Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Book Review - The Significance of Eschatology in the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev

Book Review

Carnegie Samuel Calian, The Significance of Eschatology in the Thought of Nicolas Berdyaev. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965. Pp. 134.

Among the many studies devoted to Berdyaev -- and their number continues to grow -- this book by Professor Calian will occupy a special place for a long time. Virtually all books written about Berdyaev, especially in the West, have dealt with either Berdyaev himself, i.e. his spiritual biography, or his thought in general. Here therefore is one of the first attempts to take seriously one aspect of Berdyaev's philosophy and to study it in depth. Berdyaev always spoke and wrote about eschatology in all its connotations and implications, but nowhere did he present a systematic explanation of what he meant by this term. Professor Calian tries to "isolate," so to speak, Berdyaev's doctrine of eschatology (but can anything in Berdyaev's thought be termed a "doctrine"?) and to analyze its meaning within Berdyaev's philosophy as a whole. This is a refreshing change from the generalities in which the Western exponents of Berdyaev usually dwell.

In the first part Professor Calian analyzes the various influences on Berdyaev: German philosophy, the Russian cultural renaissance, Orthodoxy, Marxism, revolution. Then, in the second part, Berdyaev's intuition of eschatology is systematically related to the main areas of his philosophical search: creativity, freedom, man, ethics, history, and metaphysics. As a result we have a rather concrete and convincing presentation of what could be described as the eschatological dimension of Berdyaev's thought. This method also has its disadvantages, especially when applied to Berdyaev, for Berdyaev was anything but a systematic thinker, and all attempts to "squeeze" him into a system necessarily mutilate him. It seems to me, however, that Professor Calian has escaped that danger rather successfully and precisely by showing that eschatology in Berdyaev is not a treatise apart, but the "orientation" of all his teaching, a "coefficient" essential for the understanding of every part of it.

This careful and interesting study left me with two general impressions: the first concerns the thought of Berdyaev in general. It is precisely because the book deals with one concrete theme that one feels here, more than in any other study, the somewhat vague character of Berdyaev's philosophy. It is as if his vision, his intuition never finds an adequate body of concepts in which to express itself adequately. Thus in spite of everything, the ultimate meaning of eschatology remains not only obscure but much too general. One grasps much better what Berdyaev opposes than what he affirms. The second impression is that of a strange abyss between Berdyaev and the concrete reality of the Orthodox Church. I do not doubt the truth of Professor Calian's affirmation that the Orthodox experience of Christ's Resurrection is central for Berdyaev. But this experience is somewhat alienated from the total experience of the Church. There is a strange absence in Berdyaev of references to the sacramental reality of the Church, of the Church herself as eschatological reality. And it is here, I think, that the ambiguity of Berdyaev's entire philosophy lies.


St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1966, Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 213-4