In Job's Balances

Editor's Introduction
by Bernard Martin

     The extension of Lev Shestov’s reputation as a brilliant and highly original philosopher beyond the confines of his native Russia is to be dated from the publication in France in the early 1920's of several of the essays later included in the volume entitled In Job's Balances.

By 1919 Shestov had lived sufficiently long under the Bolshevik regime to find it intolerable and to decide to exile himself. In 1920 he and his family settled in Paris where, some years later, he was appointed professor of Russian philosophy at the Institut des etudes Slaves and where he also lectured at various periods in the extension division of the Sorbonne. Though Shestov was still virtually unknown in the French literary and philosophical worlds at the time, in 1921 La Nouvelle Revue Française accepted for publication, in its special issue commemorating the centenary of Dostoevsky's birth, his essay "La lutte contre les evidences." Its unique and trenchant treatment of the great Russian novelist aroused widespread admiration. Two years later the article was published, along with Shestov's essay on the last works of Tolstoy, "Le Jugement dernier," in book form in Paris under the title Les révélations de la mort. A few months thereafter his study of Pascal "La nuit de Gethsémani" appeared in Paris, and in the same year his book Potestas Clavium was published in Russian in Berlin.[1] By the time of Shestov's death a year before the outbreak of the second World War, practically all his works, originally written in Russian, had been translated into French and German, and some of them had also appeared in English, Danish, Dutch, and Spanish translations. The thought of the Russian-Jewish philosopher had become known to many, though genuinely appreciated by relatively few, throughout the European continent.

The essays devoted to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in In Job's Balances[2] do not represent Shestov's first treatment of the two gigantic figures of nineteenth century Russian literature. Since his youth he had been enormously fascinated by both writers, and while still in his thirties he had published two books relating their thought to that of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he had recently discovered. In the first of these works - The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching[3] (1900) - Shestov deplored the descent of Tolstoy from the "philosophical height" of War and Peace to what he regarded as the banality, as well as fanaticism and intolerance, of the moralistic tracts and homilies issued by the aristocratic proprietor of Yasnaia Poliana after the latter's decision to abandon the European clothing he had worn as a Russian count, to dress instead like a peasant, and to work in the fields of his estate for a few hours each day. Tolstoy, Shestov here argues, averted his gaze from the abyss that opened before him when he realized the enormity of the horrors of human existence and sought tranquility and an escape from skepticism and pessimism by turning to preaching. His preaching, which naively identified God with the "good" and "brotherly love," was motivated, however, not by authentic faith but by lack of such faith on Tolstoy's part, and gave him nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to hurl judgments and anathemas at "sinners" failing to fulfill the obligation of loving their neighbors.

Nietzsche, who experienced the terrors of life no less intensely than Tolstoy, was - Shestov here maintained - far more honest, both intellectually and morally, than the Russian novelist. Having sought "divine traces" and saving power in morality, i.e. in compassion and fraternal love, and not found them, the German thinker resolutely proceeded "beyond good and evil," proclaimed the "death of God," and set the principle of amor fati in the place of the morality and idealism that had proved completely futile in his own desperate need. But even Nietzsche, with all his passionate honesty and spiritual audacity, could finally not stand firm in the face of the tragedy and misery of life; he, too, ultimately lapsed into the vulgarity of preaching. His paeans to the Übermensch, the superman, in his later work served the same purpose as Tolstoy's paeans to the "good." But the German philosopher, who suffered so deeply and thought so intensely, indicated the direction of the quest that can no longer be avoided. Shestov concludes his The Idea of the Good in Tolstoy and Nietzsche as follows: "The 'good,' 'fraternal love' - the experience of Nietzsche has taught us - is not God. 'Woe to all who love and have no elevation that is higher than their compassion. Nietzsche has shown us the way. We must seek that which is higher than compassion, higher than the 'good'; we must seek God."[4]


In the work published in 1900 Shestov branded the later Tolstoy as a pretentious and somewhat dishonest preacher. But in "The Last Judgment," the essay on the great novelist which is included in the present volume and which was written more than twenty years later, after he had an opportunity to read such posthumously published pieces as "The Diary of a Madman," "The Death of Ivan Ilich," and "Master and Man," Shestov presents a radically altered view of Tolstoy. The latter, he now contends, was always not primarily a preacher but a philosopher - indeed, one of the profoundest philosophers of modern times who concerned himself in his final period with what Plato defined as the highest theme of philosophy: death and dying. In all that Tolstoy wrote after Anna Karenina it is obvious, according to Shestov, "that everything which had formerly seemed to him to be real and to have a solid existence, now appeared illusory, whereas all that had seemed illusory and unreal now seemed to him the only reality." Tolstoy appears to have been forcibly expelled from the "common way that he previously pursued, throughout the period when he was writing his monumental novels, by an experience of unspeakable terror before the threat of impending death similar to that suffered by the protagonist of "The Diary of a Madman." In the last decades of Tolstoy's life, Shestov maintains, "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... He tramples underfoot everything that men hold most dear, he outrages all that they hold most sacred; shakes the foundations of society, and poisons the most innocent joys."

In "The Death of Ivan Ilich" and "Master and Man" Tolstoy undertakes, as Shestov puts it, "to spy on what is happening in a soul in its agony." In these two stories he shows us the utter solitude, the complete alienation from all ordinary values, conventions, and conceptions to which a man confronted with the immediate threat of extinction is brought. Such solitude and alienation, Shestov suggests, is the first step on the road to salvation. "The first condition, the beginning of the regeneration of the human soul, is solitude, a solitude which could not have been more complete in the bowels of the earth or in the depths of the sea, in which all legality, all reality, all the ideal substratum of everyday life will wither away."

The experience of the rich villager Vassili Andreivich Brekhunov, of "the corporation of merchants" in "Master and Man," proved prophetic, according to Shestov, of Count Tolstoy's own end. In the moments before his death in the snowstorm Brekhunov eagerly surrenders all his possessions and the great ideas that he had formerly nurtured, and he experiences a joy and liberating mystery. "I come, I come," Tolstoy has him cry out in ecstasy. "And he went," Shestov writes, "or rather he flew on the wings of his weakness, without knowing whither they would carry him; he rose into the eternal night, terrible and incomprehensible to mankind." It must have been a similar experience, Shestov suggests, that led the aged Tolstoy, on a dark night not many months after the whole civilized world had celebrated his eightieth birthday, to leave Yasnaia Poliana with his youngest daughter Alexandra for the restless and aimless wandering that ended with his death some weeks later at the stationmaster's house at Astopovo 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 his other early work Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy,[5] published in 1903, Shestov stresses the immense change that became apparent in the mood and spirit of Dostoevsky's writing with the appearance in 1864 of Notes from the Underground (or The Voice from Underground). In his earlier period as a novelist, until he completed The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky had remained, according to our critic, the staunch champion of social justice and social progress, the devoted follower of Belinsky's idealism, the compassionate defender of the poor and oppressed, the high-principled man of reason, hope, and humanitarian sentiment. And this despite the fact that he had already undergone the experiences of waiting for the crash of bullets before a czarist firing squad, having his death sentence commuted at the very last moment, and then spending years at hard labor in Siberia. But suddenly, just as some of the fondest hopes of the reformers of the 1850's were coming to fruition, just as the serfs were emancipated by Alexander II and other progressive steps were taken by the government in Russia, to the joy of many of Dostoevsky's fellow-writers who rhapsodized about the dawn of a new, golden age, he himself appears to have concluded that all his previously cherished convictions and ideals were illusory and meaningless.

Notes from the Underground, Shestov observes, is "a heart-rending 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.'"[6] Though he could not completely abandon a certain residual attachment to his youthful ideals - and this, according to Shestov, explains the agitated ambivalence of his later works, which alternate between affirmation of the traditional verities and total nihilism and despair - Dostoevsky had arrived at the realization, so agonizingly reflected by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, that no intellectual or moral theory could ever "justify" the sufferings of one innocent child, and that no amelioration of the conditions of society could ever provide any consolation for these. He discovered, as Shestov puts it, that "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." In the face of the horrors of real existence Dostoevsky, like Nietzsche, was forced - though he could never bring himself to do so completely - to repudiate idealism, to reject the consoling "truths" of science and philosophy. Universal norms, the harmony and regularity so eagerly sought by scientific inquiry and ethical theory, could not comfort men like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky; they could only crush and choke their spirits. Both the German philosopher and the Russian novelist were brought perforce, according to Shestov, to the "philosophy of tragedy," the philosophy whose last word is: "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!"

In the essay "The Conquest of the Self-Evident: Dostoevsky's Philosophy," written almost two decades later and included in the present volume, Shestov probes more deeply into the thought of the author of Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. He now perceives Dostoevsky as one of those whom, according to an ancient legend, the Angel of Death sometimes visits and presents with 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 equipped with natural eyes only cannot see. Here Shestov 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 antheaps; 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."

The later Dostoevsky, Shestov urges in "The Conquest of the Self-Evident," can be truly understood only by readers prepared to undertake the most extreme efforts. "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 his essay of 1921 Shestov further portrays Dostoevsky as the champion of the rights of the living individual against the claims of "common consciousness" or "omnitude," with its armory of "reason," "natural laws," "eternal truths," and "self-evidences." The living individual, Dostoevsky recognized, has perhaps been hypnotized by these weapons. It will be of no avail to fight against their spell with logic and intellectual arguments; all such arguments are finally rational arguments, which serve only to support the cause of reason and to confirm its pretensions. The sole instrument of any efficacy in the struggle is rebellion, ridicule, contempt. "There is only one weapon: mockery, invective, a categorical 'no' to all the demands of reason." Such, Shestov affirms, is the true critique of reason. What Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of Pure Reason was nothing but an apology for reason; the most shattering examination of the claims of reason that has ever been produced, and the sharpest challenge to its authority that has ever been issued, are to be found in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground and in the great novels derived from it. The basic purpose that inspires these works is, according to Shestov, struggle against self-evidence. "If you want to understand Dostoevsky," he writes, "you must always keep his fundamental thesis in mind: 'twice two is four' is a principle of death. We must choose; either we must admit this twice two is four, or we must admit that death is the end of life and the last judgment on it."

Dostoevsky's short story "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," which appears in his Diary of a Writer, is interpreted by our critic in "The Conquest of the Self-Evident" as the novelist's retelling of, and commentary on, the biblical legend of the fall - a legend which Shestov himself regards as the profoundest symbol and allegory of the human condition and to which he returns repeatedly in his own writings. The protagonist of the story, the "ridiculous man" for whom all things have become indifferent, decides to die, lies down to sleep, and in his dream finds himself in a scene reminiscent of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. He is surrounded by people who have not yet eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, who possess no science, who know nothing of shame or anxiety, and who have neither the capacity nor the desire to judge anyone or anything. The ridiculous man is astonished by the incomparable beauty of these innocent children of the sun, and he understands that they know without the scientific information that is his, that the knowledge they command is of a kind totally incomprehensible to him. Though awed by the loveliness and innocence of these children of paradise, the earthly intruder proceeds to corrupt them all. He does this by conferring on them scientific knowledge, from which they then derive moral principles and rules. At once they come to experience shame, and their world is totally transformed. From free, innocent creatures they are changed into guilt-ridden automata hedged around by law, physical and moral. And such, Shestov contends, are all men in their fallen state today.

The central concern of Shestov's own agitated and impassioned striving in the last decades of his life was to restore to men the freedom he believed they had forfeited in their obsession with rational knowledge and the God who had primordially granted this freedom to them and who alone can give it back to them. This God was the living God of the Bible - not the God of the philosophers who is a principle or a postulate, an idea deduced by speculative thought from an examination of nature or the processes of history. And such, Shestov suggests in the closing lines of "The Conquest of the Self-Evident," was the God whom Dostoevsky was seeking through all his violent struggle against the logical and demonstrable "truths" of science and rationalist philosophy: "One cannot demonstrate God. One cannot seek Him in history. God is 'caprice' incarnate, who rejects all guarantees. He is outside history, like all that people hold to be to timiôtaton. This is the meaning of all Dostoevsky's works; and this too the meaning of the enigmatical words of Euripides which we quoted at the head of this study: 'Who knows if life is not death, and death life?'"


Among others in the series of "pilgrimages through souls" - that is how Shestov characterizes In Job's Balances - made by Shestov in his own struggle against the self-evident and in his quest for God, is one through the soul of the Jewish philosopher of seventeenth century Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza. The results of this pilgrimage are to be found in "Children and Stepchildren of Time: Spinoza in History" and in the essay entitled "Science and Free Inquiry" which the author placed as a "foreword" to In Job's Balances.

Spinoza, Shestov asserts, was the man upon whom was laid the dreadful task of "murdering" God, i.e., the God of Biblical faith - and this by none other than God Himself. "He, who loved the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his soul - how often and how emphatically he speaks of this in his earlier works and in the Ethics - was condemned by God Himself to slay God... "Only of such a one will men believe that he has in reality and not in words accomplished this crime of all crimes, this deed of all deeds." How did Spinoza accomplish the deed? Reason, that reason which he so adored and to which he sang such fervent praises, led him to the conclusion that God is none other than the one Infinite Substance of the universe, or natura naturans. As such, He cannot be conceived as having any purposes, goals, desires, emotions. All His acts are necessary, dictated by the structure of His own being. Deus ex solis suae naturae legibus et a nemine coactus agit,[7] (God acts only in accordance with the laws of His own nature and is coerced by no one) and Res nullo alio modo a Deo produci potuerunt quam productae stint,[8] (Things could not have been produced by God in any other way than they were produced). So Spinoza concluded. But this, Shestov points out, amounts, in fact, to saying that the living, omnipotent God of the Bible is a pious illusion, a myth, a being without existence or reality. "Spinoza's formula, 'Dens = natura = substantia', like all the conclusions drawn from it in his Ethics and his earlier works, simply means that there is no God. This discovery of Spinoza's became the starting-point for modern philosophical thought. However much one may talk of God, yet we know with certainty that we are not speaking of that God who once lived in Biblical days, who created Heaven and earth and man after His image, who both loves and also desires, is excited and repentant, strives with man and even sometimes gets the worst of it in that strife. Reason, the same reason which rules over triangles and perpendiculars and which, therefore, thinks that it owns the sovereign right to distinguish truth from lies; reason which seeks, not for the best, but the true philosophy - this reason declares with the self-sufficiency peculiar to itself, in a tone which admits no contradiction, that such a God can be no supremely perfect being, not even a perfect being at all, and can consequently be no God." Spinoza insisted, in a letter to one of his correspondents, that his philosophy accorded to God the same place of honor as do other systems. But this, Shestov declares, was a lie on the part of the "honest" philosopher of Amsterdam.

The driving passion behind Spinoza's intellectual endeavors was to create a metaphysical system more geometrico, a system that would be similar to mathematics in consisting of a set of universally valid propositions or necessary and eternal truths. He wished to abolish, once and for all, capriciousness and diversity of opinion in philosophy and make of it a strict science with a "permanent uniformity of judgments, bound up with the idea of necessity." And he was followed in his quest, according to Shestov, by Kant, who, contrary to the accepted view, did not strike out in a new and original philosophical direction but merely continued the work of his seventeenth century predecessor. Kant, Shestov asserts, "carried on Spinoza's programme to the end; he rescued piety and morality, but betrayed God by replacing Him by an idea, which he created after the image of the highest criterion of mathematical truths."

Kant was by no means alone, according to Shestov, in continuing Spinoza's labors. Fichte and Hegel were also his heirs, and the tendency of their philosophical endeavors was essentially similar. Indeed, all of modern philosophy, Shestov maintains, has attempted to follow Spinoza's professed rule (which he himself repeatedly violated): non ridere, non lugere, neque detestan, sed intelligere. "It sweeps away," Shestov complains, "beauty, good, ambition, tears, laughter, and curses, like dust, like useless refuse, never guessing that it is the most precious thing in life, and that out of this material and this alone, genuine, truly philosophic questions have to be moulded. Thus the prophets questioned, thus the greatest sages of antiquity, thus even the Middle Ages. Now only rare, lonely thinkers comprehend this. But they stand aside from the great highway, aside from history, aside from the general business of philosophy."


One of the "rare, lonely thinkers" who stood aside from the "great highway" of modern philosophy was Pascal, who declared, Je n'approuve que ceux qui cherchent en gemissant (I approve those only who seek with lamentation). It was inevitable that Shestov should also be drawn to make a pilgrimage through the soul of this restless figure of the seventeenth century, the intensity of whose spiritual quest parallels his own.

In "Gethsemane Night: Pascal's Philosophy" Shestov portrays the French thinker as one who "summoned Rome, reason, man, and the universe before the tribunal of Almighty God," and who did so because he sought, as the paper he carried about sewn into his cloak testifies, the "Dieu d'Abraham, Dieu d'Isaac, Dieu de Jacob - non des philosophes et des savants." At first, through the period when he was writing his Lettres Provinciales with their defense of common sense and morality, Pascal, too, revered the authority of reason and feared its decrees and judgments; his last years, however, were one continual struggle against reason, which he now perceived as the chief instrument in men's striving to emancipate themselves from God. The statements, admonitions, and incantations that Shestov quotes from the fragmentary notes that constitute Pascal's Pensées show, despite the censorship of the book by Port Royal, how thoroughly disillusioned the great mathematician had become with the pretensions of reason, how categorically he rejected it in his religious searching, and how exultingly he rejoiced at its humiliation: "La raison a beau crier, elle ne peut mettre prix aux choses"; "Que j'aime à voir cette superbe raison humiliée et suppliante!"; "Quand un homme serait persuadé que les proportions des nombres sont des vérités immatérielles, éternelles et dépendantes d'une première vérité en qui elles subsistent et qu'on appelle Dieu, je ne le trouverai pas beaucoup avancé pour son salut"; "Qu'on ne nous reproche pas le manque de clarté, car nous en faisons profession"; "Humiliez-vous, raison impuissante; taisez-vous, nature imbecile; apprenez que l'homme passe infiniment l'homme et entendez de votre maître votre condition veritable que vous ignorez."

Shestov traces Pascal's turning away from the "rational" and "self-evident," like Nietzsche's, to the constant physical pain and agonizingly unremitting spiritual anxiety with which both men were afflicted. One of Pascal's contemporaries reports that the philosopher always saw an abyss at his side and used to have a chair placed there to reassure himself. "It seems," Shestov writes, "that Pascal's illness and abyss were this strange shock, the saving gift without which he would never have discovered the truth. Pascal might have repeated with Nietzsche: It is to my illness that I owe my philosophy. His Pensées are only a description of the abyss. The great miracle of miracles is accomplished before our eyes. Pascal grows accustomed to the abyss and begins to love it. The solid earth gives way beneath his feet, it is frightful, terrifying! He is without support, a precipice opens at his feet which threatens to engulf him, and in horror at inescapable destruction he cries in agony: 'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?' It seems that all is finished.

And indeed, something has ended, but something has also begun. New and incomprehensible forces manifest themselves, new revelations break through. Solid support fails, it is impossible to walk as of old, therefore one must fly. Obviously the old immaterial truths, which a thousand years of human thought have welded into a compact whole, will not only not help a man in this case, but will hinder him more than anything else. They, these veritates aeternae, continue to repeat inexorably that man of his very nature should walk and not fly, should incline towards earth and not towards heaven, and that there is and can be no good to be found where anguish and terror reign. And as the most terrible thing is violation of the 'law' and disobedience to the sovereign autocrat reason, qua nos laudabiles vel vituperabiles sumus, we must give up these audacious attempts, and submit ourselves humbly to the inevitable, make a virtue of this humility, and see this virtue as our 'supreme good.'" But Pascal refused to surrender his audacity, refused to resign himself to the inevitabilities defined by reason, refused to regard submission as the summum bonum.

Like the ancient Stoics and Spinoza, indeed, like all the rationalist philosophers who have apotheosized "universal intelligence" and its "eternal truths" and despised the refractory, arbitrary, and irrational individual "ego," Pascal, too, declared his hatred and contempt for this ego. "Le moi est haissable," he constantly reiterated. But this declaration is not to be taken seriously; certainly it is not to be understood in the same sense as that intended by the rationalist philosophers who sought general truths transcending, and indifferent to the fate of, individual persons. For, as Shestov notes, while Pascal "takes great pains to prove to us that the 'ego' is hateful... in reality he puts forth all his powers to defend it against the pretensions of the immaterial and eternal truths." If Pascal had one central and supreme concern, it was nothing other than the salvation of the individual soul; and this, he was convinced, could come only from the living, omnipotent, mysterious, "wholly other" God of the Bible - not the lifeless and abstract idea to which the philosophers wished to reduce Him, and not from any other of their eternal truths. "The liberty forfeited by Adam and God's first blessing must be given back to the 'hateful ego and beside these great gifts of the Creator our earthly virtues and our 'eternal truths' are as naught."

Consistency, as Shestov notes, was of little concern to Pascal. On one page he could glorify reason, on the next revile it. Immediately after declaring that the "ego" is hateful and that man's supreme moral duty is to despise it, he could turn about and proclaim it the most precious thing in the world. What his deepest and truest sentiments were is not difficult to discern, but it is also clear that he could not completely liberate himself from the ideas of the rationalist philosophical schools through which he had gone. Pascal's was a restless and tortured existence, without peace, without sleep. But his life and his thought, Shestov suggests, must be the model for those few who have the will and endurance to struggle against the bewitched world of "eternal truths;" they too, in their martyrdom, must pay the price of foregoing rest and renouncing sleep.


In the work of the great neo-Platonist philosopher of the third century, Plotinus - at least in one aspect of it - Shestov discovers another one of the "rare, lonely" thinkers who at times departed from the broad, paved highroad of classical philosophy and entered upon dark and problematic byways in a personal struggle to overcome the self-evident. The key to Plotinus' philosophy, Shestov suggests, lies in the following statement from the third of his Enneads: "Insofar as the soul is in the body it rests in deep sleep." And that the philosopher, when faced with the necessity of choosing between "natural" (or "self-evident") and "revealed" truths, unhesitatingly chose the latter is attested, according to Shestov, by his striking words: "that which appears most real to common consciousness has the least existence."

It is true that Plotinus represents the culmination of the centuries-old Greek philosophical tradition and that he shared its high reverence for reason, logic, and clarity of thought. Nevertheless, he arrived at the conviction that the ultimate purpose of philosophy lies in a contemplation of the divine - or "the One," to use his own term - through a mystical, ecstatic experience in which critical self-awareness and all clear-cut, logical conceptions disappear. Despite his profound attachment to the Platonic tradition, Plotinus, according to Shestov, at times renounced the principle of contradiction and other supposedly unshakeable principles of logic and became what Plato would have called a misologist, a hater of reason, in his quest for to timiôtaton, "what matters most." The supreme reality, he realized, could never be grasped in the formulae of logic and in the ready-made, self-evident categories of reason.

Plotinus was too much the product of the Greek philosophical schools that preceded him to fight openly against the "Logos," the canons of reason and self-evidence. But the fundamental inner tendency of his spiritual and intellectual striving is apparent when he refuses all positive definitions of "the One" to which he aspires as the Supreme Reality and Supreme Good, and when he admonishes himself and others to "soar aloft above knowledge." The method that he followed was never to reread anything that he had written, and to pay no attention to the inconsistency of what he now thought and wrote with what he had previously thought and written. Thus, at one moment he could approve the Gnostic teaching that true freedom and union with God are possible only through complete rejection of, and oblivion to, the sensuous world; at another, he could rage against the blasphemy of the Gnostics in scorning the Creator of the world and despising his physical gifts. At a deeper level, however, there is no real contradiction here, Shestov suggests. Plotinus never actually rejected the physical world. To escape from this world meant for the Greek philosopher, according to Shestov, "to disenchant the soul from the eternal truths of reason which command man to see in the 'natural' the bounds of the possible," and "his battle against the self-evident truths was no rejection of divine gifts but only the attempt to overcome the postulates by which reason transforms the life which God gave into scientific cognition."

Plotinus' ethics and theodicy, Shestov asserts, are of no great value or significance; in these, the philosopher merely follows the tradition of the Stoics. Nor are his rational attempts to reconcile Plato and Aristotle of any importance. What is of ultimate significance is Plotinus' conviction that one must struggle against the enchanting power that had persuaded men to accept "natural necessity" and to believe in the infallibility of reason with its offer of eternal and universally valid truths. Above all else, Plotinus, as Shestov understands him, sought God and the realm of God in which man may recover his lost freedom. "God demands nothing of man, He only gives. And in His realm, in that realm of which Plotinus sings in inspired moments, the word compulsion loses all meaning. There, behind the gate guarded by the angel with the flaming sword, even truth, which according to our conceptions has the most unquestioned of rights to demand submission, will cease to desire to compel any one, and will gladly welcome by its side a contradictory truth... And there will be the Creator of the real earthly miracles, the 'One' who brought sleep and trance to man and enchanted him by the self-evident truths of reason. To Him, the One who created our wonderful visible world, Plotinus' soul turns in his rare moments of inspired exultation. Then he sees that in a new balance hitherto unknown to man Job's sorrow really weighs more than the heavy sands of the sea; then his speech becomes ecstatic, and in the philosopher the psalmist is born - phygê monou pros monon: the flight of the one to the One."


Shestov sees in Plotinus a seeker after the God of biblical faith, even though the great neo-Platonist thinker was philosophically opposed to Christianity and to Judaism as religions. For Shestov himself, it is clear, this God is the supreme goal of his struggle. In the "pilgrimages" through the souls of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Spinoza, Pascal, and Plotinus, in the fifty-two pensées collected under the title "Revolt and Submission," and in the essay "Science and Free Inquiry," all of which were combined and published as In Job's Balances in 1929, Shestov continues the intense religious quest that is so clearly manifest in many of the essays and pensées published in his Potestas Clavium in 1923 and that was to be advanced still further in his last and greatest work Athens and Jerusalem, which appeared in French and German translations shortly before his death in 1938.[9]

Long before the publication of In Job's Balances Shestov had come to see a conflict between religious faith, on the one hand, and science and would-be scientific philosophy, on the other. Now he perceived the relationship as one of irreconcilable enmity. Furthermore, he insisted, philosophy misconceives its authentic task when it seeks only to ground and confirm the claims of scientific knowledge. True philosophy is an instrument in man's struggle to break out of the chains of necessity and regain God and freedom. It is philosophy in this sense that Shestov had in mind when he wrote one of the briefest but most striking pensées in "Revolt and Submission": "SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY. For a sick man we call the doctor, for a dying man the priest. The doctor endeavours to preserve man for mortal existence, the priest gives him the viaticum for eternal life. And as the doctor's business has nothing in common with the priest's, so there is nothing in common between philosophy and science. They do not help one another, they do not complement one another, as is usually assumed - they fight against one another. And the enmity is the more violent because it generally has to be hidden under the mask of love and trust."

Shestov is not content simply with castigating science as the enemy of faith, the barrier which shuts man off from God and freedom. In In Job's Balances, as well as in his earlier and later works, he offers a trenchant critique of the intrinsic claims made by scientific inquiry to be the supreme method for discovering the truth. Science, he suggests, is fundamentally motivated by the desire to remove from its field of vision everything that is "miraculous" or "incomprehensible." Scientific man appears to recoil with dread before any phenomenon that is unanticipated or does not fall into his customary categories of explanation; and he defends himself against the threat by simply refusing to recognize the reality of such phenomena. Thus, Shestov concludes, "however much we may have attained in science, yet we must remember that science can give us no truth because, by its very nature, it will not and cannot seek for the truth. The truth lies there where science sees the 'nothing,' in that single, uncontrollable, incomprehensible thing which is always at war with explanation, the 'fortuitous.'" In its effort to exclude the possibility of anything radically new and previously non-existent lies, according to Shestov, the powerfully seductive attractiveness of the theory of evolution, "Spectral analysis has conquered space and brought heaven down to earth, the theory of evolution has conquered time by reducing the whole of the past and the future to the present. This is the supreme achievement of modern knowledge, which proudly boasts its perfection!"

Furthermore, Shestov argues, the scientific method of searching for the truth commits one to the assumption that what is in fact most significant for human beings is not real at all. Scientists sometimes presume to believe that they can discover the "purposes" of Nature, but at the same time they resolutely exclude pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, hopes, fears, passions, expectations. Yet it is surely in these emotions and aspirations that whatever purposes Nature may have must surely lie. The most unpromising way to discover Nature's purposes, Shestov suggests, is by studying the life of the amoeba and mollusc, or the fossilized remains of extinct animals, through scientific and experimental methods. Instead of learning anything truly significant from such study, we are more likely to lose our capacity for discovering anything at all about the final secrets and wonders of the universe. What we must rather do is "project our thought and feeling into the most intensive and complex seeking and struggling of the boldest and greatest representatives of humanity, of the saints, philosophers, artists, thinkers, prophets and 'conclude' and judge with them on the beginning and the end, on the first and the last things."

To attain the realm of God and freedom, man must overcome the timidity and fear that lie behind the enterprise of science and the philosophy that aspires to be scientific, and instead assert his audacity and irreducible individuality. "We must... throw ourselves greedily upon each 'sudden', 'spontaneous', 'creative fiat', each absence of purpose and motive and screen ourselves with the utmost care from the emasculator of thought, the theory of gradual development. The dominant of life is audacity, tolma; all life is a creative tolma, and therefore an eternal mystery, not reducible to something finished and intelligible. A philosophy which has let itself be seduced by the example of positive science, a philosophy which endeavors, and believes its essential task to be, to differentiate everything problematic and surprising into infinitely minute quantities, is not only bringing us no nearer the truth, it is leading us away from it."

Man has escaped from "the womb of the One," but he is still tempted to surrender the affirmation of his individual being by memories of the joyful, undisturbed peace of super-individual being. However, he must not succumb to the seductive promises of safety and comfort held forth by this womb. He must conquer his fear of the unlimited possibilities and difficulties that confront the single, independent being. That God wanted to teach man this lesson, Shestov suggests, may be the best explanation of the classical Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. "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?"

How shall men find the way to the truth? Only, according to Shestov, by becoming like the author of the Twenty-Second Psalm who cried, "I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels." It will not suffice, says Shestov, "for man to declare himself ready to live in filth and cold, to endure injury and sickness, to be burned in the brazen bull of the tyrant Phalaris." In addition what is required is that of which the Psalmist speaks: "to melt inwardly, to shatter the skeleton of one's own soul and to break that which is held to be the basis of our being, all that ready certainty and clear-cut definition of conception in which we are accustomed to see the vanitates aeternae." For one to be able to glimpse ultimate truth, everything in him must become broken and fluid. He must live through that utter desolation and lostness experienced by the author of the same Psalm when he cried, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Only when one feels that there is no God, that man is utterly alone and abandoned to himself, is there hope that he will escape from the dream-world of empirical reality and begin to create for himself both causes and aims. Only when he has first gone through the experience of despair, believing that God is not and that man must himself become God and create all things out of nothing, can he hope to catch a glimpse of the true God and of ultimate reality.

In the period between the two great wars that engulfed Europe and the world in the first half of the twentieth century Shestov brooded endlessly over what he called, in a letter to his friend Serge Bulgakov, "the nightmare of godlessness and unbelief that has seized humanity." In Job's Balances is one of the most important testimonies to his relentless and passionate striving to destroy that nightmare and to restore, both for himself and others, faith in the God for whom all things are possible.

Bernard Martin

Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio

October, 1974


In Job's Balances was the eighth volume of the original Russian edition of Lev Shestov's works. Most of the essays found in In Job's Balances had been published previously in Russian journals:

  • "Revelations of Death" in Sovremenye Zapiski, Paris, No. 1 (1920), No. 2 (1920), No. 8 (1921), No. 9 (1921), No. 10 (1922)
  • "Revolt and Submission" in Sovremenye Zapiski, Paris, No. 13 (1922) and No. 15 (1923)
  • "Children and Stepchildren of Time, Spinoza in History" in Sovremenye Zapiski, Paris, No. 25 (1925)
  • "Gethsemane Night" in Sovremenye Zapiski, Paris, No. 19 (1924)
  • "Vehement Words, Plotinus's Ecstasies" in Versti, Paris, No.1 (1926)

    Note on changes: "A Note on the Author" by Richard Rees which appears in the J. M. Dent edition has not been reprinted. The essay "What is Truth," part of the Russian edition of In Job's Balances, has been removed from the English edition and included in the American edition of Potestas Clavium. The spelling of Chestov has been changed to Shestov.

    [1] An English translation, by Bernard Martin, was published by the Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1968.
    [2] The original Russian version, Na Vesakh Iova, was published by Annales Contemporaines, Paris, 1929. An English translation, by Camilla Coventry and C. A. McCartney, was published by Dent and Sons, London, 1932. It is this version that is republished here in its entirety, with the exception of the essay "What Is Truth? On Ethics and Ontology," which is included in the English version of Potestas Clavium.
    [3] An English translation of the work, by Bernard Martin, is to be found in Lev Shestov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1969, pp. 3-140.
    [4] Lev Shestov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, p. 140.
    [5] An English translation of the work, by Spencer Roberts, is to be found in Lev Shestov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, pp. 143-322.
    [6] Loc. cit., p. 169.
    [7] Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, Proposition XVII.
    [8] Ibid., Part I, Proposition XXXIII.
    [9] The original Russian text, Afiny I Jerusalim, was published by the YMCA Press in Paris only in 1951.

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