Berdyaev, Nikolai

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Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874—1948) was born in Kiev, Russia, on March 6, and became a leading critic of positivism and scientism among the Russian intelligentsia. Forced into exile by the Communists in 1922, Berdyaev (also transliterated as Berdiaev, with the first name often anglicized as Nicholas) died in Clamart, France, on March 23.

Berdyaev's religious philosophy emphasizes human freedom and the person as distinct realities, not reducible to the empirical forms of choice behavior or individualism as described in the partial perspectives of the social sciences. On the basis of his personalism, Berdyaev argues against superficial pseudoreligious faith in the power of science and technology, a faith that he finds expressed in the ideology of materialistic determinism prominent among Russian intellectuals during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In The Russian Idea (1946), Berdyaev examines this century-long history of revolutionary intellectual culture that culminated in the Communist Revolution during his own generation, in an analysis that justifies his own odyssey from atheistic materialism to philosophical idealism and then back to a deepened religious faith in Orthodox Christianity.

In his earlier The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), Berdyaev sees creativity as central to humanity and is stimulated by the biblical account of humans as created in the image of God to argue for a creative response to all aspects of life. The ground of meaning lies more with the free response to phenomena than with their objective descriptions. Indeed cognitive knowledge itself involves an intuitive symbolic realism akin to that of the orthodox experience of icons, which are understood as symbols that participate in the reality they symbolize, and in whose presence truth is revealed. Furthermore contrary to the philosophical traditions derived from Greek thought, Berdyaev sees being as part of a dynamic spiritual and revelatory process. From this perspective, world history is divided into three great epochs: one in which the existence of sin is revealed, another in which redemption from sin is made possible through divine adoption, and a third in which humans themselves become divinized cocreators of reality. What is important for Berdyaev is to recognize the ways in which creativity in science and technology can serve as false substitutes for spiritual cocreation in this third epoch.

In The Destiny of Man (1937) Berdyaev draws on the thought of the German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) concerning the Urgrund or nothingness from which God creates within eternity. The primordial uncreated freedom of human beings derives from the Urgrund; freedom is not created by God, although God freely participates with humans in the God-Human Christ and the tragic process of redeeming the world from evil, suffering, and death. Berdyaev likewise adapts Boehme's thought on Sophia to develop an arguably more orthodox theology than found, for example, in the erotic mysticism of Vladimir Solovyev (1853–1900). Slavery and Freedom (1939) contains Berdyaev's most extensive reflections on the person and the necessity of relation to others, while describing in detail human self-enslavement (Hegel's bad faith) to the various allures of nature and culture. Berdyaev's thought here parallels that found in I and Thou (1923) by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (1878–1965).

As one of the earliest thinkers to recognize how science and technology can pose special problems for Christian culture, in an essay on "Man and Machine" (1934), Berdyaev argues that science and technology destroy the earth-centered, telluric or autochthonic forms of religious life, and threaten to ensnare human freedom in a depersonalized world. In such circumstances, the spiritual becomes more important than ever. Technical civilization calls for a spiritual renewal to challenge the limitations of science and technology just as science and technology challenged the limitations of nature.

Through his extensive writing Berdyaev gained an audience beyond the narrow Russian emigree circle in France. He became a forbidden writer widely read in the Soviet Union, and remains a vital source for critical reflection on science and technology. Perhaps because of this a Berdyaev revival has led to many of his writings being made available on the internet in both Russian and ongoing translations.


SEE ALSO Christian Perspectives.


Allen, Edgar Leonard. (1951). Freedom in God: A Guide to the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev. New York: Philosophical Library.

Berdyaev, Nicholas. (1934). "Man and Machine." In The Bourgeois Mind and Other Essays. New York: Sheed and Ward. Collects four journal articles. Reprinted in Philosophy and Technology, eds. Carl Mitcham, and Robert Mackey (New York: Free Press, 1972).

Berdyaev, Nicholas. (1937). The Destiny of Man, trans. Natalie Duddington. London: G. Bles.

Berdyaev, Nicholas. (1944 [1939]). Slavery and Freedom trans. R. M. French. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.

Berdyaev, Nicholas. (1962 [1916]). The Meaning of the Creative Act, trans. Donald A. Lowrie. New York: Collier.

Berdyaev, Nicholas. (1992 [1946]). The Russian Idea, trans. R. M. French. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books.

Lowrie, Donald A. (1974). Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nikolai Berdyaev. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Slatte, Howard Alexander. (1997). Personality, Spirit, and Ethics: The Ethics of Nicholas Berdyaev. New York: P. Lang.

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Berdyaev, Nikolai

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