a Russian, and I regard my universalism, my very hostility to nationalism, as Russian" (Dream and Reality, p. xiv).

Appointed professor of philosophy at Moscow University in 1920, Berdiaev was expelled from the Soviet Union two years later for his unwillingness to embrace orthodox Marxism. His subsequent break with Marxism was inevitable. He questioned Marxist subordination of individuality and freedom in its worship of the collective. Furthermore, he found the Marxist view of reality too limited, denying any world other than a temporal-materialistic existence. For Berdiaev, life in one world was flat; he believed that the human spirit seeks transcendencea striving toward the unlimited and the infinite. To live only in the realm of Caesar is to deny the realm of the spirit. Such restriction was contrary to his ideas of freedom, creativity, and hope. Only a Christian outlook, as embodied in his Russian Orthodox tradition, could satisfactorily embrace both heaven and earth and point to his understanding of the kingdom of God.

As a pilgrim philosopher, Berdiaev viewed the human task as stewardship toward God's End (eschatology); it was a view that called for a complete reevaluation of one's present values and style of life. For him the Christian outlook was far more revolutionary than Marxism.

The Christian gospel for Berdiaev pointed to an ethic of redemption culminating in the coming of the kingdom of God, a kingdom based on love rather than rights and rules. However, he felt strongly that the truth of the spiritual life cannot conform completely to earthly life. For him, there never had been, nor could there be, a Christian state, Christian economics, Christian family, Christian learning, or Christian social life. In the kingdom of God and in the perfect divine life there is no state, no economics, no family, no teaching, nor any other aspect of social life governed by law.

Berdiaev's vision of the Kingdom often led to misunderstandings throughout his lifetime. As a consequence, he was viewed as a maverick philosopher, with no desire for disciples to institutionalize his thoughts. The basic idealism in his thinking led Berdiaev to a serious devaluation of this world, a view that was more spiritualistic (gnostic-Manichaean) than biblical. Nevertheless, his lasting influence as a Christian philosopher and prophetic spirit lies in his ability to stimulate dialogue among divergent cultures and patterns of thought.


Calian, Carnegie Samuel. Berdyaev's Philosophy of Hope: A Contribution to Marxist-Christian Dialogue. Minneapolis, 1968. Contains a complete list of Berdiaev's works.

Clarke, Oliver Fielding. Introduction to Berdyaev. London, 1950.

Lowrie, Donald A. Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nicholai Berdyaev. New York, 1960.

Spinka, Matthew. Nicolas Berdyaev, Captive of Freedom. Philadelphia, 1950.

Carnegie Samuel Calian (1987)

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Berdiaev, Nikolai

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