Nicolai Berdyaev

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
5 min readMar 19, 2022
Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев; 18 March [O.S. 06 March] 1874–24 March 1948)

Today is the 148th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев; 18 March [O.S. 06 March] 1874–24 March 1948), who was born on this date in 1874.

Berdyaev’s birthday is given in two dates, 18 March and 06 March O. S. “O. S.” means “old style” and it refers to the correction of calendar dates when the transition was made from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. This transition occurred in different geographical regions at different times, accordingly as the Gregorian calendar was adopted. This is what they call a “teachable moment” in terms of historical dates. Calendars have had to be adjusted repeatedly through history, and today the most precise atomic clocks have exceeded any possible precision for chronology based on celestial observations, so that time has to be defined independently of the intuitive and observations standards that were its origins. This will be something for future philosophers of history to contemplate.

Berdyaev has been called a Christian philosopher and he has been called an existentialist, but it is difficult, and probably pointless, to try to compartmentalize his thought in familiar catetories. David Bonner Richardson has written a monograph on Berdyaev’s philosophy of history (Berdyaev’s Philosophy of History: An Existentialist Theory of Social Creativity and Eschatology, 1968), and Richardson has noted the influences that have made Berdyaev’s thought distinctive:

“…his outlook itself is unfamiliar to the Western mind because he is a Russian philosopher. The Russian mind has received a peculiar world-outlook from the Orthodox Church. There are striking differences between the outlooks of Western and Eastern Christianity and between the civilizations which they have formed. What is more, there exists no tradition of scholarship about his doctrine and writings. There is no tradition of learning about the ‘school’ to which Berdyaev belongs, as for example we find for the German Idealists or the Greeks.”

In the Forward to his The Meaning of History Berdyaev recognized the explicitly Russian and religious character of his philosophy and the cultural context of his work, much as Richardson did:

“Russian nineteenth-century thought was mainly preoccupied with problems of the philosophy of history which, indeed, laid the foundations of our national consciousness. It is no accident that our spiritual interests were centred upon the disputes of the Slavophiles and westerners about Russia and Europe, the East and West. Chaadayev and the Slavophiles had helped to turn Russian speculation towards these problems, for, to them, the enigma of Russia and of her historical destiny was synonymous with that of the philosophy of history. Thus the elaboration of a religious philosophy of history would appear to be the specific mission of Russian philosophical thought, which has always had a predilection for the eschatological problem and apocalypticism. This is what distinguishes it from Western thought and also gives it a religious character.”

A few pages into the book we find Berdyaev’s distinctive point of view, in which the problems of philosophy history possess an urgency for ages that have experienced historical disruption, implying that his own times had called forth his own philosophy of history:

“What do we understand by the ‘historical’? To comprehend and define it, one must, to begin with, have experienced a certain spiritual dismemberment. In periods when the human spirit has been wholly and organically contained in some fully crystallized, fully matured and settled epoch, the problems of philosophy, of historical movement and of the meaning of history, do not arise with the same urgency. This type of organic epoch does not favour either historical awareness or the elaboration of a philosophy of history. Before the historical object and subject can be opposed it is necessary for a disruption to have occurred in man’s historical life and conscience. He must also have developed the faculty of speculation without which there can exist no possibility either of historical science or of an elaboration of a philosophy of history.”

Berdyaev presents an uncompromisingly Christian conception of history that is nevertheless distinct from familiar providential philosophies of history as is to be found in St. Augustine and Bossuet, and in the following passage we can see and religious and anthropocentric themes that even come before the good:

“Christianity in its original and virginal form not merely questioned the supremacy of the idea of the good, but sharply opposed its own morality based upon it. Christianity is founded not upon the abstract and impotent idea of the good which, in relation to man, inevitably appears as a norm and a law, but upon a living Being, a Personality, and man’s personal relation to God and to his neighbours. Christianity has placed man above the idea of the good and thereby made the greatest revolution in history — a revolution which the Christians had not the strength to accept in its fullness. The idea of the good, like every other idea, must yield and make way for man. It is not the abstract idea of the good, but man who is God’s creation and God’s child. Man inherits eternity, while nothing shall be left of the law. This is how the Gospel passes from the morality of our fallen world, based upon the distinction between good and evil, to the morality beyond, opposed to the law of this world — the morality of paradise and of the Kingdom of God. Man is redeemed from the power of the law.” (p. 105)

Berdyaev, then, is no Platonist, and insofar as St. Augustine was a Christian Platonist, we can see how Berdyaev’s Christian philosophy of history nevertheless diverges from St. Augustine’s providential philosophy of history. In Nicholas Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, Evgeniĭ Lampert offers an interpretation of Berdyaev’s historical thought that recognizes the providential role, but supplements it with the possible of human action in response to history:

“History is not a meaningless void into which man is placed only to be hurled into another world, but is the realm of God’s providence and man’s interaction with it. And in a truly prophetic spirit Berdyaey wants to make the human soul aware of the momentous and eternal issues which history reveals and which are in themselves decisive.” (Evgeniĭ Lampert, Nicolas Berdyaev and the New Middle Ages, p. 29)

Richardson concludes his study of Berdyaev’s philosophy of history in a way that illuminates and emphasizes slightly different themes in Berdyaev’s thought:

“In this philosophy are expressed the mysticism of Eastern Orthodoxy, the messianism of the Slavic races and the Sobornost’ — the commonalty, the doctrine of the We — of Russia. The earthly futurism of Western philosophers of history is spiritualized into a doctrine of the age of the Spirit, vitalized by Christian eschatology. The ancient doctrines of the brotherhood of man and communion of the Saints are invigorated. Berdyaev both examines the conditions of true social communion and investigates the means of true communion between man and Nature. These doctrines — the eschatology and the Sobornost’ between men and between man and nature — express in different ways the unity of his philosophy. Indeed the outstanding place of cosmogony in the doctrine and the mysticism of it guarantee its doctrinal unity. Everything in Berdyaev’s doctrine pertains to philosophy of history because everything pertains to the return of man and the world to God. And every assertion, every notion of his philosophy relates to his mysticism of history, to his mystical doctrine of Christ, the true Man and true Microcosm in Whom the cosmos, all history and every man belongs.”