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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Nikolai Berdyaev on Freedom

a young Nikolai Berdyaev

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the Russian expatriate religious philosopher and radical thinker, was the first philosopher I ever read intently and exhaustively. As a college undergraduate, I had the great fortune of finding a teacher, a tremendously generous and open man named George Alcser, who could guide me through my halting steps on the way to being a philosopher (though I had no idea that’s what I was doing at the time). George gave me tutorials on a number of subjects—Classical and medieval philosophy, Christian existentialism, metaphysics—for which I am forever in his debt. While his student, I picked up Freedom and the Spirit by Berdyaev at a used bookstore and asked George if he knew anything about him. He did. We added it to the syllabus. But that was merely the beginning.

Berdyaev, initially aligned with the Marxist philosophy of his cultural milieu, abandoned Marx in favor of Christ. For a while he was able to stay under the Bolshevik radar, but, after being arrested and interrogated twice, accused of conspiring against the government, he was eventually expelled from Russia in 1922. Because that’s how Marxists roll. From then on his lived on the fringes of the Russian emigre community in Paris, where his friend (and likewise former Marxist) the Russian Orthodox priest and theologian Sergei Bulgakov had also settled.

Considering such a biography, it should not come as a surprise that freedom plays such a central role in this thought—but there is more to it than that. Berdyaev, much like Rudolf Steiner, sees the freedom of the human individual as not a mere political construct, but as a spiritual principle tincturing all of Creation, and the human person in particular. In what follows, I offer just a taste of Berdyaev’s thoughts on freedom from a variety of his written work. He is certainly a philosopher for our time; indeed, for all time.

The freedom implicit in the exercise of knowledge receives its illumination from the Logos. But it is also related to Eros. To pursue knowledge without any consciousness of love, merely to seek power, is a form of demonism. It may therefore be affirmed that knowledge is essentially cosmogonic. It should consider reality carefully and examine it conscientiously; for moral pathos is the true inspiration and urge for our quest for truth. The subjective freedom thus generated by the Logos transfigures reality. The nature of knowledge is conjugal; it is both male and female, it is the conjunction of these two principles, the impregnation of the feminine element by virile meaning.” ~ Solitude and Society

The theological doctrine that God created man for His own glory and praise is degrading to man, and degrading to God also…. God as personality does not desire a man over whom He can rule, and who ought to praise Him, but man as personality who answers His call and with whom communion of love is possible.” ~ Slavery and Freedom

Consciousness which exteriorizes and alienates is always slavish consciousness. God the Master, man the slave; the church the master, man the slave; the family the master, man the slave; Nature the master, man the slave; object the master, man-subject the slave. The source of slavery is always objectification, that is to say exteriorization, alienation.” ~ Slavery and Freedom

Man can be a slave to public opinion, a slave to custom, to morals, to judgments and opinions which are imposed by society. It is difficult to overestimate the violence which is perpetrated by the press in our time. The average man of our day holds the opinions and forms the judgments of the newspaper which he reads every morning: it exercises psychological compulsion upon him. And in view of the falsehood and venality of the press, the effects are very terrible as seen in the enslavement of man and his deprivation of freedom of conscience and judgment.” ~ Slavery and Freedom

Men not only need the state and cannot do without the services it renders, but they are seduced by it, they are taken captive by the state, they connect their dreams of sovereignty with it. And there lies the chief evil and a source of human slavery.” ~ Slavery and Freedom

The spell and slavery of collectivism is nothing else than the transference of spiritual communality, fellowship, universality, from subject to object, and the objectivization either of separate functions of human life or of human life as a whole.” ~ Slavery and Freedom

I have come to Christ through liberty and through an intimate experience of the paths of freedom. My Christian faith is not a faith based on habit or tradition. It was won through an experience of the inner life of a most painful character. I knew no compulsion in my religious life, and I had no experience of authoritarianism either in faith or in the sphere of religious devotion. Can one oppose to this fact dogmatic formulas or abstract theologies? I answer No, for in my case they will never be really convincing.” ~ Freedom and the Spirit

Freedom is dynamic by nature. It las its own destiny and cannot be understood except by those who have entered into its tragic dialectic. The existence of two kinds of freedom has been revealed to us and each possesses its fatal dialectic through which it degenerates into its opposite, that is, into slavery and necessity. Indeed the destiny of freedom is tragic and so is that of human life. The first kind of freedom, which is itself irrational and unfathomable, by no means alone guarantees that man will follow the right path, that he will come to God, that truth will dominate his life and that freedom will in the long run be supreme in the world.” ~ Freedom and the Spirit

Liberty was discovered to be protection of the rights of the strong, leaving the weak defenseless. This is one of the paradoxes of liberty in social life. Freedom turned out to be freedom for oneself and slavery for others. He is the true lover of liberty who desires it for others as well as for himself. Liberty has become the protection of the rights of a privileged minority, the defense of capitalistic property and the power of money.” ~ The Fate of Man in the Modern World

In reality, freedom is aristocratic, not democratic. With sorrow we must recognize the fact that freedom is dear only to those men who think creatively. It is not very necessary to those who do not value thinking. In the so-called democracies, based on the principle of popular sovereignty, a considerable proportion of the people are those who have not yet become conscious of themselves as free beings, bearing within themselves the dignity of freedom. Education to freedom is something still ahead of us, and this will not be achieved in a hurry.” ~ The Beginning and the End

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.

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