Lev Shestov

Lev Shestov

Lev Shestov (1866-1938) emigrated shortly before Lenin began his attack on The 160.  He was  a formidable existentialist philosopher, and close colleague of Nikolai Berdyaev for many years.  As Berdyaev remembered in his end-of-life autobiography,

“Public lectures and discussions were well attended, and sometimes people flocked to the meetings in enormous numbers. The guiding concern was to discover the ultimate spiritual meaning of the matter under discussion, whether it bore on philosophy, history, culture, economics, or politics. Belinsky would say, after an argument had gone on all night: “We can’t go home, we haven’t yet decided the question of God.” So it was with us, when Bulgakov, Gershenzon, Shestov, Ivanov, Bely and the others foregathered.[a]

While they congregated the same circles in Russia before the Revolutions and after, this continued after Berdyaev, then Bulgakov and finally Frank all joined Shestov in Paris.  There was a long held respectful relationship between all of these powerful thinkers.  Shestov also opened doors to other French intellectuals than the Thomists and Personalists with whom Berdyaev was so well connected: Jules de Gaultier, Georges Bataille, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Albert Camus in France, and D. H. Lawrence, Isaiah Berlin and John Middleton Murry in England.  He also was well acquainted with Edmund Husserl, who, in 1929, urged him to study Søren Kierkegaard.   The article on Shestov in Wikipedia is extremely comprehensive and well done.

My own work only touched on Shestov in a tiny way… in the series of meetings the Franco-Russian thinkers held in 1930 on the subject of existentialism which had a formative influence on Gabriel Marcel and helped evolve the relationship between Maritain and Berdyaev:

Interlude on Existentialism and Shestov

By September 1930, Gilson had agreed to join the proposed society which seems to have formally begun at the end of that year.[1] In addition to Berdyaev, they invited Lev Shestov, who was himself a founder of existentialism. It is, as yet, impossible to recreate the discussions which might have been held within this august circle, however a glance at its known participants provides some insight as to its intellectual import. Marcel, Berdyaev and Shestov were all to fully embrace the existential approach, and to redefine it within a spiritual framework; in this they moved in concert with the few other religious existentialist such as Martin Buber and Karl Jaspers. Maritain and Gilson, on the other hand, remained Thomists devoted to the scholastic methodology for their entire careers and, while informed about the new currents, could never accept their subjectivity and amorphous nature.[2]

Berdyaev remembered the meetings in a most flattering light considering the rather unremitting critical tone of his autobiography:

I must not omit to mention the philosophical gatherings at Gabriel Marcel’s home: they were, in my opinion, the only kind of meetings likely to have a permanent value. They were attended not only by the French but by Germans, Russians and Spaniards, both young and old, whose contribution had a decisive influence on the work of the group. It was probably the only place in France where problems of phenomenology and existentialist philosophy were seriously studied.[3]

He admired Marcel, although they later diverged over political issues, and commended him for his thorough knowledge of German philosophies which he found so uncommon in France. However, aside from Marcel’s idea of “the mystery” – of unavoidable subjectivist involvement in the object of study – Berdyaev made no mention of his works or later central tracts on being.

Lev Shestov, also must have rather shocked the “seeking” Marcel, for he was a philosopher who made no concessions to other’s egos or feelings. This singular Russian was one of the first to elucidate the existentialist-type of philosophy at the turn of the centur through penetrating comparisons of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, through an examination of Tolstoy. By this time, his most intense scrutiny was reserved for the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.[4] As an existentialist, Shestov quite deserved the label of being Nietzsche’s most authentic follower: He based his entire philosophy upon an unreserved hatred of rational thought and systematization. He bluntly resolved the Orthodox/Catholic dispute about the “Fall” in a way which almost no one could accept:

In what is only an empty phantom, in nothingness, man suddenly perceives omnipotent necessity. That is why everything that the fallen man undertakes to save himself only brings him closer to the abyss. He wishes to flee necessity and he changes it into an immutability from which it is impossible to escape. Certainly he can not fight against necessity, but he can hate it, curse it. But immutability must be adored, for it leads him to the kingdom of the spirit, it gives him the “eyes of the mind” and thanks to the “third kind of knowledge” it brings to birth in him “love for what is eternal and infinite, the intellectual love of God.”[5] 

In many ways his speculations about the forced subjection of human activity to rational ideas anticipated Marcel’s later castigations against mass technocracy.[6] On another plane, his commitment to freedom philosophically superseded that of Berdyaev.

The Last Judgement decides whether there shall be freedom of will, immortality of the soul, or not – whether there shall be a soul or not. And maybe, even the existence of God is still undecided. Even God waits, like every living human soul on the Last Judgment. A great battle is going on, a battle between life and death, between real and ideal, and we men do not even guess what is happening in the universe and are deeply convinced that we need not know, as though it did not matter to us! We think that the important thing is that we should arrange our lives as well and as comfortably as possible, and that the principal use of philosophy itself, as of all human creations, is to help us attain a placid and carefree existence…Consequently our whole moral struggle, even as our rational inquiry – if we once admit that God is the last end of our endeavors – will bring us sooner or later to emancipation not only from moral valuations, but also from reason’s eternal truths. Truth and the Good are fruits of the forbidden tree; for limited creatures, for outcasts from paradise. I know that this ideal of freedom in relation to truth and the good cannot be realized on earth – in all probability does not even need to be realized. But it is granted to man to have prescience of ultimate freedom.[7]

Although Berdyaev derided the rigid framework into which most philosophy (especially Marxism) and theology (for example Thomist) had been placed, he still adhered to some basic systematization, to logic and ethics, in order to describe his fundamental beliefs about relationships and development.[8] Shestov, on the other hand, would not allow such strictures. In a most extreme stance, he derided every such structure as falsely created, idolatrous, and negative.

In his approach, he proffered one solution to the problem which tormented Marcel. Indeed, Shestov asserted, it was quite possible to go beyond good and evil and yet retain faith. In his conception, all that was required was to follow the example of non-rational beings and accept, finally, that there are things in the universe which may not be understood.

Look at the moth that throws itself fearlessly into the flame without asking anyone whomsoever, without asking itself, what will happen to it and what awaits it. You also, sooner or later, will have to throw yourself into the flame where all your eternal truths will be consumed in a trice like the wings of the moth.[9]

Embrace faith, discard reason: this was Shestov’s existentialist answer to mankind. His extreme expressions did identify the crucial paradox which undermined Marcel’s faith in that he wanted to be a good Catholic, but felt unable to accept the constraints of the doctrine so rigidly expressed in rational structures. However, his solution would not have permitted Marcel to remain a “good” Catholic (especially an obedient one), nor would it earn him respect in most philosophical circles. Such a risk was beyond Marcel; as Berdyaev wryly remarked, “I was less happy with the fact that, despite his avowedly searching and questioning attitude, he always gave the impression of knowing exactly where he wanted to arrive, namely in the Catholic Church.”[10]

  •      [a] Berdyaev, Dream and Reality , 164-165.
  •      [1] Gabriel Marcel, letter to Charles du Bos, 16 September 1930, fond Gabriel Marcel, Carton 16, Bibliothèque Nationale, France.
  •      [2] du Bos avoided any complete elaboration of his philosophy before his untimely death in 1939, preferring to restrict himself to literary criticism and commentary about the mood of his times.
  •      [3] Berdyaev, Dream and Reality 266.
  •      [4] Lev Shestov, Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, trans. Elinor Hewitt (1936; Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970).
  •      [5] Bernard Martin, ed., A Shestov Anthology (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970) 314.
  •      [6] Gabriel Marcel, Man against Mass Society, trans G. S. Fraser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
  •      [7] Bernard Martin, ed., A Shestov Anthology 58.
  •      [8] This point is well illustrated in James C. Wernham, Two Russian Thinkers: an Essay in Berdyaev and Shestov (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1968) 84-92.
  •      [9] Bernard Martin, ed., A Shestov Anthology 33.
  •      [10] Berdyaev, Dream and Reality 266.





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