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Berdyaev: Why God and the Person Must be the Highest Ideal

Berdyaev: Why God And The Person Must Be The Highest Ideal

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) is a Russian religious existential philosopher who devoted much of his writing to the topics of spirit and freedom. Berdyaev recognizes that freedom is necessary for love, goodness, and creativity to exist. The act of creation must be free and not caused, otherwise there is no agential creation, just a “sequence of events.”

An agent is a locus of decision-making and choice; also, potentially, of intelligence. An agent must be free in order to be an agent at all. Otherwise, everything the agent does is merely a sequence of events in an endless chain of cause and effect. An avalanche is not an agent. It just happens due to various physical forces reaching a tipping point. Avalanches are not wise or unwise, good or evil, creative or uncreative; they simply exist as a natural phenomenon.

Freedom must pre-date God the creator because freedom is creation’s precondition. And God the creator does not exist without creation. Just as God as love does not exist without the beloved. God the Logos, God the Father, comes into existence with creation and the beloved. God the Person emerges from what the mystic Jacob Boehme called the “Ungrund.” The Ungrund is the Great Mystery and is unknowable. Right at the core of reality is a mystery which must be a mystery even to God the Logos. This mystery, which could be identified with the Holy Spirit, connects all living beings via consciousness. The Ungrund gives rise to good and evil – and goodness cannot exist without the possibility of evil, just as love is meaningless without the possibility of not-love. God the Logos does not create evil, but in His acts of creation He connects the creature with the Ungrund and Freedom, and this choice provided makes good and evil possible.

Creativity involves taking something from the unknown and hidden and bringing it into the light of day. It does not involve simply manipulating things in front of you in a predetermined fashion. If creativity could be reduced to an algorithm – a set of instructions – then it would not be creativity. Creativity has an inherently mysterious component and to eliminate that component would be to get rid of creativity. Creativity is a necessary feature of all living things because their circumstances change in unpredictable ways and they need to improvise an appropriate and intelligent response to those changes. There can be no algorithm for a problem that it was unknown would exist. At best, an algorithm can be formulated after the fact. Though algorithms are in the realm of knowledge and thus the known, the creation of algorithms can be very difficult indeed, requiring insight, intuition, and acts of imagination. Likewise, if Freedom were explained, it would enter the realm of the determinate and would cease to be freedom. It would be part of the naturalistic order and the objective, naturalistic order is, as such, deterministic. Living creatures, however, are agents and centers of intelligence and they can intervene in the stream of events and make use of otherwise deterministic forces for their own purposes. It is their subjectivity and their interior that makes this possible. Sequences of events are all objective, but some sequences of events are set in motion by creatures partaking in acausal freedom.

In order for morality to function, there need to be intrinsic as well as extrinsic goods. Naturalism can reckon with extrinsic goods – means to ends – but it is conceptually unable to introduce intrinsic value into the scheme. Naturalism takes science as its preferred and exclusive access to reality and science is unable to locate value, meaning or purpose. Science can be used to deduce that X is a poison but not that poisoning an innocent person for the fun of it is immoral.

Morality, in order to function and even to exist has to be founded on the notion that human life, at least, has intrinsic value; as a kind of end in itself. Arguably, only the notion that human life is sacred has the proper level of seriousness. The idea that human life is “nice,” for instance, does not give a good indication of how human life should be regarded.

In Luke 10:27, in response to a question from Jesus, it is said that “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And you must love your neighbor as yourself.”[1] Berdyaev, like Dmitri Philosophov below, argues that the two injunctions are related. Your neighbor deserves your love because he is made in the image of God and has an aspect of divinity within him – spirit. The concept of God introduces a non-natural element into the picture which is needed for intrinsic goodness. Extrinsic goodness is parasitic on this intrinsic goodness, since if the end, in a means/end equation is not in fact good, then the means is not good either. Also, extrinsic goodness can become problematic because the expedient can be substituted for the moral.

Each person, like God, participates in freedom via spirit, and thus love, morality and creativity. Each person needs the freedom to develop his talents whether they be more in the direction of love or more in a scientific or artistic (i.e., fine arts, literary, philosophical) manner. The result will be inequality between people since we differ in the degree and kind of talents we possess and in the degree that those talents are realized. These differences often become the subject of envy and resentment on the part of others and politics tends to try to assuage these negative feelings which are the result of moral failings on the part of individuals by suppressing differences and thus impeding the realization of talents. The suppression of difference will require a totalitarian imposition on the populace and thus politics has a tendency to produce tyranny and uniformity in the name of equality. Equality is anti-human. Freedom and inequality are naturally connected.

“Solving” a moral failing like envy and resentment by tyrannically eliminating enviable achievement whether in social status, economic prosperity or some other area, is a really rather morally insane thing to do. It is comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel Harrison Bergeron where the beautiful must wear a mask in order not to arouse the envy of the ugly, the athletic must be weighed down with heavy objects so that they cannot run fast or display elegance or grace, and the intelligent must have their thoughts interrupted by loud bursts of sound whenever they are in danger of having a new, smart idea. The only non-dystopian solution for the moral failing of envy and unjustified resentment is to require the individual to grow up and learn to admire the qualities in other people that are superior to his own instead of unjustly resenting them.

Berdyaev’s thinking about the individual is that each concrete person must be regarded as the highest good, in line with the Jewish notion that to save a person is to save a world and to kill a person is to kill a world.

While the concrete Person is the highest ideal, the Person’s aim should be to realize his talents and to join in voluntary communion with his fellow Persons and with God. The Person must transcend his selfish, self-involved point of view and ascend into a view of reality undistorted by personal concerns, i.e., to try to live in truth. Thus the Person becomes an ideal of creativity and the pursuit of truth. The Person being our true selves means that in order to become more ourselves we need to try to ascertain objective reality. The Person as the highest ideal has nothing to do with individualism. Individualism suggests exclusive self-concern and isolation.

Berdyaev points out that if God and the individual human Person[2] are not someone’s highest ideal then that person is effectively promising to sacrifice the individual in the name of that supposedly higher ideal. The logic is simple and undeniable.

If someone says that under any circumstances, no matter what competing goods there may be or seem to be, the Person is sacrosanct and to be protected at all costs, then that person is elevating the Person to the highest level of their morality in the manner that Berdyaev identifies as necessary and has abandoned his former allegiances.

Alternatives to the genuine highest good include the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, well-being, humanity, happiness, social justice, feminism, equality, the nation, workers of the world, rationalism, science, and progress.

Every one of those “goods” is a murderous cult and false idol bent on the immolation of the human individual. If any object to this accusation, let him agree that the Person is paramount and beats out all competing ideals and that his former highest good is now secondary and always, in every situation, to be supplanted by God and Person.

In the New Testament, in the Gospel of John, the High Priest Caiaphas says about Jesus, “it is better that one man should die than a whole nation be destroyed.”[3] This is the sacrificial thinking that Berdyaev rejects.

The word “ideology” should be reserved for any doctrine that demotes the Person and God to secondary importance. Thus, Christianity and Judaism, properly understood, are not ideologies. Buddhism, however, has no great truck with either concept – God or Person – and the fact that “Islam” means “submission” is worryingly suggestive of coercion rather than freedom. It is God’s will that we live in complete freedom and thus moral responsibility. It seems rather tortured to say that we “submit” to God’s will when God’s will is that we be not slaves. “Submitting” to non-slavery is a strange locution – though it is true that many people would like to throw off their freedom for the joys of an apparently clear conscience of the “I was only following orders” variety.

Berdyaev sees the Person as co-creators with God; we in our microcosm and He in his macrocosm. Creativity requires freedom; as does love, friendship and goodness.

If, perchance, the ideology recognizes the Person as a good, the Person is not of the greatest importance to its adherents and the Person will always be sacrificed for the higher ideal. Thus, all ideology is sacrificial.

Dmitry Philosophov[4] [Filosofov] at a meeting in St. Petersburg in 1901 that hoped to create a dialog between intellectuals and those affiliated directly with the Orthodox Church premised his remarks on the Biblical injunction from Luke 10:27 about loving first God and then your neighbor.[5]

Philosophov notes:

“The Intelligentsia . . . had assimilated only the second commandment. “In our doctors, our students and women-students, going out in a famine year in service to neighbour, there was an unconscious “religiousness”, insofar as they were faithful with a true love towards the “earth.” But “religiousness” – is not religion. For them the faith in God was replaced by a faith in progress, in civilisation, in the categorical imperative . . . In the name of love for neighbor without love for God there cannot be true [undertakings] upon the earth.”[6]

God is necessary to render the Person divine and sacred. We are made in the image of God and we possess an immortal soul. Bestowed with freedom we bear the weight of responsibility for the good and the evil that we do. Evil actions could be reduced by turning men into slaves, but good actions too would be fewer and slavery itself is a great evil.

If it were possible to have a genuinely moral philosophy without God, this would in some ways seem a great boon, for many people claim to be atheists. How much easier it would be to gain acceptance of Berdyaev’s point, and actual morality, if it were not necessary to introduce God into the picture.

Unfortunately, atheistic naturalism does not have the conceptual or transcendental resources to elevate the Person to a protected status and ultimate value. Atheist scientists are apt to refer to humans as “animals,” “apes” and as “machines.” The most brutely reductionist among them might call them “collections of atoms” or “the chance results of an evolutionary process.”

Utilitarianism announces its adherence to “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” and thus its embrace of expediency, and rejection of morality. It is explicitly pro-sacrifice. It takes the perspective of the mob against the victim and even when it decides not to kill the victim this time it does so only because murdering the victim would not benefit the mob, not because the victim has an intrinsic inviolable value. The innocence of the victim is irrelevant to utilitarianism. Utilitarians simply accept Caiaphas’s statement that Jesus, the innocent victim, should be killed. Should it be shown that immolation would benefit the mob, the victim dies. It has no way to protect the victim from immolation because it has pledged its fealty to the mob; the “greatest number.”

As soon as the utilitarian expresses outrage that he is being accused of being a sacrificial monster and declares his undying devotion to the sanctity of human life and the Person, then he is no longer a utilitarian. He has renounced his highest ideal for something else – and this something else is the only alternative to moral nihilism.

Professional feminists – spokeswomen, academics, journalists – have feminism as their highest ideal. As such it is to be defended against all comers. All other values are to be subordinated to the highest good – such being the nature of highest goods. Actual concrete women and girls are not the point and will be sacrificed when necessary. This can be seen in the feminist devotion to abortion in which half of the aborted fetuses, or in some states, living babies outside the womb to be killed, are female.

Knowledge is domain specific which means it is hard to apply true principles to new areas of human life. However, this particular crucial insight of Berdyaev’s is, in principle, very easy to apply. Any highest good other than God and the Person is destined to contribute to the proliferation of human misery and sacrificial cults. This is the primary explanation for the perplexing nihilism that seems to permeate modern culture.



[1] Luke 10:27. It is fascinating to read Jesus eliciting these statements from his interlocutor in the manner of Socrates rather than baldly stating them himself. Jesus asks questions and provides parables rather than issuing orders or prescriptions. Having got the answer he hoped for, he follows this up with his parable of the Good Samaritan. Again, he asks which person did the right thing – drawing the answer from someone else.

[2] The translation from the Russian can be either “Person,” or “Personality.”

[3] John 11:50 (NIV), “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

[4] What a delightful name, especially with the Anglicized spelling!

[5] Luke 10:27. It is fascinating to read Jesus eliciting these statements from his interlocutor in the manner of Socrates rather than baldly stating them himself. Jesus asks questions and provides parables rather than issuing orders or prescriptions. Having got the answer he hoped for, he follows this up with his parable of the Good Samaritan. Again, he asks which person did the right thing – drawing the answer from someone else.

[6] Fr. Aleksandr Men’, Russian Religious Philosophy: 1989-1990 Lectures, pp. 75-76. Philosophov goes on to criticize the Church at the time for failing in the second injunction, to love your neighbor as your self.


Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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