Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: All Things Are Possible

The name of Shestov is almost completely unknown in America. Three of his books, it is true, have been translated into English: Penultimate Words and Other Essays (1916); All Things Are Possible (with a foreword by D. H. Lawrence, 1920); and In Job’s Balances (1932). But they are long since out of print, and never seem to have made any impression at all. Nor has he experienced a much happier fate in Europe. Though he is still read there by more serious philosophers and theologians, the modish waves of Existentialism have washed the memory of this great existentialist thinker onto shores of comparative obscurity.

Shestov, were he alive, might not be displeased; he had always insisted that any existentialist philosophy that regarded itself as something to be taught, or any existentialist philosopher who sought disciples, was a contradiction in terms. (He did, nevertheless, have one disciple: the brilliant poet and essayist Benjamin Fondane, who died in Auschwitz.) Still, if Shestov had nothing to teach us, it may be we have something to learn from him.

 

On Shestov’s life and thought, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia gives us the following information:

Shestov, Lev (originally Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann), philosopher, b. Kiev, Russia, 1866; d. Paris, 1938. In 1922 he became professor of Russian philosophy on the Russian faculty of the University of Paris. His suprarationalistic philosophy was based on the Bible and in opposition to every merely and exclusively scientific philosophy. Thus, independently of Kierkegaard, he often reached the same conclusions as the Danish philosopher.

The summary is essentially correct. Yet how little justice it does to Shestov! How unprepared it leaves one for the audacity of his thought, the polemical bite of his style, the range of his erudition, the quickness of his sensibility! It gives no hint that here was a philosopher who spent his life butting his head against a stone wall, and who proudly claimed this to be the authentic task of philosophy.

The stone wall was the natural universe as science, common sense, and traditional philosophy conceive it; that is, a universe inexorably governed by general and necessary laws that are open to discovery by reason. For Shestov, such a universe cannot be lived in, and with the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground he shouts: “But what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic . . .? As though a stone wall really were a consolation . . . simply because it is as true as twice two makes four. Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognize it all, all the impossibilities and stone walls; not to be reconciled to one of those impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to be reconciled.”

Shestov could not be reconciled. He demanded a miracle. He insisted, shrilly and stubbornly, that the real was something more than the rational, indeed that the rational explanation itself was the Original Lie resulting from man’s having eaten, in defiance of the divine prohibition, of the tree of knowledge. If God exists, he said, basing himself on the Old and New Testament alike, it means that all things are possible—that what has been shall not have been, that what must be shall not be.

Obscurantism? No doubt. But it was a particularly lucid obscurantism. For Shestov offered no formulas by which one could pierce the stone wall of natural necessity. He advised only that the consolations of traditional philosophy be scorned, that all which made men resigned before the vicissitudes of mortal existence be flatly rejected. The stone wall he knew to be—a stone wall, hard and impenetrable. Yet he believed that a man, banging his head against this wall, might in the depths of his helplessness and hopelessness let escape a cry that would bodily transport him over to the other side, where all things are possible, where God is.

Shestov was a Biblical thinker for whom Job, inconsolable on his dung heap, was the archetype of the religious man, and Job’s friends, the archetype of the anti-religious. That he was a specifically “Jewish thinker” is as arguable as the term is vague; he had no use for rabbinic Judaism, though he did contribute to Zionist periodicals, and it is hard to see what use rabbinic Judaism could have of him. In fact, it is hard to see what use any organized religion could have of him, so the neglect into which he has fallen need occasion no surprise. Through him there lies no salvation; he said so himself, repeatedly; salvation lies only through oneself—God willing. He was an utterly useless thinker of utterly useless truths, which is exactly what he wanted to be.

The following excerpts are from a number of Shestov’s books, including some not available in English. The form of the pensée which I have chosen to give these excerpts is not entirely strange to Shestov, who used it for his major work, Athens and Jerusalem. It seems especially suitable for the present purpose of introducing him to a reader who might find any single lengthy selection from his writings rather baffling. In a few cases the excerpt is not as it appears integrally in the text, but is a mosaic of different statements on the same theme. The headings are likewise my own. I have made all translations from the French edition of his works; Shestov wrote in Russian but supervised the French translations, which may thus be taken as accurately conveying his ideas.

Irving Kristol

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The partition: A naturalist once arranged the following experiment: a glass receptacle was filled with water and divided into two compartments by a glass partition. In one compartment there was placed a pike, and in the other, an assortment of small fish which serve ordinarily as food for the pike. The pike did not observe the glass partition, and threw himself toward his prey; naturally, he collided sharply with the barrier. He repeated his efforts many times and always with the same disillusioning result. Finally, seeing that all his exertions were in vain, the pike gave up—so completely, that when the glass barrier was removed, a few days later, he began to swim peacefully among the fish and no longer thought to attack them. Does not the same thing happen with men? It might be that the ideas they hold on the boundaries between “this world” and “the other world” are merely habitual and not at all, as they were thought to be before Kant, dependent on the nature of things; nor need these ideas be dependent on the nature of the human mind, as has been affirmed since Kant. The partition doubtless exists, and renders vain all our attempts to escape beyond the limits of knowledge. But it may also be the case that, in the course of our existence, a moment comes when the partition is suddenly removed.

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True philosophy: True philosophy should have nothing in common with logic. True philosophy is an art that aims to open a way through the chain of logical reasoning and push man into the boundless ocean of the fantastic, where everything is at once possible and impossible.

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The blindness of objectivity: If all men were blind and if only one had his eyes opened for an instant, permitting him to contemplate the splendor of this divine work that is the universe, science would pay no heed to his discovery. Nevertheless, the testimony of one clear-sighted being is worth more than that of millions of blind men. Man can sometimes experience a genuine inner illumination; even though it last only a few seconds, need it be passed over in silence merely because this particular phenomenon did not take place under normal conditions, and could not be repeated at will?

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Original sin: Original sin—that is to say, the knowledge that what is, is necessarily.

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Kinds of knowing: Scripture does not reject cognition in the proper sense of the term, and does not forbid it. On the contrary, it is written that man was called to give a name to all things. But man was not satisfied, he did not wish merely to name things created by God. This was given perfect expression by Kant in the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason: “Experience shows us what exists, but it does not show us that what exists therefore exists necessarily.”

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The misery of philosophy: The philosophers hope to “explain” the world in such a way that everything becomes clear and transparent, and life no longer exhibits anything problematic or mysterious. Would it not be better, on the contrary, to apply oneself to showing that what seems clear and comprehensible is strangely enigmatic? Would it not be better to try to deliver oneself and others from the power of concepts whose distinctness kills mystery? The sources, the roots of being are actually in that which is hidden, not in that which is discovered. Deus est Deus absconditus.

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Creative doubt: In the domain of ultimate questions, one must doubt everything—but not in order to arrive at solid convictions. Doubt must become a constant and creative force, impregnating all of one’s being to the very essence. For a stable and solidly established knowledge of ultimate answers has as its consequence an imperfect perception of the universe.

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Thinking: Artists and philosophers portray a man who thinks as being of solemn aspect, imposing, with a severe expression, a profound look, a proud mien—a true eagle ready to soar into the skies. But nothing of the sort! A man who really thinks is above all a being who has lost his equilibrium: his arms wildly clutching, his feet jerking in mid-air, his face terrified and almost stupid—a pitiful caricature of impotence and confusion.

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Out of the depths: The Psalmist says: “Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord.” What relation is there between “the depths” and “Lord”? When there is neither depths, nor horror, nor despair, man does not see God and does not call to him.

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Orpheus and Eurydice: In antiquity, it was thought that entry into the realm of shadows is forbidden to mortals. But the infinite sorrow of Orpheus and his wonderful song vanquished the invincible Hades and brought him close to Eurydice. When Orpheus began to sing, says the poet who reports the ancient myth, everything came to a halt in hell. Tantalus ceased to pursue the water that escaped him, the wheel of Ixion stopped, the Danaides forgot their bottomless casks, and Sisyphus himself sat on his stone. Thanks to his great love, Orpheus succeeded in defeating the laws of hell. He succeeded because he believed that, bereft of Eurydice, he was the most unhappy of men, that he alone was unhappy, and that nothing else existed in the world except Eurydice and his love for her. He was deceived, obviously: Anaximander would have seen it clearly, and Aristotle would have been able to prove it beyond a doubt. But the gods decided otherwise.

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Faith: Faith is not reliance on what has been told us, on what has been taught us, on what we have heard. Faith is a new dimension of thought, unknown, strange to speculative philosophy, and which opens the way leading to the Creator of all things, to the source of all possibilities.

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Unde malum? Whence evil? It is only when philosophers understand that one cannot answer this question, and many other questions as well, it is only then they will know that one does not always ask a question to get an answer, that there are questions whose significance is precisely that they do not admit of answers.

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Solitude: It is shameful to be irremediably unhappy. The unhappy man whom nothing can console is deprived of the protection of earthly laws. The ties that bind him to society are broken forever. And since every man is sooner or later condemned to be irremediably unhappy, the last word in earthly wisdom is solitude.

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Literary tragedy and personal tragedy: When the “experience” took place, when the unknown revealed itself to him in his madness, Nietzsche, like all those in his situation, did not suppose that this was exactly what one talked about in literature. He felt simply that something atrocious and monstrous was being born in his soul. He did not recognize in his torment and despair the glorious “suffering” which, following Schopenhauer, he had invoked and blessed in The Birth of Tragedy. He could see in himself no resemblance to those heroes, those interesting sinners, on the type of Tannhäuser, who postured so gracefully in the operas of Wagner. There was not the slightest trace of tragic beauty in his situation— this tragic beauty that he was accustomed to admire in the works of the ancients.

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The four walls: The scholar enclosed within the four walls of his room sees nothing except these walls; but it is precisely of these walls that he refuses to speak; they don’t interest him, he doesn’t feel them. Now, if by chance he became conscious of their presence and began to speak about them, his discourse would be of immense importance. This is what happens sometimes when the study is transformed into a prison.

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Gogol’s manuscript: When Gogol threw the second part of his Dead Souls into the fire, he was said to be mad—this verdict was the only way to preserve civilized ideals. But in burning his precious manuscript, which might have immortalized more than a dozen healthy-minded critics, Gogol did something that was more important than writing it. That, the idealists will never admit. They need the “works” of Gogol, but Gogol himself, his great wretchedness, his great ugliness, matters little to them.

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Spinoza: Spinoza says: The struggle against truths established by reason must be sterile. And since this struggle is impossible, one must submit. One must understand that every individual being, whether it be Job or the Logos-Messiah, is condemned in advance, by virtue of an eternal and ineluctable law, to suffer and disappear. Consequently, man must renounce whatever has a concrete and particular existence, and himself above all, in order to orient his thought toward that which has neither beginning nor end, which neither is born nor dies; that is precisely what it means to contemplate life sub specie aeternitatis vel necessitatis.

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The death of Socrates: How painful it is to read Plato’s account of the last conversations of Socrates. His days, his hours are numbered, and he—he talks, he talks, he talks. . . . Socrates passed the month following his condemnation in incessant conversation with his friends and students. That’s what it means to be loved and to have disciples! You cannot even die in peace! The best death is that which is generally considered the worst: when one is alone, far from one’s own country, dying like a dog in an alley. At least it is impossible any longer to dissemble during those last minutes, to talk or to teach, and one is allowed to keep quiet and prepare oneself for the terrible, and perhaps especially important, event.

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Kierkegaard’s failure: When Kierkegaard felt that it was not given to him, as he expressed it, “to accomplish the last movement of faith,” he turned toward the ethical. And then his existential philosophy acquired a new meaning: it was no longer a mad struggle for the impossible, but a more or less well-calculated struggle for a possible victory over those who thought differently from what his philosophy prescribed.

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What is metaphysics? Metaphysics permits those who have never smelled the odor of burnt powder to acquire the renown of a hero.

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Either/or: Either the thinking of Socrates or the thinking of Abraham, of Job, of the Prophets and the Apostles. Either speculative philosophy, having its beginning in wonder and seeking to “understand,” or truly existential philosophy, issuing from despair (“out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord”) and leading to the revelation of Scripture.

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Darwin and the Jews: Darwin and the Jews are both right. One part of the human race descends from Adam, feels in its blood the burning of the ancestral sin, suffers from it and longs for paradise lost. The other part issues from the ape, free of all sin—its conscience is tranquil, nothing torments it, and it does not dream of the impossible.

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