Berdyaev on Culture and Christianity

The reality that modernity is and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity.  Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness. 

The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few.  And that is to count only the essayists.  Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally.  Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique.  Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution. 

The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view.  At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him.  Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922.  He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work.  in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained.  Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing.  His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above.  Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.


Berdyaev 07 Modern Man

Homo Modernus: Sooper-Dooper Self-Confident; Believes in Nothing but Himself


Berdyaev’s Fate of Man in the Modern World appeared in 1935.  In it Berdyaev returns to his recurrent thesis that in the Twentieth Century the crisis of modernity has become a runaway catastrophe.  In Chapter I, “A Judgment on History – the War,” Berdyaev writes, “More keenly than ever I feel that night and shadow are descending on the world, just as was the case at the beginning of the Middle Ages, before the medieval Renaissance.”  Many keen-sighted people recognize the situation, Berdyaev remarks, but few of them have grasped its essence.  “In reality what is happening is something even deeper… a judgment upon not one epoch in history, but upon history itself.”  The times, Berdyaev asserts, choosing his key term with special care, qualify as “apocalyptic.” 

This unveiling corresponds not merely to “a revelation of the end of the world”; rather it corresponds to “a revelation of the inner events of history, of the internal judgment upon history itself.”  Because “man’s existence in this world is historical,” the disintegration of history involves the disintegration both of man and culture.  “The things man has planned do not come to pass, and the true significance of what takes place escapes man’s comprehension.”  Berdyaev means modern man – the deluded being who, having killed off God, took on the godlike role, quite as Ludwig Feuerbach had urged him to do, assuming that his will and his creativity could conjure a new and perfected world better than the one created by God.  Such a man, enamored of his own ego, thought to appropriate the very course of history and to alter its direction according to his agenda.  History, however, is cleverer than man.

In Berdyaev’s interpretation, modernity thinks that it can reverse Adam’s fall and reestablish paradise, but it only blindly and dumbly reenacts that fall.  It is a case of titanic hubris and of equally titanic nemesis.  “The world war and the revolutionary processes which have followed it have a metaphysical significance for the fate of man.” 

The war put on display, bloodily and destructive, the demonic inhumanity that had long simmered under the veneer of civilization; it showed that the modern utopian conceit expressed a fundamental nihilism which, discovering that it could not create on a godlike level, turned its fury on creation, especially the human portion of that creation, and sought its annihilation.  “The war revealed the personality of our civilization,” Berdyaev writes; “it cheapened life, it taught man to take no thought for human life and personality, to consider them as means and instruments in the hands of the fatality of history.” 

That term personality operates centrally in Berdyaev’s Christian anthropology.  When men think of history as a process that they can control, they make war on the person, as such – the person validated by the words and deeds of Christ, in whom alone the human creature can find its dignity.

Berdyaev observes how “it is noteworthy that at a time when every religious sanction of authority has vanished, we live in a very authoritarian epoch.”  The point strikes Berdyaev as sufficiently important that he repeats it in variorum a few lines later: “The tragedy of the situation lies in the fact that great masses of humanity have awakened and come into power at the moment of a falling away from Christianity and the loss of all religious beliefs.

Berdyaev 09 Lady C's Lover

An Epiphenomenon of Sex


In the middle chapters of The Fate of Man, Berdyaev catalogues the myriad species of nihilistic deformation by which modernity makes itself evident.  In Chapter II, “Dehumanization,” Berdyaev characterizes the modern scene as dissolving the concrete in the abstract.  The ideological regimes – and Berdyaev includes the British Empire and North America in the category of ideological regimes – dictate according to a convenient and pallid theory of man rather than to the actual man, the person.  Indeed the person looms up before the eyes of that regime as a terror and an obstacle.  The demand for conformity and the strict policing of the populus to insure conformity stem from the perception, which partakes in truth, that the person naturally opposes himself to the state and that the person, metaphysically and theologically speaking, enjoys priority over the state.  Modern man espouses Friedrich Nietzsche’s dream of the superman (the commonest theme of every Hollywood summer blockbuster of the last twenty years).  Far from transcending himself in any benevolent way, the would-be superman drastically lowers himself.  “A bestial cruelty toward man is characteristic of our age,” Berdyaev writes, “and this is more astonishing since it is displayed at the very peak of human refinement, where modern conceptions of sympathy, it would seem, have made impossible the old, barbaric forms of cruelty.”  Berdyaev finds this tendency everywhere replicated.  “The process of dehumanization is especially notable in modern literature.”  In the novels of Marcel Proust and André Gide, for example, “man is decomposed… a whole image no longer exists.”  In Malraux and Lawrence man sinks down to his criminal passions or becomes an epiphenomenon of sex.

In Chapter III, “New Forces in the World’s Life,” Berdyaev surveys politics and economics, which in the modern dispensation are inextricably linked.  Modern people find a substitute for the divine presence in what they call democracy.  With its Greek origin, the word carries the luster of authority, but as Berdyaev sees things, democracy merely puts a fancy label on collectivization, which entangles itself with nationalism and such phenomena as racism, in the Nazi case, and classism, in the Communist one.  Berdyaev’s assessment of these aspects of modernity runs strongly in parallel with Ortega’s in The Revolt of the Masses (1930).  Both take note of the increase of populations: The vast number of people and their crowding into urban spaces belong characteristically to everything modern. 

The throng moreover tends to average itself out towards the lowest common denominator.  “Man has always been overwhelmed by large numbers; the talented by the mass of mediocre, quality by quantity.”  The mass requires its own mobilization or organization and the authoritarian state provides the only instrument capable of those programs.  “We are witnessing a reversion to the herd instinct, but in new, civilized and technical forms.”  The idea of economics, which began in the private management of the household, becomes another depersonalizing regime – one that, in Berdyaev’s view combines the worst features of Nineteenth Century capitalism and Twentieth Century socialism, as inspired by Marx.  “Nationalism,” Berdyaev writes, “means the dehumanization and liberalization of human societies.”  In Hitler’s Reich, the authoritarian state bases itself on a reductive, entirely non-spiritual notion of race; in the Soviet Union, the regime bases itself on an equally reductive and non-spiritual notion of class.

Berdyaev 10 Raphael
Raphael: School of Athens (Completed 1511)


Chapter IV, “Culture and Christianity,” finds Berdyaev bringing his themes together and probing to the deepest level of the catastrophe that he has identified.  He begins with a definition of culture.  His usage differs from the contemporary abusive and ubiquitous leftwing employment of the same term.  The leftwing regime celebrates as culture only the vulgar preoccupations of the masses, but Berdyaev insists on culture as High Culture, which began again after the death of Classical civilization in the Florentine Renaissance.  Culture qua High Culture is always “aristocratic in principle,” but “we live in an epoch of plebeian revolt against every aristocratic element in culture.”  Concerning the Florentine Renaissance, Berdyaev remarks that “it developed because of leisure, the possibility of expressing creative plenitude, it presupposed inequality.” 

The Renaissance made way, that is, for the person in the highest degree to develop and put in practice his talents while insulating him from the demands of the vulgar.  In the modern regime, the state makes demands on behalf of the masses, “but this changes culture into something so different as to need a new name,” Berdyaev writes, and he suggests “civilization” as that new name.  Astute readers will recognize a parallelism with Spengler, with whose work Berdyaev was familiar.  Culture for Spengler is the vital and creative stage; civilization the moribund and ossified stage of any nation.  Although he was writing more than eight decades ago, Berdyaev’s words apply themselves almost automatically to movies, television, the Internet, and institutions such as the colleges and universities today: “In a liberal democracy the cultural elite depends on capital and the vulgar tastes of the crowd; in an authoritarian or a communist democracy it depends upon the dictated world-view, an authority which pretends to organize the spirit.” 

The masses cannot rise to the level of High Culture, but the elites are perfectly capable of pandering to the masses – and indeed in 2018 they gleefully do so, notwithstanding that in betraying themselves they exacerbate the catastrophe by driving the society even further into the depths of its degradation.  The situation is made worse by the fact that the modern regime maintains implacable hostility to religion.  As Berdyaev reminds his readers, in pre-modern societies such as those of Athens and Florence “religion was the meeting-place of the masses with the aristocratic cultural class.”  Berdyaev insists that “only religion is capable of making such a combination: Neither philosophy nor science, nor enlightenment, neither art nor literature can do this.”

In his first chapter, Berdyaev invoked the Renaissance as the beginning of the current phase of the West and he repeated his notion that first appears in Meaning of the Creative Act (1916) that in the Twentieth Century the Renaissance was coming to its end.  Berdyaev uses the word Renaissance almost as a synonym for humanist culture since what today calls itself humanism has its origin in the Fourteenth Century and the revival of Classical literature and art.  In Chapter IV, Berdyaev returns to the theme.  He writes, “The end of the Renaissance is approaching,” but so too then is the end of humanist culture approaching.  This will be so because humanist culture, insofar as it set man rather than God at the center of the cosmos contained the seeds of its own deformation and destruction. Humanism became liberalism. 

When it did it closed any last aperture on transcendence.  The creative person’s response to the genuine “super-personal ideal” transformed itself at the same time into acquiescence in a “dictated world-view [that] paralyses creative conscience.”   Whereas, in Berdyaev’s words, “creative service is voluntary,” by contrast “a dictatorship over the spirit corrupts the culturally creative.”  Weakening itself by purging itself of its Christian-transcendent element, humanism gradually rendered itself incapable of resisting “the technicizing of life.”  Humanism, as in the colleges and universities of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, became another department in the universal bureaucracy and submitted to the state’s demand of disseminating the state’s self-justifying propaganda.

Again in his first chapter, Berdyaev declared his present moment a judgment on history.  He returns to that thesis too in Chapter IV, but introduces a complication: “We are witnessing a judgment not on history alone, but upon Christianity in history, upon Christian humanity,” necessarily because “Christianity in history has been not only the revelation of God, but also the work of man,” and “the purity of revelation has often been sullied by the human element, the human consciousness through which it has been filtered.”  Berdyaev devotes a paragraph to listing the human deformation of Christianity.  In a preliminary conclusion, he states: “The judgment on Christianity is a judgment upon the false theophanies, the false sanctification of the natural and the historical.”  What meaning attaches itself to Berdyaev’s phrase, “false theophanies”?  These would be the heresies that take some tiny part of Christian revelation and blow it up until it overtakes the whole and relinquishes and context. 

In a secular order, the heresies become the ideologies.  It would be possible to supply specific references that Berdyaev, who probably assumes that his readers are familiar with them, omits.  Consider, for example, those expressions of the late Renaissance, the utopias.  There is the original Utopia of Thomas More; there are the technical utopias of Sir Francis Bacon and Tomasso Campanella.  Then there are the radical Protestant sects, such as the Anabaptist movement, which anticipate the Revolution in France.  There is the Cartesian reduction of consciousness and the absurd theory of the “Blank Slate.”  (Everyone can compile his own long list.)  Berdyaev writes:

The judgment upon Christianity is going on in all phases of human life and culture.  It is a judgment upon false monism and false dualism, upon extreme immanentism, upon the deification of human frailties and the degradation of human dignity.  The world crisis is a judgment both from above and from beneath.  The tragic conflict between Christianity and history is nothing new – it is eternal and in the process each judges the other.  History’s judgment upon Christianity is its revelation of Christianity’s failures in history…  But on the other hand this defeat of Christianity turns into a judgment upon history.  The failure of Christianity is the failure of history as well.  This is more clearly evident now, than ever before.

In one of his epigrammatic utterances, Berdyaev summarizes his argument: “The world tried to affirm man as against Christianity and arrived at the negation of man himself.”  A paragraph or two later Berdyaev follows up one epigram with another: “The world is again in the grip of the polydemonism from which Christianity once rescued it.”  The choice, Berdyaev argues, lies between continuing the descent into “technicized chaos in which only the most terrible forms of idolatry can live” and “a new Christian piety.”  One can imagine an urbane skeptic of 2018 responding to Berdyaev’s vocabulary with eyebrow-arching disdain.  Demons, idolatry, and salvation through a divine redeemer: Who believes in such myths and nonsense?  One only needs to pay attention, painful though it is, to the daily news. 

Consider the comedienne who has herself photographed holding in simulacrum the severed head of a duly elected President of the United States.  Consider those summertime movies aimed at adolescents that specialize in extreme sadomasochistic violence, for which there is a paying appetite worth hundreds of millions each time.  Consider that liberals are willing to come to the defense of Mexican gangsters with hideous full-body tattoos who like their Aztec ancestors routinely murder people by cutting their hearts out.  Consider the pornography and abortion industries.  Would any non-theological vocabulary properly account for such phenomena?  The answer is, only a theological vocabulary can properly account for them.  When the social milieu begins to resemble the setting of a short story by Arthur Machen or H. P. Lovecraft, it is high time to revive the old wordbook.

In 1935 – and well before 1935 – Berdyaev knew what few people know today: That the world had come to an end.  Western Civilization destroyed itself in the “Great War” of 1914 to 1918 and it has never put itself back together.  Instead, its dazed survivors adapted themselves to a Waste Land and as they adapted their character became more and more demonic.  The name for adapting oneself to live in Grendel’s marsh by pretending that it is utopia is ideology.  The final phase of modernity, through which one is apparently condemned to live, consists in a global project to deny reality.  Thus a man might mutilate himself, drink dosages of the female hormone, and declare himself a woman.  The existing regime not only affirms his lie, but coerces others to validate and participate in that same lie. 

The liberalization of the Christian churches also belongs to Berdyaev’s triumph of the demons.  When the congregations decide to be on the side of the history that they think they can co-opt, they leave the domain of Christianity and ally themselves with the ideologues.  This has happened even to the Catholic Church at its highest level in a pope who is indistinguishable from a modern liberal conformist.  Berdyaev preferred Greek Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism precisely because Orthodoxy organizes itself from the ground up rather than from the top down; it has proven itself, he thought, better able to resist history – the human plan foredoomed to its failure – than the colossally bureaucratic Church of Rome. 

Berdyaev’s attitude in 1935 turned in the direction of hope: “The hour has struck,” he wrote, “when, after terrible struggle, after an unprecedented de-Christianization of the world and its passage through all the results of that process, Christianity will be revealed in its pure form.”  That hour seems to have prolonged itself beyond Berdyaev’s hopeful near-horizon, but that in no way invalidates his expectation.  Faith understands that in this world its hope is necessarily deferred, but that deferral works in time and therefore contains the possibility of its realization.

Originally published at: Orthosphere

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