Ovi -
we cover every issue
Resource for Foreigners in Finland  
Ovi Bookshop - Free Ebook
Stop human trafficking
Ovi Language
George Kalatzis - A Family Story 1924-1967
WordsPlease - Inspiring the young to learn
Tony Zuvela - Cartoons, Illustrations
International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
BBC News :   - 
iBite :   - 
Lev Shestov on "Athens and Jerusalem" and European Man
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-08-27 07:59:49
Print - Comment - Send to a Friend - More from this Author
DeliciousRedditFacebookDigg! StumbleUpon
In the last seventy years or so there has been no philosophical dialogue on reason and revelation which did not include the thought of Karl Barth on the same. This was brought home to me not only in my college years by one of my philosophy professors at St. Francis College (the late Dr. Joseph Carpino) but by Vittorio Possenti whose book on Reason and Revelation I translated from the Italian in the year 2000. A colleague of mine, a former professor of Russian, however, pointed out to me recently that there is another philosopher which precedes Barth, and that man is Lev Shestov. Intrigued by this suggestion I did some on-line research on Shestov and I was astonished by what I discovered. I intent to read his most important work and perhaps incorporate it into a second look, so to speak, at Vico’s take on the concept of Providence in The New Science. For the moment, let me share some of this preliminary research with the reader, as a way of clarifying my own take on Shestov.

Lev Shestov (1866-1938) was an existentialist Russian-Jewish philosopher, often described as a religious philosopher. His philosophical speculations were initially inspired by Nietzsche until he found a kindred spirit in Kierkegaard. He was a contemporary of and a friend of Martin Buber, Edmund Husserl and Nikolai Berdyaev. Shestov's development as a thinker lead him to undertake a vast critique of the history of Western philosophy which he saw broadly as a monumental battle between Reason and Faith, Athens and Jerusalem, secular and religious outlook. He thus engaged on what he termed a "pilgrimage through the souls" of such greats as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pascal, Descartes, Plotinus, Parmenides, Chekhov, Husserl, Buber, Solovyov, Spinoza, Plato, Luther and others.

Shestov wrote no less than thirty-four books spanning the history of philosophy and theories of knowledge in the West from Parmenides to Husserl, and such eras as ancient philosophy, middle age philosophy, the Enlightenment, the modern era, Existentialism, Jewish and Christian theology and philosophy, Nihilism, Bolshevism. The sheer breath and depth of his erudition and scholarship was astonishing, not to speak of what many scholars consider the most beautiful prose style in Russian literature. Not knowing Russian I have no way to judge such an assessment but we can safely take on its face value.

In chronological order as they appeared first in Russian, his major works spanning some forty years are: The Good in the teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche (1900), Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche (1903), Apotheosis of Groundlessness, or in English All Things are Possible (1905), Penultimate Words and Other Essays (1908), Potestas Clavium (1923), What is Truth (1927), In Job’s Balance (1929), Sine Effusione Sanguinis: On Philosophical Honesty (1930), Parmenides in Chains (1931),  Athens and Jerusalem (1937), Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (1938), Speculation and Revelation (a collection of essays published in 1964 by his daughters in Paris).

Athens and Jerusalem is the culmination of Shestov's entire lifetime of intellectual inquiry and spiritual striving. It took him twenty years to write and came out in 1937.  It brings together all the diverse strands that had appeared in his earlier writings. In it he set himself the task of critically examining the pretension of human reason to possession of the capacity for attaining ultimate truth,  a pretension first put forth by the founders of Western philosophy in Athens two and a half millennia ago, maintained ever since by most of the great metaphysicians of Europe, and still defended by many philosophers today.

The radical nature of Shestov’s thought consists of a frontal and sustained attack on this pretension of philosophy which, in his opinion, must be rejected. Reason and its by-product, scientific method and its positivist approach, have their proper use and their rightful place in obtaining instrumental technical knowledge concerning empirical phenomena, but they cannot and must not be allowed to determine the directions of man's metaphysical quest or to decide on the ultimate issues - issues such as the reality of God, human freedom and immortality, man’s ultimate destiny, salvation, forgiveness, repentance, redemption.

The scientists and most of the philosophers, Shestov repeatedly insists in Athens and Jerusalem,  have been concerned with discovering self-evident, logically consistent, or empirically verifiable propositions which they take to be eternal and universal truths. For them, man is merely another link in the endless chain of phenomena and lives in a universe totally governed by the iron laws of causal necessity. They assume, whether they say so explicitly or not, that human liberty is largely an illusion, that man's freedom to act and his capacity for self-determination are sharply limited by the network of unchangeable and necessary causal relationships into which he has been cast (“thrown into existence,” as Heidegger puts it) and which exercise an insuperable power over him. Consequently, the path of both virtue and wisdom for man, they believe, lies not in useless rebellion against necessity but in submissive obedience and resignation. In a nutshell, necessity rules and necessarily so. There are iron clad rules and laws in the universe to which man has no choice but to submit. The Stoics called it natural law. In rationalist circles this has become a dogma of Western Philosophy, both ancient and modern.

European man, according to Shestov, has languished for centuries in a hypnotic sleep induced by the conviction that the entire universe is ruled by eternal, self-evident truths (such as the principles of identity and non-contradiction) discoverable by reason, and by an everlastingly unalterable and indifferent power which determines all events and facts. This power is commonly known as "necessity." God Himself, for a thinker like Spinoza, has no power to transcend the necessary structures that express His/Her being. Even for God 2+2 = 4 and a thing cannot be and not be at the same time. For Shestov, Spinoza is the culmination of the mechanistic philosophy that has dominated European metaphysics since Aristotle. To be sure, there have been solitary figures here and there, who have protested against the pretensions of reason and its self-evident truths and have stubbornly refused to accept the dictates of the natural sciences concerning what is possible and what is impossible, but theirs were voices crying in the wilderness. Tertullian's was such a voice, and so also was St. Peter Damian's.

In modern times, it is Dostoevsky who, in his passionate Notes from the Underground, has presented the strongest and most effective "critique of reason." The world as logic and science conceive it, governed by universal and immutable laws and constrained by the iron hand of necessity, is for Dostoevsky a humanly uninhabitable world or to put it another way, a dehumanized kind of world. It must be resisted to the utmost, even if the struggle seems a senseless beating of the head against a stone wall. Shestov finds an immense nobility and heroism in the cry of Dostoevsky's protagonist in his Notes from the Underground where he says: “But, good Lord, what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if I have my reasons for disliking them, including the one about two and two making four! Of course, I won't be able to breach this wall with my head if I'm not strong enough. But I don't have to accept a stone wall just because it's there and I don't have the strength to breach it. As if such a wall could really leave me resigned and bring me peace of mind because it’s the same as twice two makes four! How stupid can one get? Isn't it much better to recognize the stone walls and the impossibilities for what they are and refuse to accept them if surrendering makes one too sick?”

To resist the self-evident truths of science and philosophy, to stop glorifying and worshipping them, however, is not necessarily an exercise in futility, as banging one’s head against a wall would indeed be. If man will only attend to the ancient message of the Bible, Shestov maintains, he will find there a conception of God, of the universe and of himself that not only lends meaning to such resistance but also makes of it the first and most essential step in becoming reconciled with God and regaining his freedom. For the Bible, in opposition to Western science and philosophy, proclaims that God is the omnipotent One for whom literally nothing is impossible and whose power is absolutely without limits, and that He stands not only at the center but at the beginning and end of all things. God, according to the Bible, created man as well as a universe in which there is no defect, a universe which He/She saw to be "very good." Having created man, God blessed him, gave him dominion over all the universe and bestowed upon him the essentially divine and most precious of all gifts, freedom. Which is to say, before there was a fall and a curse and necessity, there was innocence, a blessing, and freedom.

Unlike both traditional philosophy and science, which have sought to transform even single, non-recurring facts or events into eternal and unchangeable truths, the Bible refuses to regard any fact as ultimate or eternally subsistent but sees it rather as under the power of God who, in answer to man's cry, can suppress it or make it not to be. For biblical faith, knowledge - whether it is concerned with what have been called "truths of reason" or "truths of fact" - is not, as it is for traditional philosophy and science, the supreme goal of human life. Against their assumption that knowledge justifies human existence, the existential philosophy which takes its rise from the Bible will insist that it is from man's living existence and experience that knowledge must obtain whatever justification it may have.

Shestov insists throughout his work that there can be no reconciliation between science and  philosophy which aspires to be scientific, on the one side, and biblical religion, on the other. Tertullian was right in proclaiming that Athens can never agree with Jerusalem - even though for two thousand years the foremost thinkers of the Western world have firmly believed that a reconciliation is possible and have bent their strongest and most determined efforts toward effecting it. The biblical revelation not only cannot be harmonized with rationalist or would-be "scientific" metaphysics but is itself altogether devoid of support either from logical argument or scientific knowledge.

For biblical man based his life totally and unreservedly on faith, which is not, as has often been suggested, a weaker form of knowledge (knowledge, so to speak, "on credit," for which proofs, though presently unavailable, are anticipated at some future time), but rather a completely different dimension of thought. The substance of this faith, emphatically denied both by science and philosophy, is the daring and unsupported but paradoxically true conviction that all things are possible. Shestov was haunted for years by the biblical legend of the fall. As he interpreted it, when Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, faith was displaced by reason and scientific knowledge. The sin of Adam has been repeated by his descendants, whose relentless pursuit of knowledge has led not to ultimate truth but to the choking of the springs of life and the destruction of man's primordial freedom.

According to Shestov, speculative philosophy beginning in wonder or intellectual curiosity and seeking to "understand" the phenomena of the universe, leads man to a dead end where he loses both personal freedom and all possibility of envisioning ultimate truth. It is, in a sense, the Original Lie which has come into the world as a consequence of man's disobedience of God's command to refrain from eating of the tree of knowledge. Its narrowness, its lack of imagination, (that Vico. for one, strongly emphasized), its preoccupation with "objectivity" and its wish to exclude from thought all human emotions, its conviction that there is nothing in the world that is essentially and forever mysterious and rationally inexplicable, its refusal even to entertain the possibility of a universe in which the rules of traditional logic (such as the principles of non-contradiction and identity) do not hold sway - all this condemns it to sterility.

If philosophy is to serve the human spirit rather than destroy it, it must - Shestov maintains - abandon the method of detached speculation and disinterested reflection (what Husserl called Besinnung); it must become truly "existential" in the sense of issuing out of man's sense of helplessness and despair in the face of the stone walls of natural necessity. "Out of the depths I cried unto Thee, 0 Lord" and "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" - the experience reflected in these agonized cries of the Psalmist, Shestov maintains, must be the starting point of true philosophy. In this he was inspired by Kierkegaard.

When his philosophy has taught man to reject all veritates aeternae as illusions, to confront unflinchingly the horrors of his historical existence, to experience his despair authentically and without evasion, to realize his mortality and his insignificance in a universe that seems bent on his destruction, then it may perhaps succeed in preparing him for that act of spiritual daring which is faith (what Kierkegaard calls “the leap into faith”) and which can bring him to the God who will restore to him not only a center of meaning for his life but also his primordial freedom.

As Shestov clearly states it in Athens and Jerusalem: “...to find God one must tear oneself away from the seductions of reason, with all its physical and moral constraints, and go to another source of truth. In Scripture this source bears the enigmatic name "faith," which is that dimension of thought where truth abandons itself fearlessly and joyously to the entire disposition of the Creator: "Thy will be done!" The will of Him who fearlessly and with sovereign power returns to the believer, in turn, his lost power: “...what things so ever you desire...you shall have them." (Mark as :24).

Faith, for Shestov, is audacity, the audacity of hope beyond necessity and a deterministic natural law and rationalism; it is the daring refusal to accept necessary laws, to regard anything as impossible. It is the demand for the absolute, original freedom which man is supposed to have had before the fall, when he still found the distinction between truth and falsehood, as well as between good and evil, unnecessary and irrelevant, as Nietzsche, despite his “God is dead” proclamation also implies. Through faith, Shestov seems to suggest, man may become, in a sense, like God himself for whom neither intellectual nor moral grounds and reasons have any reality. But Shestov's God - the God of whom the Bible speaks and before whom all human foundations crack and crumble - is not the God of Spinoza or of Kant or of Hegel. Against all metaphysical and rationalist theologies, Shestov declares that "We would speak, as did Pascal, of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not of the God of the philosophers. The God of the philosophers, whether He be conceived as a material or ideal principle, carries with Him the triumph of constraint, of brutal force."  The God of the Bible is not to be found as the conclusion of a syllogism.

How shall one arrive at this Deus absconditus, this hidden God? "The chief thing," says Shestov, "is to think that, even if all men without exception were convinced that God does not exist, this would not mean anything, and that if one could prove as clearly as two times two makes four that God does not exist, this also would not mean anything." To the complaint that it is not possible to ask men to take a position which negates a universal conviction of the race and flies in the face of logic, Shestov replies "Obviously! But God always demands of us the impossible .. . It is only when man wishes the impossible that he remembers God. To obtain that which is possible he turns to those like himself."

Our task, if we would enter upon the road which leads to true reality and ultimately to the God revealed in Scripture, consists "in the Psalmist's image, in shattering the skeleton which lends substance to our old ego, melting the 'heart in our bowels.'" Experiencing the abyss that opens before him when all his laws, his "eternal truths" and his self-evident certainties are taken away, the desperate soul feels that "God is not, man must himself become God, create all things out of nothing; all things; matter together with forms, and even the eternal laws." When he has experienced this complete abandonment to himself and to boundless despair, then a man - as such irreconcilable enemies as St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and Luther, the renegade monk, both have testified - may, through faith, direct his eyes toward ultimate reality and see the true God who will restore to him the limitless freedom with which he was created and again make all things possible for him.

Shestov’s ultimate conclusion is this: man must choose: Athens or Jerusalem. He cannot have both.  Athens - with its constraining principles, its eternal truths, its logic and science - may bring man earthly comfort and ease but it also stupefies, if it does not kill, the human spirit. Jerusalem - with its message of God and man for both of whom nothing is impossible, with its proclamation that creativity and freedom are the essential prerogatives of both the divine and human - terrifies man, but it also has the power of liberating him and ultimately transforming the horrors of existence into the joys of that paradisiacal state which God originally intended for His creatures.

Now, what after this description of the thought of Lev Shestov as revealed by a preliminary research, leads to the question, even before reading all the primary sources:  are reason and revelation indeed irreconcilable and it is futile to even attempt a synthesis, or is there the possibility of achieving it,  as Aquinas and Vico seem to hint at when they talk about a transcendent Providence who while being beyond time and space and even beyond reason, it is not ipso facto irrational? Frankly, I would not hazard a definite answer at this point, not yet. For, there are some, such as the philosopher Leo Strauss who according to one of his prominent students, Harry Jaffa, did not believe that such a synthesis was possible and sides with Athens despite his being a Jew, and then there are others such as my former philosophy professor Joseph Carpino (who incidentally wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Kierkegaard’s thought) who strongly suggest that philosophical efforts toward such a synthesis are not futile and should be carried out; he specifically proposes this at the end of book review dealing with this thorny issue that “In the New Jerusalem there will be no buying and selling, no giving and taking in marriage--and precious little philosophizing, it must be added; but here there's a world to make ready, and attention must be paid to bodies politic.  In this, liberals and conservatives are both right; independent of the accessibility of a specifically Christian metaphysics, an effort must be made to develop an authentic and rational 'Christian political philosophy.’ It has not yet been achieved." [emphasis mine].

Will it ever be achieved or will we continue to be satisfied with Plato, or worse, Machiavelli’s rationalistic political philosophy. Those philosophies are not Christian and certainly side with Athens, not Jerusalem. As the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni put it: “Ai posteri l’ardua sentenza”: to posterity belongs the difficult answer. Meanwhile we may have to see the dissolution of the third cycle of pure rationalism (what Vico calls the era of men) and a return to a first cycle (that of the gods, as per the same Vico). That may be a silver lining, given that the poetical also returns in the first cycle, to complement the rational and to preserve our humanity.

Print - Comment - Send to a Friend - More from this Author

Get it off your chest
 (comments policy)

Emanuel Paparella2010-08-27 20:14:49
Errata: a footnote by way of correction: Dr. Carpino's dissertation on Kierkegaard was not his Ph.D. dissertation but his M.A. dissertation. His Ph.D. dissertation was on Hegel.

© Copyright CHAMELEON PROJECT Tmi 2005-2008  -  Sitemap  -  Add to favourites  -  Link to Ovi
Privacy Policy  -  Contact  -  RSS Feeds  -  Search  -  Submissions  -  Subscribe  -  About Ovi