by Bradley J. Birzer
One kind of weird but enticing academic puzzle for me is discovering and delving into the works of interesting figures of the 20th century who have been largely forgotten. And, by “interesting figures,” I mean especially those who espoused types of religious humanism and their allies.TIC mastermind Winston Elliott feels the same way, and one of the purposes of founding TIC was to bring the memory of these humanists back to the public and honor each as a vital ancestor to our own broad cause in the twenty-first century.
Everyone remembers, for example, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and, more recently, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Even if one hasn’t read any of their respective works, their names circulate with familiarity even in the darker corners of American civilization.
At a different, slightly lower level hover Irving Babbitt, Hilaire Belloc, Paul Elmer More, Willa Cather, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Josef Pieper, Walter Miller, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Russell Kirk.
But only a very few remember eccentrics such as T.E. Hulme, Aurel Kolnai, Leo Ward, Sister Madeleva Wolff, Wilhelm Roepke, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Owen Barfield, Theodore Haecker, David Jones, Tom Burns, and Bernard Wall.
Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), a member of this last group, has been sadly neglected as well, at least by those in conservative and libertarian circles.
He was, not surprisingly, connected to many Christian Humanists of his day. He knew the Maritains well, and while C.S. Lewis mostly dismissed his work as a sideline show, Christopher Dawson considered Berdyaev’s thought central to the restoration of the 20th-century West.
The trump card, here, though is from a fellow Russian. A figure no less important or heroic than Alexandr Solzhenitsyn discussed Berdyaev briefly in volumes II and III of The Gulag. He was, Solzhenitsyn wrote, offering perhaps the highest praise possible, “a man.”
In volume II, he described Berdyaev as the ultimate person to reject Soviet terror.
So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared? What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap? From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. As the very threshold, you must say to your self: ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die–now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory. But how can one turn one’s body to stone? Well, they managed to turn some individuals from the Berdyayev [sic] circle into puppets for a trial, but they didn’t succeed with Berdyayev. They wanted to drag him into an open trial; they arrested him twice; and (in 1922) he was subjected to a a night interrogation by Dzerzhinsky himself. Kamenev was there too (which means that he, too, was not averse to using the Cheka in ideological conflict). But Berdyayev did not humiliate himself. He did not beg or plead. He set forth firmly those religious and moral principles which had led him to refuse to accepted the political authority established in Russia. And not only did they come to the conclusion that he would be useless for a trial, but they liberated him. A human being has a point of view!”
In volume 3 of The Gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote simply: Berdyaev was a “philosopher, essayist, brilliant defender of human freedom against ideology.”Exiled from Russia in 1922 after surviving three Soviet trials against him, Berdyaev settled in Paris, living there until his death in 1948.
While in Paris, Berdyaev became an integral part of the Jacques and Raissa Maritain circle. Indeed, as Berdyaev remembers it in his fine autobiography, Dream and Reality, he and Jacques served as equal poles in the creation and perpetuation of the group. Though Maritain’s extreme Thomism struck Berdyaev as a form of Catholic ideology, he respected the French philosopher immensely. He did joke, however, that Maritain’s fear and rejection of Protestantism and Protestants was a strange element of the convert, implying a certain irrationality.
When Christopher Dawson and Tom Burns first formed the Order group in Chelsea, London, employing the resources of the publishing house Sheed and Ward to unify all humanists of British and Europe backgrounds, Dawson immediately sought out Maritain and Berdyaev. Each contributed to one of the best book series of the last century, the 16 volume Essays in Order. As it turned out, Essays in Order served as the one attempt in the twentieth century to bring all Christian Humanists together into a unified Republic of Letters.
When Essays in Order folded, Dawson continued the same project with a second friend, Bernard Wall, publishing a journal, Colosseum. Again, Dawson and Wall sought out and received the contributions and acclaim of Berdyaev and Maritain.
One of Berdyaev’s most interesting books–and presumably the reason Dawson thought so highly him–was his The End of Our Time, written between 1919 and 1923 and published for the first time in English in 1933 by Sheed and Ward. In almost every way, though clearly a Russian and a member of the Eastern Orthodox faith, Berdyaev anticipated the major arguments of the English-Welsh Roman Catholic Dawson.
In particular, Berdyaev stressed the primacy of culture and theological issues over politics and economics as truer forms of reality. Almost the entire western world, Berdyaev argued, had embraced some form of materialism after the collapse of Christendom. And, this moved the world rapidly toward unreality.
“We must begin to make our Christianity effectively real,” Berdyaev wrote, “by a return to the life of the spirit.” Economic matters, he continued, “must be subordinated to that which is spiritual, [and] politics must be again confined confined within their proper limits.”
As with Dawson, Lewis, and others, Berdyaev feared that the new states of the twentieth century–regardless whether democratic or vicious–would be totalitarian, something new in the world. These emerging states of the 20th century would be something that St. Paul had not anticipated when he wrote Romans 13 but would instead resemble something that St. John envisioned but could not explain beyond a dream-like mysticism. These new states would render all to Caesar, establishing themselves as religious bodies and entities. The result: a “New Leviathan. And all the ends and real values of life are swallowed up in this malignant and terrifying collectivism, all spiritual culture is wiped out. Such a monster has not got a human soul, for it has got no human soul [ ] at all.”
Only when society has realigned itself–individual by individual and community by community through free will and persuasion, for Berdyaev rejected all forms of statist coercion (whether outright socialistic or through some form of state-capitalism or capitalistic cronyism) – ”towards divine objects” could humanity save itself. Berdyaev wrote in terms reminiscent of Dawson and other quasi-mystics since the French revolution:
The substance of life can only be religious. It is an entering into the life of God, that is, into true Being. The will of the people, the proletarian will, is a sinful will; it therefore pertains to notbeing and can bring about only a kingdom of notbeing.
One can read hints of Burke, Novalis, de Maistre, and de Tocqueville in Berdyaev’s criticisms of the new ideological states of both the so-called left and right.One can also see elements of Berdyaev’s mysticism in his claim that the Russian people, while freely choosing “comradeship in AntiChrist,” have now (as of 1917) provided incontrovertible proof of evil in the world and demonstrated what the loss of Christendom really means the world.
As with de Tocqueville who a century earlier had believed that Americans could choose a democracy of excellence or one of mediocrity, Berdyaev thought the same choice was being presented to the 20th century West. Just as de Tocqueville had feared Americans would choose poorly, Berdyaev believed the same about the West of his day.
At the conclusion of The End of Our Time, Berdyaev once again stressed the unreality of politics–as a distraction and a hindrance from that which really matters, the order of the human soul towards the highest things, especially God and eternity.
Or, as Berdyaev put it, politics attempts to remove us from “the interior life.”
For the Christian to assume victory over the next century, he concluded in 1923, would be sheer folly. Throughout the West, in every type of regime (free and unfree), he feared ruin. Far from establishing a century of progress, God was calling Christians back into “the catacombs, and from there to conquer the world anew.”
As Christians–of whatever stripe–”we are entering an epoch of ill-omened revelations and we must fearlessly face up to realities. And there is found the meaning of our unhappy joyless age.”
Reading Nicholas Berdyaev is not uplifting, but it is truly enlightening, in the best sense of this distorted word.
Certainly, looking back from 90 years after Berdyaev wrote these words, one would be hard pressed not to see not only the mystic but also, perhaps even more importantly, the prophet.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Birzer may be found here.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.