Was Berdyaev’s Philosophical Humanism Inhumane?

Published on: March 7, 2024
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From the Editors: We offer this piece in commemoration of the 150th birthday of Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (O.S. March 6, N.S. March 18).

In her remarkable essay on the religious-philosophical scene in the Russian Silver Age, Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal describes Berdyaev’s humanism as inhumane.[1] The emblems of this “inhumanity” are represented, among other things, by his approval of Russia’s entry to the Great War, his praise of the Catholic Middle Ages, and his rejection of the idea of “the eternal bourgeois peace.”[2] But is it possible that Berdyaev’s radical emphasis on the human personhood and human freedom is indeed inhumane? A deeper look into the matter suggests a negative answer. On the contrary, the depiction of Berdyaev’s philosophy seems unjust, and it, arguably, fails to appreciate his deep insights into human freedom, individual liberty, social existence, labor, unemployment, automation, and other phenomena that herald the contemporary world of the 21st century and post-modern humanity—if not post-humanity.

In The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Berdyaev updates the views and “the interpretations” he introduces in The New Middle Ages, The Origin of Russian Communism, and The Russian Idea, demonstrating his humane concerns regarding the very concrete issues that encounter humanity.[3] This is also evident in Slavery and Freedom that elaborates on many types of ideologies, institutions, and social classes that enslave human beings.[4] As a matter of fact, Berdyaev was known to maintain intimate relationship with those who are the lowest on the social hierarchy as Fr. Alexandr Men’ testifies.[5]    Berdyaev’s apparent uneasiness toward the ideal of unified social prosperity and, also, toward the ideal of (faked?) peace, whether communist or bourgeois, seems to be directed toward a latent inclination of this ideal to become another type of étatisme, or slavery to the ownership of property—both may serve to eliminate the personality of the human being.[6] 

As for the modern democracy, which stands in opposition to the values of the Middle Ages, it is seen by Berdyaev as a symbol of the bourgeois worldview that tries to build peace at the expense of genuine transition into true human personhood. In fact, Berdyaev does not object to the democratization of society per se. A dream of a society that preserves the privileges of some sort of aristocratic social or religious elite cannot be more alien to his thinking, or more repugnant to his ‘spiritual taste.’  Rather, his objection is based on an opposite attitude that advocates real democratization of noble values that extends the privilege of noble qualities of the former aristocracy to reach out to all humanity.  Democratization is, therefore, valid when it elevates all people towards the noble, the good, and the beautiful, and  thus, instead of lowering all human qualities, which threatens the freedom of the spirit and conscience of every individual personality, people are called for higher qualities.[7] Berdyaev’s concern was the preserving of true human freedom that can, as in many cases, be totally eclipsed by the increase of formalities implicit in many types of political and social ideals.[8] In that light, his support of militarism of the world of the chivalry in the Middle Ages, over against the bourgeois world that denies sacrifice and the necessity of suffering, can be seen only as a symbol of advocating action, change, and surmounting narrow-mindedness. This does not mean, at any rate, enjoying suffering or imposing it on people as a tool for something better. His Slavery and Freedom is but one example of his deep concern of any idea that may impose itself on the human personality. But his rejection of ideals of prosperity was indeed directed towards mediocrity and static conservatism, which dwindle sooner or later to one type or another of servitude to collective fantasies and formal institutions that protect false peace and give “formal” and “superficial” organization to what, in reality, nothing more than perpetual chaos.[9] 

Thus, it might be more correct to say that Berdyaev’s humanism is less modern (or less civilizational), rather than inhumane, as it does not presuppose an “all-too-human” understanding of the human vocation in history. No doubt that the philosophy of Berdyaev is controversial in many ways, but his emphasis on the freedom and dignity of the individual human personhood is indeed remarkable and deserves continuous inspection that reads the details in the light of his whole personalistic project.

[1] See Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, “Religious Humanism in the Russian Silver Age,” in A History of Russian Philosophy 1830–1930: Faith, Reason, and the Defense of Human Dignity, ed. G. M. Hamburg and Randall A. Poole (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 242, 247.

[2] Rosenthal, 242.

[3] Nicolas Berdyaev, Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Autobiography, trans. Katharine Lampert. 2nd ed. (San Rafael, CA: Semantron Press, 2009), 285.

[4] Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, trans. R. M. French (Naples: Albatross Publishers, 2019).

[5] Fr. Aleksandr Men’, Russian Religious Philosophy: 19891990 Lectures, trans. Fr. S. Janos (Mohrsville, PA: frsj Publications, 2015), 110.

[6] See Nicholas Berdyaev, The Fate of Man in the Modern World, trans. David A. Lowrie (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1935), 55ff; Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, 181–89.

[7] See Berdyaev, The Fate of Man, 56.

[8] See Berdyaev, The Fate of Man, 57–8.

[9] See Berdyaev, the Meaning of the Creative World, 291–2; Berdyaev, The Fate of Man, 60.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Fadi Abu-Deeb

    Fadi Abu-Deeb

    PhD Candidate at ETF Leuven

    Fadi Abu-Deeb is a PhD candidate at ETF Leuven, Belgium. He specializes in the religious philosophies of V. S. Solovyov and N. A. Berdyaev, focusing on concepts like personhood and sobornost and the relationship between the individual and the collective. He is also lecturer in the department of A...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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