Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche

Editor's Introduction
by Bernard Martin

     The first of the essays in the present volume, The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching, was published by Lev Shestov in 1900, when he was thirty-four years old, and the second, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy, three years later in 1903. In them are to be found the beginnings of the passionate assault on philosophical idealism and on conventional morality that Shestov was to maintain uninterruptedly and with ever increasing power throughout his lifetime, as well as the first gropings of the quest for faith in the omnipotent God of the Bible that was to be fulfilled and become the leitmotif of all his thinking and writing in the last decades of his life up to the time of his death in 1938.

     It was Shestov's discovery of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 1890’s that decisively destroyed the vague moral idealism that he had adopted in his youth and that is still reflected in his first book, Shakespeare and His Critic Brandes, published in 1898. Henceforth, Nietzsche was to exercise a major influence on his thought, leading him to a relentless questioning of all the certainties that had previously constituted the furnishings of his own mind and that, for others, still retained their authority undisturbed.

     In reflecting upon the mass of paradoxical and challenging ideas that he found in Nietzsche, Shestov could not help noting some striking similarities, along with some fundamental differences, between the German philosopher and the two greatest Russian literary figures of the second half of the Nineteenth Century, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. A careful comparison of these similarities and differences, as well as a serious evaluation of the thought of all three writers, came to appear to Shestov an imperative and ineluctable necessity, and to this enterprise he devoted several years of intensive labor. The value of the fruits of this effort has been widely recognized. Prince Mirsky, for example, in his authoritative history of Russian literature, calls Shestov the greatest of Dostoevsky's commentators.

     For Tolstoy, whose works he had read avidly from childhood on, Shestov always retained a profound, though not unmixed, admiration. Even when he was writing The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, and when the moralistic preaching which the aristocratic writer who had put on peasant garb and taken to work in the fields had been hurling for years from his retreat at Yasnaya Polyana at the Russian intelligentsia and upper classes had become increasingly repugnant to him, Shestov still felt that Tolstoy was and would ever remain "the great writer of the Russian land," as Turgenev had called him, and that the monumental achievements of his earlier years placed him, in an important sense, above and beyond all reproach. The author of War and Peace is, in his judgment, not only a superlative novelist but one of the profoundest of thinkers, for his literary creation, though not written in the form of a philosophic treatise, was born out of Tolstoy's unquenchable desire to understand life, the same desire that gives rise to all great philosophy. War and Peace is itself a philosophic work because it deals with the supreme philosophic question, the question of man's place and destiny in the universe.

     The pity of Tolstoy's career, as Shestov sees it in The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, is that the great writer did not find it possible to remain on the "philosophical height" of War and Peace but descended therefrom into a mood of gross intolerance and fanaticism in which he felt compelled to preach to men and castigate them for their shortcomings and sins. In the massive novel written in the early 1860’s Tolstoy showed no inclination to assume the role of teacher or preacher but was content to see "in all events the hand of the Creator." Here he was seeking a philosophy which would condemn no man but acquit all, a philosophy which would, in Nietzsche's phrase, "take upon itself not only punishment but guilt." Here, where Tolstoy "humbled himself and his soul found rest," he was prepared to let every man live his own life in his own way and to see things in his own fashion. But the Olympian tolerance and serenity of spirit manifested in War and Peace came to an end, and Tolstoy was forced to become a polemicist and a preacher, thus finding an object upon which to release the accumulated bitterness of his heart at what had come to appear to him "the enigmatic and brittle insolubility of the tormenting problems of life."

     Shestov sees the change in Tolstoy's mood already reflected with considerable strength in Anna Karenina. Though Tolstoy in this novel, as in War and Peace, still refuses to give the "good" and conventional morality complete authority over man and still declines to accept the idea that "the service of the good must be the exclusive and conscious goal of our life," he nevertheless appears in it as the champion of the commonly accepted moral rules and the judge of those who violate them. The adulterous Anna, who has broken the rules, must be punished. In Tolstoy's inexorable leading of Anna to a bitter and shameful end under the wheels of the train, the novelist was, in Shestov's view, acting out of a deep personal necessity. Anna had to be destroyed for Tolstoy himself to be saved, for him to maintain his "spiritual equilibrium" and that sense of solid ground under his feet which he had come so desperately to need.

     Tolstoy's experiences among the poor in the streets and night shelters of Moscow, which he described so eloquently in his article "Reflections on the Occasion of the Census of Moscow," had been profoundly shattering to the soul of the writer. Moved by compassion, he tried at first to help some of the miserable denizens of the streets and of the Liapine Asylum by giving them small sums of money. But it quickly became apparent how little could be accomplished in this way. Retiring to his estate, Tolstoy came to the conclusion that for the conditions in which the poor lived to be in any significant way ameliorated by people like himself, members of the educated and wealthy classes, these must themselves first be cured of the sickness of their indolent existence which had led them to lives devoted chiefly, if not exclusively, to intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment. The learned and the rich had to be taught to perform and respect physical labor, and they could then teach the poorly deed as well as word, to do the same. It was this conviction that drove Tolstoy to abandon European clothing, to dress as a peasant, and to work in the fields of Yasnaya Polyana several hours each day. The fact, which the incisive intelligence of the great writer could not fail to note, that this also did not in any way alleviate the misery of the poor and unfortunate, did not greatly disturb him; he had, according to Shestov, secured his personal sense of moral justification and superiority over his neighbors, and that is all that he then needed to soothe the turbulence of his spirit. "It was not others whom he wished to help, but only to find for himself the confirmation, the satisfaction which he had not found in his literary work."

     In Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy Shestov suggests that Tolstoy was no less sensitive to the horrors of existence than were his Russian colleague and the German philosopher. Before him also "an abyss had opened... which threatened to swallow him; he saw the triumph of death on earth; he saw himself a living corpse." But Tolstoy suffered a failure of nerve and deliberately averted his gaze from the things that he had seen and that might have led him to a deeper truth than that expressed in the moralistic homilies of his later works. It was because philosophizing, with its demand for facing reality unflinchingly, had become for him a crushing and impossible burden that he abandoned it for the far easier and more consoling task of preaching. "Terror stricken, he cursed all the higher demands of his soul and turned for knowledge to mediocrity, averageness, to vulgarity, having correctly sensed that only from these elements can that wall be raised which will conceal the horrible ‘truth’ from our eyes, if not forever at least for a long time. And he found his Ding an sich and his synthetic a priori judgments, that is, he learned how man rids himself of all that is problematical and creates fixed principles by which he can live." According to Shestov, the motives of Tolstoy's literary art and of Immanuel Kant's idealist philosophy were identical: "all the disturbing questions of life must in some way or other be transferred to the realm of the unknowable," for only so is it possible to obtain "that tranquility which people who have once been frightened by a ghost value more than anything else in life."

     It was this burning need for tranquility and his desire "at any cost to tame those raging beasts bearing the foreign names ‘skepticism and pessimism"’ that, in Shestov's view, led Tolstoy to identify the "good" and "brotherly love" with God and to insist that there is no goal beyond these for man. Such a doctrine, as Shestov points out, is alien to Biblical faith; the Bible does not identify God with the good but envisages him as the heavenly father. Tolstoy, however, was not motivated by faith or, indeed, by any authentic religious considerations. His definition of God and his exaltation of the brotherly living together of all men as the highest goal of life were purely polemical acts, intended to endow him with the right to demand of everyone love of neighbor as a moral duty and to hurl accusation and anathema at those who failed to fulfill their obligation. Tolstoy's identification of goodness and brotherly love with God was not, as he pretended, the child of "purest reason and truthful conscience" but begotten rather, according to Shestov, by his profound terror before the puzzling reality of suffering and evil.

     The great writer in his later period, our critic suggests in The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, was not at all concerned with leading men to religious faith but only with reproaching them for what he regarded as their willful unbelief. And this because he himself lacked authentic faith, just as Nietzsche did. But while Nietzsche made no attempt to conceal his lack of faith, Tolstoy believed that it was possible "not to tell his disciples of the emptiness of his heart about which he erected the - from the literary point of view - so brilliant edifice of his preaching." The fact, however, Shestov insists, is that with Tolstoy, as with Nietzsche, the original cause of the shattering of his "philosophical" serenity was the momentous discovery that God is dead. For Tolstoy's declaration that God is the good is quite equivalent in meaning, according to Shestov, to Nietzsche's proclamation that God is dead, and both writers set out from the same fundamental experiences and from the same point of view.

     In The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche Shestov fiercely challenges Tolstoy's identification of morality with God and brands the preacher's threats to excommunicate men by morality as vain and pernicious exercises. "We know that it is not so, that there can be guilt against morality but not against God, because morality is created by men but God is not." He further demands to know by what right Tolstoy has equated God with morality and thereby barred the way to those who truly seek him. In this connection Shestov takes pains to point out that Nietzsche, as indicated by Zarathustra’s conversation with the old pope in the chapter of Thus Spake Zarathustra entitled "Out of Service," could not accept a God who is identical with the good and that the image of the "judging God" made Nietzsche - in Shestov's judgment, a genuine God-seeker - recoil in disgust before the commonly accepted religious notions. The reason for this attitude of Nietzsche's, it is suggested, was that after his terrible illness had struck him he, unlike Tolstoy, could not conceive of the possibility of any change in his condition. He believed that his situation was irremediable, that there was no longer any future for him but only the past. How could the formula "the good is God" have meant anything to a man in such a situation? Nietzsche could not agree to identify God with fraternal love because this would have meant for him "depriving God of his sacred attributes, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. and exalting to divinity a poor, weak human feeling which can be of help only where one can do without its help and which turns out to be impotent when the need for its help is most urgent." Shestov is forced to conclude in The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche that Tolstoy's intellectual integrity and sincerity in preaching that morality and brotherly love are God cannot go unquestioned, and that this preachment, as well as the wrath Tolstoy pours out on those who do not or cannot believe in the remedy of physical labor which he urges as a complete panacea for the ills of society, "can seem to us nothing other than a skillful - perhaps also unskillful - means of evading his own doubts."

     Years later, after Shestov had pondered more deeply the artistic works that Tolstoy wrote following his "conversion," and particularly after he was able to read the great writer's posthumously published stories, he revised his estimate of Tolstoy considerably. In the essay "The Last Judgment: Tolstoy's Last Works," included in his book In Job's Balances (published in 1929), Shestov sees Tolstoy in his later period as not primarily a preacher but a philosopher, indeed, a far more significant philosopher than he had been when he wrote War and Peace. If Plato is right in saying that philosophers "concern themselves with nothing but death and dying," then the Russian novelist in the last thirty years of his life was surely one of the greatest of modern philosophers. Tolstoy, according to Shestov, was forced out of "the common way" that he had followed all his life, through the period of his great novels, by an experience of terror before the threat of death similar to that undergone by the protagonist of his unfinished short story "The Diary of a Madman." Henceforth, writes Shestov, "all that he did had but one object, one significance: to loosen the bonds which bound him to this world common to all men, to throw overboard all ballast that gave his vessel equilibrium but at the same time prevented it from leaving the earth." In a brilliant analysis of "The Diary of a Madman," as well as of three others of Tolstoy's late stories, "Father Sergius," "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and "Master and Man," Shestov shows how in all of them Tolstoy was attempting to communicate something of the revelation experienced by a man who truly faces the threat of his annihilation as a person, how to such a man everything that he had formerly regarded as real and solid must henceforth appear illusory and everything that had once seemed unreal and illusory must now seem the only reality. It was Tolstoy's own realization of this, Shestov concludes, that led the aged writer, one dark night shortly after his eightieth birthday, which had been celebrated all over the civilized world, to leave Yasnaya Polyana for the restless and aimless wandering that was to end with his death a few weeks later at the stationmaster's house at Astapovo Junction. "His works, his glory, all these were a misery to him, a burden too heavy for him to bear. He seems, with trembling, impatient hand, to be tearing off the marks of the sage, the master, the honored teacher. That he might present himself before the Supreme Judge with unweighted soul, he had to forget and renounce all his magnificent past.

     In The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, however, Shestov still insists that Nietzsche was more honest than Tolstoy in dealing with the horrors of existence which both men so keenly experienced. In the face of this personal misfortune, the terrible and unremitting illness with which he was afflicted for so many years, Nietzsche had to abandon the aestheticism reflected in his early work, The Birth of Tragedy, as well as the philosophy he had learned from his early masters, Schopenhauer and Wagner, and turned in various directions to find a point d’appui that could sustain him in life and make his existence bearable.

     For a time, Shestov points out, Nietzsche looked to science for salvation, but before long the very clarity and perfection of scientific systems came to be for him not a source of consolation and peace but of offense and irritation. He could not comprehend how "men can be interested in logical systems, in investigation of the external world, without feeling that with which he himself had suffered so greatly, and remain indifferent towards that which terrified him so. These scientists, who into old age did not see above their scientific work the tragedy of our earthly existence, which had been revealed to him under such extraordinary circumstances, seemed to him like infants."

     Nor was Nietzsche's search for salvation in the "good" any more successful. In the first period after his misfortune, when he had still not deeply experienced all the terrible trials that fate had in store for him, Nietzsche, like Tolstoy, ardently believed in the possibility of being saved by love and compassion. His devotion to morality at the time he turned to it for salvation was, according to Shestov, total and unreserved. Nietzsche "fulfilled all its demands, submitted to it completely, choked in himself all protests, made of it his God. And, like every true believer, he was faithful to the object of his worship not only in act but also in thought." But, despite the completeness of the philosopher's devotion to it, the good proved powerless as an instrument of salvation. Nietzsche discovered - the first to do so, Shestov maintains - that "the tortures of Macbeth are not ordained only for those who have served 'evil' but also for those who have devoted themselves to the ‘good."’

     It was not, then, the simple desire to throw off an irksome and confining yoke that led Nietzsche to the rejection of conventional morality and to his formula "beyond good and evil." Nor may Nietzsche be properly regarded as an ordinary libre-penseur who carried on a battle for the right of men to indulge their appetites and whims and for their freedom to enjoy the fleshly delights of existence. Tolstoy was deeply in error and egregiously unjust to Nietzsche when he associated him with Oscar Wilde and the décadents. The philosopher always led an ascetic and disciplined life, following the classical model of the earnest and conscientious German professor, and his attitude was as far removed from that of the common hedonist or freethinker as can be imagined. Placed in Nietzsche's dreadful situation, ordinary free-thinkers, Shestov suggests, "would have accepted as God the first idol that came along, made a duty of the most absurd rules, in order only somehow to justify their existence," and they would assuredly not have spurned compassion, which those who suffer see themselves as requiring so urgently.

     Nietzsche was too intellectually and morally honest to exalt something into a supreme principle merely because of his insistent personal need of it, though he too, as Shestov notes, did not finally escape descending to the banality of preaching his doctrine of the Übermensch when he could not otherwise relieve the unbearable tensions of his soul. But when he gave up teaching love of neighbor and compassion, he did so because of his painful recognition of how little compassion, even when it is more than a matter of platonic sighs and grandiloquent phrases, can do in the face of the monstrous evil of the world. Nietzsche's own experience had taught him, our critic maintains, "that love and compassion cannot help at all, and that the task of the philosopher is different: not to propagandize for love of neighbor or compassion, but to be finished with these sentiments, to find an answer to the questions they pose." Nietzsche had to inquire whether there is not some elevation that is higher than the feelings of compassion. He could not accept Tolstoy's teaching that morality, i.e., compassion and fraternal love, is the highest good or God himself. For he had, as Shestov puts it, sought "divine traces" in morality and had not found them. "Morality showed itself impotent precisely where men would have been justified in expecting of it the greatest manifestation of its power."

     Nietzsche was compelled to go "beyond good and evil." In the place of morality, love of neighbor and compassion, he set amor fati. In his own words, "My formula for human greatness is amor fati; that one wishes to have nothing otherwise, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not only to endure necessity, still less to hide it - all idealism is falsehood before necessity - but to love it." This conclusion was no whim on Nietzsche's part. He was driven to it, Shestov urges, by the very same feeling that drove Tolstoy away from the miserable prostitutes of the Moscow streets and from the wretched inhabitants of the city's night-shelters, the desire not to "fight against a hateful injustice" that he could not overcome. But Nietzsche, Shestov adds, wanted more: "he wanted, he was compelled, to love all of this hateful reality, for it was in him and he could not hide himself from it." And anyone who would undertake to refute Nietzsche's philosophy, Shestov further urges, must first refute the life from which it was drawn, for it was not he who invented the idea of amor fati but rather the iron will of his own fatum that brought him to his entire philosophy.

     Many years later, in his Athens and Jerusalem (published in 1938), Shestov was to see Nietzsche's espousal of amor fati as a betrayal of his own earlier attempts to pass "beyond good and evil" and as a regrettable backsliding to the fundamental teaching of the classic philosophical tradition as it had developed from Socrates through Spinoza on to Hegel. Nietzsche, he here suggests, lacked sufficient daring to continue to oppose and defy the power of Necessity. Like Socrates and Spinoza, he finally became paralyzed before it. "Instead of fighting against the monster," Shestov writes of Nietzsche, "he becomes its ally, its slave, and directs his hammer not, to be sure, against those who refuse obedience to Necessity (all submit to Necessity, the wise as well as the foolish) but against those who refuse to consider submission to Necessity as summum bonum and beatitude. Nietzsche sets his pride in amor fati and bases all his hopes on ‘you shall be like God, knowing good and evil.’ His philosophy, like Socrates’ and Spinoza’s, is changed into edification: man must ‘endure both faces of fortune with equanimity;’ no evil can come to a good man, for he must find happiness even in the bull of Phalaris." Nietzsche, Shestov concludes, was seduced by the idea of Necessity. He, like men generally, did not succeed in preserving his freedom and breaking through the wall of those ancient prejudices that men regard as eternal truths and therefore venerate. "He bowed his own head, and called men to prostrate themselves, before the altar or throne of the ‘monster without whose killing man cannot live."’

     At the time he wrote The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, however, Shestov believed that there was only one alternative before Nietzsche. If he would not assume the role of ‘moral denouncer’ and proceed to negate the whole world and all of life, then he must affirm amor fati, the love of "life as it is in reality, as it always was and always will be." Nietzsche affirmed life and acknowledged the complete legitimacy of its claims. "Weak and insipid virtue, the virtue that is proud of its rags, is repugnant to him," Shestov here says of Nietzsche, "for he sees too well with what envious cupidity it regards the power that it cannot conquer and that it therefore constantly reviles."

     Virtue or the "good" is powerless, Nietzsche concluded, because it contradicts nature. Nature heedlessly and pitilessly maims, wounds, starves and kills men. To decree laws forbidding to men the maiming, wounding, starving and killing of their fellows and enjoining upon them compassion and love of neighbor is futile, for "when we revere a law contrary to nature we take a false road." Nietzsche, according to Shestov, "had to deny idealism and affirm the ‘insect,’ i.e., real life with its horrors, its misfortunes, its crimes, its vices. He was forced to give up the rare islets of the good that rise over the waters of the boundless sea of evil. Otherwise, the abysses of pessimism, of negation, of nihilism would have opened up before him. The law of men must emanate from nature and cannot be in opposition to the general laws of nature. ‘Evil,’ or what men call evil, and which until now has appeared to us as the most terrible and most painful of all enigmas because of its senseless opposition to all that is dear to our hearts, ceased for Nietzsche to be ‘evil.’ Even more, he finds the ‘good’ in the ‘evil,’ and in ‘evil men’ he discovers a powerful, creative force."

     The image of Nietzsche that has been perhaps most widely held from his own lifetime to the present day is that of a willful and cruel immoralist who sought to undermine not only morality but religion and to destroy faith in God. Shestov, as we have seen, cannot regard Nietzsche as a simple immoralist. Nor does he agree to recognize in him an ordinary enemy of faith. On the contrary, he insists that Nietzsche was a passionate and devout seeker after Cod, and that his virulent attacks on religion were not really aimed at Christianity as such but at "certain widely spread commonplaces of Christian doctrine which hide from all, and even from Nietzsche himself, the meaning and the light of truth." Indeed, our critic wishes to argue that Nietzsche, in proclaiming, for instance, his formula "beyond good and evil," by which the philosopher meant to affirm that the evil is as necessary as the good and that both are essential conditions of human existence, was only affirming the deeply significant New Testament teaching that the sun rises equally on the righteous and the wicked (Matthew 5:45). The philosopher's "beyond good and evil" is, according to Shestov, the truth "hidden in the words of the gospel which we did, indeed, recognize but never dared to introduce into our ‘philosophical conception of the world." Nietzsche rejected traditional morality for the reason, among others, that it has always felt itself obliged to brand the majority of men as wicked and to condemn them to punishment. When he declared that it is necessary to go beyond good and evil and demanded "the love which not only bears all punishment but also all guilt" and "the justice that acquits everyone except the judge," he was in fact offering, Shestov urges in The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, a commentary on the gospel parable of the publican and the Pharisee. In Dostoevsky and Nietzsche Shestov points out that Nietzsche himself compared his own attitude toward morality to that of Jesus. He here quotes the famous passage from Thus Spake Zarathustra in which Zarathustra says: "Oh, my brothers, one man once looked into the hearts of ‘the good and the just’ and said ‘They are pharisees.’ But He was not understood. ‘The good and the just’ themselves were not free to understand Him; their spirit is imprisoned in their good conscience. The stupidity of ‘the good’ is unfathomably shrewd. This, however, is the truth: that ‘the good’ must be pharisees - they have no choice. ‘The good’ must crucify him who invents his own virtue! That is the truth!" Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky as well, according to Shestov's commentary on this passage, transcended the received, pharisaic morality of those who believe themselves already good and just. "They have understood that man's future, if man really has a future, rests not on those who now rejoice in the belief that they already possess both goodness and justice, but on those who know neither sleep, rest, nor joy, and who continue to struggle and search. Abandoning their old ideals, they go to meet a new reality, however terrible and disgusting it may be.

     Whether or not Nietzsche's moral attitude may properly be compared to that of the Jesus of the gospels, one thing is clear: Nietzsche obviously did not arrive at the God-faith of Jesus or of the Bible as a whole. On the contrary, he was compelled to proclaim his discovery that God is dead, that men had killed him. This, however, he did with no feeling of complacency but with a sense of utter horror. As Shestov puts it, "all the comparisons that came to his mind appeared to him insufficient to impart to others the horrible inner feeling of devastation that he experienced when he saw and heard that God had been murdered." Nietzsche wanted desperately to believe but found it impossible to do so. In this, Shestov suggests, his experience was similar to that of Heinrich Heine in the German poet's last years. The cases of both these men demonstrate the naïveté of Tolstoy's assumption that faith is only a matter of personal decision. They show clearly that it does not depend solely on the will of man to believe or not to believe and that Tolstoy's proclamation that man needs only to wish it to find a moral support for his life is nothing more than an unproven and unproveable theory. It has become obvious, Shestov concludes, that for modern man religious faith can no longer be bought easily or cheaply. One must first experience authentically all the terrors of life before he can have even the possibility of attaining it. "it is no longer given us to find without having sought. More is demanded of us... We must understand all the horror of the situation in which Nietzsche speaks with the words of a madman, which is hidden behind Heine’s humor, which Dante experienced after having passed through that door, which gave birth to the tragedies of Shakespeare and the novels and preaching of Tolstoy."

     The great lesson which Nietzsche has taught us, Shestov emphasizes - and it is with this point that he concludes The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche - is that we cannot identify the good or compassion or brotherly love with God, that "we must seek that which is higher than compassion, higher than the ‘good’; we must seek God." But Nietzsche himself did not or could not find God, just as Tolstoy did not or could not. And, failing in his quest, Nietzsche, quite like Tolstoy, succumbed, according to Shestov, to the poor and vulgar consolation provided by preaching. The role of the Übermensch or superman in his later work is precisely the same as that of the ‘good’ in Tolstoy's. It enables him to rid himself of the unanswerable questions that torment him, to discharge his bitterness and humiliation, to justify himself before men and obtain a sense of superiority over them, to crush and destroy others in the name of a principle. Tolstoy's preaching was born out of his experience of impotence and utter helplessness in the face of the tragedy and misery of life. And the same pattern is exemplified in Nietzsche. "He knew that he was only a ‘poor sacrificial animal’ and he decked himself out with the exalted virtues of the Übermensch. He felt that all was ‘lost,’ that ‘the end, the final end had come,’ and said at the same time, ‘if there is a God, how could I bear the thought that this God is not I?’"

     Shestov believes that both Tolstoy and Nietzsche were finally unable to deal with "great misfortune, great ugliness, great distrust." They were so terrified by these and suffered so keenly from them that they were compelled to stop interrogating life and tried to hide themselves from reality. But he asks: "Can their preaching forever hide from men the questions of life? Can the ‘good’ or the Übermensch reconcile man with the unhappiness, the absurdity of our existence?" And he answers his own question. "Clearly the poetry of Tolstoy's and Nietzsche's preaching can satisfy only one who, from the work of these writers, but also from the experiences of his own life, gains nothing but poetry. But for one who has come into serious conflict with life, the whole parade of solemn and elegant words which Tolstoy and Nietzsche prepare for the triumphal march of their ‘gods’ does not mean anything more than any other ceremonies through which men seek to enrich their lives."

     Though Shestov sees Nietzsche's pronouncements on the Übermensch as a sign that he, too, finally suffered a failure of nerve, his overall admiration for the German philosopher in The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche and in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is not significantly diminished thereby. For Nietzsche's general frankness and honesty, and for the spiritual intensity out of which his thought issued, Shestov shows in these essays an unshakeable respect. What he finds particularly valuable in the philosopher is his call for a personal, passionate, engage approach to truth, in contrast to the abstract and theoretical attitude of traditional logic and epistemology. Nietzsche had called for truths that "cut us to the quick." He had challenged the value of that objectivity and total detachment demanded by the rationalist Spinoza in his famous rule, Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. It was from Nietzsche that Shestov thus drew the inspiration for his own lifelong polemic against not only the suppressive and confining power of supposedly eternal moral rules but also against what he regarded as the unjustifiable tyranny of abstract, lifeless reason over particular, living individuals.

     Though Nietzsche's greatness is for Shestov indubitable, he does not shrink from suggesting that the later Dostoevsky was often far more persevering and courageous in facing reality than the German philosopher and certainly more so than his compatriot Tolstoy. At the same time he urges that Dostoevsky's work in the last twenty years of the novelist's life is also pervaded by a profound ambivalence in this respect.

     That Dostoevsky at times, too, even in his later period, felt the need to step forth as a preacher and guardian of traditional morality is evident, in Shestov's judgment, from Crime and Punishment (1866). Dostoevsky's essential concern in this novel was, according to our critic, the question, Who is right - one who obeys the rules of morality even when he does not see their meaning and justification, or one who for some reason or other decides to violate them? The novelist leaves no doubt as to his answer. He who has broken the rule must be condemned. Dostoevsky leads his Raskolnikov as relentlessly to punishment as Tolstoy does his Anna Karenina. And both do so for the same reason, namely, so that their own moral standing will be firmly and unmistakably established. "Dostoevsky, like Tolstoy, is ready to turn the other cheek to his neighbor, but as for his right to virtue, not only will he not give it up, but he will sooner strip his neighbor of it. And in fighting for this right he is implacable."

     Shestov compares Dostoevsky's treatment of the criminal in Crime and Punishment most unfavorably with Shakespeare's in Macbeth. Dostoevsky wishes only to condemn Raskolnikov, while Shakespeare treats Macbeth as a tragic and, in some sense, noble figure. Dostoevsky is concerned with pressing home the simple idea that one can serve either the good or the evil, while Shakespeare is not at all interested in this but wishes to understand the criminal and his crime. Dostoevsky is the platitudinous preacher, Shakespeare the profound philosopher. But Dostoevsky was not always content to serve up edifying homilies.

     Until he finished writing The House of the Dead (1861 - 62) Dostoevsky, to be sure, remained, according to Shestov, the firm defender of the traditional verities, the pious follower of Belinsky’s idealism, the man of reason, hope and humanitarian sentiment. In this period, he could find his highest happiness, as he himself confesses, in shedding tears over the humiliation and oppression suffered by his invention, the government clerk Makar Devushkin in Poor Folk. In this period he could still write in all sincerity: "It deeply moves your heart to realize that the most downtrodden man, the lowest of the low, is also a human being and is called your brother." Though he was already forty years old at the time he wrote The House of the Dead and had already experienced his term of soldiering and his penal servitude, as well as his personal quarrel with Belinsky, Dostoevsky apparently still did not suspect how soon his youthful faith would abandon him and the entire structure of his idealism and humanitarianism fall in ruins around his bead.

     It was with overwhelming suddenness that the collapse came. Its occurrence is documented in Notes from the Underground (1864), in which, Shestov has no doubt, the views of the "underground man" are the author's own. Just as the dearest hopes of the Russian idealists and reformers of the 1850’s began to be realized, just as serfdom was abolished and other steps for social amelioration were instituted in Russia, to the accompaniment of a chorus of celebration by his colleagues, Dostoevsky came to the agonizing conclusions that all of his previous convictions were nothing but fraud and deceit. Notes from the Underground, writes our critic, "is a heartrending cry of terror that has escaped from a man suddenly convinced that all his life he had been lying and pretending when he assured himself and others that the loftiest purpose in life is to serve ‘the humblest man."’ The wild cries and disorganized ravings of the protagonist of this book, his bitter derision of all high ideals and his relentless mocking of all noble sentiments, represent, according to Shestov, a total, even though still somewhat concealed, renunciation by the author of his past. "‘I can't, I simply can't go on pretending. I can't go on living the lie of ideas, and yet I have no other truth. Come what may.’ That is what these notes say, however much Dostoevsky disclaims them in his comment."

     Nothing that the novelist had formerly held sacred, Shestov points out, is spared in Notes from the Underground. Schiller, humanity, Nekrassov’s poetry, the Crystal Palace - all are ruthlessly trampled on. And it was not because he doubted the feasibility of his youthful ideals that Dostoevsky turned so vehemently against them. His mood was such that their realization, if it occurred, would elicit from him nothing but a curse. And yet Dostoevsky could not openly acknowledge the sentiments of the underground man as his own; so deep was his ambivalence that he always had to set, over against these, his reserve supply of ideals."

     Some two decades later, in bis great essay entitled "The Conquest of the Self-Evident: Dostoevsky's Philosophy," written in 1921 to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the novelist's birth, Shestov was to speak of Dostoevsky as one of those to whom, according to an ancient legend, the Angel of Death sometimes pays a visit and gives one of the innumerable pairs of eyes with which his body is covered, so that the man henceforth sees new and strange things that he had not seen before and that those with natural eyes only cannot see. Here he writes: "He to whom the Angel of Death has given the mysterious gift does not and cannot any longer possess the certainty which accompanies our ordinary judgments and confers a beautiful solidity on the truths of our common consciousness. Henceforth he must live without certainty and without conviction... He sees that neither the works of reason nor any human works can save him. He has passed under review, with what carefulness, with what super-human effort, everything that man can accomplish by the use of his reason, all the glass palaces, and has seen that they were not palaces but chicken-houses and ant-heaps; for they were built on the principle of death, on ‘twice two is four.’ And the more he feels this, the more violently there wells up from the depth of his soul that more than rational, unknown, that primal chaos, which most of all horrifies our ordinary consciousness. That is why, in his ‘theory of knowledge,’ Dostoevsky renounces all certainty and opposes to it as his supreme goal - uncertainty. That is why he simply puts out his tongue at evidence, why he lauds caprice, unconditional, unforeseen, always irrational, and makes mock of all the human virtues." Dostoevsky can be understood, Shestov urges in this essay, only by readers willing to undertake heroic efforts to fathom his secret. "Those who wish to get close to Dostoevsky will have to make a whole series of special exercitia spiritualia; to live for hours, days, years, in the midst of mutually contradictory self-evidences. There is no other way. Only thus can one perceive that time has not one but two or even more dimensions, that laws have not existed for all time but are ‘given’ and only in order that the offense might abound, that it is faith and not works which can save souls, that the death of Socrates can shake the formidable ‘twice two is four,’ that God demands always and only the impossible, that the ugly duckling can change into the beautiful white swan, that everything has a beginning here but nothing ends, that caprice has a right to guarantees, that the fantastic is more real than the natural, that life is death and death is life, and other truths of the same sort which look out at us with strange and terrible eyes from every page of Dostoevsky's writing." In offering these perceptions in his works Dostoevsky was making the most radical critique of human knowledge that had ever been made and a far more authentic one, according to Shestov, than Kant's. But Dostoevsky, our critic here also urges, was not capable of complete constancy in proclaiming the new ‘truths’ that he had seen. That he could not always bear the burden that these imposed on him and reverted often to the accepted verities is evident from those of his characters, such as Alyosha, Father Zossima, and Father Therapont, who represent the attitudes and ideas of common consciousness and affirm again and again the humanitarian, idealistic, sentimental, positivistic thoughts that the generality of men cherish.

     In Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Shestov points out that the novelist, when he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, could no longer believe in the saving power of the idea "love thy neighbor." Indeed, he had come to the conclusion that the awareness of one's own incapacity in any way to mitigate the sufferings of men could even turn the love that one had in one's heart for them into hatred, and this awareness led him to seek strength and power, the same Wille zur Macht that Nietzsche proclaimed. But this is only one of many similarities that Shestov notes between these two men whom he regards as so deeply akin. He alludes also to the question that Dostoevsky puts into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, "Why must we get to know this devilish good and evil, when it costs so much?" The thought, he observes, is the same as that which Nietzsche was later to express. "The ‘devilish good and evil,’ which seemed to be a chance phase from the lips of a literary hero who was alien to the author, is now decked out as the scholarly formula ‘beyond good and evil,’ and in this guise it hurls a challenge at the millennial faith of all sages past and present." No less significant a similarity between the two great writers is their common apotheosis of individuality and individual freedom. Shestov quotes Neitzsche’s statement that the true philosopher "affirms his existence, and his alone, perhaps even to the point of hubris: pereat mundus, fiat philosophia, fiat philosophus, fiam!," and he notes that these last words are an almost exact translation of the underground man's challenge, "Is the world to go to pot, or am I to have my tea? I say that the world can go to pot, as long as I get my tea." Here the words that Dostoevsky's protagonist "had hurled in a fit of blindness and anger at the unhappy prostitute" are "translated by a famous philosopher into the language of Cicero and Horace and offered as a formula defining the essence of the highest of human aspirations." The underground man, like Nietzsche (in the period before he was paralyzed by his amor fati), rebels against necessary and universal laws, whether in science or in ethics. "Twice two is four" and "no effect without a cause" seem to him principles of death. They are a stone wall against which he must batter his head, even though he cannot hope to overthrow it. Universal norms, the harmony and regularity which scientific investigation and ethical theory seek so avidly, do not console men like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche but crush and choke their spirits.

     Shestov points out that the youthful idealism of both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky was destroyed by their personal encounter with the horrors of real existence. It was the experience of their own lives that brought both to what our critic calls "the philosophy of tragedy." Shestov makes his point eloquently:"... when it turns out that idealism could not withstand the pressure of reality, when a man, who by the will of the Fates has collided head-on with real life, suddenly sees to his horror that all the fine a priori judgments were false, then for the first time only is he seized by that irrepressible doubt that instantly destroys the seemingLy very solid walls of the old air castles." It is then, Shestov adds, that man "experiences for the first time in his life that fearful loneliness from which not even the most devoted and loving heart is able to deliver him. And precisely at this point begins the philosophy of tragedy. Hope is lost forever, but life remains, and there is much life ahead."

     Dostoevsky, like Nietzsche, discovered that no increase of scientific knowledge and no social change whatsoever will eliminate the essential tragedy of human existence. The hope of social progress, the expectation of future happiness for all mankind, cannot compensate for the torment experienced by any individual man. In raising the question in The Brothers Karamazov whether the universal happiness of men might be purchased at the cost of the suffering of one innocent child, Dostoevsky, according to Shestov, "has at last come to his final word. He now states openly what he had at first expressed with reservations and annotations in Notes from the Underground: absolutely no harmony, no ideas, no love or forgiveness, in brief, nothing that sages have devised from ancient to modern times can justify the nonsense and absurdity in the fate of an individual person."

     There may be no beauty or nobility in the realm into which Dostoevsky and Nietzsche were compelled to go, Shestov admits. Indeed, there may be only ugliness and misery. But one thing is certain: "there is reality here - a new, unheard of, unwitnessed reality, or better put, a reality that has never before been displayed." Nietzsche had reproached "the little people," the positivists and idealists, for having no respect for great misfortune, great ugliness, great failure. In this he suggests to Shestov what the latter calls "the final word" of the philosophy of tragedy. "Not to transfer all the horrors of life into the realm of the Ding an sich, outside the bounds of synthetic a priori judgments, but to respect them!"

     And yet, acceptance of the horrors of life and respect for them is not really the ultimate but only the penultimate word of the philosophy of tragedy. It was not to be the final word for Shestov, nor was it this for Dostoevsky. Shestov reminds us that Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment seeks salvation in the Bible. "He tries again to revive in his memory that understanding of the Gospel that does not reject the prayers and hopes of a solitary, ruined man under the pretext that to think of one's personal grief means to be an egoist. He knows that his lamentations will be heard here, that he will no longer be strung up on the rack of ideas, that he will be permitted to tell the whole, terrible, hidden truth about himself, the truth with which he was born into God's world."

     For Shestov too, the last and truest word is the God of Biblical faith. In the essays of the present volume, written when the author was still quite young, this thought is expressed only occasionally, but later it was to become the burden of all of his writing. Here he explores the awareness of the tragic abysses of life that he found in the writings of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche. Later he was to make clear, in a great comment on the psalmist's cry, "Out of the depths, I called unto thee, O Lord," the connection between the tragedies of existence and God: "What relationship is there between ‘the depths’ and ‘Lord?’ When there is neither depth, nor honor, nor despair, man does not see God and does not call to Him." And in the last and greatest of his works, Athens and Jerusalem, he was to express, with the aid of Biblical language, the final truth to which his passionate, life-long searching and thinking had brought him: "Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths concerning 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 has prepared for them that love Him."’

Bernard Martin
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC