Lev Shestov  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Lev Isaakovich Shestov (1866 – 1938) was a Ukrainian/Russian - Jewish existentialist philosopher. Born in Kiev (Russian Empire) on January 31 (February 13) 1866, he emigrated to France in 1921, fleeing from the aftermath of the October Revolution. He lived in Paris until his death on November 19, 1938.

Contents

Influence

Shestov was highly admired and honored by Nikolai Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov in Russia, Jules de Gaultier, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Albert Camus in France, and D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry in England.

He influenced writers such as Albert Camus (who wrote about him in Le Mythe de Sisyphe), Benjamin Fondane (his 'pupil'), and notably Emil Cioran, who writes about Shestov:

"He was the philosopher of my generation, which didn't succeed in realizing itself spiritually, but remained nostalgic about such a realization. Shestov [...] has played an important role in my life. [...] He thought rightly that the true problems escape the philosophers. What else do they do but obscuring the real torments of life?" (Emil Cioran: Oeuvres, Gallimard, Paris 1995, p. 1740, my translation.)

Shestov also appears in the work of Gilles Deleuze; he is referred to sporadically in Nietzsche and Philosophy and appears in Difference and Repetition.

According to Michael Richardson's research on Georges Bataille, Shestov was an early influence on Bataille and was responsible for exposing him to Nietzsche. He argues that Shestov's radical views on theology and an interest in extreme human behavior probably coloured Bataille's own thoughts.

Philosophy

The Philosophy of Despair

despair

Shestov's philosophy is, at first sight, not a philosophy at all: it offers no systematic unity, no coherent set of propositions, no theoretical explanation of philosophical problems. Most of Shestov's work is fragmentary. With regard to the form (he often used aphorisms) the style may be deemed more web-like than linear, and more explosive than argumentative. The author seems to contradict himself on every page, and even seeks out paradoxes. This is because he believes that life itself is, in the last analysis, deeply paradoxical, and not comprehensible through logical or rational inquiry. Shestov maintains that no theory can solve the mysteries of life. Fundamentally, his philosophy is not 'problem-solving', but problem-generating, with a pronounced emphasis on life's enigmatic qualities.

His point of departure is not a theory, or an idea, but an experience. Indeed, it is the very experience described so eloquently by James Thomson in The City of Dreadful Night:

The sense that every struggle brings defeat
Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
That all the oracles are dumb or cheat
Because they have no secret to express;
That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain
Because there is no light beyond the curtain;
That all is vanity and nothingness.

It is the experience of despair, which Shestov describes as the loss of certainties, the loss of freedom, the loss of the meaning of life. The root of this despair is what he frequently calls 'Necessity', but also 'Reason', 'Idealism' or 'Fate': a certain way of thinking (but at the same time also a very real aspect of the world) that subordinates life to ideas, abstractions, generalisations and thereby kills it, through an ignoring of the uniqueness and livingness of reality.

'Reason' is the obedience to and the acceptance of Certainties that tell us that certain things are eternal and unchangeable and other things are impossible and can never be attained. This accounts for Shetov's philosophy being a form of irrationalism, though it is important to note that the thinker does not oppose reason, or science in general, but only rationalism and scientism: the tendency to consider reason as a sort of omniscient, omnipotent God that is good for its own sake. It may also be considered a form of personalism: people cannot be reduced to ideas, social structures, or mystical oneness. Shestov rejects any mention of "omnitudes", "collective", "all-unity." As he explains in his masterpiece Athens and Jerusalem:

"But why attribute to God, the God whom neither time nor space limits, the same respect and love for order? Why forever speak of "total unity"? If God loves men, what need has He to subordinate men to His divine will and to deprive them of their own will, the most precious of the things He has bestowed upon them? There is no need at all. Consequently the idea of total unity is an absolutely false idea....It is not forbidden for reason to speak of unity and even of unities, but it must renounce total unity - and other things besides. And what a sigh of relief men will breathe when they suddenly discover that the living God, the true God, in no way resembles Him whom reason has shown them until now!"

Through this attack on the "Self evident", Shestov implies that we are all seemingly alone with our suffering, and can be helped neither by others, nor by philosophy. This explains his lack of a systematic philosophical framework.

Penultimate Words: Surrender versus Struggle

But despair is not the last word, it is only the 'penultimate word'. The last word can't be said in human language, can't be captured in theory. His philosophy begins with despair, his whole thinking is desperate, but Shestov tries to point to something beyond despair - and beyond philosophy.

This is what he calls 'faith': not a belief, not a certainty, but another way of thinking that arises in the midst of the deepest doubt and insecurity. It is the experience that everything is possible (Dostoevsky), that the opposite of Necessity is not chance or accident, but possibility, that there does exist a god given freedom without boundaries, without walls or borders. Shestov maintains that we should continue to struggle, to fight against Fate and Necessity, even when a successful outcome is not guaranteed. Exactly at the moment that all the oracles remain silent, we should give ourselves over to god, who alone can comfort the sick and suffering soul. In some of his most famous words he explains:

"Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths condemning 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, non ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him."

Furthermore, although acknowledged as a Jewish philosopher, Shestov saw in the resurrection of Christ this victory over necessity. He courageously proclaimed the incarnation and resurrection to be a transfiguring spectacle in which god was showing humanity that the purpose of life is indeed not "mystical" surrender to the "absolute", but ascetical struggle:

"Cur Deus homo? Why, to what purpose, did He become man, expose himself to injurious mistreatment, ignominious and painful death on the cross? Was it not in order to show man, through His example, that no decision is too hard, that it is worth while bearing anything in order not to remain in the womb of the One? That any torture whatever to the living being is better than the 'bliss' of the rest-satiate 'ideal' being?"

Likewise, the final words of his last and greatest work, Athens and Jerusalem, end: "Philosophy is not Besinnen [surrender] but struggle. And this struggle has no end and will have no end. The kingdom of God, as it is written, is attained through violence."

Influence

Shestov was highly admired and honored by Nikolai Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov in Russia, Jules de Gaultier, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Albert Camus in France, and D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry in England.

Now, Shestov is little known, even in the academic world. This is partly because his works have not been readily available (which has changed with The Lev Shestov homepage). Partly the specific themes he discusses are unfashionable and "foreign". A sombre and yet ecstatic atmosphere permeates his writings. And his quasi-nihilistic position and religious outlook are an unsettling and incongruous combination, at first sight.

He did however influence writers such as Albert Camus (who wrote about him in Le Mythe de Sisyphe), Benjamin Fondane (his 'pupil'), and notably Emil Cioran, who writes about Shestov:

"He was the philosopher of my generation, which didn't succeed in realizing itself spiritually, but remained nostalgic about such a realization. Shestov [...] has played an important role in my life. [...] He thought rightly that the true problems escape the philosophers. What else do they do but obscuring the real torments of life?" (Emil Cioran: Oeuvres, Gallimard, Paris 1995, p. 1740, my translation.)

Shestov also appears in the work of Gilles Deleuze; he is referred to sporadically in Nietzsche and Philosophy and appears in Difference and Repetition.

More recently, alongside Dostoyevsky's philosophy, many have found solace in Shestov's battle against the rational self-consistent and self-evident; for example Bernard Martin of Case Western Reserve University, who translated his works now found online [link below]; and the scholar Liza Knapp, who wrote "The Annihilation of Inertia: Dostoevsky and Metaphysics." This book was an evaluation of Dostoyevsky's struggle against the self-evident "wall", and refers to Shestov on several occasions.

According to Michael Richardson's research on Georges Bataille, Shestov was an early influence on Bataille and was responsible for exposing him to Nietzsche. He argues that Shestov's radical views on theology and an interest in extreme human behavior probably coloured Bataille's own thoughts.

Main Works

These are Shestovs most important works, in their English translations, and with their date of writing:

  • The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, 1899
  • The Philosophy of Tragedy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, 1903
  • All Things are Possible (Apotheosis of Groundlessness), 1905
  • Potestas Clavium, 1919
  • In Job's Balances, 1923-29
  • Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, 1933-34
  • Athens and Jerusalem, 1930-37




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Lev Shestov" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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