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Vol. XIV • 1992

In the Mature Philosophy of Lev Shestov
Ellen Myers

The Russian Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov (1866-1938) is almost unknown in America and even in Western Europe where he settled after 1919 and wrote his mature work. Despite his great erudition and superb style his philosophy found few followers. This was so because Shestov did not share his generation's idolatry of science, technology, progress, and above all of man's own autonomous reason as the lawgiver for thought and life.

Shestov rebelled against the impersonalism common to all rationalistic philosophies from the Greeks to the moderns, and he could not tolerate their allegedly absolute "uncreated truths" or "Necessity." Over against them he set the "created truths" of the sovereign, personal God of the Bible, the God to Whom all things are possible. In his most extreme formulation, this God is able to cause something that happened in the past not to have happened, or to make 2 plus 2 add up to not-4; a truth is absolute only when rooted and grounded in the Person of God the Creator Himself. In a world teeming with religious unbelief, cataclysmic social upheavals, and mass murder, torture and slavery under Communism and Nazism, Shestov came to believe that

Only a reappropriation of the faith of Scripture--which proclaims that man and the universe are the creation of an omnipotent, personal God and that this God made man in His own image, endowing him with freedom and creative power--could ... liberate contemporary humanity from the horrors of existence.1 Because Shestov's last and greatest book, Athens and Jerusalem, presents this conviction most unequivocally and thoroughly, it has been chosen as the only basis for the discussion of his thought.

The Foreword already reveals Shestov's extensive knowledge of the important philosophers of all ages. He quotes Aristotle, Bayle, Leibnitz, Descartes, and Kant to raise his first crucial point, namely, that "the problem of knowledge, or more exactly, knowledge as a problem, not only has never drawn the attention of the most notable representatives of philosophical thought but has repelled them" (Athens and Jerusalem, p.51). Philosophers understand that this world and human reason must be autonomous and self-contained if they want to "do philosophy"; no unpredictable higher being can be allowed to interfere with their own "truths." As Shestov says, if "the eternal truths are not autonomous but depend on the will, or more precisely, the pleasure of the Creator, how could philosophy or what we call philosophy be possible?" (ibid., p.50) The "problem of knowledge" exists for philosophers because autonomous reason cannot even prove the elementary proposition that objects outside our own selves actually exist. They might be mere figments of our imagination or dreamlike illusion as the far Eastern religions have taught for millennia, Reason can only postulate the real existence of that which is "not-self," or else accept it "on faith," that is, by denying its own universal validity. Of course, whether we are Hindus, Buddhists, modern "New Age" mystics, philosophers, or common unlearned people, we must all act as if things outside ourselves really did exist in order to live; but this argument from experience only irritates would-be autonomous thinkers because it challenges their autonomy and is factual proof that all men do and must "live by faith,"

Common sense tempts us to ridicule the "problem" involved here as fictitious, but the recognition of the "not-self-as real" is threatened everywhere today by the far Eastern religious concept of all observed phenomena as illusion ("maya") which is flooding Western society and thought, Hence Shestov's substantiation of reality as truly existing and not an illusion is particularly relevant today, He points to the personal, sovereign God and Creator of the Bible as the Maker, Sustainer and hence Validator of reality: Kant ... wanted people to consider him .., a Christian philosopher. But for all his piety, he could not accept the idea that God can and must be placed above the truths, that God can be sought and found in our world. Why ... did it not occur to him to ask whether the certitude with which he affirmed the autonomy of the truth ... did not flow from the "dogma" of the sovereignty of reason, a dogma devoid of all foundation and one which is ... perhaps--the death of the human spirit? ... the truths of experience, whatever they may bring, always irritate us, just as does the "supreme being" (that is to say, deus ex machina) even when he wisely introduces into us eternal truths concerning what exists and what does not exist, (ibid., pp.54-55) To his great credit Shestov insisted upon this answer while standing virtually alone long before the rise of the modern biblical creation movement.

Second, Shestov strongly revolts against the cold impersonalism of a world without the personal God of Scripture who cares for man:

The Psalmist could cry to God, but the man qui sola ratione ducitur (who is led by reason alone) knows well that it is absolutely useless to cry to God from the depths. If you have fallen into an abyss, try to get out of it as best you can, but forget what the Bible has told us throughout the centuries--that there is somewhere, "in Heaven," a supreme and omnipotent being who is interested in your fate, who can help you, and who is ready to do so.(ibid., p.58) Shestov loathed the philosophers' endless debate about their alleged "truths," typified by Plato's statement that "The greatest good of man is to discourse daily about virtue." He accepted instead "the biblical legend of the fall of the first man and the Apostle (St. Paul) who interprets this legend by declaring that 'whatsoever is not of faith is sin.'" (ibid., p.65) He wanted to "(put) to proof the pretensions to the possession of truth which reason or speculative philosophy make" so that "the tree of knowledge no longer chokes the tree of life." (ibid., pp.65-66) He called the philosophers' autonomous ethics and "constraining truths" which exalted themselves against God "the abomination of desolation," and said that to find God one must go to Scriptural faith, 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, on his side, fearlessly and with sovereign power returns to the believer his lost power: ... "what things soever ye desire ... ye shall have them" (Mark 11:24) ... Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths concerning what is and what is not, Reality is transfigured. The heavens glorify the Lord, the Prophets and apostles cry in ecstasy, "O death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory?" And all announce: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him" (I Corinthians, 2:9). (ibid., pp.68, 69)

Shestov proposed a true religious philosophy, which would be "a turning away from knowledge and a surmounting by faith ,,. of the false fear of the unlimited will of the Creator, that fear which the tempter suggested to Adam and which he has transmitted to all of us," Man cannot live on the basis of his own autonomous reason for his fate is then simply the Creator's warning to Adam, "you will die," writ large:

Human wisdom is foolishness before God, and the wisest of men ,,. is the greatest of sinners. Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. As for the philosophy that does not dare to rise above autonomous knowledge and autonomous ethics, the philosophy that bows down will-lessly and helplessly before the material and ideal "data" discovered by reason and that permits them to pillage and plunder the "one thing necessary"--this philosophy does not lead man towards truth but forever turns him away from it. (ibid., pp.70-71) Shestov shows that autonomous reason will admit the sovereignty of God at most only once, at the beginning of the world: "'The founder and guide of all things ,.. always obeys, but has commanded only once.' So thought Seneca, so thought the ancients, so all of us think, ... the Creator of the world has Himself become subordinate to Necessity which ... has become the sovereign of the universe," (ibid., p.85) However, this "Necessity" of the philosophers which subjugates God also reduces men to mere "stones endowed with consciousness," as Spinoza said, (ibid., p. 103) It is only when we recognize ourselves as such helpless and miserable stones in some abyss of despair that we may first begin to truly inquire and reflect. Only then do we perhaps cry out to a God transcending Necessity and the world absolutely as the only One able to rescue us, and so find Him.

Man's autonomous philosophies are also tested by the finality of universal, inescapable death in this world. Facing death, man asks who or what determines his fate, and he realizes that As long as we obtain no answer to this question, all our truths will have only a conditional significance. ... (our fate is) at the disposal perhaps of a living being who feels and chooses or, perhaps, of something that is interested in nothing and no one. ... And if this indifferent or inanimate "something" is the source of life and truth, then what meaning, what importance, can human choice have?

... it is obvious that on the plane where these questions were bom and developed we shall obtain no answer. Or worse still: on this plane all these questions are decided in advance. There is no "who" at the sources of being; therefore there is no "who" at the sources of truth. (Athens and Jerusalem, p. 111) This means that "By himself man can no more obtain faith than he could obtain his own being." (ibid., p. 129) Faith in God is not "only a particular form of knowledge," the "knowledge" of autonomous reason and philosophy, as Hegel taught; on the contrary, "the Scriptures, the Old as well as the New Testament .,, do not demand but presuppose faith in what is incompatible, completely incompatible, with knowledge." (ibid.) But the birth of knowledge, Shestov reiterates, was "a violation of man," and it is also "a violation of the spirit," because it reduces to the contingent and the finite "the marriage at Cana, the resurrection of Lazarus, the poisoning of Socrates and the poisoning of a dog." (ibid., pp.130, 131) The philosophers' sacrosanct Necessity is a Medusa which turns them who see her into stones. It makes prayer an exercise in passivity before the inescapable, and changes repentance into forgetfulness, whereas prayer must address a truly existing personal God to have meaning, and "repentance is repentance precisely because it cannot come to terms with what has happened." (ibid., p. 135) Having ruled out the meaningful existence and sovereignty of the personal God of Scripture, autonomous reason/philosophy has somehow passed

All reality ... into a flattening mill and forcibly introduced [it) into that two-dimensional thought, which ... considers as an absurdity everything that bears the stamp of the unforeseen, of freedom, of originality, everything that seeks and desires not passive being but the creative action that is not bound or determined by anything. (ibid., p.137)

In order to maintain its own autonomy, philosophy and its vaunted Necessity cannot "admit the idea of purpose (finality) in nature." (ibid., p.143) Elsewhere Shestov deals more clearly and sharply with the dominant Darwinian evolutionism of his day:

If one had proven to the Apostle (St. Paul) with all the required evidence, like "two times two makes four," that man is descended from the ape, neither proofs nor evidence would have convinced him. He would perhaps have repeated Dostoevsky's words, "but what does it matter to me?" Probably, however, he would have recalled the Bible: "... as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee." In other words, if you believe that you are of God, you are of God; if you believe that you come from an ape, you come from an ape: "the righteous shall live by faith." (ibid., pp.348-349)

Here Shestov expresses doubt about evolutionist "evidence," and praises faith in the words of the Bible, He even dares say that a man is what he believes he is, an unreasonable statement on the surface, yet shown to be true in fact: the Nazis believed themselves to be "blond beasts" and acted as such, and today's believers in their own animal descent advocate and practice, abortion, euthanasia and sterilization on these same grounds,

Shestov believes that Adam's fall in Eden involved descent into the philosophers' autonomous reason, One of his reasons for this conviction is the modern philosophers' own praise of the serpent and rejection of God. He quotes Hegel's statements that the serpent did not deceive man, and that "The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil--of the knowledge that is of reason out of itself--(is) the universal principle of philosophy for all later times." Then Shestov correctly adds:

It is not only Hegel who thinks thus. All of us are persuaded that the serpent who enticed our primal forefathers to taste of the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not deceive them, that the deceiver was God who had forbidden Adam to eat of these fruits in the fear that the man would become like God. .,. if it is necessary to choose between God ... and the serpent ... , the educated European cannot hesitate; he will follow the serpent. (ibid.,p.165)

This attitude goes back to Socrates. Like Socrates, who at least knew he knew nothing, all the philosophers "were completely hypnotized by the idea that (an) order which depends on no one must exist ... (and) the task of philosophy consists of revealing the necessary relationships of things... " (ibid., p.168) But if Necessity rules, then why not live as one pleases--"if the dead rise not, let us eat and drink (I Corinthians, 15:32)?" (ibid., p.169) This, of course, is to abandon meaningful ethics, as the Stoics and Plotinus ("the last of the great philosophers of antiquity") understood. Yet if one clings to a meaningful ethics and faces utter misfortune "stoically," then is not any "happiness" promised by wisdom--"happiness" while one's daughters are raped, one's sons murdered, one's homeland destroyed--"worse than the worst misfortunes that strike mortal men?" (ibid., p. 175)

The question of a meaningful ethics involves man's choice between good and evil. Philosophers assume that this was always the choice. Not so, says Shestov in perhaps his most important philosophical deduction from the Genesis record of man before the fall:

But evil might not have existed in the universe at all. Whence did it come? Do not Necessity and the capacity for choosing between good and evil testify, not to our freedom ... but to our enslavement, to our loss of freedom? The free being (Adam before the fall) possesses the sovereign right to give names to all things, and they will bear the names that he confers on them (Genesis 2:19), The free man might not have authorized evil to enter the world, but now man must be content with "choosing" between the evil that is not subordinated to him and the good that is likewise no longer in his power. (ibid., p. 190)

This biblical concept of the freedom to do only good is analogous to the freedom of our Lord, God and Father Who is good and only does good. Man was created originally in the image and likeness of this God, and is meant to be restored to this perfection in Christ by faith. This view of true freedom is "the glorious liberty of the children of God" spoken of in Romans 8:21 and longed for by all creation. This true precept of freedom according to biblical creation must be embraced and held up high before the world by Christian believers.

How, then, may fallen man be delivered from the presumptu-ousness of autonomous reason into the freedom of God and His redeemed children? Deliverance, Shestov says, is possible only by God, Shestov quotes extensively from Martin Luther over against both worldly and would-be Christian scholastic philosophers: Luther said, "man presumptuously claims to be holy and righteous." The virtue and happiness of the man who by his own powers can turn neither to God nor to immortality, for reason has enchained his will and obliged him to go where Necessity pushes him, appeared to Luther as the fall of man, as original sin. The idea of law and order, on which all our thought is based, is also for him the worst of errors. The source of truth is found where human reason least expects it; and it is there also that one can attain the good which we have exchanged for philosophical happiness. Luther calls this source "faith." ... "Nothing is more inimical to faith than law and reason, and these two cannot be overcome without great effort and labor, yet they must be overcome if you wish to be saved. ... the gospel leads us beyond and above the light of law and of reason into the darkness of faith ..." What Socrates and Spinoza glorified as "our better part" and "the divine light" appear to Luther to be bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere (the monster without whose killing man cannot live), (ibid., pp.202-203)

Shestov points out that according to Luther the law "is not given to man to guide him but only to make him aware of his weakness and impotence"; man could not go where he wished to go, and took "appearances and illusions for truths." This doctrine of the bondage of man's will was unacceptable and absurd "both to the learned Erasmus and to the Catholic theologians nurtured on the Bible." (ibid., p.205) Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Shestov says, understood with Luther that there existed a "strict bond .,, between knowledge and ... the loss of freedom." From this Nietzsche evolved his irrationalist anti-Christian master morality, and Kierkegaard a "Christian" existentialism which yet "never succeeded in escaping from the power of the Socratic ideas." (ibid., p.226)

Shestov elaborates this judgment on Kierkegaard in a lengthy and intriguing discussion of his works. Ultimately Kierkegaard's error stems from his false understanding of what was involved in Adam's fall:

Contrary to what Kierkegaard asserts, it must be said that it was precisely the fruits of the tree of knowledge which lulled the human mind to sleep. This is why God forbade Adam to eat of them, The words that God addressed to Adam, "as for the tree of knowledge of good and of evil, you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die," are in complete disagreement with our conception of knowledge as well as our conception of good and evil, But their meaning is perfectly clear and admits of no tortured interpretation. I repeat once more: they constitute the only true critique of pure reason that has ever been formulated here on earth. ,,. Freedom consists in the force and power not to admit evil into the world, God, the freest being, does not choose between good and evil. And the man whom He had created did not choose either, for there was nothing there to choose: evil did not exist in paradise. Only when man, obeying the suggestion of a force hostile and incomprehensible to us, held forth his hand towards the tree did his mind fall asleep and did he become that feeble being, subject to alien principles, that we now see. This is the meaning of the "fall" according to the Bible, (ibid., pp.255, 256)

Kierkegaard also attributes his concept of "anxiety" falsely to the alleged "Nothingness" of innocence, whereas the Bible states that "shame and anxiety came only after the fall and proceed not from innocence but from knowledge. Thus anxiety is not the reality of freedom but the manifestation of the loss of freedom." (ibid., p.257) Because Kierkegaard and Nietzsche endeavored to lead man to that "happiness" and equanimity offered by philosophy/ autonomous reason in the face of unbearable "Necessity," they are for Shestov guilty of "the most terrible, the mortal, unpardonable sin (which) consists in this acceptance." (ibid., p.265)

As is already obvious from Shestov's approval of Luther, he believes that but for a few exceptions the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages also partook of the idolatry of autonomous reason because it leaned upon Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, "as a kind of second 'Old Testament.'" (ibid., p.272) The moderns in turn are indebted to the scholastics by way of Descartes and Leibnitz. Shestov makes heavy use of the work of Etienne Gilson on medieval philosophy in substantiating his charge that this would-be Christian thought system departed from true Christian philosophy founded exclusively upon the Bible. Gilson himself had glimpses of this fact;

The metaphysics of the Book of Exodus penetrates to the very heart of epistemology, in that it makes the intellect and its subject dependent on God, from whom both draw their existence. What it brings us here that is new is the notion, unknown to the ancients, of a created truth, spontaneously ordained by the Being who is at the same time the end and the beginning, for it is by Him alone that it exists, as He alone can perfect and fulfill it, (ibid., p.275) Shestov wholeheartedly agrees: "The philosophy of the Book of Exodus tells us that truth, like everything that exists, was created by God, that it is always in His power and that it is in this precisely that its high value and its superiority in relation to the uncreated truths of the Greeks consists." (ibid., p.277) However, while we need not accuse "the pious thinkers of the Middle Ages ... (to) admit the thought that truth was on the side of the tempting serpent," they did so implicitly when, "concerned no doubt with defending man against the arbitrariness of God," they attempted to transform "the truths received from God 'without any shadow of proof into proven truths, into self-evident truths--as the principles of the Greeks demanded of them," (ibid., pp.280, 281) They, like any worldly philosophers, were not satisfied with God's word itself but craved validation of God's word by this or that principle brought up by autonomous reason:

This is precisely what the first man wished when he stretched forth his hand to the tree of knowledge ... He also wishes "to know," not "to believe"; he saw in faith a kind of diminution, an injury to his human dignity, and he was certain of this when the serpent told him that after he had eaten of the fruits of the forbidden tree he would become like God--knowing, (ibid., p,282)

What we all are tempted to do, Shestov is saying, is to depend on and bow to our own "knowledge" or to impersonal "principles" rather than the sovereign Person of the Creator, We would rather die than live by faith in Him. Even the medieval would-be Christian philosophers (except for such as Peter Damian and one or two others) and the medieval mystics "never wished to see and never came to understand that the original sin consisted in the fact that man had tasted of the fruits of the tree of knowledge." (ibid., p.283) Unlike they, truly Christian thinkers must abide by created truths only: "We must, before everything else, reject the basic categories of Greek thought, tear out from our being all the postulates of our 'natural knowledge' and our 'natural morality.'" (ibid., p.288) Eventually scholasticism, unable to bear the dichotomy of both Greek and biblical epistemology, was eclipsed by the modern formulations of Greek thought/autonomous reason only. The climax of scholasticism was reached, as is well known, by St. Thomas Aquinas, who knew but did not hearken to the warning of Isaiah: "If you will not believe, you will not endure," replacing them by the faulty translation "If you will not believe, you will not understand" (Isaiah 7:9). (ibid., p.298) Many biblical statements which run counter to certain principles of autonomous reason were embarrassing to medieval thinkers; thus, for example, the six days of creation were called an "allegory" already by St. Augustine and Philo of Alexandria, "thanks to which we can pass so easily above the abyss that separates Athens from Jerusalem," yet which paralyzes God's revealed truth. (ibid., p.303)

Over and over again Shestov returns to the deadly results of man's lust for knowledge which would submerge both God and man in its hostile impersonalism. A learned man will not accept "the God of the Bible who rejoices, becomes angry, regrets what He has done, transforms water into wine, multiplies loaves of bread, leads the Jews across the Red Sea, etc. All this must be understood allegorically or metaphorically." (ibid., p.309) Nevertheless, "God returned to Job his flocks, his health, his children. God brought it about that quod fuit non fuisse (what had been had not been), without concerning Himself with any laws (of philosophy, like the "law of contradiction") whatsoever." (ibid.) In the world created by God, Shestov exclaims, "there are not and cannot be any first principles, that is, principles absolutely independent and sufficient by themselves." (ibid., p.314) Abraham simply believed God, needing no "proof" of reason, and his faith was counted to him for righteousness.

Was Shestov a Christian? Many passages in Athens and Jerusalem seem to affirm this because they call the New Testament God's word, and even refer to Jesus Christ as God. (See especially ibid., pp.322-323) On the other hand, there is no record of Shestov's formal conversion to Christianity or baptism, and during a lecture trip to Palestine in 1936 he was honored as "one of the great Jewish philosophers of the century," (ibid., p.26) While his philosophy contains crucial elements for a Christian epistemology free from the blandishments of autonomous reason, it relies too much on substantiation of the Christian faith by human experience, Shestov also neglects the role of biblical moral law and man's obedience thereto in faith. Not only the scholastics he rebukes but also Calvin whom he seems to endorse stood for man's obedience to God; Calvin said that "omnis recta cognitio de obedientia nascitur (all right knowledge is born of obedience)." For Shestov, however, man's freedom was all-important. This preoccupation with freedom led him to the important insight that freedom to do only good prevailed in paradise. Such freedom, of course, is totally dependent upon man's perfect likeness to his perfectly good Creator; fallen man, and even the Christian believer in process of restoration to God- and Christlikeness, cannot have this freedom. Contrary to Shestov, not only distrust of God and a lust for knowledge but also disobedience of man was involved in the fall.

Shestov occasionally hints at but never completely states the truth that the biblical moral law is the expression of God's righteous character. If he did, then he might have concluded that the alleged conflict between God Himself and the law would turn out to be a strife about formulations. A fruitful line of inquiry for biblical Christian thought might be in what respects God's "created truths" agree or disagree with such principles as the taw of contradiction, which Shestov simply rejects out of hand. Yes, God may rejoice, become angry, change His mind about destroying Nineveh and restore Job's flocks and children; but He is immutable in His righteous character (James 1:17) and "from age to age the same" (Hebrews 13:8 and Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"). True, He can do all things, and nothing is impossible for Him in His creation; but "He cannot deny Himself" (II Timothy 2:13), abiding faithful and righteous for ever and ever. His character well agrees with the freedom to do only good man possessed in paradise and will again enjoy in eternity if redeemed in Christ; His character also agrees in its essential immutability with the law of contradiction, which therefore contrary to Shestov might turn out to be a "created truth," confirmed by the creation of fixed kinds according to Genesis 1. Miracles also confirm the "fixed" truth of biblical creation, even as any exception confirms a rule as the rule (the normally happening).

In a generation when the hegemony of godless autonomous reason appeared well-nigh irreversible (consider the hold Darwinism had upon the world), Shestov made a valiant attempt to uphold faith based on biblical creation, While extreme in his emphasis upon the "absurdity" of biblical faith, he was correct in attacking the autonomy of human reason exalting itself against the sovereign Creator, and in exposing the deadliness of its presumptions. He was certainly correct in demanding that everything man claims to "know" be tested against and can be validated only by the personal, sovereign God and Creator of the Bible and His revealed word.


1Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986, p. 13,

"In the Mature Philosophy of Lev Shestov"
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