Berdyaev's philosophy of history
Williams, Bert Charles
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The problem of this dissertation is to present a critical exposition of Nicolas Berdyaev's philosophy of history. An adequate philosophy of history will not be reached by attention to objective, abstract, and general conceptions which but lead to intellectual superstructures devoid of substantial existence, but only by concentration upon the subjective, the concrete, and the particular which are of the very substance of history. This personalistic, anthropological, existential approach sees history not as an objective process, but primarily as a spiritual event which may he apprehended inwardly through the "historical memory" stimulated into activity by the acceptance of religious myth, the greatest being that of the Fall. This myth is not to be accepted conventionally, naturalistically, nor literally but to be subjected to a speculative process leading to the discovery of deeper spiritual truths revelatory of inner reality. The temporal, historical, physical facts are not self-explanatory and self-sufficient but are to be comprehended in terms of the eternal, metaphysical, spiritual reality. This latter is not a static, monistic, immobile perfection but contains a tragic potential reveal1ed in a dynamic dualism.. It is most adequately portrayed in the Christian myth of the divine Hypostases and further illustrated by the German mystical doctrine of the Gottheit or Ungrund from which by a theogonic process the creator-God and freedom are manifested. God's creative task is conquering the freedom of non-being. Evil is accounted for by God's powerlessness over this recalcitrant factor. Man, the image and likeness of God and possessing freedom, is called to creative cooperation in God's work but rebels against Him only to discover his freedom illusory as he becomes enslaved to his lower nature. Man gains freedom and is restored to his original wholeness through the mediation of Christ the God-Man whose grace enables man to make freely his response to God and to help in the work of conquering non-being. Man and his historical existence are thus rooted in the eternal and make a contribution to God in whom alone their meaning is retained. The scientific study of man beginning with his immersion in nature presupposes his Fall. Ancient non-Jewish cultures lack with primitive man an historical sense in being thoroughly at home in and forming a part of nature. Opposing the resulting static or cyclical notion of history the Jews developed an historical dynamism marked by extreme futuristic expectations largely seen in terms of terrestrial fulfillment. Jesus did not fulfil these expectations and was rejected as the Messiah by most of the Jews. Christianity made historical development possible by emphasizing the freedom of the human spirit as over against the pre-Christian concern with either nature or God. Christianity delivered man from his bondage to nature but drove a wedge between natural and spiritual man. Man retired from the natural to the spiritual world where after struggle with the baser elements of his being he emerged a free human personality. The Middle Ages forged and fortified human personality by its ascetic discipline and centralized spiritual authority. Its hope to realize the Kingdom of God failed since this cannot be established without the free consent and participation of man. Berdyaev sees modern history as the testing of human liberty. Humanism rebels against medieval subjection in affirming man's self-confidence, but it ends in debasing him through severing his celestial ties and in seeing him as but a part of nature. The Renaissance rediscovered natural man and antiquity, witnessed the clash of pagan and Christian principles, and saw their partial reconciliation in the great symbolic art of the age. The Reformation affirmed man's freedom from ecclesiastical compulsion, but it debased man by denying his primal freedom before God. The Enlightenment affirmed man's self-sufficient reason, but in denying any mystery it debased man's ability to know. The French Revolution affirmed man's ability to change history but ended in denying all human rights. Romanticism affirmed man's spiritual resources but denied his ultimate destiny. Industrialism affirmed man's liberation from nature but denied his integrity and dignity. Modern history by a fatal dialectic sees humanism paradoxically be coming inhumanism; the denial of God tending to the denial of man. Berdyaev sees the present as the beginning of a new barbarism the inhumanity of which is manifest in the total war system where human lives are regarded as mere means; in capitalism under which man is enslaved and oppressed by property; in collectivism where the organization becomes the end and man, the instrument; in a morality of bestialism which permits the use of man in any way to attain inhuman or anti-human ends; in cultural manifestations in literature, science, philosophy, and theology which interpret integral man in terms of a part; in politics with sham democracy's concern with only abstract, formal political freedom and the totalitarian's rejection of all freedom; in the dictator led masses in which all individuality is ruthlessly obliterated; in the intensification of racialism and nationalism which find the existential center in entities other than human personality; in the tyranny of Caesars who rule by appeal to instinct and emotion; and in a Christianity that largely conforms to the world. This barbarism may lead on to the new Middle Ages which Berdyaev sees marked by the end of humanism, individualism, and formal liberalism; a simplified material culture; political universalism.; religious collectivism; and a social order of the syndicalist type. Berdyaev rejects the progressive and cyclical notions of history. Though Western civilization is at a crisis, he postulates the possibility of salvation through religious transfiguration. This will take place only as Christianity and creation are combined, i.e. as a dynamic, creative conception of the Church becomes actualized and incarnated in all areas of life. Man's ethical task is one of creativity as in contemplation he acquires the intuitive insight of genius and in self-sacrificing love he actualizes his inspiration. Death signifies that there is no eternity in time and that an endless temporal series is meaningless. Man's role in this situation is to forsake the creation of temporary, transitory, and corruptible goods and to devote himself to the creation of eternal, permanent, and immortal values. Hell, which results from man's separating himself from God, can be escaped only through the God-man Christ and those who are spiritually his . Paradise comes not only at the end of time but at every moment as a God-humanism by creative activity redeems, transfigures, and Christianizes the entire cosmos. The following problems and observations are some of the results of the investigation. (1) Berdyaev's philosophy of history, reflecting his own unique spiritual experience, is peculiarly personal. The best approach to his writings is through his life, and the best insight into his life is to be gained through his writings. (2) In his quest for historical insight Berdyaev stresses "knowledge by acquaintance" as over against "knowledge about." Reason is seen primarily not as abstract, but as a personal experience. This leads to an appreciation of the ways of knowing by intuition, mysticism, revelation, and faith, but fails to carry full conviction because of hesitancy to criticize rationally the claims of these experiences or to suggest ways by which their claims might he validated. (3) Berdyaev envisages the ultimate world-ground in terms of Christian supernaturalism but without making any effort to justify rationally this metaphysical outlook. However, within this tradition he makes full use of reason in attacking the inadequacies of theistic absolutism and in establishing the case for a theistic finitism. This suggests the problem as to just what is his attitude toward reason. (4) Berdyaev's recourse to the doctrine of the Ungrund involves a number of contradictions: it is in direct opposit ion to his epistemological position in being a highly rationalistic notion; while it is a negative conception to which none of the forms of thought are applicable, a number of rationalistic categories are used in its elucidation; while by means of it movement is introduced into the worldground, this is accomplished only by relegating the revealed Biblical God to a secondary position; while movement is made central, the means whereby the whole theogonic process takes place in unconvincing and inadequate. (5) Berdyaev's notion of man is daring and forms the basis of the historical process. Since man is correlative with God, his creative historical experience is meaningful in making a contribution to the very nature of reality. Yet Berdyaev seems to rob the terrestrial historical process of some of its meaning when he insists that it is the result of man's sin and fall--events which took place in a preexistent state. (6) Berdyaev's view of modern history as the record of the testing of human freedom is a well-chosen category to link together the multifarious activities of Western man. As an interpretation of modern history it is not necessarily dependent upon Berdyaev's particular epistemological and metaphysical views but would be equally valid linked with most other traditional and modern expositions of the significance of Christianity. (7) Berdyaev's analysis of the threat to contemporary man is convincing in the light of recent history. His diagnosis of its cause as lying in the realm of the spiritual receives corroboration from many other cultural historians. His prognosis of its dire future course has not yet been counteracted by the logic of events. His therapy is, however, marked by apocalyptic vision, lacks a clear and wise grasp of the issues and probabilities of the immediate future, and thus is vague in its positive suggestions as to what is to be done. (8) Berdyaev's philosophy of history is marked throughout by an effort to avoid the extremes of thought that are currently manifested in the conflict between neo-orthodoxy and naturalistic humanism. His is a constant effort to mediate between man and God, freedom and grace, nature and supernature, time and eternity.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University
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