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Shestov, Lev Isaakovich (1866–1938)


Lev Isaakovich Shestov, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker, was born in Kiev. His real name was Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann. Shestov studied law at Moscow University but never practiced it. He lived in St. Petersburg from the late 1890s until he migrated to Berlin in 1922; he later settled in Paris. He gave occasional lectures in Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam and made two lecture tours in Palestine, but he held no regular academic position.

Shestov called William Shakespeare his "first teacher of philosophy"; in his later years he interpreted Hamlet's enigmatic "the time is out of joint" as a profound existential truth. Shestov apparently turned to philosophy relatively late, perhaps in 1895, when he reportedly underwent a spiritual crisis. He himself never referred to such a crisis; in general, his works are less confessional and autobiographical than those of most existential thinkers. However, they are neither impersonal nor unimpassioned; intensity and engagement (in a religious and moral rather than a political sense) are hallmarks of his thought.

Shestov was perhaps most strongly influenced by Blaise Pascal, Fëdor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He discovered Søren Kierkegaard quite late and found his position highly congenial, but he had worked out his own existentialist position independently of Kierkegaard. Shestov's philosophical works are written in an aphoristic, ironic, questioning style reminiscent of Pascal's Pensées and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Shestov believed, with Kierkegaard, that subjective truth borders on paradox. "People seem shocked," he once wrote, "when I enunciate two contradictory propositions simultaneously. But the difference between them and me is that I speak frankly of my contradictions while they prefer to dissimulate theirs, even to themselves. They seem to think of contradictions as the pudenda of the human spirit" (quoted in de Schloezer, "Un penseur russe ," pp. 8990).

Shestov was not a systematic thinker. He attacked the views of others, sometimes massively; but he was content to suggest or sketch his own position. His writings focus positively on the question of religion and morality or religiously based morality; negatively on the critique of theoretical and practical rationalism. Among the rationalists whom he attacked by name are Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Benedict de Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Edmund Husserl.

The basic either/or of Shestov's thought is suggested by the title of his major work in philosophy of religion: Afiny i Ierusalim (Athens and Jerusalem). Athens is the home of reason, of a philosophical rationalism that insists on a neat and knowable cosmos ruled by eternal and unalterable laws. Jerusalem is the home of faith, of an existential irrationalism that stresses contingency, arbitrariness, mystery, and pure possibility. For God "all things are possible," even what René Descartes had called a logical absurdity, that is, causing what has in fact happened not to have happened.

Sometimes Shestov's attack on reason took the form of questioning reason's theoretical competence. Thus, he complained that theorists of biological and cosmic evolution, with their loose talk about "millions and billions of years" and about "eternal nature," were perpetrating a "monstrous absurdity."

More frequently Shestov made the rather different claim that rational knowledge neglects what is essentialthe individual, contingent, incomprehensible, and mysterious. "However much we may have attained in science," he wrote, "we must remember that science cannot give us truth . For truth lies in the singular, uncontrollable, incomprehensible, and 'fortuitous'" (In Job's Balances, p. 193). "We live," Shestov declared, "surrounded by an infinite multitude of mysteries" (Afiny i Ierusalim, p. 25).

Most frequently Shestov attacked the moral consequences of theoretical reason, its erosion and subversion of human values. Reason exhibits necessity and imposes nonfreedom. Faith assumes contingency and makes freedom possible. Rationalists recognize an eternal structure of being, a system of necessary laws that antedates any possible cosmic lawgiver. The necessity of such laws requires obedience. What is nonnecessary, whether contingent or arbitrary, admits of free decision and creativity. Shestov repudiated all obedience to necessity in the sense of acceptance of necessary evil, injustice, and inhumanity. There are scales, he declared, upon which human suffering weighs heavier than all the necessities of theoretical reason; such are "Job's balances."

In particular, Shestov rejected the Greek view, which he traced back to Anaximander, that coming to be (genesis ) is a kind of affront to the gods, a cosmic hubris, justly rewarded by the punishment of passing away (phthora ). He called this the "dreadful law which inseparably links death to birth." "In man's very existence," Shestov added, "thought has discovered something improper, a defect, a sickness, or sin, and has demanded that this be overcome at its root [by] a renunciation of existence" (Kirgegard ekzistentsial'naia filosofiia, p. 8).

In such passages Shestov may appear to have confused natural (descriptive) laws with moral (prescriptive) ones. However, his point could be made in terms of such a distinction; descriptive laws, insofar as the regularities which they describe are universal and necessary and not merely local or statistical, demand unconditional acceptance and thus in a sense function prescriptively.

In any case, Shestov wished to assert that rationalists, in absolutizing theoretical truth, inevitably relativize human life. In yielding to "self-evidence," they accept the "horrors of human existence" as something necessary and legitimate. Shestov, in contrast, was quite prepared to relativize theoretical truth if that was the price to be paid for absolutizing moral and religious values and thus "redeeming" the existing individual.

The Nietzschean strain in Shestov's thought appears most clearly in his denial of the validity of universal norms. Such norms function to limit and repress creativity. "The fundamental property of life," he wrote, "is daring; all life is creative daring and thus an eternal mystery, irreducible to anything finished or intelligible" (In Job's Balances, p. 158). Under the tyranny of ethical rationalism (a part of the general tyranny of reason, which develops naturally out of the initial autonomy of reason), we come to fear chaos because it is a loss of order. But "chaos is not a limited possibility; it is an unlimited opportunity" (ibid., p. 226).

For Shestov the decisive either/orreason and necessity or faith and freedomis not a choice, as rationalists would claim, between sanity and insanity. It is a choice between two kinds of madness (the distinction is reminiscent of Kierkegaard's distinction between "objective" and "subjective" madness). The first kind of madness is that of theoretical reason, which takes as ultimate, eternal, and universally obligatory those objective truths which rationalize and legitimize the "horrors of human existence." The second kind of madness is the Kierkegaardian leap of faith which ventures to take up the struggle against rationalized and legitimized horror at the point where such struggle is "self-evidently" doomed to defeat. Between these two kinds of madness, Shestov's own choice is clear and final.

See also Anaximander; Aristotle; Descartes, René; Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Existentialism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Husserl, Edmund; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Parmenides of Elea; Pascal, Blaise; Plato; Plotinus; Rationalism; Russian Philosophy; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


works by shestov

Dostoevskii i Nietsshe: Filosofiia tragedii. St. Petersburg, 1903. Translated by R. von Walter as Dostojewski und Nietzsche: Philosophie der Tragödie. Cologne, 1924. Also translated into French as Dostoevski et Nietzsche (La Philosophie de la tragédie). Paris, 1926.

Apofeoz bespochvennosti: Opyt adogmaticheskogo myshleniia (The apotheosis of groundlessness: an essay in undogmatic thought). St. Petersburg, 1905. Translated by S. S. Koteliansky as All Things Are Possible. New York: R.M. McBride, 1920. With a foreword by D. H. Lawrence.

Na Vesakh Iova. Paris: Sovremennyia zapiski, 1929. Translated by A. Coventry and C. A. Macartney as In Job's Balances. London: J.M. Dent, 1932.

Kirkegard i ekzistentsial'naia filosofiia (Glas vopiiushchego v pustyne). Paris: Dom knigi i Sovremennyia zapiski, 1939. Translated by T. Rageot and Boris de Schloezer from the manuscript as Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle (Vox Clamantis in Deserto). Paris: J. Vrin, 1936; reprinted 1948. English translation by Elinor Hewitt as Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1966.

Afiny i Ierusalim. Paris: YMCA Press, 1951. Translated from the manuscript by Boris de Schloezer as Athènes et Jerusalem: Essai de philosophie religieuse. Paris: J. Vrin, 1938.

works on shestov

Schloezer, Boris de. "Un penseur russe: Léon Chestov." Mercure de France 159 (1922): 82115.

Zenkovsky, V. V. Istoriia russkoi filosofii. 2 vols. Paris: YMCA Press, 19481950. Translated by G. L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy. 2 vols., 780791. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.

George L. Kline (1967)

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