I was doing a little more research on links between thoughts and thinkers who have guided and inspired me over the years. One such is Nicholas Berdyaev (1872-1948), the Russian philosopher inspired to a great extent by German Idealism and the mysticism of Jakob Böhme, and not least by his belonging to the Russian Orthodox tradition. I discovered him through Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900). When I was a student in Fribourg in the 1980’s, I had many personal and intellectual problems with traditionalist (or any other kind of) Roman Catholicism and consulted a Jungian-inspired therapist in Lausanne. He pointed me to Soloviev, since for him, my therapy would consist in a re-balancing of my intellectual perspective. Thus I tilted away from Thomism and Scholasticism towards Romanticism and German Idealism. My regret is that I did not learn the German language better and immerse myself in that culture.
I came across Nicolas Berdyaev And Modern Anti-Modernism, a very long article that left me with the exulting impression – “I knew it!” My many musings on Romaticism and some not always very Christian ideas combined with my being attracted to Berdyaev and his “orthodox Gnosticism” via German mysticism. This article is a criticism of the modern world as it developed since the Enlightenment era, the very centre of the Romantic movement as it emerged from the ruins of the eighteenth century and the shadow of the guillotine. We will find much in common between Berdyaev and Nietzsche in this agonised cri de coeur.
I always used to see Nietzsche as one of the inspiring lights of Hitler’s Nazi nightmare and a sort of blazing Götterdämmerung with the proclamation of God’s death. After all, he is the philosopher of Nihilism who died insane. My curiosity drove me to begin to read his works and learn some of the reality of this enigmatic man who inspired the music of Richard Strauss and Wagner to some extent. As far as I can see, he was the son of a Lutheran pastor and lost his faith when he studied theology. He emerged as someone obsessed with the question of the human soul and its transcendence. This is another theme I have found in American Romanticism and the likes of Walt Whitman. After all, is not the human soul an image of God? Nietzsche began, for me, to emerge as a heroic victim soul in the search for the true human spirit in its most divine and transcendent. He was no materialist, nor was he a “proto-Nazi”. The Ubermensch was not some goon from the Waffen SS, but the person who stood above the mediocrity and materialism of the masses. Nihilism was not something he wanted or believed in, but what he observed in the “herd mentality”. Tell me more….!
History seems to be repeating itself at more or less the same rate every century, between the end of the classical era and Romanticism, the same thing at the beginning of the following century, and perhaps now in 2017. What was going on in Europe, especially Germany, was to follow suit in Russia. Berdyaev would give a Christian answer and meaning to Nietzsche. Communism was the “herd mentality” about to enslave Russia and impose a kind of cultural levelling on the world. So were the Fascist ideologies of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Between Berdyaev with his Christian faith and Nietzsche who had lost his, the new quest for a “holy grail” was one of self-knowledge. Romanticism, for Berdyaev, meant transcendence and self-knowledge. It also meant the freedom of the spirit, which would take primacy even over ontology and metaphysics. Materialism and uber-rationalism have made the world such that it alienates the person. This feeling would become the basis of Existentialism, the estrangement from the fallen world, no foreign concept to anyone who has read St John’s Gospel!
Berdyaev left his native Russia and entered France as a refugee as the Bolshevik revolution took hold. He arrived in a Europe devastated by World War I, and the same thought was everywhere in minds like those of T. S. Eliot, Oswald Spengler and René Guénon. The 1920 were prophetic times, and Hitler was already agitating in the beer halls of Munich. The only hope for man was transcendent reality, of God and himself. With the numbing collectivism of Communism and other forms of socialism, the only answer was a new synthesis of Personalism, and Pope John Paul II would carry the same theme forward through the fall of the Berlin Wall to the end of the Benedict XVI pontificate. For many philosophers in this tendency, the person could only be constituted by relationship with others and The Other. The self-aware person is beckoned to solitude in no different way than for the mystic monk (without the coffee!).
Berdyaev came up with his notion of the “aristocracy of the soul”, a theme that has fascinated me throughout the long years. It colludes with the nobility of the spirit, the American transcendentalist’s self-reliance, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch and the Titans of Greek mythology revived by the Romantics. It reflects the Gnostic notion of the spirituals, the intellectuals and the base materialists. Even the Calvinist notion of sovereign election goes along these lines in its original inspiration. This is hardly surprising given the life experience of Saint Augustine.
Another thing about Berdyaev was his ability to see the disease of his beloved Russia as only one symptom of a greater malaise: the cultural and spiritual ruin in the western world in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
In The End of Our Time, Berdyaev writes: “The Renaissance came to nothing, the Reformation came to nothing, the Enlightenment came to nothing; so did the Revolution inspired by the Enlightenment. And thus too will Socialism come to nothing“.
Today, we might shrug this off since Perestroika and Glasnost nearly thirty years ago. I remember the university friend coming knocking on my door in December 1989, telling me that the Berlin Wall was down and Communism was over – and I thought he was joking. The ideologies remain and have become more virulent in different forms. Berdyaev described them as “an envious denial of the being of another“.
Why would there be an intellectual relationship between Berdyaev the believer and Nietzsche the atheist? It was exactly in this distinction between the lower and the higher, not depending on money or birth, but on nobility of spirit. Perhaps we can read Nietzsche through Berdyaev to understand where that suffering soul was really going. This article is really quite thrilling to read.
I will read into the mystery of Nietzsche, without being put off or limited by his loss of faith and his resulting atheism. It was his business to work out the idea of non-existence after death. He obviously wanted to replace faith in God by faith in the Ubermensch, or the spiritually noble man. I don’t see why we can’t have both as in the thought of Berdyaev. Christ is the true Ubermensch, and though him we can also participate in this high aspiration. We are called to self-knowledge through all means available to us, and through this knowledge, love and acceptance. Then we can love others as we love ourselves.