Lev Shestov: Athens and Jerusalem

Yesterday, I finished reading the book that is considered by many to be Lev Shestov’s greatest work, Athens and Jerusalem.  It’s not a short book, at just under 450 pages, but I didn’t want it to end.  I’ve read other books with a similar thesis: a critique of human reason, rational categories, etc.  But I have never read anyone who so directly, so frontally assaults his target, the way that Shestov does.  What was it that Thoreau said?  “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”  In Shestov, one feels that here is “one who is striking at the root.”  As I said, I’ve read many a philosopher who argued against rationality (too broadly applied), but then they invariably moved on to discuss other things, other philosophical “chestnuts,” so to speak, on their way to building whatever philosophical system suited them.  Not Shestov.  He had no interest in building a system.  More than anyone else I’ve read, he understood just how firmly rooted his opponent is in the mind of man.  It will never be dislodged by a few tepid taps from a rock hammer.  Only a sledgehammer, repeatedly applied, will do, if indeed anything has a chance.  And Shestov wielded his sledgehammer with great deftness and endurance.  A critic once wrote that in each of his books Shestov seemed not to remember all he had written before.  Or, perhaps better, it was as though in the intervening time since he had dispatched it in his previous book, the pretension of human rationality had sprung back to life with even greater effect, requiring, on Shestov’s part, an even more determined struggle against it.  I realize that my description of Shestov may make him appear monotonous to read – a kind of Johnny One-Note – but this is not the case at all.  The historian Zenkovsky, always a reliable guide in these matters, wrote:

Shestov impresses one with his extraordinary literary talent.  He not only writes attractively and clearly; he moves the reader by a simplicity rare in a writer, and by an absence of all affectation and pursuit of ‘style’.  Shestov somehow combines elegance and power of expression with a rigour and purity of verbal form.  The result is an irresistible impression of authenticity and honesty.  It may be that these qualities of Shestov’s writing have been the reason why literary circles have valued, and continue to value, him much more highly than philosophic circles.  However, the basic inspiration of Shestov’s work is philosophic: through all of his works runs the inner passion of a search for truth, as well as something that might be called ‘philosophic captiousness’ and a severe unmasking of all swervings from authentic reality.  The opinion has been expressed more than once that Shestov had a ‘single idea’ and was absorbed by a single omnivorous truth, but this is wholly incorrect and completely fails to convey the real content of his creative activity.  A careful reading of Shestov’s works makes clear the breadth of his themes.

In a word, Shestov was (broadly) at war with Necessity (it seems right to capitalize it).  He saw the entire western philosophic tradition, from Socrates on down, as one long paean to it.  And Shestov knew the entire western philosophic tradition intimately.  He did find some examples in it of philosophers who glimpsed that men were capable of something higher and better than gnosis, which to the Greeks (and per Shestov, we are pretty much all Greeks nowadays) basically meant a passive acceptance of Necessity.  But none could, or would, sustain the insight they had briefly glimpsed.  It frightened them too much and they retreated to what they knew: Necessity.  Necessity tells us that there are self-evident, fixed, immutable truths, to which appeal and argument is useless, because these truths are deaf.  Aristotle: “Necessity does not allow itself to be persuaded.”  Epictetus: “The beginning of philosophy is the recognition of its own powerlessness and of the impossibility of fighting against Necessity.”  Shestov, on the other hand, told us:

The fundamental property of life is daring; all life is creative daring and thus an eternal mystery, irreducible to anything finished or intelligible.


One must be daring to speak of a real God Who is called the Creator of heaven and earth both in the Scriptures and in the Symbol of faith.


Reason leads to necessity; faith leads to freedom.

So how daring was Shestov?  Well, I’ve known very few philosophers who dared to deny the universal validity of the principle of (non)contradiction, the way Shestov did.  Shestov’s preferred formulation of the principle was in the form of a question: Can God bring it about that what has been shall not have been?  For all their encomiums to God’s omnipotence, with almost one voice (Shestov notes the exception of Peter Damian) the medieval churchmen / philosophers – Aquinas, Scotus, and all the rest – declared that “what includes in itself a contradiction does not fall under God’s omnipotence.”  Here, they drew a bright line that even God could not cross.  But whence did they derive the authority for such line-drawing, Shestov dared to ask?  From “Athens,” of course.  And what did it finally mean, then, to yoke “Jerusalem” to “Athens” in this way?  It meant, Shestov said, nothing less than the eventual expulsion of God from the European mind as an unnecessary hypothesis, as Laplace famously put it to Napoleon.  It also meant, as Zenkovsky said, “a rejection of faith and its replacement by theology.”

But Shestov insisted that God could bring it about that what has been shall not have been.  Moreover, Shestov dared to insist that man could too, or at least he could before “the fall,” i.e. before man chose the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, rather than the tree of life.  The myth of the fall of man, as related in Genesis, is a topic that Shestov often referred to.  It’s clear, by the way, that Shestov was not a biblical fundamentalist.  He knew that Genesis contained myths, but myths, for Shestov, could encapsulate the most profound religious truths – and so, in a certain sense, he was a “fundamentalist,” in that he believed that the myth of the fall tells us something fundamental about mankind.  The usual interpretation of the story of the fall in Genesis focuses on man’s disobedience to God’s directive (against partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), but Shestov paid scant attention to this.  No, he fastened on to the word “knowledge” in the phrase “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Shestov thought that every one of us repeats the mistake of Adam and Eve, in the sense that each of us forsakes faith, which seems and is groundless, for knowledge, which seems and is grounded.  Again, the usual interpretation of the story of the fall implicitly sees in it, despite the negative consequences, an exercise – and a consequent gain – of freedom on man’s part.  As a result of man’s “free” act, man is now more “free,” to do evil as well as good, to know falsehood as well as truth.  But Shestov saw it quite differently; per Zenkovsky, he saw in it a retreat from freedom:

One must look about at every step and ask permission of “truth” only in so far as man belongs to the empirical world, in which laws, norms, and rules actually prevail.  . . .  But man strives for freedom; he struggles towards the divine.  . . .  Freed of those limitations which fell to our lot [as a result of the Fall], man would not even suspect that there is truth or falsehood, good or evil.  . . .  [He] would remain in truth and good.  . . .  And, if God is the ultimate goal of our strivings, our moral conflict, like our rational searchings, will lead us to freedom not only from moral valuations but also from the eternal truths of reason.

The story of Job is another biblical myth that Shestov frequently mentioned.  Shestov attached particular significance to the fact that Job’s seven sons and three daughters, who had died, were restored to him – not different ones, but the same sons and daughters.  Again, this is not the usual interpretation.  The text, as we have received it, is ambiguous, but it certainly seems to imply that new sons and daughters were born after Job’s trials.  But was the text modified at some point in the past?  Some biblical scholars think so.  Based on textual analysis, they postulate that the prologue and the epilogue to the book of Job were later additions that at least partially overlaid an older, original Job story.  Bruce Zuckerman has written about this in his book, Job the Silent: A Study in Historical Counterpoint.  Zuckerman suggests that in the original story Job’s children – the same children – were restored to him, i.e. God resurrected them, but that this aspect was deliberately blurred by the author of the epilogue.  The reason for this is unclear, but it could be part of a general desire to remove references to resurrection in the Old Testament, perhaps because of unwanted “pagan” associations and/or to preserve the uniqueness of Christ’s resurrection (apparently there is a similar suspicion about the story of Abraham and Isaac, i.e. that in an original version of the story Abraham killed Isaac, and that God resurrected Isaac).

Zuckerman notices the curious fact that whereas in the epilogue the author takes pains to mention that Job’s livestock are restored to levels double his original holdings, the count of Job’s children remains exactly as before.  Even the breakdown by sex remains the same.  Could this be because in the original story the children restored to Job were the same children, and the epilogue author, although willing to blur the story enough to remove the suggestion of resurrection, is unwilling to go so far as to alter the count and composition (by sex) of the children?  This is conjecture, of course, but it seems at least plausible.  In any case, in the form that the Job story has come down to us, Job’s restoration strikes us as decidedly mixed, inasmuch as Job’s first ten offspring, through no apparent fault of their own, died.  Zuckerman even mentions that in a certain modern retelling of the Job story, intended for children, the author deliberately changes the story to say that Job’s children – the same children – were restored to him!  Wouldn’t it be ironic if this latter-day change represents a full circling back to the original story of Job?  “Suffer the little children. . .” indeed!

Somewhere else (and I can’t put my finger on it now), I read an account of Job which states that our discomfiture with the presumed fate of Job’s original children is of purely modern provenance, and that we should not “read back” into history our modern sensibility about the value of an individual.  The author assures us that in those days, when preservation of the family line was all-important, men like Job would have considered “replacement” children to be perfectly satisfactory, i.e. Job would have felt himself to be wholly restored.  But on that view, which seems to me perilously close to equating human beings with livestock, why aren’t Job’s children restored to double their original size, like his livestock?  No, I refuse to accept this interpretation, even though there may be a grain of truth in it.  I refuse to believe that any father in Job’s place, who is worthy of the title “father” – whether in Job’s time, our time, or three thousand years hence – could ever consider himself to have been “made whole” by anything less than the restoration of the same children that he had lost.  And if we were to take into account how the children themselves would doubtless feel about it, would we even be having this discussion?

But, to return to the larger point, “Athens” would insist that all such talk of bringing it about that what has been shall not have been is foolishness.  I believe it was Aristotle who said, “One can say it, but one must not think it.”  And on this point pretty much every philosopher since has sided with Aristotle.  So how could Shestov dare to swim against such a massive tide of philosophic opinion?  He could because, simply put, he believed that philosophy’s starting point should be biblical revelation – “Jerusalem,” in other words.  How monstrously retrograde this must sound to our philosophers today!  Nevertheless, it’s what Shestov passionately believed with all the fullness of life that was in him.  I think even those who feel they have no choice (examine that feeling of compulsion, Shestov would say) but to find his quest hopelessly quixotic, not to say impossible – which I do not, by the way – cannot fail to be impressed by what Shestov tried to do.  Surely no one has made such a fair and beautiful attempt.  It’s breathtaking!

Finally, because I fear that no brief quotation can impart the full flavor of Shestov’s language once he gets rolling, and because I think it nicely sums up much of what has been discussed here, I’ll end with this passage, in extenso, from the last part of the Foreword to Athens and Jerusalem.  It was among the last things that Shestov wrote:

Can we “understand,” can we grasp, what the prophets and the apostles announce in Scripture?  Will Athens ever consent to allow such “truths” to come into the world?  The history of humanity – or, more precisely, all the horrors of the history of humanity – is, by one word of the Almighty, “annulled”; it ceases to exist, and becomes transformed into phantoms or mirages: Peter did not deny; David cut off Goliath’s head but was not an adulterer; the robber did not kill; Adam did not taste the forbidden fruit; Socrates was never poisoned by anyone.  The “fact,” the “given”, the “real,” do not dominate us; they do not determine our fate, either in the present, in the future or in the past.  What has been becomes what has not been; man returns to the state of innocence and finds that divine freedom, that freedom for good, in contrast with which the freedom that we have to choose between good and evil is extinguished and disappears, or more exactly, in contrast with which our freedom reveals itself to be a pitiful and shameful enslavement.  The original sin – that is to say, the knowledge that what is is necessarily – is radically uprooted and torn out of existence.  Faith, only the faith that looks to the Creator and that He inspires, radiates from itself the supreme and decisive truths condemning what is and what is not.  Reality is transfigured.  The heavens glorify the Lord.  The prophets and apostles cry in ecstasy, “O death, where is thy sting?  Hell, where is thy victory?”  And all announce: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”

The power of the biblical revelation – what there is in it of the incomparably miraculous and, at the same time, of the absurdly paradoxical, or, to put it better, its monstrous absurdity – carries us beyond the limits of all human comprehension and of the possibilities which that comprehension admits.  For God, however, the impossible does not exist.  God – to speak the language of Kierkegaard, which is that of the Bible – God: this means that there is nothing that is impossible.  And despite the Spinozist interdictions, fallen man aspires, in the final analysis, only to the promised “nothing will be impossible for you”; only for this does he implore the Creator.

It is here that religious philosophy takes its rise. Religious philosophy is not a search for the eternal structure and order of immutable being; it is not reflection (Besinnung); it is not an understanding of the difference between good and evil, an understanding that falsely promises peace to exhausted humanity.  Religious philosophy is a turning away from knowledge and a surmounting by faith, in a boundless tension of all its forces, of the false fear of the unlimited will of the Creator, that fear which the tempter suggested to Adam and which he has transmitted to all of us.  To put it another way, religious philosophy is the final, supreme struggle to recover original freedom and the divine “very good” which is hidden in that freedom and which, after the fall, was split into our powerless good and our destructive evil.  Reason, I repeat, has ruined faith in our eyes; it has “revealed” in it man’s illegitimate pretension to subordinate the truth to his desires, and it has taken away from us the most precious of heaven’s gifts – the sovereign right to participate in the divine “let there be” – by flattening out our thought and reducing it to the plane of the petrified “it is.”

This is why the “greatest good” of Socrates – engendered by the knowledge that what is is necessarily – no longer tempts or seduces us.  It shows itself to be the fruit of the tree of knowledge or, to use the language of Luther, bellua qua non occisa homo non potest vivere (the monster without whose killing man cannot live).  The old “ontic” critique of reason is re-established: homo non potest vivere, which is nothing but the “you will die” of the Bible, unmasks the eternal truths that have entered into the consciousness of the Creator, or rather of the creation, without asking leave.  Human wisdom is foolishness before God, and the wisest of men, as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, however unlike each other, both perceived, is the greatest of sinners.  Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.  As for the philosophy that does not dare to rise above autonomous knowledge and autonomous ethics, the philosophy that bows down will-lessly and helplessly before the material and ideal “data” discovered by reason and that permits them to pillage and plunder the “one thing necessary” – this philosophy does not lead man towards truth but forever turns him away from it.

Lev Shestov

Boulogne s. Seine
April, 1937

This entry was posted in Fall of man, Russian religious philosophy, Shestov, Lev, Theology (uncategorized). Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Lev Shestov: Athens and Jerusalem

  1. M.G. Piety says:

    Thanks for this. I have a copy of Athens and Jerusalem, but I have not read it. I will now.

  2. Pingback: Walter Benjamin, Leon Shestov, and Heinrich Heine’s Senses of Humor | The Home of Schlemiel Theory

  3. i found you via Menachem Matthew Feuer’s blog. this was a treat.

  4. Why does the attack on Athens have to end up with faith and religion? Back to Heidegger, Keats and Nietzsche who battle Athens and refute the power of faith.

  5. Nick says:

    I started reading this book and found this post when I was searching for some more background. Wonderful post!

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