Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: The Fate of Man in the Modern World by Nicolas Berdyaev

In 1935, the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev published his prescient The Fate of Man in the Modern World (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 1935). As Hitler increased his grip on Germany, the exiled Russian foresaw the natural outcome of National Socialism. He recognized Hitler as a dictator. But, Berdyaev was not an apologist for capitalism. He writes, “Capitalism uses man [sic] as goods for sale” (p. 15).

The book is an overwhelming critique of humanity’s foibles. Berdyaev begins by looking back. He writes a judgment on history, focusing on World War I. Humanity attempted self-destruction.  He writes:
The very fundamentals of human existence are being shaken. The war was a revelation of the evil, the hatred and jealousy which had been accumulating in humanity: it objectivized the evil which had previously remained hidden, if the expression is permissible, subjective rather than objective (p. 13).

History is a continuing string of revolutions. New ideas replace old ones. People who consider revolution a crime, Berdyaev argues, would view history as a crime. If someone would prefer not to have a revolution, then he feels that the person should seek the Kingdom of God. In this conclusion to chapter one, readers see Berdyaev’s theology creep into the text.

The second chapter focuses on dehumanization. Mechanization and industrialization dehumanize the worker. His criticism brings out an underlying personalism. For Berdyaev, human life has value. He sees economic systems and so-called progress as eroding human value. He compares humanity to the animal world. In the animal world, creatures do not devalue one another beyond a pecking order. This brief reference could go further. Instead, he focuses on the fallen state of humanity.

The centerpiece of Berdyaev’s philosophy and theology is freedom. From the fallen state of the world, he shifts to freedom. He writes, “Freedom in social life presents a paradox which gives rise to a whole series of contradictions” (p. 40). While he holds freedom as of paramount importance, he also sees its boundaries. The nature of freedom is giving and receiving. It is a willingness to surrender. He writes, “Freedom is the eternal basis of human intercourse: to be true communion it must be free” (p. 45). It is a gift and a sentence. Each person faces this paradox.

Freedom is one of Berdyaev’s favorite subjects. He returns to it again and again. So, it is no surprise that he spends the better part of chapter two on it here. The theme comes up again and again, often in subtle ways. Each political and economic system works against and with freedom in different ways.

The third chapter explores “new forces” in humanity. During the first half of the twentieth century, democracy spread. Populism also spread. And, communism spread. In each case, public involvement increased. How does Berdyaev’s worldview respond to mass involvement that yields different outcomes? The responses often confront his personalism. For example, he writes, “A capitalistic economy is deeply anti-personal” (p. 80). Humanity responds to freedom, populism, and other issues with two tendencies: individualization and universalization. These two tendencies lead to the various political and economic systems and the way people react to them. Berdyaev’s commentary is insightful. But, it is also specific to a time/place.

The final chapter addresses culture and Christianity. He moves beyond his critique and emphasizes the movement of the Holy Spirit and mystery. He writes, “Religion was the meeting-place of the masses…” (p. 114). The faith journey provides a positive response to his cultural criticism. In the end, he sees a kind of Christian socialism as a response to the extremes of populism and dehumanization.

Berdyaev is a readable philosopher. The book is a joy to read. It has a timeless feel to it. And, the critique seems as fresh today as it was in the years preceding World War II. Some of his comments about the populist need for autocracy sound like he is describing the world today. It is a short book (131 pages). I would encourage anyone who is interested in philosophy or Berdyaev to read this book.

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