Berdyayev, Nikolai

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BERDYAYEV, NIKOLAI (1874–1948), Russian philosopher.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyayev was born into an aristocratic family on 18 March (6 March, old style) 1874, near Kiev. Rather than follow the family tradition of military service, he entered Kiev University in 1894. His formal education ended in 1898, when he was arrested and expelled for socialist activity. Two years later he was sentenced to a three-year exile in Vologda, a town in the northern part of European Russia. Soon after returning to Kiev, he met and married Lydia Trushova. They had no children.

Berdyayev was a prominent figure in the intellectual debates of his time. In 1894 he helped launch a "back to Kant" movement intended to supplement Marxism with an autonomous ethic, among other goals. In 1902 he rejected Marxist materialism, but not socialism. That year, he participated in the pathbreaking symposium, Problems of Idealism, which challenged the positivism, rationalism, and materialism championed by the intelligentsia. In 1909 he participated in the symposium Landmarks, a harsh critique of the revolutionary intelligentsia. Between 1900 and 1916, Berdyayev published seven books and over seventy articles on literature, philosophy, religion, and contemporary issues. Throughout, he emphasized the supreme value of the person and extolled freedom, opposing it to "natural necessity" and Isaac Newton's "mechanical universe."

In "The Ethical Problem of the Light of Philosophical Idealism" (his contribution to Problems of Idealism), Berdyayev linked ethics, metaphysics, religion, and politics. Arguing that Kant's idea of the autonomous value of every individual provides the philosophic basis for ethical individualism, and emphasizing Immanuel Kant's distinction between "is" and "ought," Berdyayev advocated a metaphysical liberalism based on personhood (a concept that encompasses body, soul, and spirit), and urged Russians to struggle for personal freedom, legal equality, self-realization, and moral self-perfection. In the same essay, he praised Friedrich Nietzsche for overcoming Kant's "middle-class morality" and preparing the free morality of the future, the morality of strong human individuality. According to Berdyayev, "Man [Chelovek] has not only the right but the duty to become a Superman, because the Superman is the path from man to God."

Around this time, Berdyayev became interested in the "new religious consciousness" being propagated by Dmitri S. Merezhkovsky, cofounder of the Religious-Philosophical Society of St. Petersburg (1901–1903, 1906–1917) and of the journal Novy put (New path). In 1904 Berdyayev moved to St. Petersburg to become coeditor of this journal. He was profoundly influenced by Merezhkovsky's contentions that people need religious faith, that Christianity must be reinterpreted to address the problems of modern life, and that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent.

When Novy put folded, Berdyayev became coeditor of its successor journal Voprosy zhizni (1905; Problems of life). He was instrumental in reviving the Religious-Philosophical Society in 1906. In 1908 Berdyayev moved to Moscow and became active in the Vladimir Soloviev Religious-Philosophical Society (1906–1917).

During the Revolution of 1905, Berdyayev at times expressed a millennial enthusiasm and praised anarchism, but at other times he criticized the intelligentsia's extremism and advocated a "neutral socialism," one guaranteeing everyone the necessities of life, as distinct from "socialism as religion," a dogmatic, obscurantist creed that would lead to despotism. Berdyayev's social ideal was a personalistic socialism similar to the Slavophiles' conception of sobornost, a free society united by love and common ideals in which the members retain their individuality (understood as self-expression). He supported the Constitutional Democrats (the Kadets), but reluctantly, because he considered them too rational, too lacking in religious passion, to appeal to the masses.

In "Philosophical Truth and the Moral Truth of the Intelligentsia" (his contribution to Landmarks), Berdyayev contended that the intelligentsia's utilitarian approach to truth as justice and law (pravda) has rendered it indifferent to philosophical truth (istina), and that the regeneration of Russia requires a new consciousness in which truth as justice (pravda) and philosophical truth (istina) are organically united. Such a consciousness can be achieved only on the basis of positive religion. Landmarks went through five printings in one year and provoked over two hundred newspaper and journal articles in praise or denunciation of its assault on the intelligentsia.

In The Meaning of Creativity: An Attempt at the Justification of Man (1916), which Berdyayev considered his most significant work, he maintained that creativity is not permitted or justified by religion; creativity is itself religion and is man's vocation. He believed that humankind was on the verge of an eschatological leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. The Third Testament (Merezhkovsky's term) will be the work of man. By "man" Berdyayev meant men. He considered "woman" generative but not creative.

Berdyayev hailed the February Revolution of 1917, but not the October Revolution, which he considered a purely negative phenomenon. He remained active in Russian intellectual and cultural life until the government expelled him from Russia at the end of 1922. He settled in Clamart, near Paris, in 1924 and died there on 23 March 1948.

See alsoIntelligentsia; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Russia; Slavophiles; Soloviev, Vladimir.


Primary Sources

Berdyayev, Nikolai. The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. New York, 1955. Translation of Smysl tvorchestva: Opyt opravdanie cheloveka (1916).

——. Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography. Translated by Katharine Lampert. New York, 1962. Translation of Samopoznanie (1949).

——. "Philosophical Truth and the Moral Truth of the Intelligentsia." In Landmarks, edited by Boris Shragin and Albert Todd, 3–22. Translated by Marian Schwartz. New York, 1977. Second English translation, as "Philosophical Verity and Intelligentsia Truth." In Landmarks, translated and edited by Marshall S. Shatz and Judith E. Zimmerman, 1–16. Armonk, N.Y., 1994. Translations of Vekhi (1909).

——. "Socialism as Religion." In A Revolution of the Spirit: Crisis of Value in Russia, 1890–1924, edited by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal and Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, 107–133. Translated by Marian Schwartz. New York, 1990. Translation of "Sotsializm kak religiia" (1906).

——. "The Ethical Problem of the Light of Philosophical Idealism." In Problems of Idealism, translated and edited by Randall A. Poole, 161–197. New Haven, Conn., 2003. Translation of Problemy idealizma (1902)

Secondary Sources

Ermichev, A. A., ed. N. A. Berdiaev: Pro et contra. St. Petersburg, 1994.

Lowrie, Donald A. Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nicolai Berdyaev. New York, 1960. Reprint, Westport, Conn., 1974.

Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer. "Philosophers." Chap. 2 in New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism, 51–67. University Park, Pa., 2002.

Zenkovsky, V. V. "The Religio-Philosophic Renaissance in Early Twentieth Century Russia." Chap. 26 of vol. 2 of A History of Russian Philosophy, 754–791. Translated by George L. Kline. New York, 1953.

Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal

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