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Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

For the Russian philosopher Berdyaev, freedom is absolutely fundamental. And freedom is connected with subjectivity and Spirit, rather than the objective (measurable) external world.

All attempts to locate meaning and value in things outside the human soul are doomed to fail. Thinking of the universe as an organism, for instance, seems like an improvement over thinking of it as a dead mechanism. It turns the cosmos into a living entity with a purpose, but it also means thinking of people as mere cells in this organism to be subordinated to the larger whole. Nationalism turns the nation into a false idol to be worshipped. Neither “history,” nor “progress,” nor “the human race,” nor Platonic Forms are particularly significant or even real. They are hypostatizations and abstractions. For Berdyaev, the concrete individual personality is the full locus of reality and value. Anything else renders the personality a meaningless nothing to be used as a means to some other end.

Kant, who also saw human beings as ends in themselves, pointed out that freedom must be a fundamental aspect of human subjectivity because love exists.[1] This is known directly from experience. Each one of us has loved and been the recipient of love. Love cannot exist without freedom. We should let the datum of love determine our theories and speculations about ultimate existence. If love is possible, and we know it is, then freedom exists.

This does not explain freedom. Freedom remains a mystery. This can be compared to the existence of life or of consciousness. How life emerged is unknown, but that does not stop us from acknowledging its existence, and something similar applies to consciousness.

With regard to freedom, at times, Berdyaev uses the mystic Jacob Boehme’s word the Ungrund which means the abyss of eternity that is absolutely indeterminate subjectivity which comes before everything. Tsoncho Tsonchev, a Bulgarian Berdyaev scholar studying at McGill University, writes “this is the primordial abyss from which God creates the world (Being) and from which Being, even God, the Supreme Being, emerges as Being.” However, “freedom is not the source of God, since God Himself is freedom (but a realized one, not the abysmal darkness); this freedom is rather a shadow, a potentia, a capacity, that becomes partially revealed only after the act of creation.”[2]

Thus there is a something rather than a nothing that precedes the very first act of God. And this something is freedom.

Freedom is fundamental and comes before all. Without it there can be no creativity. Without freedom all is mechanical and dead. There could be no love, no goodness, no friendship, and no meaning.

Anyone compelled to act is responsible neither for the good nor the evil that he causes through his actions.

Creativity requires agency. An agent is a center of consciousness, of decision-making, embodying intentionality and purpose. Determinism removes agency from the individual and effectively ascribes it to the Big Bang or the laws of nature, making human agency an illusion. Determinism reduces humans to the steel balls in a pinball machine that have no control over the spring-loaded mechanism that starts the ball’s journey around the machine, nor are there paddles that can be manipulated to alter the ball’s trajectory once the trip has begun.

Freedom is the alternative to nihilism. A certain kind of younger person sometimes imagines that nihilism is the truth and that the failure to acknowledge this comes from fear. Ivan Pavlov, who was immature at heart perhaps, is claimed to have said “There are weak people over whom religion has power. The strong ones – yes, the strong ones – can become thorough rationalists, relying only upon knowledge, but the weak ones are unable to do this.”[3]

It seems a shame to embark on the journey of life with a premature cynicism and rejection of existence. This attitude itself seems to come from fear; possibly a fear of disappointment. It certainly comes from hatred of life and being.

It is true that without freedom, there would also be no hatred, evil, enemies, nor the embrace of nihilism. From freedom come both darkness and the light. All these things have to be possible to enable choice to exist. There must be no God-derived punishment for choosing these things because that would be a manipulation and a derogation of human autonomy. There can only be a metaphorical punishment – one without a punisher – and that is the consequences that flow from those choices.

In his excellent book on Dostoevsky,[4] specifically centered around the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov, Berdyaev directs some of his remarks at the nay-sayers. Nihilists may dispute the existence of love but, in their pessimism and misery, they seem likely to acknowledge the existence of evil. But if evil exists then morality exists. And if morality exists, freedom and God exist.

Berdyaev writes: “The existence of evil is the proof of the existence of God. If the world consisted wholly and uniquely of goodness and righteousness there would be no need for God, for the world itself would be god. God is, because evil is. And that means that God is because freedom is.”[5]

In Berdyaev’s view, human beings are co-creators with God; God in his macrocosm and we in our microcosm. We need God and God needs us. “The idea of God is the only supra-human idea that does not destroy man by reducing him to being a mere means.”[6]

If God ceased to exist, so would man. If man and creation ceased to exist, then so would God. This seems to be because God is in all, through all and above all. If you die, I die. If I am to be saved, then all must be saved. I am my brother’s keeper and he mine. Man has an immortal soul and participates in eternity with God and thus he never dies.

Avicenna points out that if God exists then nothing can happen that is not in accordance with His will. What is His will? Complete uninterrupted freedom to love or to hate, to create or destroy, to befriend or renounce, to deny His existence or to believe.

Faith does not exist nor does it mean anything if it is not a matter of free choice – just like everything else. If you are not my friend from your own untrammeled free will, then you are not my friend. It would be the end of a friendship were someone to threaten to harm someone if he were ever to decide not to be a friend anymore. Certainly God could never justly punish anyone who refused to love him.

There must be no knowledge of God’s existence. There can only be belief, faith and hope. If God’s existence could be proved in an irrefutable manner, faith and hope would be destroyed. Each of us must have the choice to believe or not to believe. The possibility of atheism is a precondition for theism. Love exists because not love exists.

Dostoevsky alludes to the Biblical story of the three temptations of Christ in The Brothers Karamazov. They include Satan suggesting that Jesus turn stones into bread: that Jesus throw himself down from a tower and have God send angels to break his fall; and lastly, Satan offers Jesus the sword of David to rule over the earthly kingdoms. Jesus rejects each temptation. Providing food to the masses would turn them into slaves who would do anything to keep the bread coming. Having angels come to save him would force God to reveal his existence in an overly indubitable manner (thou shalt not tempt the Lord), and taking up earthly power would deprive Man of political autonomy; arranging Man’s life and political circumstances in a way that would be dictated by God.

Those who claim to know that God exists are Gnostics. Gnosticism comes from the word “gnosis” meaning knowledge – in this case secret knowledge belonging to the elect only. This appallingly smug attitude is actually nihilistic. And, in fact, historically Gnosticism has typically regarded all Creation as evil and something to be escaped.

The Gnostic is correct in one regard. Reality as conceived of by him would be something we should all wish to escape. When faith in God is made impossible, then morality and everything else ceases. There can be no naturalistic foundation for morality. Morality requires that human life have intrinsic value; that it is sacred. Science can only ever provide extrinsic value – showing that something is useful for some other end. But even extrinsic value can only exist if intrinsic value exists. For instance, if human happiness has no intrinsic value, then nothing that contributes to human happiness has any extrinsic value either.

The Gnostic, as the possessor of the secret knowledge, has contempt for all non-Gnostics and all Creation and for God Himself. God is freedom and knowledge removes that freedom to believe or not. Again, without freedom there is nothing. Certainly no Creation. You do not create a work of art if I am forcing your hands to do what I wish. The Gnostic is the great nay-sayer.

Volunteerism is crucial and fundamental to everything.

Of equal importance to freedom for Berdyaev is the human personality. Human subjectivity is the path to freedom. We are made in the image of God and are Divine creations participating in Creation, love and freedom. But this all depends on the existence of God.

This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes.[7]

Without God, man oscillates between dreams of his own godhood, and self-disgust as a machine or animal. Man in fact exists in the metaxy – the in-between; neither God nor animal.

Man’s immortal soul confirms his value. Each person, no matter how unimpressive he looks and how limited his capacities is a world unto himself. To save a person is to save a world. To kill him is to destroy a world.

If the human personality is not of supreme value, then something else will be elevated to that status; happiness, the social good, the nation, social justice, equality, history, science, progress, the Enlightenment. If any of these things occupy the position of supreme value, then human beings are reduced to mere nothings. All will be regarded as potentially expendable nullities to be sacrificed for the higher ideal.

Russians I know claim that this is still the situation in Russia. The greater good of society is paramount and the individual nothing. It is this kind of thinking, together with a paranoid and scheming psychopath as a leader, that gives rise to the Gulags. Collectivism is a mechanical and involuntary forcing together of people and it fails on multiple levels, including economically. Private farmers outperform collectivized farming.

Berdyaev’s exaltation of the human personality above all is not the same as individualism. Individualism is a kind of external and objective point of view that can end up promoting egocentrism and isolation.

For Berdyaev a flourishing person voluntary reaches, out of his own volition, to live in communion with other humans, with God and perhaps all nature. The impetus has to come from within.

God is not a king and he is not a judge. If he made the rules at all, the rule is that we make the rules. As Avicenna writes, the secret of destiny is that we make our own destiny.

There will be negative consequences for hatred, alienation, nihilism, murder, fraud, rape and the like but they are not something imposed by God. They are the natural consequence of behaving and feeling in this manner or the human-imposed punishment of prison meant to discourage such things.

If the only reason someone is not engaging in hateful behavior is because of fear of punishment, whether human or divine, then that person is in fact an amoral individual.

God and Jesus is the Friend; the non-judging, non-interfering companion.

Jesus befriends prostitutes and tax-collectors. His parables are not commandments or threats; they are questions. The unconditional love of the Father is described in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke, Chapter 15.

Then he said, “A man had two sons,

12 and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.

13 After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.

14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.

15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.

16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

17 Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.

18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

20 So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

22 But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast,

24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.

25 Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.

26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.

27 The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.

29 He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.

30 But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’

31 He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.

32 But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

This is similar to the parable of the lost sheep, also in Luke, Chapter 15.

1 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him,

2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So to them he addressed this parable.

4 “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?

5 And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy

6 and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.”

7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.

Berdyaev’s God is not the God of Deism. Deism imagines God as setting up the universe, creating the laws of nature, and then withdrawing from Creation. This is a God who absconds and the Deus otiosus who retires from the world.

Berdyaev’s conception of God is a God with whom communion is possible. He is closer than your own tongue. He is in all, through all and above all. He is the Friend permanently waiting to be loved and embraced. It is in Him in whom we move and breathe and have our being.

Imagine a potential friend who said “If you do not accept my friendship I will condemn you to hell for all eternity.” Or, in a more human context, “I will burn down your home and incinerate you and your loved ones after destroying your career, perhaps through false accusations, and getting your children to hate you.”

With friends, we want nothing from them except to share their love and companionship. It is a joy to be in their presence. Their existence improves our own.

To borrow from my own writing (Sam Harris: the Unconverted): “Daniel Dennett, a fellow-traveler with Harris, once commented that “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.[8] Harris and Dennett reject mystery as a matter of principle.

Berdyaev, on the contrary, argues for the absolute necessity of accepting it.

If freedom does not exist as a mystery behind all creation then we can admit neither the verity of this suffering world nor of a God who could create so horrible and meaningless a thing. Under the influence of the euclidean mind man thinks he can make a better world, wherein evil and misery and the tears of the innocent shall have no part. Thence comes the logical development of the campaign against God in the name of the love of good. …The world is full of wickedness and misery precisely because it is based on freedom – yet that freedom constitutes the whole dignity of man and his world. Doubtless at the price of its repudiation evil and suffering could be abolished and the world forced to be “good” and “happy”: but man would have lost his likeness to God, which primarily resides in his freedom.[9]

“The only way to eliminate evil would be to eliminate freedom of choice and action – to enslave all of mankind and destroy its dignity – which would be far more evil than whatever it is hoped will be fixed. A compulsory good denies the possibility of goodness. The more convinced someone is that evil exists, the more he implicitly acknowledges the full reality of God.”[10]

Ivan, the cynical older brother in the Grand Inquisitor story states that most people are weak and they do not want to be responsible for their actions. They would rather be slaves. This is the fate determinists choose. Some of them choose it because their physicalism compels them in that direction. Contra-Pavlov, the weak have an incentive not to believe in a God who grants complete freedom of thought and action and thus moral responsibility. The weak might prefer instead a vision of reality without mystery – a reality where all action and decisions are based on knowledge. Such a vision denies the mystery of freedom and thus offers absolution for all sin, hatefulness and failure to love. But it also rules all goodness out of existence.

There is an infinity of things we do not know. There are reasons to think that even if the universe were deterministic it would remain unpredictable (see The Halting Problem). It is impossible to live and act merely on the basis of certitudes and scientific knowledge. To the extent that a purely scientific conception of reality seems to indicate determinism, it also imaginatively destroys all things that make human life desirable.



[1] Kant offers a complete system. Berdyaev while picking up and developing aspects of Kant’s thought, rejects systemic thinking.

[2] Personal communication, 2/24/2019.


[4] Just called Dostoevsky.

[5] Berdyaev, p. 87.

[6] Berdyaev, p. 99.

[7] Nikolai Berdyaev, Dostoievsky, p. 56.

[8] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 37.

[9] Berdyaev, pp. 85-86.

[10] Richard Cocks, “Sam Harris: the Unconverted.”

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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