March 01, 1998

Berdyaev and the Russian Idea

In late 1922, Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) was forced into exile, along with the flower of Russian culture (suffice it to mention just the philosophers Pitirim Sorokin, Semyon Frank, Nikolai Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov). Although he is best known as a religious philosopher, the range of Berdyaev’s work defies such a narrow term. Even a simple, incomplete list of his works shows the variety of his interests: The Philosophy of Freedom (1911), The Meaning of Creation (1916), The Fate of Russia (1918), The Philosophy of Inequality, The Meaning of History (1923), The World View of Dostoyevsky (1923), The New Middle Ages (1924), The Russian Idea (1946), Self-Knowledge (1949) ...

Berdyaev’s philosophy has already been the subject of many books and is far too complex to address in such a small space. In brief, Berdyaev admitted to being a dualist. On the one hand, he distanced himself from a world that he saw as harsh and destructive. On the other, he passionately attempted to transform that world. Berdyaev believed in the cooperation of God and man, in divine humanity. He spoke of the Kingdom of God as the ultimate ideal but believed that this kingdom must be built not only by God but also by human effort. Along with this went other contradictory convictions. Knowledge is dead – Berdyaev believed, faith alive. And human creation is a means of changing the world, yet any creative act is doomed.

Berdyaev did not believe that history is capable of progressive motion. He felt that history is filled with contradictions between good and evil and that the struggle between these two forces will culminate in “metahistory” – or the Kingdom of God.

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