Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich (1874–1948)

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Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev, a Russian religious philosopher, was born in Kiev in a family of the old nobility. He attended the Kiev military school. In 1894 he enrolled in St. Vladimir's University of Kiev as a natural sciences student, but after a year transferred to the department of law. Infatuation with Marxism and participation in the social-democratic movement led to his arrest, exclusion from the university (in 1898), and a three-year exile to Vologda. This represented a break with the aristocratic environment to which he had been accustomed, a break that he later called a fundamental fact of his biography, not only of his external biography but also of his inner one.

Berdyaev's Marxist period did not last long; in a short period of time he underwent an evolution that was characteristic for many Russian thinkers of the beginning of the twentieth centuryfrom Marxism to idealism to the search for God. Berdyaev was one of the initiators of three collections of essays that became famous and provoked much heated argument: Problemy idealizma (Problems of idealism; 1902), Vekhi (Landmarks; 1909), and Iz glubiny (De Profundis, Out of the depths; 1918). Berdyaev greeted the fall of the monarchy in February 1917 with great enthusiasm, but he assessed the October Revolution differentlyas the triumph of the destructive principle in the Russian revolution. He participated in the work of the Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ëv (Solovyov) Religious-Philosophical Society and was the founder of the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture (19181922), which became a non-Marxist spiritual center and continued the traditions of the Russian Silver Age after the Bolshevik coup. In 1919 Berdyaev was elected as a professor of Moscow University. Despite the fact that Berdyaev was remote from actual political struggle, in 1922 he and other outstanding figures of Russian culture were forcibly deported from Soviet Russia to Germany.

In 1922 Berdyaev founded the Religious-Philosophical Academy in Berlin, and in 1923 he became the dean of the Russian Scholarly Institute, established in Berlin to educate the Russian émigré youth. Also in 1923 he became a member of the council of the Russian Student Christian Movement, in which he participated until 1936. In 1924 he moved to France, where he edited the religious-philosophical journal Put' (The way; 19251940). The Religious-Philosophical Academy that he had founded also moved to Paris, and there he read lecture courses on "The Problems of Christianity," "The Fate of Culture," "Man, the World, and God," and so on. Berdyaev was one of the few Russian émigré thinkers who did not confine himself in the émigré milieu. During his lifetime he wrote a great many books that were published not only in Russian but also in other languages. His religious existentialism found a response among a number of West European thinkers; his philosophical ideas were esteemed highly by such figures as Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, Ernst Bloch, and Karl Barth. Berdyaev had a particular influence on the philosophical circles gathered around the journal Esprit, which was founded by Emmanuel Mounier in 1932 and inaugurated French personalism. In 1947 Cambridge University awarded Berdyaev the title "Honoris causa." Berdyaev died in 1948 in a suburb of Paris.

Metaphysics of Freedom

Berdyaev's religious-philosophical doctrine was greatly influenced by the ideas of Solov'ëv, Immanuel Kant, Fëdor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, and the seventeen-century German mystic Jakob Boehme. According to Berdyaev the distinguishing characteristic of philosophy consists in the fact that it is not reducible to a system of concepts, but that it rather represents a knowledge that speaks in the language of symbols and myths. In his own philosophy the central role belonged to freedom and creativity. Berdyaev (like Boehme) bestowed an ontological status on freedom; he believed that freedom has primacy in relation to natural and human being and that it is independent of God's being. Berdyaev often used Boehme's term Ungrund (groundlessness or bottomlessness) to describe such pre-ontic freedom. God expresses only the light or radiant side of this freedom, and the world created by him could also be radiant and good. But God cannot compel the world to be good, and one's free choice is not always in favor of the good (such was Berdyaev's interpretation of the biblical myth of the fall of man). That is how evil arises in the world. One has difficulty understanding why God did not create a world without sin, sicknesses, children's tears, and suffering. The answer is simple: Such a world would not have freedom, which lies at the foundation of the universe and which God does wish to limit and cannot limit.

Berdyaev traced the paradoxical and tragic dialectic of the good and freedom: on the one hand, it is obvious that one cannot be compelled to be good, but on the other hand, the freedom of the good also presupposes the freedom of evil in the world. Like Dostoevsky, Berdyaev rebelled against compulsory harmony imposed on human beings from outside. Without the freedom of sin, evil, trial, and suffering, one cannot understand harmony or the kingdom of God. Because of this tragic dialectic the world has to undergo the "trial by freedom" so that its choice in favor of the good will be free; and the fate of the world coincides, in the final analysis, with the fate of freedom in the world. The thesis that freedom has an uncreated and pre-ontic character is foundational for Berdyaev's philosophy, for if one supposes that freedom was created character, then God himself would turn out to be responsible for the evil of the world. However, for Berdyaev, God is revealed to humans, and humans, through their freely followed destiny, are revealed to God; and Revelation is thus a mutual process.

Berdyaev's Christianity was tragic and not fully orthodox. He had an acute sense of the presence of evil in the world and the substantiality of evil. This led him to pose the problem of theodicy, to attempt to understand the causes why evil is permitted in the world. If the first stage of Berdyaev's spiritual evolution was Marxist and the second idealistic in character, the third stage begins precisely with posing the problem of theodicy. It can be described as Berdyaev's Christian period.


In Berdyaev's worldview freedom and spirit are opposed to unfreedom and necessity, to the material "world of objects." For him these are two kinds of realities, interacting with each other. The world in which one lives is fallen precisely because it is dominated not by freedom but by necessity. In the reality that surrounds one, all things are regulated by law and unfree. (Here, Berdyaev's position converges with that of the other existentialists.) Reason and rational knowledge cannot help one free oneself from the necessity externally imposed on one, since reason and rational knowledge signify only adaptation to the world of objects.

Free people find themselves in a world dominated by necessity. And naturally they strive to escape from the power of the lower reality, where all things are regulated by law and are predictable. But they can escape only through creative activity, which is always a free expression of their selves. In a creative act people once again feel themselves to be a godlike being, not constrained by the laws of the material world. People are called to creative activity, to the continuation of the creation of the world, for the world is fundamentally unfinished. The primacy of freedom over being also determines the meaning of human life: the goal of people is not salvation, but creative activity; the creative act has intrinsic value.

Berdyaev proclaimed that the purpose of creative activity is not to accumulate cultural values, but to bring to an end the fallen world of necessity. For Berdyaev the social reality is only an objectification (symbolization or materialization) of the subjective personal spirit. He reinterprets Kant in his own manner, concurring with Kant's recognition of another reality that is more profound and hidden behind the objectified world.

For Berdyaev, social problems (e.g., hunger, poverty, and inequality) are secondary in comparison with spiritual problems. The elimination of hunger and poverty will not liberate people from the mystery of death, love, and creative activity. Furthermore, the conflicts between the individual and society, humans and the cosmos, history and eternity are only made more acute in the case of a more rationally ordered society. People are called to creative activity, but all creative activity is inevitably a failure, since the results of such activity are objectified and participate in the enslavement of man. "The ardent creative spirit" cannot recognize itself in works of art, books, or theoriesin its products. The results of creative activity are alienated from the creator. According to Berdyaev creative activity is "ascent out of the world," but a total break with the world is impossible; and this constitutes the tragic character of human existence.


According to Berdyaev every person lives not in one time, but in at least three times: Since people are simultaneously natural, social, and spiritual beings, there also exist three times for them: cosmic, historical, and existential. Berdyaev uses geometrical figures to describe these three times: the circle, the line, and the point. Cosmic time follows the natural and regular logic of circular motion; this time operates not with days and years but with epochs and millennia. By contrast, historical time follows a straight line and operates with smaller temporal categories. However, the most significant events occur in existential time; it is precisely in the latter that creative acts and free choice take place. For existential time the duration of an event is relative: sometimes for a person a day is longer and more significant than a decade, whereas sometimes a year slips by imperceptibly. A person's earthly time itself is only a phase, a period within eternity; it is rooted in eternity. The eternal is made incarnate in time; it invades time (just as heavenly history invades earthly history), and history becomes the history of the battle of the eternal against the temporal. But the forces are not equal. The eternal will triumph over all that is corruptible and fleeting: The objectified world will perish. All creative activity represents an escape from the chain of cause and effect, which is why every creative act shakes the foundations of cosmic necessity. Berdyaev's vantage point is an eschatological one; he believes that the meaning of history is in its end, in the triumph of the free spirit over objectification. Earthly history is the path to the other world; this history is too narrow and limited for the incarnation of the ideal; the problem of history can be solved only beyond the limits of earthly history, in eternity.

In trying to understand the tragic experience of the Russian revolution and the tendencies of European development, Berdyaev proclaimed that the areligious, humanistic epoch had reached its completion and that humankind had entered the sacral epoch of new Middle Ages, characterized by a religious renaissance and religious conflicts. Berdyaev claimed that, in the twentieth century, all significant ideas inevitably acquired a religious meaning. This goes also for communist ideology: using Soviet Russia as an example, he showed that this country had entered the epoch of new Middle Ages, for he considered Russian Marxism to be a type of religious faith with its savior (the proletariat), prophets (Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Il'ich Lenin), "doctrine of man's fall" (the history of the emergence of private property), paradise (communism), and so on. Russia was at the leading edge of the historical process, as it were; and after the revolution the Russian idea had acquired a universal significance.

Berdyaev identified six fundamental stages of world history. The first stage was that of antiquity, when people were submerged in the depths of natural necessity. Berdyaev associated the second stage with the fate of the Jewish nation, with its messianic consciousness, thanks to which the static ancient was replaced by the historical approach to reality. The third stage was that of the overcoming of the two preceding stages by Christianity, which introduced the idea of eschatology into the human consciousness. The fourth stage was the epoch of the Renaissance, when humanism was born and people's falling away from God began. The reaction to this was the Reformation, the fifth stage, when, in counterweight to the Renaissance spirit, people's independence was denied and their total dependence on divine providence was proclaimed. The sixth stage, according to Berdyaev's conception, was associated with socialism, with the attempt to realize the kingdom of God on earth.

By the will of the fates, Russia, without having experienced some of these historical stages, became humanity's testing ground for the realization of the totalitarian-socialistic ideal. But, in Berdyaev's opinion, Russian socialism also became the sign of the transition to the seventh stage, to the new Middle Ages, a period of religious-social synthesis. Berdyaev proposed his own version of socialism, which resembled its Marxist counterpart in only one thing: a fundamental antibourgeois attitude. For Berdyaev, socialism has a dual nature: it can create either a new free society or a new slavery. Berdyaev himself was a proponent of personalistic Christian socialism.

See also Barth, Karl; Bloch, Ernst; Boehme, Jakob; Communism; Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Engels, Friedrich; Evil; Existentialism; Humanism; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Marcel, Gabriel; Maritain, Jacques; Marxist Philosophy; Marx, Karl; Personalism; Reformation; Renaissance; Russian Philosophy; Socialism; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich.


works by berdyaev

The Meaning of History. Translated by George Reavey. London: G. Bles, 1936.

The Origin of Russian Communism. Translated by R. M. French. London: G. Bles, 1937.

The Russian Idea. Translated by R. M. French. London: G. Bles, 1947.

The Meaning of the Creative Act. Translated by Donald A. Lowrie. London: V. Gollancz, 1955.

works about berdyaev

Lowrie, Donald Alexander. Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nicolai Berdyaev. New York: Harper, 1960.

Vallon, Michel Alexander. An Apostle of Freedom: Life and Teachings of Nicolas Berdyaev. New York: Philosophical Library, 1960.

Olga Volkogonova (2005)

Translated by Boris Jakim

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Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich (1874–1948)

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