Lev Shestov

Russian Jewish thinker and literary critic Lev Shestov (Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann; 1866-1938) was obsessed with what he considered to be the inevitable struggle between religious faith and reason. An irrationalist and fideist, this Nietzschelike figure was fascinated with religious faith, though it was perhaps the independent Promethean man that appealed to him more than the God of the Hebrews.

Lev Shestov (pseudonym of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann) was born in Kiev on January 31/February 13, 1866. His father, Isaak, was a Jewish merchant and committed Zionist who attended the synagogue, but was reputed to be a "freethinker."

As a youth Shestov was attracted to radical ideas, and it was involvement in political activities in his Kiev gymnasium which forced him to continue his studies at a Moscow school, from which he graduated in 1884. At Moscow University he first studied mathematics, but then transferred to law. His political views forced his transfer to Kiev University. He graduated in 1889, but his dissertation on worker laws was not approved for publication by the censors. Though Shestov was probably interested in Marxism for a time, his anarchistic tendencies and his distaste for determinism probably inclined his sympathies toward the Russian populists.

After a brief stint in the military, and a short time as an assistant to a lawyer in Moscow, his father's failing business compelled him to return to Kiev in the early 1890s. By this time his focus of attention had shifted from economics and politics to literature and philosophy.

In 1895 Shestov suffered a complete physical and mental breakdown. It is likely that the crisis was primarily caused by the tremendous tension caused by being caught between a strong-willed, authoritarian father and his romantic involvements with Russian Orthodox women, marriage to whom his father would never approve.

Attempting to regain his health, Shestov traveled to Europe in the spring of 1896. Early the next year, he met a bright, young Russian medical student in Rome, Anna Berezovskaia, who helped nurse him back to health and who eventually became his wife. They had two children, Tatiana (1897) and Nathalie (1900).

Since Shestov never did tell his father about his marriage to Anna, he mainly lived in Russia until mid-1910, while his family remained elsewhere in Europe. One of the happiest and most productive periods for Shestov was when he lived in Coppet, Switzerland, with his family (1910-1914). From September 1914 until July 1918, the Shestovs lived in Moscow. They then moved to Kiev, which was immersed at the time in the violent struggles between Germans, Bolsheviks, and Ukrainian nationalists. Despite Shestov's criticism of the Bolsheviks, he survived and was able to emigrate with his family to Paris early in 1920.

In his first book, Shakespeare and his Critic Brandes (published in Russian in 1898), Shestov desperately attempted to find meaning and purpose in all human tragedies. In The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche (1900), he no longer found it possible to argue that every tragedy is a secret manifestation of the good. Reality now included unexplained tragedy and unanswered questions. In Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1902), Shestov proposed that it is not just the outside world with its abstract laws of nature and morality which threatens man, but also the pervasive reality of ever-present egoism.

Nowhere in his 13 published volumes does Shestov seem closer to nihilism than in The Apotheosis of Groundlessness (1905). His carefully-fashioned pensees are like thought-grenades which Shestov hurled at the cornerstones of the West's most cherished ideals. "Everything we see is mysterious and incomprehensible," Shestov declared. Though bordering on philosophical anarchism, the work revealed its author to be a master of the aphorism genre.

In Beginnings and Endings (1908) and Great Vigils (1911), though somewhat less caustic, Shestov continued to develop the themes of his previous work. He concluded Beginnings with the assertion that "everyone has long been sick of universally binding truths…. It is necessary to find a way to break free from the power of every sort of truth." According to one of Shestov's most perceptive contemporary critics, Simon Frank, when you finish reading Shestov "your soul is left with a suffocating feeling of melancholy— the sort of melancholy which arises during moments of spiritual vacuum."

During the second decade of the 20th century Shestov was for more interested in discussing the attempts of great thinkers to provide solutions to the human predicament. His work of these years on Greek and medieval philosophy and on Martin Luther (Sola Fide, 1916) and Potestas Clavium (1923) exhibits a real longing for a transcendent God. In Sola Fide he contends that "reality is irrational, absolutely unknowable, and our science is only an idealistic ignorance of life."

From 1922 until his death Shestov taught a course in philosophy at the Institut d'Etudes Slaves in Paris. He became quite well-known in French intellectual circles, particularly after one of his articles on Dostoevsky was published in Nouvelle Revue Francaise (1922).

Shestov lectured in Germany, Holland, Poland, and, near the end of his life, in Palestine (1936). In the mid 1920s Shestov was selected for membership in the Kant and Nietzsche societies. During the 1920s and 1930s Shestov had contacts with some of the most influential literary figures of the time: Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Charles Du Bos, Martin Buber, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, as well as many other Russian and French luminaries. It was Husserl who in 1928 suggested that Shestov read Soren Kierkegaard—a writer destined to become one of Shestov's favorites and the subject of one of his most important books: Kierkegaard and Existential Philosophy (1936, in French). Through this work and other writings Shestov had an impact on other contemporary existentialists, such as Albert Camus, who discussed Shestov in his Myth of Sisyphus.

In addition to publishing articles in Russian emigre journals, Shestov's works were translated into French, German, and other languages. His fifth book appeared in English (under the title of Penultimate Words and Other Essays) as early as 1916, followed four years later by his fourth book (under the title of All Things Are Possible). In addition to his book on Kierkegaard, the fruit of Shestov's emigre writings include two of his most significant works: In Job's Balances (1929) and Athens and Jerusalem (1938).

Shestov died on November 22, 1938, in Paris. Posthumous works that have appeared thus far: Speculation and Revelation: The Religious Philosophy of Vladimir Solovev and Other Essays (1963, in German) and Turgenev (1982, in Russian), an unfinished manuscript begun in 1903.

Convinced that scientism, reason, and objective knowledge were but impotent idols of the modern age, Shestov steadfastly insisted that meaning could only be found in that which was subjective and beyond the boundaries of traditional reason and morality.

Shestov has often been presented to readers by Western commentators as a man of profound religious faith. But though he often used biblical vocabulary, the Judaeo-Christian conception of a god who acts in history in ways which are at least partially intelligible to man and who reveals truths which men can communicate with others is foreign to Shestov. For Shestov, original sin was not disobedience to God, but the acquisition of rational knowledge.

In retrospect, this gifted, enigmatic Russian thinker often seemed far more concerned with achieving a god-like freedom for the individual than with discovering a god who might make demands on his human creations. Thus, though Shestov continually criticized the modern age, he seems in many ways to be a modern man par excellence.


Further Reading on Lev Shestov

All of Shestov's works were written in Russian. Unless otherwise indicated, dates in the text after publications indicate the year the work first appeared in print. If no language is indicated, text reference is to a Russian edition.

Eight of Shestov's thirteen published books are available in English translation in six volumes published by Ohio University Press: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche (1969; Shestov's second and third books); All Things Are Possibleand Penultimate Words and Other Essays (1977; his fourth and fifth books); Potestas Clavium (1968); In Job's Balances (1975); Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (1969); and Athens and Jerusalem (1966). In addition, Ohio University Press has published A Shestov Anthology (1970), which includes an article on Martin Buber from a book which is not available in English translation. The anthology is a good introduction to Shestov's thought.

For published surveys of Shestov's life and thought in English, the reader is referred to the introductions by Bernard Martin which are in all of the Ohio University Press volumes. The most detailed analysis is to be found in Athens and Jerusalem. The best, most complete compilation of biographical materials on Shestov is a two-volume Russian work by his daughter, Nathalie Baranoff: Zhizn' L'va Shestova ("The Life of Lev Shestov"; Paris: La Press Libre, 1983). The work quotes liberally from unpublished correspondence and secondary sources not readily available.

Those who have understood Shestov best have tended to be his contemporaries, such as Nicolai Berdiaev and Simon Frank, and their analyses are generally not available in English. One of the most detailed descriptions of Shestov's thought by one of the few people Shestov considered to have understood him is that of the poet and philosopher Benjamin Fondane: Rencontres Avec Leon Chestov (Paris: Plasma, 1982). Fondane was a Romanian Jew who emigrated to France in 1923 and died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944. He was greatly influenced by Shestov.

The most detailed bibliographies on Shestov have been published by the Institut d'Etudes Slaves (Paris): Bibliographie des Oeuvres de Leon Chestov (1975) and Bibliographie des Etudes sur Leon Chestov (1978). Both works were compiled by Nathalie Baranoff, and she is also responsible for a catalogue (1977) of Shestov manuscripts (including an unpublished work on Plotinus), which is now located at the Sorbonne Library in Paris. The Shestov Archive is also at the Sorbonne and includes Shestov's correspondence, his library, and secondary works on him.


Additional Biography Sources

Valevicius, Andrius, Lev Shestov and his times: encounters with Brandes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Husserl, New York: P. Lang, 1993.