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Shestov, Lev (Yehuda Leib Shvartsman) (1866–1938)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E034-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 30, 2020, from

Article Summary

A major though atypical figure of the Russian Religious-Philosophical Renaissance, Shestov taught that reason and science can neither explain tragedy and suffering, nor answer the questions that matter most. A maximalist, a subjectivist and an anti-dogmatist, Shestov regarded philosophical idealism as an attempt to gloss over the ‘horrors of life’ and attacked morality and ethics as inherently coercive. He maintained that science ignores the contingent, the unique and the ineffable, that philosophy cannot be a science, and that necessity depersonalizes and dehumanizes the individual. Philosophy and revelation are incompatible because God is not bound by reason, nature or autonomous ethics. To God ‘all things are possible’, even undoing what has already happened. God even restored Job’s dead children to him – the same children, not new ones, Shestov insisted.

In Dobro v uchenii gr. Tolstogo i Fr. Nitshe (The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche) (1900) and Dostoevskii i Nitshe (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche) (1903) Shestov attacked philosophical idealism and attributed his subjects’ philosophies to a defining personal experience: Tolstoi’s horror at urban poverty, Nietzsche’s illness, and Dostoevskii’s Siberian exile, respectively. These books established Shestov as a major literary critic and interpreter of Nietzsche. Around 1910 he turned to philosophy and religion. In his magnum opus Athènes et Jerusalem (1938) Shestov preached a religious existentialism centred on the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and argued that evil came into the world with knowledge. Adam and Socrates were fallen men because they opted for knowledge over life and faith. Socrates, Aristotle, the Scholastics, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and Husserl were all faith-destroying. Shestov preferred the anti-rationalism of Dostoevskii, Nietzsche, Tertullian, Luther, Pascal and Kierkegaard. He wanted to restore the primordial freedom of Adam before the Fall. Although Shestov quoted the Gospels and certain Christian theologians approvingly, he was not a Christian. Neither was he an adherent of traditional Judaism.

A brilliant stylist, Shestov used reason and knowledge to combat reason and knowledge. He distinguished between the empirical realm where they applied and the metaphysical realm where they did not. But since he philosophized only about the metaphysical realm he comes across as an irrationalist.

Citing this article:
Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer. Shestov, Lev (Yehuda Leib Shvartsman) (1866–1938), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E034-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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