Lev Shestov

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Lev Shestov
Si Léon Chestov noong 1927.jpg
Born(1866-02-12)February 12, 1866
DiedNovember 19, 1938(1938-11-19) (aged 72)
Paris, France
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Christian existentialism
Main interests
Theology, nihilism
Notable ideas
Philosophy of despair

Lev Isaakovich Shestov (Russian : Лев Исаа́кович Шесто́в, 1866 – 1938), born Yeguda Leib Shvartsman (Russian : Иегуда Лейб Шварцман), was a Russian existentialist philosopher, known for his "philosophy of despair". Born in Kiev (Russian Empire) on February 12 [ O.S. January 31] 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.

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although, nowadays, over two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia, the rise of state-specific varieties of this language tends to be strongly denied in Russia, in line with the Russian World ideology.

Kiev City with special status in Kiev City Municipality, Ukraine

Kiev or Kyiv is the capital and most populous city of Ukraine, located in the north-central part of the country on the Dnieper. The population in July 2015 was 2,887,974, making Kiev the 7th most populous city in Europe.

Russian Empire Former country, 1721–1917

The Russian Empire, also known as Imperial Russia or simply Russia, was an empire that existed across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917.



Shestov was born Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann in Kiev into a Jewish family. He obtained an education at various places, due to fractious clashes with authority. He went on to study law and mathematics at the Moscow State University but after a clash with the Inspector of Students he was told to return to Kiev, where he completed his studies.

Law system of rules and guidelines, generally backed by governmental authority

Law is a system of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It has been defined both as "the Science of Justice" and "the Art of Justice". Law is a system that regulates and ensures that individuals or a community adhere to the will of the state. State-enforced laws can be made by a collective legislature or by a single legislator, resulting in statutes, by the executive through decrees and regulations, or established by judges through precedent, normally in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including arbitration agreements that may elect to accept alternative arbitration to the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution, written or tacit, and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, history and society in various ways and serves as a mediator of relations between people.

Mathematics field of study

Mathematics includes the study of such topics as quantity, structure, space, and change.

Moscow State University university in Moscow, Russia

Moscow State University is a coeducational and public research university located in Moscow, Russia. It was founded on 23 January [O.S. 12 January] 1755 by Mikhail Lomonosov. MSU was renamed after Lomonosov in 1940 and was then known as Lomonosov University. It also houses the tallest educational building in the world. Its current rector is Viktor Sadovnichiy. According to the 2018 QS World University Rankings, it is the highest-ranking Russian educational institution and is widely considered the most prestigious university in the former Soviet Union.

Shestov's dissertation prevented him from becoming a doctor of law, as it was dismissed by University of Kiev on account of its revolutionary tendencies. In 1898 he entered a circle of prominent Russian intellectuals and artists which included Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Diaghilev, Dmitri Merezhkovsky and Vasily Rozanov. Shestov contributed articles to a journal the circle had established. During this time he completed his first major philosophical work, Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching; two authors profoundly impacting Shestov's thought.

Nikolai Berdyaev Russian philosopher

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev was a Russian political and also Christian religious philosopher who emphasized the existential spiritual significance of human freedom and the human person. Alternate historical spellings of his name in English include "Berdiaev" and "Berdiaeff", and of his given name as "Nicolas" and "Nicholas".

Sergei Diaghilev Russian art critic

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, usually referred to outside Russia as Serge Diaghilev, was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, from which many famous dancers and choreographers would arise.

Vasily Rozanov Russian philosopher

Vasily Vasilievich Rozanov was one of the most controversial Russian writers and philosophers of the pre-revolutionary epoch.

He developed his thinking in a second book on Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Frederich Nietzsche, which increased Shestov's reputation as an original and incisive thinker. In All Things Are Possible (published in 1905) Shestov adopted the aphoristic style of Friedrich Nietzsche to investigate the difference between Russian and European Literature. Although on the surface it is an exploration of numerous intellectual topics, at its base it is a sardonic work of Existentialist philosophy which both criticizes and satirizes our fundamental attitudes towards life situations. D.H. Lawrence, who wrote the Foreword to S.S. Koteliansky's literary translation of the work, [1] summarized Shestov's philosophy with the words: " 'Everything is possible' - this is his really central cry. It is not nihilism. It is only a shaking free of the human psyche from old bonds. The positive central idea is that the human psyche, or soul, really believes in itself, and in nothing else". [2] Shestov deals with key issues such as religion, rationalism, and science in this highly approachable work, topics he would also examine in later writings such as In Job's Balances. [3] Shestov's own key quote from this work is probably the following: "...we need to think that only one assertion has or can have any objective reality: that nothing on earth is impossible. Every time someone wants to force us to admit that there are other, more limited and limiting truths, we must resist with every means we can lay hands on".

An aphorism is a concise, terse, laconic, and/or memorable expression of a general truth or principle. They are often handed down by tradition from generation to generation. The concept is distinct from those of an adage, brocard, chiasmus, epigram, maxim, principle, proverb, and saying; some of these concepts are species of aphorism.

Friedrich Nietzsche German philosopher

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, philologist, and Latin and Greek scholar whose work has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history. He began his career as a classical philologist before turning to philosophy. He became the youngest ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of 24. Nietzsche resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life; he completed much of his core writing in the following decade. In 1889 at age 44, he suffered a collapse and afterward, a complete loss of his mental faculties. He lived his remaining years in the care of his mother until her death in 1897 and then with his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Nietzsche died in 1900.

Shestov's works were not met with approval even by some of his closest Russian friends. Many saw in Shestov's work a renunciation of reason and metaphysics, and even an espousal of nihilism. Nevertheless, he would find admirers in such writers as D. H. Lawrence and his friend Georges Bataille.

Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information. It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, mathematics, and art and is normally considered to be a distinguishing ability possessed by humans. Reason, or an aspect of it, is sometimes referred to as rationality.

Metaphysics branch of philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among the [study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Nihilism is the philosophical viewpoint that suggests the denial or lack of belief towards the reputedly meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that there is no inherent morality, and that accepted moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.

In 1908 Shestov moved to Freiburg, Germany, and he stayed there until 1910, when he moved to a small Swiss village named Coppet. During this time the author worked prolifically. One of the fruits of these labours was the publication of Great Vigils and Penultimate Words. He returned to Moscow in 1915, and in this year his son Sergei died in combat against the Germans. During the Moscow period, his work became more influenced by matters of religion and theology. The seizure of government by the Bolsheviks in 1917 made life difficult for Shestov, and the Marxists pressured him to write a defence of Marxist doctrine as an introduction to his new work, Potestas Clavium; otherwise it would not be published. Shestov refused this, yet with the permission of the authorities he lectured at the University of Kiev on Greek philosophy.

Coppet Place in Vaud, Switzerland

Coppet is a municipality in the district of Nyon in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland.

Theology study of the nature of God and religious belief

Theology is the critical study of the nature of the divine. It is taught as an academic discipline, typically in universities and seminaries.

Bolsheviks faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party

The Bolsheviks, originally also Bolshevists or Bolsheviki, were a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) which split apart from the Menshevik faction at the Second Party Congress in 1903. The RSDLP was a revolutionary socialist political party formed in 1898 in Minsk in Belarus to unite the various revolutionary organisations of the Russian Empire into one party.

Portrait of Lev Shestov by Leonid Pasternak, 1910 Pasternak shestov.jpg
Portrait of Lev Shestov by Leonid Pasternak, 1910

Shestov's dislike of the Soviet regime led him to undertake a long journey out of Russia, and he eventually ended up in France. The author was a popular figure in France, where his originality was quickly recognized. In Paris, he soon befriended, and much influenced, the young Georges Bataille. That this Russian was newly appreciated is attested by his having been asked to contribute to a prestigious French philosophy journal. In the interwar years, Shestov continued to develop into a thinker of great prominence. During this time he had become totally immersed in the study of such great theologians as Blaise Pascal and Plotinus, whilst at the same time lecturing at the Sorbonne in 1925. In 1926 he was introduced to Edmund Husserl, with whom he maintained a cordial relationship despite radical differences in their philosophical outlook. In 1929, during a return to Freiburg he met with Edmund Husserl, and was urged to study Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. [4]

The discovery of Kierkegaard prompted Shestov to realise that his philosophy shared great similarities, such as his rejection of idealism, and his belief that man can gain ultimate knowledge through ungrounded subjective thought rather than objective reason and verifiability. However, Shestov maintained that Kierkegaard did not pursue this line of thought far enough, and continued where he thought the Dane left off. The results of this tendency are seen in his work Kierkegaard and Existential Philosophy: Vox Clamantis in Deserto, published in 1936, a fundamental work of Christian existentialism.

Despite his weakening condition Shestov continued to write at a quick pace, and finally completed his magnum opus, Athens and Jerusalem . This work examines the dichotomy between freedom and reason, and argues that reason be rejected in the discipline of philosophy. Furthermore, it adumbrates the means by which the scientific method has made philosophy and science irreconcilable, since science concerns itself with empirical observation, whereas (so Shestov argues) philosophy must be concerned with freedom, God and immortality, issues that cannot be solved by science.

In 1938, Shestov contracted a serious illness whilst at his vacation home. During this final period, he continued his studies, concentrating in particular on Indian philosophy as well as the works of his contemporary Edmund Husserl, who had died recently. Shestov himself died at a clinic in Paris.


The philosophy of despair

Lev Shestov Shestov Lev.jpg
Lev Shestov

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, 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 Shestov'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 cannot 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, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." (Quoting 1 Corinthians 15:55, 2:9)

Furthermore, although a Jewish philosopher, Shestov saw in the resurrection of Christ this victory over necessity. He described the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus as a transfiguring spectacle by which it is demonstrated that the purpose of life is 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, are: "Philosophy is not Besinnen [think over] 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." (cf Matthew 11:12)


"When I give Shestov's books to anybody, they are usually delighted. There are two authors whom I make propaganda for: one is Herzen, the other is Shestov. They are both totally decent, open-minded, open-hearted human beings."

Isaiah Berlin [5]

Shestov was highly admired and honored by Nikolai Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov in Russia, Jules de Gaultier, Georges Bataille, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Paul Celan and Albert Camus in France, and D. H. Lawrence, Isaiah Berlin and John Middleton Murry in England. Among Jewish thinkers, he influenced Hillel Zeitlin.

Today, Shestov is little known in the English-speaking world. This is partly because his works have not been readily available. 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'), the poet Paul Celan, 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 also 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 [external link below]; and the scholar Liza Knapp, [6] 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 Shestov's most important works, in their English translations, and with their date of writing:

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  1. 'All Things Are Possible', Koteliansky Translation (1920 / Secker, London).
  2. 'Foreword' to 'All Things Are Possible' by D.H.Lawrence (1920).
  3. 'Introduction' to 'All Things Are Possible' by Prof. Edouard d'Araille (2001/LTP Ed.).
  4. Czeslaw Milosz, "Shestov, or the Purity of Despair", Emperor of the Earth (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977), pp. 91–119
  5. Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (London 2000), pp. 201–2
  6. Liza Knapp, "The Force of Inertia in Dostoevsky's 'Krotkaja'" Archived 2013-11-01 at the Wayback Machine , Dostoevsky Studies, Vol. 6 (1985), pp. 144–57

Further reading