Perhaps the greatest stylist among Russian philosophers, Lev Shestov was in the main a writer of essays. His earliest works—Shakespeare i ego kritik Brandes (1898; Shakespeare and his critic Brandes), Dobro v uchenii Gr. Tolstogo i Nietzsche filosofiia I propoved’ (1900; “The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching”), and Dostoevskii i Nietzsche: Filosofiia tragedii (1903; “Dostoevsky and
Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy”)—bridged the disciplines of philosophy and literary criticism. Shestov’s first fully philosophical work, Apofeoz bespochvennosti (1905; The apotheosis of groundlessness, translated as All Things Are Possible), is, like much of his subsequent philosophical writing, comprised of small aphoristic clusters, similar to those in Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist (1895; The Antichrist) or Morgenröthe (1881; The Dawn of Day), and contains brief essays of under five pages in length. All Things Are Possible reveals Shestov’s major theme: belief in the revelation of a divine mystical being who can be known only through faith, which for Shestov “is not a lower form of cognition.” Shestov conceives of the history of Western philosophy as the struggle between Athens—the rationalizing, secularizing spirit from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel, and including materialist positivism and Marxism—and Jerusalem—the mystical faith in the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments.
Many of Shestov’s early essays were collected in the books Nachala i kontsii (1908; Beginnings and endings, translated as Penultimate Words and Other Essays) and Velikie kanunii (1910; Great vigils). Vlast’ kliuchei: Potestas clavium (1923; The power of the keys, translated as Potestas Clavium) was the first collection of Shestov’s essays to appear abroad and was followed by a host of essays in the Parisian émigré journals Sovremennye Zapiski (Contemporary notes) and Russkie Zapiski (Russian notes). His late books Na vesakh lova (1929; In Job’s Balances), Kierkegaard i eksistentsialnaia filosofiia (1939; Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy), and Afiny i lerusalim (wr. 1938, pub. 1951; Athens and Jerusalem) reiterate ideas that were already present in Shestov’s earlier work, but are generally considered more dialectical and cogent presentations of those same views.
Shestov called attention to his own affinities with existentialism and has been classified as an existentialist, most notably by Nikolai Berdiaev. This is because he assumes the viewpoint of the human individual and champions his unhindered search for truth over and against any and all rational laws and ideological systems, be they materialist-positivistic, rational ethics, or rationalized religion—from Spinoza to Solov’ev. Shestov, of course, does not reject the knowledge of modern science for practical life, but dismisses it as totally useless for man’s spiritual quest. His anti-moralist stance was evident in his early book on Lev Tolstoi and Friedrich Nietzsche, where he takes the side of the German thinker against Tolstoyan “preaching.”
Despite the frequent label of “existentialist” and the influence he undoubtedly exerted on both Christian and atheistic existentialist philosophers in France, where he taught at the Sorbonne for many years, there is ample reason to view Shestov’s thought as even more theocentric than man-centered. The shape of Shestov’s own philosophical quest led him to focus primarily on God, specifically on defending the mystical God of his “Jerusalem” from philosophy’s rationalist constructions. 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. Zenkovsky (in A History of Russian Philosophy, 1953) has characterized Shestov as “a believing consciousness, rare for its sustained and lucid quality.” The sympathetic reader of Shestov will discover writing focused on the utter “otherness” and mystical nature of the deity and the ways of knowing God. Shestov provokes more interest in God and the things beyond immediate experience than most existentialist writers, even religious ones.
Philosophically an irrationalist like Nietzsche, or rather an anti-rationalist, Shestov uses a highly rational and clear discourse to demolish rationalism and its necessary laws in any and all forms he finds in the history of human thought. Unlike his irrationalist contemporary in Russia, Vasilii Rozanov, Shestov does not resort to poetic lines, prose poetry, illogicality, or mystical whimsicality. A mystical thinker at base, he uses razorsharp logic to demolish, piece by piece, the manifold tenets of the whole Western philosophical tradition. Shestov’s statements are striking and bold, often formulated as paradoxes. Yet there is a constant tension between his clear, logical, rational language and the actual thoughts expressed. Zenkovsky sees Shestov in the grips of rationalism, struggling against its hold upon him throughout his life. In In Job’s Balances Shestov writes, “One can and must sacrifice everything to find God.” Zenkovsky describes the philosopher as sacrificing the baggage of Western philosophical culture on the altar of his mystical faith.
The fact that his discourse is constantly calling attention to its own inadequacy, and the harm caused by the tradition from which such language derives, makes Shestov’s work stronger in negation than in affirmation. All his works deal overwhelmingly with the destruction of what is inadequate to express the mystical positive content of revelation; however, they come up short as expressors of his positive faith.
It appears that Shestov accepted the revelations of the Old and New Testaments and felt that religion and philosophy must begin from the mystical truth revealed in the Bible.
Shestov wishes to free man not only from rationalism, but also for his own creative spiritual activity. Divulging the positive content of Shestov’s own mystical faith, even if it were possible in rational discourse, would counter one of the main purposes of his writing. He wishes to provoke creative religious thought in others, not supplant their old customary ways of thinking with an explicit philosophy of his own. In this he is like Nietzsche who wanted to make man aware of his radical freedom from the strictures of dogmatic Christianity and its morality.
To his credit, Shestov has an uncanny ability to see rationalism and its delimiting power in writers and systems that are not usually thought of in such terms. He is ever pitting the individual against the idea and defending God from human definition. Thus in his article “Prorocheskii dar. k dvadtsatipiatiletiiu smerti Dostoevskogo” (1908; “The Gift of Prophecy: For the 25th Anniversary of Dostoevsky’s Death”) he attacks Dostoevskii, much as Nietzsche had, for his retreat from irrational “Truth” into a web of Orthodox and nationalist constructs. His essay on Anton Chekhov, the “poet of hopelessness,” “Tvorchestvo iz nichego: A.P.Chekhov” (1908; “Creation from Nothing”), shows the pessimistic side of a thoroughgoing hatred of ideology. There are few societal or religious-moral sacred cows which escape Shestov’s powerful and often ironic attack, for any rational system, even rationalized religion, is faithless secularism for Shestov.
ANNA LISA CRONE
Born Lev Isaakovich Shwarzmann, 13 February 1866 in Kiev. Studied mathematics, then law at Moscow University, 1884–89; University of Kiev, degree in law, 1889. Managed the family textile business, 1892–94. Went abroad, 1896, living in Italy and Switzerland, 1897–1914. Married Anna Eleasarovna Beresovskii, 1897: two daughters. Lived in Moscow, 1914–18; professor of philosophy, University of Kiev, 1918–19. Moved to Switzerland, 1920, then Paris, 1921. Member, Russian Academic Group, Paris, from 1921; Professor of Russian, Institut d’foudes Slaves, the Sorbonne, Paris, from 1922.
Died in Paris, 20 November 1938.
Essays and Related Prose
Shakespeare i ego kritik Brandes, 1898
Dobro v uchenii Gr. Tolstogo i Nietzsche filosofiia i propoved’, 1900; as “The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching,” translated by Bernard Martin, in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, 1969
Dostoevskii i Nietzscbe: Filosofiia tragedii, 1903; as “Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy,” translated by Bernard Martin, in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, 1969
Apofeoz bespochvennosti, 1905; as All Things Are Possible, translated by
Nachala i kontsii, 1908; as Anton Tchekhov and Other Essays, 1916, as Penultimate Words and Other Essays, 1916, and as Chekhov and Other Essays, 1966
Velikie kanunii, 1910
Vlast’ kliuchei: Potestas clavium, 1923; as Potestas Clavium, translated by Bernard Martin, 1968
Na vesakh lova, 1929; as In Job’s Balances: On the Sources of the Eternal Truths, translated by Camilla Coventry and C.A. Macartney, 1932
Kierkegaard i eksistentsialnaia filosofiia, 1939; as Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, translated by Elinor Hewitt, 1969
Afiny i lerusalim, 1951; as Athens and Jerusalem, translated by Bernard Martin, 1966
Umozrenie i oktrovenie: Religioznaia filosofia Vladimira Solov’eva i drugie statii, 1964;
as Speculation and Revelation, translated by Bernard Martin, 1982
Tolko veroi—Sola fide, 1966
Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, translated by Bernard Martin, 1969
A Shestov Anthology, edited by Bernard Martin, 1970
Collected works edition: Sochineniia, edited by A.V.Akhutina, 2 vols., 1993.
Baranoff, Nathalie, Bibliographie des ceuvres de Léon Chestov, Paris: Institut d’Études Slaves, 1975
Baranoff, Nathalie, Bibliographie des études sur Léon Chestov, Paris: Institut d’Études Slaves, 1978
Baranoff, Nathalie, Vie de Léon Chestov, Paris: La Différence, 2 vols., 1991–93
Davison, R.M., “Lev Shestov: An Assessment,” Journal of European Studies 11, no. 4 (December 1981): 279–94
Jones, Malcolm, “Shestov on Chekhov,” in Russian Writers on Russian Writers, edited by Faith Wigzell and Robin Aizlewood, Oxford: Berg, 1994
Kline, George L., “Religious Existentialisms: Shestov and Berdyaev,” in his Religious and Antireligious Thought in Russia, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968
Patterson, David, “Shestov’s Second Dimension,” Slavic and East European Journal 22 (1978): 141–52
Shein, Louis J., The Philosophy of Lev Shestov (1866–1938): A Russian Religious Existentialist, Lampeter, Dyfed and Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991
Valevičus, Andrius, Lev Shestov and His Times: Encounters with Brandes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Ibsen, Nietzsche and Husserl, New York: Lang, 1993
Wernham, James, Two Russian Thinkers: An Essay in Berdyaev and Shestov, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968
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