The life and thought of Lev Shestov
by Bernard Martin
Lev Shestov (1866-1938) belongs to the small company of truly great religious philosophers of our time and his work deserves the closest attention of all who are seriously concerned with the problems of religious thought.
Unfortunately, Shestov’s stature has not hitherto been generally recognized nor has his work been widely studied. Even in Europe he did not enjoy any great popularity in his lifetime and now, a quarter of a century after his death, his writings are little read.
In America his name is practically unknown to the general public, and even many professional philosophers and theologians are unacquainted with his work.
Shestov established no school and had no real disciples to carry on his work. He did not believe that he had created any clearly defined, positive body of philosophic or religious thought that could simply be handed on to students, to be expounded and taught….
But perhaps an even more important reason for the relative obscurity into which Shestov has fallen is the fact that he is stubbornly and unrelentingly anti-modern. The gods of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century man – science, technology, the idea of inevitable historical progress, autonomous ethics and, most of all, rationalist systems of philosophy – were for him idols, devoid of ultimate meaning but terrible in their potentiality for destruction.
It is Shestov’s revolt against scientism and philosophic rationalism, a revolt carried on with immense polemical passion and extraordinary dialectical skill, that has drawn attention to his work but at the same time repelled most readers.
He used his vast erudition, as well as the ardent passion of his entire being and his extraordinary literary talents to forge a blazing indictment of rationalist and scientist metaphysics in order to regain for man what he considered the most precious of human gifts: the right to God and to the primordial freedom which God has given man.
Pink Floyd: Another brick in the wall
With God and for God literally
“all things are possible
Lev Shestov (1866-1938) is a Russian-Jewish philosopher of existentialism. Variously described as an irrationalist, an anarchist, a religious philosopher, Shestov’s themes were initially inspired by Nietzsche until he found a kindred spirit in Kierkegaard.
Because of his faith in a God who interferes in human life, Shestov was admired by Jewish religious philosophers such as Martin Buber, Aron Steinberg, and Shestov’s protégé, Benjamin Fondane. At the same time, Shestov’s thought has deep roots in the Russian tradition and is linked with such Russian thinkers as Vladimir Solov’ev, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Sergei Bulgakov.
It is significant that Shestov did not show a preference to the Jewish religion or the Jewish God, but held an ecumenical position that the God of Abraham was the same as the God recognized by Christians, Muslims, and mystics throughout the world. …
He is ever pitting the individual against the idea and defending God from human definition. Shestov was opposed to dogma, creed, cleric, and community.
Anything anthroposophizing in relation to God is demeaning and inadequate, including all the constructions of Western philosophy. With God and for God literally “all things are possible”; all the laws of science can be invalidated at any moment. God can be felt and “known” only by nonrationalist, mystical means.
Leo Sjestov: All things are possible
The Apotheosis of Groundlessness
An attempt of adogmatic thinking
The habit of logical thinking kills imagination. Man is convinced that the only way to truth is through logic, and that any departure from this way leads to error and absurdity. The nearer we approach the ultimate questions of existence, in our departure from logicality, the more deadly becomes the state of error we fall into. …
Philosophy must have nothing in common with logic; philosophy is an art which aims at breaking the logical continuity of argument and bringing man out on the shoreless sea of imagination, the fantastic tides where everything is equally possible and impossible.
Certainly it is difficult, given sedentary habits of life, to be a good philosopher. The fact that the fate of philosophy has ever lain in the hands of professors can only be explained by the reluctance of the envious gods to give omniscience to mortals. …
A true philosopher never chooses the middle course; he needs no riches, he does not know what to do with money. But whether he turns to the right or to the left, nothing pleasant awaits him.
Moral people are the most revengeful of mankind, they employ their morality as the best and most subtle weapon of vengeance.
They are not satisfied with simply despising and condemning their neighbour themselves, they want the condemnation to be universal and supreme: that is, that all men should rise as one against the condemned, and that even the offender’s own conscience shall be against him. Then only are they fully satisfied and reassured. Nothing on earth but morality could lead to such wonderful results.
Heretics were often most bitterly persecuted for their least digression from accepted belief. It was just their obstinacy in trifles that irritated the righteous to madness. “Why can they not yield on so trifling a matter? They cannot possibly have serious cause for opposition. They only want to grieve us, to spite us.” So the hatred mounted up, piles of faggots and torture machines appeared against obdurate wickedness.
Philosophers dearly love to call their utterances “truths,” since in that guise they become binding upon us all. But each philosopher invents his own truths. Which means that he asks his pupils to deceive themselves in the way he shows, but that he reserves for himself the option of deceiving himself in his own way. Why? Why not allow everyone to deceive himself just as he likes?
Man is such a conservative creature that any change, even a change for the better, scares him, he prefers the bad old way to the new good one.
A man who has been all his life a confirmed materialist would not consent to believe that the soul was immortal, not if it were proved to him more geometrico, and not if he were a constitutional coward, fearing death like Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
Men do not like to admit themselves wrong. It is absurd, but it is so. Men, trivial, wretched creatures, proved by history and by every common event to be bunglers, yet must needs consider themselves infallible, omniscient. What for? Why not admit their ignorance flatly and frankly?
Socrates wanted to think that he knew nothing — but he could not bring it off. He most absorbedly believed in his own knowledge; nothing could be “truth,” except his teaching; he accepted the decree of the oracle, and sincerely esteemed himself the wisest of men.
And so it will be, as long as philosophers feel it their duty to teach and to save their neighbours. If a man wants to help people, he is bound to become a liar.
Moralists are abused because they offer us “moral consolations.” This is not quite fair. … When he was young, Tolstoy wanted to make men happy; when he was old, and knew he could not make them happy, he began to preach renunciation, resignation, and so forth. And how angry he got when people wouldn’t have his teaching!
But if, instead of foisting his doctrines off on us as the solution of the ultimate problems, he had only spoken of the impossibility of finding satisfactory answers, and have offered himself as a pessimist, he would probably have obtained a much more willing hearing.
Now he is annoying, because, finding himself unable to relieve his neighbours, he turns to them and insists that they shall consider themselves relieved by him, nay, even made happy by him. To which many will not agree: for why should they voluntarily renounce their rights? Since although, God knows, the right of quarrelling with one’s fate, and cursing it, is not a very grand right, still, it is a right…
Every philosophic world-conception starts from some or other solution of the general problem of human existence, and proceeds from this to direct the course of human life in some particular direction or other.
We have neither the power nor the data for the solution of general problems, and consequently all our moral deductions are arbitrary, they only witness to our prejudices if we are naturally timid, or to our propensities and tastes if we are self-confident.
But to keep up prejudices is a miserable, unworthy business: nobody will dispute that. Therefore let us cease to grieve about our differences in opinion, let us wish that in the future there should be many more differences, and much less unanimity.
In so far as our common social existence demands it — let us try to come to an understanding, to agree: but not one jot more. Any agreement which does not arise out of common necessity will be a crime against the Holy Spirit.
To discard logic as an instrument, a means or aid for acquiring knowledge, would be extravagant. Why should we? For the sake of consequentialism? i.e. for logic’s very self? But logic, as an aim in itself, or even as the only means to knowledge, is a different matter. Against this one must fight even if he has against him all the authorities of thought beginning with Aristotle.
The Germans always try to get at ‘Allgemeingültigkeit’. Well, if the problem of knowledge is to fathom all the depths of actual life, then experience, in so far as it repeats itself, is uninteresting, or at least has a limit of interest.
It is necessary, however, to know what nobody yet knows, and therefore we must walk, not on the common road of Allgemeingültigkeit but on new tracks, which have never yet seen human feet.
Thus morality, which lays down definite rules and thereby guards life for a time from any surprise, exists only by convention, and in the end collapses before the non-moral surging-up of individual human aspirations.
Laws — all of them — have only a regulating value, and are necessary only to those who want rest and security. But the first and essential condition of life is lawlessness.
Laws are a refreshing sleep — lawlessness is creative activity.
A = A.
They say that logic does not need this postulate, and could easily develop it by deduction. I think not. On the contrary, in my opinion, logic could not exist without this premise. Meanwhile it has a purely empirical origin.
In the realm of fact. A is always more or less equal to A. But it might be otherwise. The universe might be so constituted as to admit of the most fantastic metamorphoses. That which now equals A would successively equal B and then C, and so on. At present a stone remains long enough a stone, a plant a plant, an animal an animal.
But it might be that a stone changed into a plant before our eyes, and the plant into an animal. That there is nothing unthinkable in such a supposition is proved by the theory of evolution. This theory only puts centuries in place of seconds. So that, in spite of the risk to which I expose myself from the admirers of the famous Epicurean system, I am compelled to repeat once more that anything you please may come from anything you please, that A may not equal A, and that consequently logic is dependent, for its soundness, on the empirically-derived law of the unchangeableness of the external world.
Admit the possibility of supernatural interference – and logic will lose that certitude and inevitability of its conclusions which at present is so attractive to us.
“Libertinism and sarcasm”
The Apotheosis of Groundlessness was not warmly received either by the general public or by the author’s friends in the literary circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Though the classic simplicity of Shestov’s language and his stylistic brilliance evoked widespread admiration, the Russian public by and large saw in the book mere libertinism and sarcasm. Even the critics emphasized its apparently nihilistic message and strongly decried its anti-rationalism…