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Shestov, Lev


SHESTOV, LEV (pseud. of Lev Issakovich Schwarzmann ; 1866–1938), religious philosopher and man of letters, born in Kiev. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, and Shestov absorbed an interest in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Much of his later work is at least congruent with his ḥasidic roots. He is known for his elegant and witty, aphoristic style, the range of his erudition and interests, and the trenchancy of his critique of rational speculation and systematic philosophy as modes of truth. His most outstanding gift as a writer was his ability to characterize thought and style by conveying a sense of the human experience that produced it, and he called his essays "pilgrimages through souls." Although he left no direct disciples, Albert Camus, Nicholas Berdayev, and D.H. Lawrence, among others, testified to his impact. He was close to, and appreciative of, even the philosophers whose efforts at system he set himself most strongly to oppose – Edmund Husserl and Karl Jaspers. His essays on Chekhov, Ibsen, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are famous.

Like the Ḥasidim, Shestov cultivated a respect for mystery and paradox that survived the most intensive rationalist training. He cared too much for inwardness, for inner experience as an access to salvation, to rest within what was orthodox in Judaism. At the same time he was too dismayed with the Logos of the Fourth Gospel, too smitten with love for the Old Testament God, with all his arbitrary caprice, to have other than short shrift for conventional or churchly Christianity. Yet Shestov was both a Jew and a Christian; and for him the fundamental antinomies were not between the Old and New Testament, or even between religion and atheism, but rather, as the titles of his last two books clearly state, between, Speculation and Revelation, and Athens and Jerusalem (1938). Well trained in logic and philosophy, Shestov was against rational speculation only insofar as he felt it attempted to limit human possibilities. He was against what he felt was Husserl's project of turning philosophy into a science, and believed that philosophy should concern itself primarily with questions that could not be answered by reason, but only by the "cries of Job" – i.e., by direct human experience. He believed that rational speculation ("Athens") had infected religion as well as philosophy. Against Philo and St. Thomas, Shestov cited Tertullian, who believed it was absurd; Luther, who grasped that the essence of action and therefore of "good works" was limitation, hence mediocrity, and that salvation could come by faith alone; and those biblical heroes of faith, Abraham and Job.

Trained as a lawyer at Kiev University, Shestov never practiced. Although early committed to radical politics, he never entertained illusions about the Bolshevik Revolution, and emigrated shortly after it occurred. In 1922 he became professor of Russian philosophy at the University of Paris.


J. Suys, Leo Sjestow's protest tegen de rede (1931), incl. bibl.; B. Martin, in: ccary, 77 (1967), 3–27; V.V. Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy (1953), 780–91; Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 7 (1967), 432–3; F.L. Vieira de Almeida, La Tranchée de Chestov (1926); B. Fondane, in: Revue Philosophique, 126 (1938), 13–50; B. de Schloezer, in: Mercure de France, 159 (1922), 82–115.

[Sidney Monas]

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