Shestov’s and Levinas’ fear

Gorazd Kocijančič


The article attempts to analyse the text by Emanuel Levinas focussing on Shestov’s book “Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle (Vox clamantis in deserto)”, published in 1937 in Revue des études juives, II, July-December 1937, no. 3, pp. 139-141. It is argued that this text by Levinas reveals some basic tenets of Shestov’s and his own thought – and therefore also post-modern thought in general. It is further claimed that the grounding of Levinas’ objection to Shestov’s thought – his “fear” – could be summarized in the thesis that in his opinion philosophy could not be abandoned to the wild unpredictability of God, of His absolute power, without its abdication to the logos which is its substance (one could also see here the programme of Levinas’ proper synthesis of Hellenism and Judaism). This argument proves fallible when reading some fundamental passages in Parmenides in Chains by Shestov. According to Kocijančič, Shestov’s critique of rationality stems from the radically envisaged absoluteness of the transcendence – although it is true that in the majority of Shestov’s texts this absoluteness is stylized into the otherness of the Biblical God; in Parmenides in Chains, however, this is not the case. Parmenides in Chains, contrary to other texts by Shestov, reveals the deliverance of the radical thought which transposes itself to the very root of Western thought, before every dichotomy of thought and revelation.


The important Shestov’s word “groundlessness”, which was so aptly chosen for the title of this symposium, does not aim at its historical self-understanding but reveals how close to some important features of post-modernity Shestov’s thought is: in particular to those articulations of discourses (in philosophy, literature and religion) where clear and distinguishable limits are getting blurred and lost and where discourses can merge one into the other because their own most profound identity becomes questionable, or even unclear.
This closeness was clearly recognised by Emanuel Levinas, one of the most important post-modern thinkers. In 1937 this French philosopher opened some of the crucial questions concerning this issue in his short review of Shestov’s book on Kierkegaard1 with the title »Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle (Vox clamantis in deserto)«. 2 Approaching those questions with his usual insightfulness Levinas reveals some of the basic tenets of his own philosophy – and contemporary thought in general. I would have fulfilled my task already if I succeed in drawing your attention to this short review which would undoubtedly deserve a more thorough analysis than the one I am trying to present here, in particular if you bear in mind the fruitful parallels that could be drawn between Levinas’ thought and the work of Karl Barth (a thinker who especially in his commentary to the Epistle to the Romans resembles closely to Shestov) and between  Karl Barth and Shestov’s ethnical and spiritual kinsmen, Jacques Derrida. 3
Kairos of the meeting between Shestov and Levinas is of the utmost significance. This is the time just before the Second World War, the time of “preparations” for holocaust. This is the time when one Jewish thinker reads the book of another Jewish thinker. The thinker who is criticising the pretensions of philosophy accusing it of having claims to encompass the totality reads the thinker who has in his intensive, congenial, passionate reading of Kierkegaard also striven to express his “existential” criticism of the pretensions of philosophy.
At the beginning of his review Levinas hints at the connections between the critique of rationality and the war: “The moral crisis which was caused by the war of 1914 gave to people a very clear sense of inefficiency of reason [raison], of the fundamental incongruity between rationalistic civilisation and the demands of the soul lost in the anonymity of the general” (p. 87). He then adds that he is aware that the Danish thinker aims at something essentially more subtle. Kierkegaard’s philosophy, which is according to Levinas hard to summarise, evades the naivety of rationalism as well as doctrines of violence – this phrase already suggests Nazism which was the subject of his intelligent critique in his work Quelques reflexions sur la philosophie de l’hitlerisme, publ. in 1934 – the naivety and doctrines that are simplistic reactions to that crisis. Levinas presents Kierkegaard’s thought primarily as a necessity of raising existential questions, regardless of our answers to them (“Is my speculation legitimately separated from condition humaine, from human destiny and its death?”). In his answer he argues against this suppositon and adds : “We should respect the internal significance of events which constitute our existence, before we interpret them according to (en fonction) the universal order constructed by reason.” (88)  Levinas then defines Shestov’s reading of Kierkegaard as a “struggle fought by soul, abandoned in despair in the world governed by reason and ethics – i.e. governed by Necessity, this consequence of the original sin, as a struggle for the freedom of the soul which should not have been limited by logic or morals”. 
However, Levinas’ review is not an univocal approbation, despite his numerous praises (“Mr. Shestov is particularly good at defining the peripeteias of that struggle, Kierkegaard’s oscillations between Abraham and Socrates”, p. 89; “this explanations surely understand one of the essential aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought”, ibid., “I highly recommend this book to all readers who would like to rethink and revive their Judaism as a religion” (90); “in Shestov’s existential thought the religious philosophy re-evaluates the questions of salvation, i.e. of the very message of Judaism”, 90). Levinas praises the book’s vivacity, poeticism and the symphonic unity and writes politely that “in it we feel – which is not its least attraction – the ideas of M. Shestov”, although he is not astonished by that because he is “one of those who do know Shestov’s work and his fight for Jerusalem and against Athens” (89).4 He critically adds, however: “between those thinkers – namely Shestov and Kierkegaard there exists an irrefutable similarity which often causes certain confusions”.
At the end of his text we sense the philosopher’s fear of a religious man, the “helenised” Jew’s fear of the uncivilised wildness of Shestov’s paradoxes, and last but not least, one might also detect the Jew’s fear of a Jewish thinker who in his openness to the radical paradox remains open for Christianity. (“Mr. Shestov, a Jewish philosopher, is certainly not a philosopher of Judaism. In the heritage of Jerusalem he does not distinguish the Old Testament from the New one”, 90). This fear is even more crucial because Levinas undoubtedly realises that Shestov’s work raises “the questions which are fundamentally important for every religious philosophy; these questions define the level where the fact of religion itself (le fait religieux lui-meme, 90) is posited.”.
The grounding of Levinas’ objection to Shestov’s thought could perhaps be summarized by a bit too daring extrapolation and it could be argued that in his opinion philosophy could not be abandoned to the wild unpredictability of God, of His absolute power, without its abdication to the logos which is its substance (One could see here the programme of Levinas’ proper synthesis of Hellenism and Judaism): “for example, we are not utterly convinced that knowledge for Kierkegaard is simply identified with evil and that it is not rather indispensable and fortunate element of his dialectics…” (86).
We can more or less agree with Levinas’ fear and his objection to Shestov – an objection which, of course, does not focus on the interpretation of Kierkegaard only but also on the fundamental structure of philosophy itself – but we can also disagree. However the main problem lies elsewhere. When we read Levinas’ critique of Shestov’s argument, the critique of his path at the crossroad as defined by Levinas, the question arises whether such an alternative – logos on one side, and a super-logical, absolute God of revelation on the other, Socrates on one, Abraham on the other, Athens on one side, Jerusalem on the other – whether such and alternative properly understands and summarises Shestov’s thought at all.

* * *

In order to understand the real character of Shestov’s fundamental alternative one could knock on every door. With other words: the old master is relentlessly repeating himself, and he is doing this with all the passion and intensity characteristic of all genuine thinkers. One of the proper entrances is surely the text Parmenides in chains – one of the most important Shestov’s thematisations of philosophy. It was published as a separate book and it also represents the first chapter of his important work Athens and Jerusalem. The title of the work openly alludes to Aechylus’ drama Prometeus desmotes, “Prometheus in chains”, and with its conflation of metaphors hints at the horizon in which Shestov reads philosophy. This texture of literature and philosophy is not only alluded in the title of Shestov’s essay but also in the fact that the title emphasizes the poet-thinker who has written his thoughts in hexameters – a poet-thinker who has been proclaimed for a mere philosopher and a poete manqué by a more recent generations which were insensitive to the specific literariness of archaic literature. 
The summary of this essay is simple. With words of Shestov himself taken from the introduction to his “Athens and Jerusalem”: Parmenides in chains endeavours to show that great philosophers have lost in their race for knowledge the Creator’s most precious gift – freedom.” 5 It appears that Levinas was right. However, this is only an appearance. If the essay is read more closely, Shestov’s treatment of philosophical texts reveals itself in a kind of symbolic condensation. In this text the Russian philosopher almost does not speak about Parmenides. Using more or less Aristotelian glasses (the work is also introduced by a quotation from Aristotle “necessity does not obey persuasions”), Shestov ignores mystical dimension of pre-philosophical, sapiential insight and projects to Parmenides the issues of modernity, but only to paradoxically criticise the Aristotelian understanding and to emphasize the possibility of utterly other philosophical insight found in Plato: “Aristotle would bless our knowledge and Plato would curse it” (op. cit. , p. 340). Aristotle’s criticism of Parmenides – as if Parmenides is forced to follow the phaenomena and as if he was forced similarly to other pre-Socratic thinkers into the direction of Aristotelian ontology by the truth itself – this Aristotelian criticism is only a disclosure of that which Aristotle himself, “this high priest of visible and invisible church of all who think” (29) should have been criticising. Shestov asks us:  “Why does the truth have power over Parmenides and Alexander and why do not Parmenides and Alexander have power over the truth?” (op. cit., p. 340). Aristotle was the man “who knew the bitterness of the insult” and the worst insult he experienced is described in Shestov’s dramatic account of Academy’s disputes as Plato’s invention of transcendence. With Shestov’s words: “How to force Plato to stop talking? How to force him to submit himself to necessity not only in the visible, empirical world but also in thoughts where he should give to necessity all the honours it is entitled to? Necessity is not a necessity to those who sleep but to those who are awake. And those who are awake, those who see necessity understand what necessity really is (istinnoe suščee), while Plato with his impudence and effrontery leads us away from everything that really exists to the realm of fantastic, chimerical, illusionary and therefore fake” (op. cit., 342).
The story is then transported to modern philosophy and is too long to be summarised here. But the crucial thing has already been said. Shestov’s critique of rationality stems from the radically envisaged absoluteness of the transcendence which is in the majority of Shestov’s texts stylized into the otherness of the Biblical God. In Parmenides in chains this is not the case.  The work reveals the radical deliverance of thought which transposes Shestov’s usual self-portrait, i.e. thinking of God in the tradition of Augustinianism and nominalism, to the very root of Western thought, before every dichotomy of though and revelation: “It is obvious that the most unbearable and horrible thought for Aristotle was the thought that our terrestrial life is not the ultimate, final, real life and that it is possible, to a certain extent, to wake up from it as we wake up from the sleep into the state of awakening… Plato’s thought about “dreamers” undermines the very basis of human thought.” (op. cit., p. 346)
Shestov obviously relegates to Plato some of the legacies of “the father Parmenides” – without inauguration of the Being which devaluates the world into appearance and transforms the state of being awaken to the ecstasy of the only One otherwise hisunderstanding of that dialectics of the sleep and awakening would not be possible. And to be honest, Shestov appears to be aware of some of those issues. Parmenídes desmótes is – at least as the father of Platonism – at the same time Parmenídes lyómenos ( = Parmenides set free, Parmenides without chains) despite the fact that Shestov claimed the opposite. And this very trick makes Levinas’ critique of Shestov too short.
Thus the question of the relationship between thought and revelation in the work of Shestov should not be left to Levinas’ formulation of the question – which is, of course, expressed in even more simple form by some other historians of the Russian thought.
Without close reading of Shestov’s texts thought should not be exploited against revelations or the opposite; on the contrary, the question should be asked to what extent, according to Shestov, the thought, philosophical thought alone, is able to undermine “the very basis” of the thought itself.
Jerusalem and Athens could perhaps both be found in Greece. And perhaps Levinas should have been even more afraid.

Translated by the author and Nike K. Pokorn

1     The book was translated by T. Rageot and B.  Schloezer, Paris: Vrin 1936.
2     Levinas’ review, which was first published in Revue des études juives, II, July–December 1937, n. 3, p. 139–141, is quoted from the anthology of Levinas’ texts, published under the title L’intrigue de l’infini by Marie-Anne Lescourret, Paris: Flammarion 1994, p. 87–90.
3     I’ m referring to J. F. Gould, Levinas en Barth. Een godsdienstwijsgerige en etische vergelijking, 1984, German translation: Emmanuel Levinas und Karl Barth, Bonn: Bouvier Verlag 1992, and G. Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology, Cambridge 1995.
4     Cf. similar judgment by S. N. Bulgakov, in Nekotorie čerti religioznago mirovozrenija L. I. Šestova, published in S. N. Bulgakov, Sočinenija v dvuh tomah, Moskva 1993,  I, p. 521.
5     Afini i Ierusalim, Predslovie, v: L. Šestov, Sočinenija v dvuh tomah, t. 1, Moskva 1993, p. 332.