The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature - Vol. 2

By John Witte Jr.; Frank S. Alexander | Go to book overview

[CHAPTER 17]
Nicholas Berdyaev (1874–1948)

SELECTED AND EDITED BY VIGEN GUROIAN

Nicholas (Nicholai Aleksandrovich) Berdyaev was born in 1874 in the province of Kiev to a wealthy and highly privileged family. Like so many young men of aristocratic upbringing in nineteenth-century Russia, he was sent to military academy, which he intensely disliked. Eventually, he found his way to the University of Kiev, where he took up philosophy, despite the fact that he was supposed to study the natural sciences, which he also disliked. There Berdyaev began to associate with socialists and Marxists and, because of his radical views and activities, was sent into exile to the Volgoda region of north Russia in 1898. He was released after two and a half years. The experience, however, seemed only to intensify and deepen his radicalism.

During the late 1890s and early 1900s, Berdyaev pursued a goal of wedding Marxist social and economic analysis with Kantianism and Christianity. Berdyaev never was an orthodox Marxist, however, for he was quick to recognize Marxism’s totalitarian impulse. Even in the most radical circles, Berdyaev staunchly defended the reality and priority of freedom, goodness, and truth against every form of determinism, relativism, and nihilism. As his discontent with Marxism increased, he moved increasingly to a personalist religious philosophy and defended the eternal value of the human being personal freedom, and the transcendence of spirit.

Berdyaev entered the University of Heidelberg in 1901 to study with the acclaimed neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband. Yet, even at this time, he was growing disenchanted with Kantianism. While attracted to Kant’s rule that the person should never be made the mere means to an end, he concluded that this personalist emphasis was undercut by Kant’s ethical formalism ensconced in the principle of universalizability (that is, that a moral judgment, if it applies to one case, must also apply to any exactly or relevantly similar cases).

As Berdyaev distanced himself from Kantianism and Marxism, he drew nearer to Orthodox Christianity. The period between his move to St. Petersburg

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