REVIEWS Hermits  Solitude

Nicolas Berdyaev. Solitude and Society. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1938, and later reprints.

The Russian philosopher and religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) experienced momentous historical changes in Russia and Europe during his lifetime, while himself reflecting in his many books the panoply of thinking and interpretation from his earliest years as a student revolutionary to his later years as a Christian existentialist.

Berdyaev's books addressed vital intellectual and social issues of modern and traditional thought. Taken as a whole, his works were like a single spiral evolving from one basic theme to another, encompassing new ideas with every volume. Thus, the intriguingly-titled Solitude and Society (first published in 1934) is not solely about its title issues. The book first addresses groundwork philosophical and religious issues under the rubric of "meditations" before entering upon its title theme nearly half-way through the book. Even so, the topic of solitude is only one part in the whole of Berdyaev's larger interests addressed in this book.

The section titles, and number of chapters following in parentheses, reveal the progress of Berdyaev's thinking in this work. Each section will be summarized in order to place solitude into Berdyaev's larger philosophical context.

  1. The Philosopher's Tragic Situation and the Problems of Philosophy (2)
  2. The Subject and Objectification (4)
  3. The Ego, Solitude and Society (3)
  4. The Evil of Time. Change and Eternity (3)
  5. The Personality, Society and Communion (4)

1. The Philosopher's Tragic Situation.

Berdyaev defends philosophy against its two "avowed enemies," religion and science. The chief error of religion is to objectify itself, to make revealed truth external to human consciousness, wherein true religion is "adulterated by the immediate reactions of the human community in which it takes place." Further, religion embeds its notions of truth, derived from human expressions (such as the Bible) and false or flawed philosophies, attempting to objectify its base of authority.

On the other hand, science identified philosophy with the scaffolds of religion. And in turn, philosophy that had become the handmaiden of religion could not extricate itself from the attacks of science until philosophers recognized the weakness of philosophy attempting objectivity. Hence a philosophy of existence emerged. The philosopher's tragic situation is that the objectifying criterion of both religion and science excludes true knowledge that springs from the personal, individual experience of the mystery of Being.

The Ego is the inevitable foundation of all knowledge, for true philosophy is not satisfied with only that which has traditionally been defined as objective. Nothing is exempt from affectivity. "The subjective approach is the only one likely to elicit a revelation of the original truth contained in primitive Being." True philosophy discovers that its function is to "purify man's anthropological nature so as to reveal his essential nature, the transcendental man" which is not identical to the abstract transcendental consciousness. This identification is personalist, not egoist, subjectivist, individualist, empirical, or nominalist.

2. Subject and Objectification.

"German Idealism dealt a blow to the objectivism of Greek and Scholastic philosophy from which it cannot hope to recover," notes Bedyaev. Both had ignored the reality of human experience and knowledge, objectifying ideas and concepts, relegating all to reason and external knowledge, versus the psychological and social. "Objectivity can never be synonymous  with truth, with an independent attitude towards subjective states." At the same time, the Ego can be released from self-confining egocentricity and towards the person as subject (not object). Active human apprehension of the world completes objective creation. Subjectivity conceives of meaning and value and spirit.

The German idealists like Kant and Hegel, had, however, "built up a metaphysical system of a subjective basis, but in the process they interpreted the subjective in an objective and non-existential way." Acknowledging the influence of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, Berdyaev celebrates Kierkegaard as the first modern breakthrough to existential philosophy, followed by Heidegger and Jaspers.

But Heidegger's vision, like Schopenhauer's and Jaspers', is essentially pessimistic. Kierkegaard does not interpret existence but expresses it. Yet, Berdyaev notes, "man's apprehensive faculty is invariably confined to the outer fringes of Being." Berdyaev sees the way past this dilemma in noting that

knowledge is the apprehension of Being through Being. ... The existential nature of the subject is one of the spiritual ways of apprehending the mystery of Being.

Thus, existential intellection illuminates Being to some degree, for knowledge is immanent in Being and fundamentally irrational, as is Being.The static notion of the transcendental must become the dynamic notion of transcendence.

All of this addresses the individual. The world, objective processes and structures, cannot apprehend what the individual apprehends as subject. "Reality is originally part of inner existence," but objectification  overrides and debases individual apprehension, and negates its relevance. Objective knowledge is always abstracted from the subjective, but it usurps the prerogative of the spirit. Nothing objective can claim absolute knowledge, can declare itself true because real. Concepts evolved to justify the already-placed objective world. But, summarizing Jaspers, Berdyaev notes:

No concept is able to reveal the purpose of existence or its underlying values. The existential mystery revealing purpose is that wherein the subject and the predicate are identified.

Even God cannot be objectified, argues Berdyaev, without becoming neither divine or human, without becoming an objectification of a given culture and its experience of religion and theology as a social experience, its community as society, then State and Church, which Berdyaev, like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and the Russian thinkers of his youthful anarchist days, had long maintained.

There is community among those who do not hold with objective knowledge. Berdyaev points out the false starts of those with insight about the nature of knowledge who nevertheless try to transcend the rational without seeing that knowledge in embedded in the social, in the knowing subject, and in  existence itself. Knowledge participates in Being; the objective world is a contrivance torn from the whole. "Existence is not  fully realized until we pass from the subject to the human personality."

Knowledge itself remains objectified and irrational until it can be apprehended creatively by human existence, which alone makes existence significant, illuminating Being. "The subject can orientate himself by means of Existential philosophy, which dispenses with objectification: the human subject does not apprehend the object, but the revelation of human existence, and, through it, that  of the divine world.

Berdyaev criticizes intellectualist philosophy (beginning with Plato and Aristotle) because it denies the subject, and thus denies the mystery of existence. In short, it denies the freedom of the self to identify existentially a creative apprehension of knowledge, which is a creative manifestation of what others will call mysticism but which is basically a reconciliation of philosophy and existence.

At this point, Berdyaev has set his position on philosophy to show that all knowledge has a social content and context, a ground in existence and not in mere reason and intellection. Human communication is subjective, yielding social expressions such as religion, which does not serve community and communication but has instead become an "instrument of social organization and mystification," a perversion resulting in the "objectifying of revealed truths," that is, of those truths revealed subjectively.

Having established these points, Berdyaev can address the topic of solitude.

3. The Ego, Solitude, and Society.

Berdyaev, however, does not clearly define or identify solitude except to consider it a social aspect of the Ego. The Ego presupposes an awareness of other selves in the world. As the Ego moves out into the world, encountering non-Ego and other Egos, it (potentially) encounters the Thou. "The intuition of another Ego's spiritual life is equivalent to communion with it," Berdyaev states. At the same time, "A clear distinction should be made between communication and participation," where communication is symbolic and dependent upon degrees of objectification. "Communion implies reciprocity." Berdyaev cites Freud's evolving of eros into love but overshadowed by death. In all this, however, solitude remains a primitive and embryonic state for Ego.

The pursuit of knowledge is undoubtedly one of the ways of overcoming solitude; it compels us to abandon our self-centered isolation, and situates us in another space and time where we are brought in contact with the Other Self. It is an escape from solitude, a way of getting to know the other Ego, the divine world.

Solitude is transcended by identifying with objects -- the facile way of society -- or by "entering into communion with the Thou." Berdyaev identifies the core problem in objectification, from collectivism to institutions of church, state, society -- each incapable of transcending, each failing to facilitate communion with the Thou.

4. The Evil of Time, Change and Eternity.

Existential philosophy identifies human destiny in terms of time. Time exists because of activity, because of the passage from non-Being to Being. Christian philosophy also supports historical dynamism and evolution in time. But time is disintegrated eternity, fragments inevitably decomposed and tragic. Time objectifies experience, yet an act in the present can overshadow the past and future. 

Time is evil because it is a degradation, "a degraded state of human destiny." Humanity strives to "experience the plenitude" in a single moment, in the creative act, whether the basest experience of eros or the divine element of mysticism, dispensing with time and circumstance, overcoming death for authentic Being.

Memory consolidates past into present, relieving "temporal disintegration." Memory brings knowledge -- which is always past -- into personality and the Ego. Knowledge constitutes the ontological ground for creativity and communion. Yet the past is non-existent, only apprehended by memory, only resolved by knowledge. As merciless change, time is gathered up into present by knowledge, which is memory. "The eternal present thus revealed is not a static present," Berdyaev says, but one in the process of incessant creation outside the frontiers of disintegrated time.

Berdyaev argues that free spiritual activity, the inner life -- not evolution, determinism, or natural causality, which objectify change -- alone transcends time, determines time. No instant of time has intrinsic value, and today technology, which is "entirely orientated towards the future," materializes and objectifies human existence more and more, so that time accelerates, and the Ego loses the creative capacity.

As life becomes more technical and mechanical, so the evil of time becomes increasingly virulent. The full implication of this, however, can only be grasped from within by means of Existential philosophy.

Berdyaev argues that experiencing the present without the future or eternity is oblivion -- the discarding of memory, which is the essence of personality. Identifying the present with the eternal overcomes time and asserts not oblivion but plentitude. Past and future have no ontological existence: states of Heaven and Hell are false objectifications, constituting an "exteriorization of inner events."

Berdyaev notes pointedly that despite rich and pregnant symbolism, "Christian eschatology throws no light" on these profound issues of time, future, destiny, and eternity. Rather each of us confronts the mystery of personality alone, or in communion with others also directing themselves to this mystery.

5. The Personality,  Society, and Communion.

Berdyaev highlights existentialism's distinction between the Ego and the personality. "I am an Ego before I become a personality." Yet the Ego's striving to realize personality is the source of human suffering. The personality is not the individual but the supra- or extra-natural evolving consciousness and its total expression of all acts and their potentialities, the union of mind, body, and spirit. The persona, the social mask presented to the world, is both the personality and the social intersecting. Yet the personality is extra-natural, extra-social. To overcome the sense of solitude at this point of intersection is the personality's great challenge.

Only a sense of community -- not of mere society -- is compatible with a person whose self-integration has transcended original solitude. But where is that community? Berdyaev expresses this "community" not as any objectification but as an "inspiration to commune with the Thou and the We." Only in this sense is the personality social, but in a metaphysical or spiritual way, not a political or worldly one.

In Berdyaev's understanding, solitude is the negative sense of failing to transcend. He states: "Solitude is the direct outcome of the pressure exerted on the personality by the natural and social worlds, of its conversion into object." But the most mature personality will be conscious of a necessary solitude as an apartness from both nature and society, even when a sense of "communion alleviates the nostalgia associated with solitude."

Berdyaev notes that this philosophical and spiritual understanding is expressed in its varied ways by world religions. Even as a Christian existentialist, Berdyaev understands Christian symbolism as human expressions of fundamental questions about Being, which thus constitute "revelations." Nothing in the world -- certainly not institutionalizations of the questioning spirit -- will satisfy because they are objectifications.

Berdyaev concludes that all existential thinking, from Kierkegaard to even Feuerbach to Nietzsche, let alone latter thinkers, have served to reveal the false objectification of God. Deeply affected by the contemporary events of his era, Berdyaev concludes that now is the time to rediscover humanity afresh. No political or social thought can substitute for the individual search for communion: the search for heartfelt love and the overcoming of alienation from society and the world. Only this rediscovery of human nature can apprehend "the degree of community between men, their communion in the spirit."