Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche
Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy
Chekhov, and Other Essays future date)
Athens and Jerusalem
Essays in Russian Literature: The Conservative View
The needs of the time can make most metaphysical propositions sound true, for their truth is a function of the consciousness of the time. To an age incredulous of theology, disillusioned with material progress and the ideals of humanism, the words of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard made a strong posthumous appeal. They had removed God but exalted faith; repudiated the conventional bond of faith with charity and reason; and offered the dynamics of a new egoism in which “all things are possible.”
Everyone has read books about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but comparatively few can have come across the Russian critic and connoisseur of ideas who was certainly their most lucid and interesting disciple—Lev Shestov. His friend Berdyaev, who is much better known and more widely translated, was of altogether inferior intellectual stature. Some of Shestov’s work is available in French and German,—and there are one or two English versions dating from 1916, but this new edition of his major works, admirably introduced and for the most part admirably translated by Bernard Martin of the University of Ohio, should make his reputation with an Anglo-Saxon audience.
Shestov is almost the only Russian polemicist who is a joy to read even in translation. By way of Tolstoy he is kin to Voltaire, and he attacks the premises of humanist idealism with the same wit and relish with which Voltaire excoriated the Church. Humorous, skeptical, unexcited, his style has nonetheless great energy, and he is often extremely funny at the expense not only of other philosophical attitudes but also of his own: there are few recent sages with less self-importance, even though—or perhaps because—his peculiar emphasis on solipsism is the key to an essentially negative metaphysical position. He is never tired of reminding us that philosophers and great writers are paid far less attention than they suppose: absorption in their thought insulates them from the world (we must remember that he showed no interest in the communal and down-to-earth activities of linguistic philosophy).
Though without their inner fires, Shestov has much of the superb stylistic vitality of his heroes, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he sees more as novelists and dramatists of the inner life than as philosophers, and as closely akin to the two great Russian novelists with whom he continuously and by implication compares them. He himself had no pretensions to anguish. He did not go mad; there was no Regina in his life; he underwent no tormenting spiritual pilgrimages like those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Utterly rejecting “reason and the good,” he remained himself a model of sanity and common sense. There was no humbug in this: rather was it the result of a remarkable and unique kind of cultural balance. A Jew, Shestov inherited that ancient and unshaken imperturbability in the midst of chaos; Spinozan, though opposing Spinoza’s rationale. A Russian, he was on the inside of the greatest of new literary cultures. A European settled in France for the second half of his life …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.