Shestov “beyond” and “on This Side” of Good and Evil

Pavle Rak

Although this is a scientific symposium, I will risk a totally non-scientific approach (I am not pretending to objectiveness or to a complete knowledge of scientific literature about Shestov…), namely: I will base my contribution on a subjective, personal impression of certain mobiles which generated Shestov‘s ideas and some of their consequences. I hope I have the right to do this: Shestov himself used a non-scientific, personal approach in his writings. All rationalism, particularly idealistic rationalism applied on questions about the sense of human life, was the main target of his attacks. He wrote that in this field rationalism is nothing but a lie that helps us to misunderstand the tragic essence of life. And that idea is clearly the consequence of Shestov’s own personal experience, and the pretended personal experience of his heroes – Augustin, Luther, Pascal, Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. In Shestov’s case, everything from his literary style to his manner of argumenting and drawing conclusions has the mark of a non-scientific, if not anti-scientific, approach. So, I think I also have the right to expose my personal impressions to the public.

Science, rationalism, knowledge – these are the original sin in Shestov‘s interpretation. Is human life directed by abstract laws, obeying human logic, or are we dealing with the anthropic tragedy, the inexpressible, obeying no laws, at least not the laws of idealistic rationalism?
This question, quoted by Shestov, is taken from the works of Belinsky and Dostoevsky: is it possible to justify the sufferings of the innocent creature, not only the small baby, but the least of innocent insects – that is, to justify it by future happiness for all? Is it possible to rationalize suffering, to hide it like Kant did when he created the notion of Ding an sich, or to hide it behind the „Good is God“ of Tolstoy?

Not at all, says Shestov. Future eternal happiness has nothing to do with past suffering, but precisely the contrary: any past suffering undermines future happiness.

The greatest madness of all, especially great because it pretends to be the greatest cleverness, is the attempt of theology and philosophy to limit almighty God and bind Him by the laws of our own human logic. Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians alike have attempted to replace fate with the worst disbelief, to replace abrahamic trust in God with the poor crutches of our knowledge of good and evil. „Nonbeliever“ Shestov was constantly fighting for the rights of faith, against the ratio. That is his great merit for the cause of faith in the 20th century, when – faced with the atrocities of world wars and totalitarian regimes – many well-read apologists capitulated. In that sense, Shestov is a 20th century hero of faith. As he was not a follower of any religion or church, all of them should venerate him. The foundations he was building are appropriate for any true believer. Shestov – a universal saint of the 20th century, a justifier of faith in times of military and totalitarian despair?

But Shestov the philosopher of faith and the philosopher of tragedy was not at all interested in world wars and totalitarian socialist systems. His philosophy could be just what it was – free of any wars or totalitarian systems generated by the Bolshevik revolution or any other socialist movement (in all his writings we can find nothing about wars and only one article about bolshevism, which he disliked so much, as his female companion writes, that he never talked about it and even preferred it had never been written). The suffering that Shestov writes about, the suffering that should be „integrated“, that should be „lived with“, is completely different. It is not historically or socially conditioned.

Shestov had to deal with suffering that is extreme, perhaps the greatest suffering of all (he uses the words of Nietzsche, applying them in particular to Dostoevsky), that is, the suffering caused by disdain. Some interesting things can be found when following this logic: not the suffering caused by wars, and not the suffering caused by unbearable social circumstances, and not the suffering caused by the physical or moral pains of the innocent baby were in the focus of interest of Shestov‘s tragic heroes. These heroes are interested in their own personal experience – that they are incapable of fighting against a very personal disdain. The feeling of being offended, pure psychology, Shestov would say. And what does this „pure psychology” justify? The choice is not too big. It is either knowledge, ratio and virtue as the fruit of the laws of good and evil, or it is irrationalism, a priori ignorance of such laws, the self-will of God and mankind. Even worse: when we speak of the irrationalism of an offended man, his feeling of being offended easily becomes a need for vengeance, a very selective and strange vengeance, that is, not vengeance against those who caused the offence, but vengeance against others, against the innocents, who are guilty because, by their mere existence, they make possible the aggressiveness of others. The offended man can satisfy himself with the disdain of all others who are weaker than him (he cannot return disdain to the powerful, says Shestov, evoking the case of Dostoevsky, who suffered from the disdain of robbers and killers, elevating them to the throne of “the most talented men among all our peoples”). This means that the offended man will disdain the weak and venerate robbers and killers, that is, the mighty and the ruthless. That is what Shestov finds in Dostoevsky and in Nietzsche. He named this “the philosophy of tragedy” – as opposed to optimistic, rationalistic idealism. If we follow Shestov, the choice is really poor: either the insipid, shallow lie, or the truth of the disdained, summarized in a single sentence: “Let the whole world perish, if this is necessary for me to have my cup of tea.” As we know, the truth is always better than a lie, even if it is such an ugly truth.

Whose truth is this? Dostoevsky‘s? Nietzsche‘s? Shestov‘s? Or the truth of the Russian “underground” conscience? Why only Russian? Isn‘t it the truth of Western “nihilism” up to now? What does this truth offer in place of the “rationally good,” of that selfish, self-contented lie?

The heroes of faith could also be the fanatics. To be consistent in anything, even in the negation of rationalism – is an aberration of that same rationalism. Fundamentalism is the nonwanted child of rationalism which, with the adamant logic of jurisprudence, drives to absurd consequences the assumptions of rewarding good and punishing evil. Between the two you can smuggle anything you want.

Of course, „rational good“ is superficial, nonradical, speculative. Nonspiritual. That is the eternal subject and the eternal vanity of Russia: to disdain the West, which compels to good deeds by force of law, which knows only a selfish good, a good that pays for itself; and to oppose all the goodness of a free soul, which agitates or does not agitate only from itself, and not for the sake of outside law. As for Russia, the results are known: much talk about soul, and a great deal of recklessness in everyday life. As it is not possible to give to God what belongs to God, it is also not possible to render unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar’s.

But this is not only a particularity of Russia. The West is also acquainted with rebel thinking, as opposed to rationalistic idealism. Thinking that is ”beyond good and evil” in its glorification of power, or liberty that transgresses the boundaries of self-will – how much ink was used to glorify the “philosophy” of Marquis de Sade, how much to obtain the abolition of punitive logic and institutions, or to defend “heroes” like the murderer Claude Mesrine? If the only enemy is the rationalistic lie, if there really is no other enemy and everything else is welcome in the struggle against this unique enemy – then nothing can help us. In such cases we are obliged to bear the consequences of a choice that is too narrow.

Shestov (and many other philosophers engaged in the struggle against rationalism) does not have the possibility of retreat. His rationality is in irrationality, his consistency in inconsistency. The knowledge of good and evil is opposed by ignorance that is “beyond.” But if that “beyond” is not marked in some other way, if it is outside of definition, it could very well turn into an alibi for the radical self-will, which often ends not “beyond,” but on this side of the most banal evil. The evil which was not wanted, but which we are unable to rid ourselves of by a mere struggle against rationalism.

(That is the main difference between the ignorance of evil and good preached by contemporary philosophy, and the ignorance found in Areopagit or Confessor: the old apophatics does not exclude a certain degree of “kataphatic approach,” and it ends in absolute knowledge, though such knowledge is of an absolutely other kind. Yet, besides rationalism and irationalism, that old apophatics also knows the category of love.)
What forced Shestov into a struggle against the lie of idealism? The scenes of despair which make every idea of good not only helpless, but senseless? And, God knows, Russia is full of those scenes, even if we do not mention the suffering caused by a well-known Russian particularity – the treatment of the people by their own government.

* * *

A street in the centre of a metropolis. A meeting with a woman who keeps some 20–30 dogs in her apartment on the first floor. A friend and I want to help her. She is a good-looking lady in her seventies, with lively eyes, two high-school diplomas, good manners, a distinguished way of speaking… but, you would do better not to stand too close to her, after a few seconds it becomes unbearable.

She explains what happened: some 15-20 years ago (who knows exactly), the town authorities promised her a house in which she could have a dog asylum. The dogs were already gathered. In the last minute, somebody made a deal on the house: no more asylum. What to do? Subject the innocent animals to a cruel death? Well, in the years that followed, the story continued. Some dogs were dying, others were found, saved from the winter cold, hunger or disease, from killing.

It stinks so bad on the stairs that my friend stays outside. The money he brought will be delivered later, when we return from the flat. She and I slowly enter the double door, careful not to let the dogs escape. Although it is winter and the windows have no glass, but are only covered with paper and it is cold inside – the smell is terrible. What will it be like in the summer? The poor animals are constantly indoors, as the woman is unable to take them for a walk. They do everything here, in the flat. For more than 10 years no-one has cleaned the flat. That would be impossible now. Seven years ago there was a fire in the hallway and rooms, which is still visible in the charred pieces of furniture. Between them, wet dogs and dung-heaps half a meter high. Poor lighting (later she begs me to buy her some lightbulbs, she simply cannot – they won’t allow her to enter any store because of the smell). The dogs bark incessantly, some of them come to greet an unknown face, some would like to play. The entire troop follows me as I explore, with difficulty, their living space. The troop rolls around me, they are everywhere, everything is black, slippery, stinking… I cannot see any recognisable piece of furniture, so I ask her where she sleeps. In the bathroom. And she asks me not to tell anyone about all this “in inappropriate places; they could send me to the madhouse, and all these dogs would simply be killed.”

She also tells me that she once had “subtenants” on the back staircase: being the only user, she let vagabonds in in the winter, not only to help them endure the extremely cold winter, but also to help her a little with the dogs. This did not turn out too well. The quarrels between them were worse than between animals. Alcohol, knives, fire… in a few months, seven corpses were evacuated. Now, the staircase is strictly locked (I have already seen such abandoned flats occupied by homeless people, I have seen the clashes between them, kicks in the head of those lying on the floor, hopelessness, senselessness).

What, then, does hell look like, if this is the flat of an educated, intelligent woman? I am sick, not only because of the awful smell, but above all because of the helplessness and despair. These are the consequences of love, the consequences of the desire to help innocent creatures. Where is reason in this case? Evidently, its boundaries are far behind us. What is the human good, the rational good in this case? Nothing, a great big lie. When you see scenes like that, all those big human words can be thrown directly into the dustbin. But, how can we continue living? By forgetting. And if we cannot forget?

I would not be surprised to learn that Shestov was also struck by such a scene of senseless suffering, a senseless effort to help. So he damned, once and for all, rationalism, idealism, the entire knowledge of good and evil.

Translated by Suzana Stančič