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Nicholas Berdyaev, Prophet for the Catholic Worker Movement Materialism Destroys the Eternal Spirit

Introduction by Mark and Louise Zwick

This is the third article in a series on the saints and philosophers who influenced Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in developing the Catholic Worker.

Nicholas Berdyaev (l874-l948) was one of the great personalists and a “particular prophet” in the life of the Catholic Worker movement, one who with the gift of his genius explored the meaning of the life of the spirit in the twentieth century (William Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love, Doubleday, l974).

Berdyaev, a Russian philosopher exiled for his opposition to the Russian Revolution, saw the central historical problem of his age as the ascendancy of the bourgeois spirit. For Berdyaev, the word “bourgeois” designated not a social, economic, or ethical condition but rather a spiritual state and a direction of the soul. In his book on Peter Maurin where he comments on Berdyaev and the Catholic Worker, Marc Ellis quotes Berdyaev on the bourgeois spirit in its essence as a pursuit of the material aspects of life and an endless search for the expedient and the useful. The bourgeois is an idolator of this world. “Although the bourgeois spirit had always existed in culture, it had reached its apex in the nineteenth century. Berdyaev saw then that its concupiscence was no longer restricted by supernatural beliefs as it was in the past, no longer kept in bounds by the sacred symbolism of a nobler traditional culture. The center of life, the spiritual, had been exiled to the periphery. The triumph of the bourgeois spirit led Berdyaev to declare that history was a story of failure. Berdyaev lamented that the will to power and affluence had triumphed over the will to holiness and genius.” (Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century, Paulist Press, l98l.)

Another important theme in Berdyaev’s works which found an echo in Peter Maurin and in the CW movement was an understanding of history quite different from that of most historians and political philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Berdyaev’s view of history is beyond time. For him history has nothing to do with material success, with progress or achievement, or with seeking the idolatries of power, lust or comfort. Berdyaev understood that in the Incarnation and Redemption Christ stands at the center of history and that the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is meant to participate with God in the building of the New Creation.

The following are excerpts from the writings of Berdyaev:

Materialism Destroys the Eternal Spirit

Civilization is by its nature “bourgeois” in the deepest spiritual sense of the word. “Bourgeois” is synonymous precisely with the civilized kingdom of this world and the civilized will to organized power and enjoyment of life. The spirit of civilization is that of the middle classes, it is attached and clings to corrupt and transitory things, and it fears eternity. To be a bourgeois is therefore to be a slave of matter and an enemy of eternity. The perfected European and American civilizations gave rise to the industrial-capitalist system, which represents not only a mighty economic development but the spiritual phenomenon of the annihilation of spirituality. The industrial Capitalism of civilization proved to be the destroyer of the eternal spirit and the sacred traditions. Modern capitalist civilization is essentially atheistic and hostile to the idea of God. The crime of killing God must be laid at its door rather than at that of revolutionary Socialism, which merely adapted itself to the civilized “bourgeois” spirit and accepted its negative heritage.

Industrial-capitalist civilization, it is true, did not altogether repudiate religion: it was prepared to admit its pragmatical utility and necessity. Thus religion, which had found a symbolic expression in culture, became pragmatical in civilization. It could, indeed, prove useful and practical in the organization and fostering of life. Civilization is by its nature pragmatical. The popularity of pragmatism in America, the classical land of civilization, need cause no surprise. Socialism, on the other hand, repudiated pragmatical religion; but it pragmatically defends atheism as being more useful for the development of life forces and the worldly satisfaction of the larger masses of mankind. But the pragmatical and utilitarian approach of Capitalism had been the real source of atheism and spiritual bankruptcy. The useful and practically effective god of Capitalism cannot be the true God. He can be easily unmasked. Socialism is negatively right. The God of religious revelations and symbolic culture had long vanished from capitalist civilization, just as it had receded from Him.

The capitalist system is sowing the seeds of its own destruction by sapping the spiritual foundation of man’s economic life. Labour loses all spiritual purpose and justification and, as a result, brings an indictment against the whole system.

Civilization is powerless to realize its dream of everlasting aggrandizement. The tower of Babylon will remain unfinished.

The Technological Society

The triumphant advent of the machine opened a new era in which life loses its organic character and natural rhythm; man is separated from nature by an artificial environment of machines, by the very instruments of his intended domination of nature. As a reaction against his mediaeval ascetic ideal, man puts aside both resignation and contemplation, and attempts to dominate nature, organize life and increase its productive forces. This, however, does not help to bring him into closer communion with the inner life and soul of nature. On the contrary, by mastering it technically and organizing its forces man becomes further removed from it. Organization proves to be the death of the organism. Life becomes increasingly a matter of technique. The machine sets its stamp upon the human spirit and all its manifestations. Thus civilization has neither a natural nor a spiritual, but a mechanical foundation. It represents par excellence the triumph of technique over both the spirit and organism.

The machine and technique are the product of the mental development and discoveries of culture; but they sap its organic foundations and kill its spirit. Culture, having lost its soul, becomes civilization. Spiritual matters are discounted; quantity displaces quality. The assertion of the will to “life,” power, organization and earthly happiness, brings about mankind’s spiritual decline; for the higher spiritual life is based upon asceticism and resignation. Such are the tragedy and fate of historical destinies.

Civilization as opposed to culture, which is given up to the contemplation of eternity, tends to be futurist. Machinery and technique are chiefly responsible for the speeding up of life and its exclusive aspiration towards the future. Organic life is slower, less impetuous, and more concerned with essentials, while civilized life is superficial and accidental; for it puts the means and instruments of life before the ends whose significance is lost. The consciousness of civilized men is concentrated exclusively upon the means and technique of life considered as the only reality, while its aims are regarded as illusory.

Technique, organization and the productive processes are a reality while spiritual culture is unreal, a mere instrument of technique. The relation between end and means is reversed and perverted.

This loss of any sense of purpose is the death of a culture. The only real way to culture lies through religious transformation.

The Meaning of History

It is not an exaggeration to say that for many people the doctrine of progress was a religion, that the religion of progress in the nineteenth century was professed by many who had fallen away from Christianity. An analysis of this idea of progress, with special reference to its religious pretensions, will reveal the fundamental contradiction that it involved.

The doctrine of progress is first and foremost an entirely illegitimate deification of the future at the expense of past and present, in a way that has not the slightest scientific, philosophical or moral justification. The doctrine of progress is bound to be a religious faith, since there can be no positive science of progress.

The nineteenth-century positivist doctrines of progress deliberately stifled and suppressed the religious element in this belief and hope. The theoreticians of progress opposed their faith and expectations to the religious type of these dispositions. But what is left of the idea of progress, once it has been emptied of its religious content? How can such a mutilated idea be inwardly accepted?

In the light of the positivist doctrine of progress every human generation, every individual, every epoch of history, are but the means and instrument to an ultimate goal of perfection, this ultimate humanity perfect in that power and happiness which are denied to the present generation. Both from the religious and ethical points of view this positivist conception of progress is inadmissible, because by its very nature it excludes a solution to the tragic torments, conflicts and contradictions of life valid for all mankind, for all those generations who have lived and suffered. For it deliberately asserts that nothing but death and the grave awaits the vast majority of mankind and the endless succession of human generations throughout the ages, because they have lived in a tortured and imperfect state torn asunder by contradictions. But somewhere on the peaks of historical destiny, on the ruins of preceding generations, there shall appear the fortunate race of men reserved for the bliss and perfection of integral life. All the generations that have gone before are but the means to this blessed life, to this blissful generation of the elect as yet unborn. Thus the religion of progress regards all the generations and epochs that have been as devoid of intrinsic value, purpose or significance, as the mere means and instruments to the ultimate goal.

It is this fundamental moral contradiction that invalidates the doctrine of progress, turning it into a religion of death instead of resurrection and eternal life. There is no valid ground for degrading those generations whose lot has been cast among pain and imperfection beneath that whose pre-eminence has been ordained in blessedness and joy. No future perfection can expiate the sufferings of past generations. Such a sacrifice of all human destinies to the messianic consummation of the favoured race can only revolt man’s moral and religious conscience. A religion of progress based on this apotheosis of a future fortunate generation is without compassion for either present or past; it addresses itself with infinite optimism to the future, with infinite pessimism to the past. It is profoundly hostile to the Christian expectation of resurrection for all mankind, for all the dead, fathers and forefathers. This Christian idea rests on the hope of an end to historical tragedy and contradiction valid for all human generations, and of resurrection in eternal life for all who have ever lived.

One of the most obvious objections to the theory of progress is the discovery of a great culture like that of Babylon, which flourished three thousand years before Christ and attained a pitch of perfection in many respects superior to anything of which the twentieth century is capable. Yet it died and vanished almost without leaving a trace.

Our habit of breaking up time into the past, present and future does not entitle us to endow the last with more reality than the first. From the standpoint of the present, the future is no richer in reality than the past, and our efforts should be with reference, not to the future, but to that eternal present of which both future and past are one.

In a sense it may even be argued that the past is more real than the future, that those who have departed from us are more real than those who have not yet been born.

History is in truth the path to another world. It is in this sense that its content is religious. But the perfect state is impossible within history itself; it can only be realized outside its framework. This is the fundamental conclusion of the metaphysics of history and the secret of the historical process itself. In its perpetual transition from one epoch to another, mankind struggles in vain to resolve its destiny within history. Disappointed in its expectations, feeling itself imprisoned within the circle of history, it realizes that its problem cannot be solved within the process of history itself, but only on a transcendental plane. The problem of history is determined by the nature of time. To solve it requires an inversion of the entire historical perspective, a transfer of attention of extra-historical considerations, to the urge of history towards super-history. We must admit within the hermitic circle of history the super-historical energy, the irruption within the relations of terrestrial phenomena of the celestial noumenon–the future Coming of Christ.

Of Celestial History: God and Man

Before developing our metaphysics of history any further, we must pause to consider the primal drama and mystery taking place in the inmost depths of being. What is the nature of this drama? It is that of the mutual relations between God and man. But in what form are we to conceive it? I believe that this primal drama and mystery of Christianity consist in the genesis of God in man and of man in God. This mystery, is, indeed, implicit in the foundations of Christianity. Historical destiny reveals more particularly the genesis of God in man. This constitutes the central fact of human and world destiny. But there exists a no less profound mystery, that of the genesis of man in God, accomplished in the inmost depths of the divine life. For if there is such a thing as a human longing for God and a response to it, then there also must be a divine longing for man the genesis of God in man; a longing for the love and the freely-loving and, in response to it, the genesis of man in God. A divine movement which brings about the genesis of God implies the reciprocal movement of man towards God, by which he is generated and revealed. This constitutes the primal mystery both of the spirit and of being, and at the same time of Christianity, which in its central fact, in the Person of Christ, the Son of God, unites two mysteries. In the Image of Christ is brought about the genesis of God in man and of man in God, and the perfection of both is manifest. Thus, for the first time, in response to God’s movement and longing, a perfect man is revealed to Him. This mysterious process occurs in the interior depths of the divine reality itself; it is a sort of divine history which is reflected in the whole of the outer history of mankind. History is, indeed, not only the revelation of God, but also the reciprocal revelation of man in God.

The whole complexity of the historical process can be explained by the inner interdependence of these two revelations. For history is not only the plan of the Divine revelation, it is also the reciprocal revelation of man himself; and that makes history such a terrible and complex tragedy. History would not be tragic if it were only the revelation of God and its gradual apprehension. Its drama and tragedy are not only determined in the divine life itself, but also by the fact that they are based upon the mystery of freedom, which is not only a divine, but also a human revelation–that longed for by God in the depths of the divine life. The origin of the world springs from the freedom willed by God in the beginning. Without His will or longing for freedom no world process would be possible. In its place there would be a static and pre-eminently perfect Kingdom of God as an essential and predetermined harmony. The world process, on the other hand, implies a terrible tragedy, and history a succession of calamitous events in the centre of which stands the Crucifixion, the Cross on which the Son of God Himself was crucified, because God had desired freedom and because the primal drama and mystery of the world are those of the relations between God and His other self, which He loves and by which He desires to be loved. And only freedom endows this love with any significance.

This freedom, which is absolutely irrational and inapprehensible to reason, offers a solution of the tragedy of world history. It fulfills not only God’s revelation in man, but also man’s in God; for it is the source and origin of movement, of process, of inner conflict and of inwardly experienced contradictions. An indissoluble tie exists therefore between freedom and the metaphysics of history. The concept of freedom elucidates both the divine life as a tragic destiny and the life of mankind and the world as the history of a tragic destiny. There would be no history without freedom. It is the metaphysical basis of history. The revelation of history can be apprehended only through Christ as perfect man and God, as their perfect union, as the genesis of God in man and of man in God, and, finally, as God’s revelation in man and the reciprocal revelation of man in God. Christ, the Absolute Man, the Son of both God and man, stands in the centre of both celestial and terrestrial history. He is the inner spiritual tie between these two destinies. Without His help the tie between the world and God, between the plural and the unique, between the human and the absolute reality, could not exist. In fact, history owes its existence entirely to the presence of Christ at its very heart. He represents the deepest mystical and metaphysical foundation and source of history and of its tragic destiny. Both the divine and the human energy flow towards and away from Him.

All historical tendencies which have striven to create harmony, to overcome the dark premise, to subdue the turbulence of freedom and supersede it by compelled and necesary good, are concerned only with the secondary signs of the unique and primal mystery of divine freedom. These tendencies have a wide currency, but they should be unmasked in the light of Christian consciousness as a temptation always besetting human destiny. One of the greatest of Christian mysteries, that of Grace, which lies at the foundation of the Church, symbolizes the transcendent reconciliation and resolution of the fatal conflict between freedom and necessity. It achieves a victory over the fatality of both freedom and necessity, though the word “fatal” here is but an imperfect symbol. It is the act of Grace which realizes the communion between God and man and offers a solution of the problem posed by the divine drama. We must, therefore, note that the principle of Divine Grace is active in the history and destiny of both world and man together with that of natural necessity. And without it neither this destiny nor mystery would be fulfilled.

Nicholas Berdyaev, The Bourgeois Mind.
________________, Freedom and Spirit.
__________________, The Meaning of History.
Matthew Spinka, Nicolas Berdyaev: Captive of Freedom, Westminster Press, l950.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 4, May-June 1995.