Historiography for Damocles: Nikolai Berdyaev’s End of Our Time, by George Bagby
Nikolai Berdyaev was an irascible Russian Orthodox and philosopher who has sadly faded from the reading lists of the learned in the West. Prominently placed in the anecdotes of the Gulag Archipelago and listed alongside Jacques Maritain by C. S. Lewis, Berdyaev was part of the excellent batch of Marxists who returned to religion in the 20th century, and he is a superior master of interpretation for that bloody age. Solzhenitsyn recounts Berdyaev’s courageous condemnation of Lenin’s career in the first volume of the Gulag Archipelago. Berdyaev was arrested, interrogated by the feared head of the Bolshevik secret police, and inexplicably exiled to France in 1922. One wonders how often the Soviets regretted their choice, considering his literary career. Berdyaev joined the lively expatriate Russian community of Paris and wrote many stimulating books, including the apologetic Slavery and Freedom, a book on Dostoevsky, The Philosophy of Inequality (which Putin gave to his regional governors), and the subject of this review: The End of Our Time, written in 1933.
The modern age, argues Berdayev, has ended with the catastrophe of the Great War and a “New Middle Age” is upon us, where all will eventually choose between religious belief and the ersatz religion of ideology. The modern age of western liberalism was defined by official indifference to ontology: the disestablishment of religion from public life, the state, the schools, and the economy, and the conscious cultivation of consumption and the worship of the “gods of mass and speed,” as Weaver has it. Liberalism and the philosophy of endless progress into material comforts has been exploded by the violence of war and ideological terrorism, and Berdyaev heralds, in apocalyptic style, three options: retrograde liberalism and spiritual stagnation, Christ, or the Anti-Christ of ideology. This is not unlike the Book of Revelation itself, which begins with a condemnation of the lukewarm.
This historiography fit for Damocles, under the looming threat of rapid, ideological change, is Western man’s fearful outlook because of a false historical narrative of progress which we now must reject. Berdyaev begins his work with the startling declaration: “The academical division of history into three parts, ancient, mediaeval, and modern, will soon become obsolete and will be banished from the text books.” Our philosopher links this myth with the materialist philosophy of progress, which he traces as part of the breakdown of the Western mind since the Renaissance. The pinnacle of cultural achievement, he says, lies in creative affirmation, and the key marker of decline is negative repudiation and rejection. The recent centuries of Europe represent a breakdown of an internal, spiritual order and a will to affirm accompanied by a gradual increase of exterior regulation to replace a lost, internalized culture. Both anarchy and socialist planning are symptoms of the lost internal order, and the two negations are best represented, he says, by Nietzsche and Marx.
The “New Middle Ages” Berdyaev heralds are born of the darkness of modern repudiations, which has left man without ground on which to stand and without any spiritual lights to guide his way. This necessitates a spiritual search and a new need for affirmation. Collective religious belief will supplant, he claims, the prevailing formal indifference that characterizes the modern age. The age of revolutions claimed to liberate the masses from the authority of family, church, and state, but the new freedom lacked purpose, and modern man will search for purpose just as a tired horse will search for water. He condemns the materialism of consumer capitalism and utopian socialism, which both imagine the purpose of life lies in comforts and material necessities, and writes that both varieties of economic planning contain in themselves the seeds of their own destruction, for human beings will pursue transcendent hopes for meaning. Political ideologies that attempt to establish heaven on earth and thus make a hell of it seem the most likely outcome of this post-modern search, he cautions, and urges his readers to hold the faith like stout-hearted warriors. He concludes with evocative inspiration: “The night is coming and we must take up spiritual weapons for the fight against evil, we must make more sensitive our power for its discernment, we must build up a new knighthood.” As we watch our own institutions swallow ideologies and self-destruct, his call for aristocratic discipline is both practical and wise.
Lastly, and perhaps most curious, is Berdyaev’s concluding analysis on “Democracy, Socialism, and Theocracy.” He condemns the theoretical roots of liberal democracy by tying it to Rousseau and the false notion that popularity – in any context – is the criterion of truth. He writes, “When, in pure affirmation of itself, the unenlightened popular will refuses to submit itself to any superior being, and claims arbitrarily to direct the destinies of human societies, it easily enters on persecution of Truth, denial of the true, and quenching of spiritual freedom.” He connects this false liberty of conscience to the errors of the Reformation and Mill’s deliberate cultivation of experimental lifestyles. True democracy, Berdyaev claims with clear echoes of Chesterton, is the will “not only of the living, but of the dead.” On these grounds, Berdyaev rests in knowledge that Russia is not represented by the patricide, regicide Bolsheviks. Contra Jefferson, the world does not belong only to the living.
Socialism is superior to democracy, according to Berdyaev, because socialism makes clear claims about truth and happiness, and does not subject such things to popularity contests. Unlike the radical skepticism and apathy of democratic theory, socialism is a scheme of religious pretensions. Democracy is only a means, but socialism proposes an end. The premise of socialism is that the proletariat are the newfound chosen people of God. Berdyaev: “The proletariat is the only true people, the righteous ones who have all the qualities needful for the right ordering of the will towards a higher kind of life.” This is a myth narrative that replaces the story of the holy nation of the Old Testament and the sanctified Church of the New, and thus socialism is a materialist, religious myth of earthly salvation. This also helps us understand the increasing absurd lionization of every obscure victim group. Berdyaev anticipates Eric Voegelin on socialism, noting that it necessitates the prohibition of questions and the acceptance of dogma. Yet, Berdyaev notes that socialist planners, like the masters of the universe in the Federal Reserve, are confined to means in the material world, which is why neither consumer capitalism or socialist planning will ever satisfy man’s spiritual needs. This, he says, requires “the enlightening and transforming of the will, the ordering of it towards divine objects, [and] is a task of religion and not of social polity.” He concludes that “the substance of life can only be religious. It is an entering into the life of God, that is, into true Being. The will of the people, the proletarian will, is a sinful will; it therefore pertains to not-being and can bring about only the kingdom of not-being. That will must bow before the supreme will, the holy will of God.” This is good preaching, and it is a salve for the thoughts of the Christian who looks for peace on the darkling plain.
Berdyaev’s thesis is a narrative of decline and fall familiar to many, but it is also uniquely compelling and insightful. Although he favorably reviewed Spengler, Berdyaev is a Christian alternative to the cyclical visionaries of historiography, as well as a clear encouragement for those seeking thoughtful living in a dying age.