All Things are Possible, Penultimate Words

Editor's Introduction
by Bernard Martin

     The present volume comprises most of the content of two of Lev Shestov's earlier works written in the first decade of the century, Apofeoz Bespochvennosti (literally, The Apotheosis of Groundlessness), published in 1905, and Nachala i Kontsy (literally, Beginnings and Endings), published in 1908. These works, similar in theme as well as in mood, are the only books of Shestov's that were published in English, though not in full, during the author's lifetime. Apofeoz Bespochvennosti, translated by S. S. Koteliansky, appeared simultaneously in London and New York in 1920 under the title All Things Are Possible, with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence. An English version of Nachala i Kontsy by an unidentified translator was published in London and Dublin in 1916 under the title Anton Chekhov and Other Essays, and in the same year in Boston under the title Penultimate Words and Other Essays, with an introduction by John Middleton Murry. It is these translations that are here reprinted. [*]

     In a previous work, The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching, originally published in Petersburg in 1900, Shestov had already come to the fundamental conviction that was to inspire most of his subsequent writing: "The ‘good,’ ‘fraternal love’ - the experience of Nietzsche has taught us - is not God. ‘Woe to all who love and have no elevation that is higher than their compassion.’ Nietzsche has shown us the way. We must seek that which is higher than compassion, higher than the ‘good’; we must seek God."

     The quest for God, however, does not appear as an overt theme either in All Things Are Possible or in Penultimate Words. Indeed, God and religious faith hardly receive any mention in them. But insofar as these works, consisting in the main of pensées and short essays on a great variety of subjects, are devoted, in considerable measure, to a vigorous assault on scientism and rationalist philosophy, they are integrally related to the basic religious concern around which Shestov's mature thinking resolves. For it was precisely scientism and rationalist philosophy that the later Shestov came to regard as the chief obstacles that man must overcome if he is to reappropriate the possibility of faith in the living, omnipotent God of the Bible and to regain the fullness of freedom with which, in Shestov's view, this God primordially endowed man.

     It is true that we do not find in the pensées and essays of the present volume the relentless passion and intense fervor that Shestov would come to display later in his protracted struggle against the boundless pretensions of the empirical truths of science and of the a priori truths of logical reason, a struggle waged specifically for the sake of recovering God and freedom. D. H. Lawrence, in his introduction to All Things Are Possible, which has been retained in the present edition, speaks of a "half-amused indifference" to be felt in this work. Lawrence's perception, however, it seems fair to say, is not completely on the mark. Behind the amusing ironies, mockeries, and witticisms so frequently encountered in the pages of All Things Are Possible lies not indifference but a profound seriousness. The seriousness may not be as apparent in this early work as in Shestov's later polemics written in the heat of the battle for religious faith, but it is certainly present to a significant degree.

     Lawrence correctly recognized that Shestov's central cry here (as it would be in his subsequent writings) is: "Everything is possible." He further summarized the author's new ideal: "The human soul itself is the source and wellhead of creative activity." That humanistic sounding characterization is not altogether inaccurate as far as All Things Are Possible is concerned. In later years, however, Shestov was to make clear his persuasion that God alone is the ultimate source of man's liberation from the iron bands of necessity exemplified in the "natural laws" of science and in the "self-evident truths" of logic and reason - a liberation which is the sine qua non of human freedom and human creative activity. "All things are possible" he would subsequently affirm with Kierkegaard in Athens and Jerusalem, his magnum opus, is the operational meaning of the term God.

     The supposed "law" of natural sequence or causality, which Shestov took to be the cornerstone of science, is one of the major targets of his attack, both in All Things Are Possible and in Penultimate Words. The avidity with which men embraced this "law" and raised it to the status of an eternal truth is explicable, he suggests, by the "blatant advantages" it offered to the human mind. "Thanks to the grand hypothesis, man is forewarned and forearmed. Thanks to this master key, the future is at his mercy. He knows, in order that he may foreknow: savoir pour prevoir. Here is man, by virtue of one supreme assumption, dictator henceforward of all nature. The philosophers have ever bowed the knee to success. So down they went before the newly-invented law of natural sequence; they hailed it with the title of eternal truth."

     Shestov was well aware that David Hume had dealt a serious blow to the idea of necessary connection or causality by explaining it as a subjective and, therefore, illusory notion, but he insisted that the philosophers who followed Hume, including Immanuel Kant, made heroic attempts to reinstate it, and that human beings cling to it with utmost tenacity as a guarantee of their security and certainty. The truth of the matter, however, is - Shestov contends - that nature is ruled by total arbitrariness: "...from our own minds and our own experience we can deduce nothing that would serve us as a ground for setting even the smallest limit to nature's own arbitrary behavior. If whatever happens now had chanced to happen quite differently, it would not, therefore, have seemed any the less natural to us. In other words, although there may be an element of inevitability in our human judgments concerning the natural phenomena, we have never been able and probably never shall be able to separate the grain of inevitable from the chaff of accidental and casual truth." Or, as he puts it elsewhere in All Things Are Possible: "At times one comes to the conclusion that the natural connection of phenomena, as hitherto observed, is not at all inevitable for the future, and that miracles which so far have seemed impossible may come to seem possible, even natural, far more natural than that loathsome law of sequence, the law of the regularity of phenomena."

     The only reason, Shestov urges, that science can defend with plausibility its ideas of "necessary truth" and the "law of regularity of phenomena" is that it declines to take account of experience in all its fullness and variety. Science "throws overboard an enormous quantity of individual facts, regarding them as the ballast of our human vessel" and "takes note only of such phenomena as alternate constantly and with a certain regularity." It is its refusal to admit into its purview the unique, the singular, the unrepeatable, the - if one wishes to use to term - "miraculous" phenomenon that calls into question the validity of the truth-claim of the whole scientific enterprise. Here we have an adumbration of the conclusion reached by Shestov many years later in the remarkable essay "Science and Free Inquiry" which he placed as the introduction to his In Job's Balances and in which he denied that science is engaged in a truly free and disinterested quest for truth.

     Shestov, let it be noted, is quite willing to grant the obvious, namely, that science is of great practical utility. What he adamantly refuses to concede is the positivist insistence of the scientists that only those judgments which are universally verifiable through observation and experiment can lay claim to the title of truth.

     As strongly as he polemicizes against science, the author of All Things are Possible and of Penultimate Words polemicizes against traditional philosophy. As is the case with his critique of science, so also with the critique of philosophy which emerges from the pensées (sometimes no more than a brief paragraph in length and often following each other in the most haphazard fashion, without any apparent logical relationship to each other) that constitute the largest part of these works, especially the first. This critique already contains in nuce the elements of the more thorough and sustained treatment Shestov was to give the subject in his later works, especially In Job’s Balances and Athens and Jerusalem.

     Briefly stated, the heart of Shestov's critique of philosophy, as he understands it, is that it has assumed the role of servant to science and set itself the same goals as its master - the discovery of eternal truths binding on all. But this is a misguided enterprise. According to Shestov, science, as we have observed, cannot achieve its self-proclaimed goal because it ignores the unique and unrepeatable phenomenon and, despite the arbitrariness which in fact rules nature, posits the principles of "regularity" and "necessity." As far as philosophy is concerned, a mere glance at the numerous mutually inconsistent metaphysical systems, each claiming for itself eternal and universal truth, that have appeared in the history of philosophical speculation should suffice to make clear the absurdity of all such claims. "Philosophers," Shestov sarcastically writes, "dearly love to call their utterances ‘truths,’ since in that guise they become binding upon us all. But each philosopher invents his own truths, which means that he asks his pupils to deceive themselves in the way he shows, but that he reserves for himself the option of deceiving himself in his own way. Why? Why not allow everyone to deceive himself just as he likes?"

     One does not find in these early works the terror that Shestov appears later to have felt, and expressed with such eloquence in his subsequent writings, before the enslaving power of the supposedly "necessary" and "eternal" truths sought and proclaimed by both science and philosophy. He does not yet explicitly portray them as destructive of human freedom, but regards them rather as pompous lies and recommends a withholding of the veneration demanded by their proponents. Instead of giving them respect, he urges, "on every possible occasion, in season and out, the generally accepted truths must be ridiculed to death, and paradoxes uttered in their place." Here is an anticipation of Shestov's repeated characterization in his later works of Dostoevsky's "Underground Man," with his railleries against truths of the order of "two times two makes four," as offering a keener and more incisive critique of the theory of knowledge than Kant with his Critique of Pure Reason.

     Although in one place in All Things Are Possible Shestov grants that "to discard logic as an instrument, a means or aid for acquiring knowledge, would be extravagant," elsewhere in the same work he writes: "Philosophy must have nothing in common with logic; philosophy is an art which aims at breaking the logical continuity of argument and bringing man out on the shoreless sea of imagination, the fantastic tides where everything is equally possible and impossible." A combination of imagination and daring, not skill in syllogistic reasoning, Shestov suggests, is the prime requisite for truly philosophical thinking. Such thinking is not calm, detached reflection, and it does not, as does logical reason, provide man with pleasure. It requires a radical and painful reorientation of the thinker's whole being. "But to think - really to think - surely this means a relinquishing of logic. It means living a new life. It means a permanent sacrifice of the dearest habits, tastes, attachments, without even the assurance that the sacrifice will bring any compensation."

     As early as the period in which he wrote the works contained in the present volume, Shestov seems to have been enough of an "existentialist" thinker to suggest that not only imagination, daring, and a surrender of the constraints of logic are required for an escape from the tedious pomposities and false dogmatisms offered by conventional rationalist philosophy. hut also an authentic experience of such "boundary situations" in human life as hopelessness, loneliness, and - most important of all - death.

     "Hopelessness is the most solemn and supreme moment in life. Till that point we have been assisted - now we are left to ourselves. Previously we had to do with men and human laws - now with eternity, and with the complete absence of laws."

     "An irremediably unhappy person is outside the laws of the earth. Any connection between him and society is severed finally. And since. sooner or later, every individual is doomed to irremediable unhappiness, the last word of philosophy is loneliness."

     "All the best poetry, all the wonderful mythology of the ancients and of modern peoples have for their source the fear of death. Only modern science forbids men to fear, and insists on a tranquil attitude towards death. So we arrive at utilitarianism and the positivist philosophy. If you wish to be rid of both these creeds, you must be allowed to think again of death and, without shame, to fear hell and its devils."

     Statements such as the foregoing - here set down only in brief, aphoristic form, without elaboration - prefigure what were to become major themes in Shestov's later, more fully and explicitly existentialist mode of thinking. In In Job’s Balances, for instance, he would argue that the modern tendency to represent death as natural and even pleasant is an egregious falsehood. On the contrary, death is unnatural and frightful and should be recognized as such. Furthermore, it is precisely the fear of personal extinction that ought to be the starting point of philosophical thought, for only great terror gives the soul the impetus to rise above the commonplace, and the ugliness and agony of death make possible the surrender of previously cherished conceptions, including the "self-evident truths."

     "Creation From the Void," Shestov's essay on Anton Chekhov, considered by more than one critic as the best and most penetrating essay ever written on the great Russian writer, also reveals the at least partially "existentialist" perspective that the philosopher had attained even in his early period. Shestov sees the later Chekhov, the Chekhov of the stories and plays after The Steppe, essentially as "the poet of hopelessness," as a man "constantly, as it were, in ambush, to watch and waylay human hopes." Chekhov's heroes, Shestov notes, are always persons who have reached a situation of in extremis utter - helplessness, total despair, incurable illness, the prospect of imminent death. They can no longer find any consolation or hope in lofty philosophical ideals, in general conceptions of the world, in universal ideas. They are left to themselves alone, and must create everything for themselves "out of the void." Chekhov lamented his personal inability to unify the multiplicity of his thoughts, feelings, and ideas around some universal idea, some Weltanschauung. and to bring it to bear on his literary work. But Shestov, himself in rebellion against universal ideas and general conceptions of the world and intent on confronting the naked reality of existence without such deceiving screens, sees precisely in the inability which Chekhov deplored the very essence of his genius and his power as a writer.

     I have focused attention, in this brief introduction, only on those themes presented in the comparatively early works of Shestov brought together in the present volume which find fuller statement and elaboration in his later books and which are related to the crucial concerns of his mature religious philosophy. But the reader of the pages that follow will soon discover that these themes do not begin to exhaust the richness and variety of their subject matter.

     The 166 pensées collected in All Things Are Possible and the fewer but longer essays of Penultimate Words and Other Essays contain not only the polemics against scientism and rationalist philosophy noted above but a host of highly perceptive comments on such great Russian writers as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, as well as on such great non-Russians as Shakespeare, Heine, and Ibsen. They also include keen aperçus on many philosophers - among them, Socrates, Plato, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Moreover, we find in them provocative reflections on such themes, to mention but a few, as the nature of the creative process in literature and art, the vengefulness that frequently underlies morality and its self-appointed guardians, the relationship of philosophy and society, and philosophers in the role of teachers.

     The wealth of scattered insights that All Things Are Possible and Penultimate Words contain make these works of the early Shestov fascinating reading for anyone interested in philosophy or literature. The fact that in. them are strongly adumbrated those ideas which, developed and refined, became central in Shestov's mature thought makes them indispensable reading for any serious student of the philosopher himself.

Bernard Martin
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio

[*] Omitted from the English translation of the first work are the author's preface and two essays, one on Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar (this essay appears in English as "The Ethical Problem in Julius Ceasar" in The New Adelphi, London, June 1928, No.4, pp.348-56) and another on Dmitri Merezhkovsky. The English version of the second work also omits Shestov's preface, as well as an essay on Berdyaev that appeared in the original Russian edition. It should further be noted that the section "The Theory of Knowledge", included in Penultimate Words and Other Essays, was originally published in Russian in a third book of Shestov's, Velikie Kanuny (Great Vigils), Petersburg, 1911.

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