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Shestov, Lev

(born Lev Shvartsman; 1866–1938), Russian philosopher, advocate of religious existentialism. Born to a wealthy family in Kiev, a city open then to a small number of Jews, Shestov was taught Jewish subjects by private tutors. Early in life, however, he chose assimilation to Russian culture as the keystone to his intellectual development.

Inspired by Nietzsche and the decadent movement taking hold in Western Europe, Shestov was a sharp critic of positivism and materialism. In his books Dobro v uchenii Gr. Tolstogo i. F. Nitshe: Filosofiia i propoved’ (The Good in the Teaching of Count Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Doctrine; 1902) and Dostoevskii i Nitshe: Filosofiia tragedii (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: Philosophy of Tragedy; 1903), Shestov articulated a “philosophy of tragedy.” He claimed that universal truth is unacceptable, since, while appearing to satisfy and give meaning to the individual, it cannot account for or justify personal pain, injustice, or death. Philosophy unfortunately allows a person to flee from real problems by enabling engagement in abstract thought, presenting truth as valid for all people in all places at all times. Using Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as examples, Shestov urges each individual to reject philosophy in favor of freedom: “The drive for a system kills free creativity, placing strict boundaries prepared in advance. Entering the world of the human spirit in order to subjugate it to laws applicable to the exterior world means voluntarily to surrender the right to see and receive everything” (Shekspir i ego kritik Brandes [1898], p. 3). In the decade before the Revolution of 1917, Shestov also expressed his conviction that only faith and not philosophy can properly deal with miracle. Despite centuries of attempts, Shestov writes, philosophy cannot be combined with faith.

Leaving Russia in 1921, Shestov moved to Paris, where, having lost his family wealth, he attempted to live by lecturing at the Sorbonne and writing for French and Russian émigré journals. His brand of individualistic religious existentialism gained him admirers in both German and French philosophical circles. Jacques Maritain and Edmund Husserl promoted his work; it was Husserl who noticed Shestov’s similarity to Søren Kierkegaard. Because of his faith in a God who interferes in human life, Shestov was admired by Jewish religious philosophers such as Martin Buber, Aron Steinberg, and Shestov’s protégé, Benjamin Fondane. At the same time, Shestov’s thought has deep roots in the Russian tradition and is linked with such Russian thinkers as Vladimir Solov’ev, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Sergei Bulgakov. It is significant that Shestov did not show a preference to the Jewish religion or the Jewish God, but held an ecumenical position that the God of Abraham was the same as the God recognized by Christians, Muslims, and mystics throughout the world. Shestov reflects the tremendous inroads in Russian culture achieved by secular Jewish intellectuals in the fin de siècle period.

Suggested Reading

Nathalie Baranoff, Zhizin’ L’va Shestova: Po perepiske i vospominaniiam sovremennikov, 2 vols. (Paris, 1983); Benjamin Fondane, Rencontres avec Léon Chestov (Paris, 1982); Brian Horowitz, “The Tension of Athens and Jerusalem in the Philosophy of Lev Shestov,” Slavic and East European Journal 43.1 (Spring 1999): 156–173; Bernard Martin, “Introduction,” Great Twentieth Century Jewish Philosophers: Shestov, Rosenzweig, Buber, pp. 3–30 (New York, 1969–1970).