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Nikolai Berdiaev (1874-1948), Slavery and Freedom (1939)


            First is a detailed chapter summary, followed by a systematization of the concept of personality set forth here, and then concluding observations about the ways in which Berdiaev's writing typifies that of existentialist thinkers.


Chapter 1: Personality (summaries of paragraphs and paragraph groups)

"Sagt nicht Ich, aber that Ich": I did not speak; I acted.

"Sollt Ihr schaffende sein": Be creative

Paragraph 1 (page 20). Personality is unique. Personality is beyond everything worldly that can be treated as an object by biology or the sciences of humankind; such cosmic or social dimensions are but aspects of personality. Personality contains the potential for divinity (in virtue of the divine principle within) and for bestial cruelty.

2 (p. 21). Personality is not a part of any greater totality. It is, however, open towards infinity.

3 (22). "Personality is the universal in unrepeatable form."

4 (22). Personality is not a substance nor an object for science. Personality is a mystery.

5 (22). "Personality is the unchanging in change, unity in the manifold." Personality develops, but as one and the same abiding subject.

6 (23). "Personality, which is not a sum of parts, acts always as a whole . . . on the way to perfectly accomplished unity and wholeness.

7 (23). Death does not corrupt personality, which is indestructable, irreplaceable.

8 (23). An animal may also be irreplaceable. Personality may have traits of resemblance to others, but these are not what is essential.

9 (24). Personality contains much that is generic (in common with others).

10 (24). Personality is victory over all mere belonging to a hereditary or social type--victory in effort and conflict, victory over slavery, conquest of self and world.

11 (24). Personality includes reason but is not governed by reason.

12 (25). Personality is not the [psyche-]soul. It is possible to live on a superficial level, as a socially enslaved self, without even realizing it.

13 (26). Personality is beyond race and society, biology and sociology.

14 (26). From an existential point of view, society and the cosmos are sides of personality. Personality is emancipation from dependence on nature, society, and the state. God is not an object that determines personality. Any reduction of personality to an object is evil. "God is a subject with whom existential relations exist."

15 (27). The mystery of freedom lies deeper than the choice of alternatives already worked up by reason. Categories pertaining to objects must not be applied to personality.

16 (27). Personality has the capacity to feel suffering and joy. There is no "collective personality" [such as the state or any organization].

17 (27). According to personalism, suffering is necessary to liberation.

18 (28). Christianity goes beyond the idealization (or 'personification') of ideal values to tell of the sinfulness of man and the divine principle within.

19-21 (29-30). A human is a being who transcends himself by relating to God, to other people, to supreme values, and to the "interior existence of the world." Such "transcension" occurs often through a personal cataclysm.

22-25 (31-32). Personality encompasses spirit, soul, and body. The body is pervaded by the soul. The spirit gives form to the personality, to the soul, and to the body. The form of the body, especially in the face, is the entrance of personality into the world process. The body is such an important dimension of the personality that the body should be regarded as having dignity and a right to a truly human existence. "The most shocking encroachments on upersonality are in the first place encroachments upon the body."

26-28 (32-35). Distinguish personality from the conceptions in other philosophies, whose advances are noted: Kant taught freedom from natural determination, that each one is an end in itself, not a mere means to be used for some further end. The etymology of persona (theater mask) and the notion of a substratum are misleading. "It might be said that awareness of God as personality preceded the awareness of man as personality." Misconceptions from mysticism to communism are rooted in capitalist society.

29-35 (35-37). Personality is distinguished from individuality: the individual is involved in material and worldly totalities, e.g., within the family, the individual is the child of one's parents; within the state, the individual is a citizen. Personality includes individuality, but also, since personality comes from God and is a citizen of the Kingdom of God, personality is the spiritual revolution against being dominated merely by worldly totalities.

36-43 (pages 37.3-42.1). Personality requires a relation to "suprapersonal" values, but that cannot mean subjection to "higher" Platonic universals [essences, forms], to the nation, to human brotherhood, or to an objective "God" of dogmatic theology. God exists not as a necessary being but "as an existential contact and meeting, as the process of transcension, and in that meeting God is personality." "All personality is an end in itself" [as Kant had said about rational deciders].

            Universals [essences, forms] are not prior to singular realities, as in Platonism. Nor are they mere abstractions constructed on the basis of singulars. Nominalism, the doctrine that the only entities that truly exist are singular entities (this table, this tree), and "universals" are simply terms or names (nomina) that may be useful; this medieval view associated with the 14th century English philosopher William of Occam influenced Martin Luther. It was developed as empiricism by Hume and James. For NB, universals are in the things themselves [the view of Aristotle and Thomas], most especially, in personality. God is neither singular nor universal; such terms pertain to the realm of things, not to personality.

44-52 (42-47). NB exalts the single personality over what is common--"society, the nation, the state, a abstract idea, abstract goodness, moral and logical law" (43)--and over the community (including the religious community: the socialization of religion "distorts the spirit, subordinates the infinite to the finite, makes the relative absolute, and leads away from the sources of revelation, from living spiritual experience" [a class of experiences recognized in James's but probably not in Hume's empiricist concept of experience] (47). Nevertheless, there is no encouragement here for egocentrism, since man is the contradiction that can only be expressed in symbol: divine-humanity (no, not like the unique Jesus, but bearing within himself the spiritual principle, the image of God).

53-66 (47-55). The grandeur of genuine character achievement . . . arises through victory in the decisive and personally unique struggle for self-mastery. In order to integrate personality, one needs a sense of vocation, putting one's gifts to creative use.

            Along with Nietzsche (whose philosophy "destroys personality"), NB celebrates a certain kind of asceticism, not slavish self-denial, but revolt against submission to all that is merely worldly within us and outside of us.

            It takes imagination to regard God as personality; it takes imagination to regard each human being as a personality. There can be no personality without the capacity for suffering. Plato [at least partly misinterpreted here] posited an absolute One removed from relation to the many. Aristotle had thought to exalt God by removing him from contact with imperfection; Thomas spoke of God as "pure actuality" with no potential for receptivity, suffering. With atheism NB rejects an abstract God. "God shares in the sufferings of men. God yearns for His other, for responsive love" (51).

            A human personality must deal not only with fear in the face of finite threats but also with anxiety in the face of the infinite abyss. Man experiences yearning; he is a stranger in this world. Sexual "union" (NB elsewhere expands on Aristophanes' story of seeking for one's complement from the Symposium) cannot fully quench our desire for the transcendent. Death is a leap over the abyss, "my disappearing to the world, and the world's disappearing to me" into a resurrected life in which "the spirit becomes the controlling power of the constitution of man as soul and body" (54). Immortal life is had through Christ, though it is not dependent upon belief in Christ.

67-77 (55-59). Personality involves both dimensions of love--(1) rapturous, preferential, ascending, idealistic eros, oriented to beauty, the supreme good, and divine perfection, and (2) compassionate, self-forgetting (not asking mutuality), sacrificial, descending, agape (caritas) offered to persons regardless of whether or not one is attracted to them. Both types of love have conceived impersonally. Each type of love, taken in isolation from each other, may be deformed: eros becomes "demoniacal and destructive"; agape becomes a rhetorical, condescending, covertly self-seeking, merit-acquiring display of "good works."

            For the unique genius ("geniality") of one's personality to shine, one must embrace choice, conflict, moving beyond social routine, an abstract "common good," beyond falling under "sway of the will to power [Nietzsche's primal motive in all existence], of money, of the thirst for pleasure, glory, etc."

A systematization of Nikolai Berdiaev, Slavery and Freedom (Charles Scribners, 1944), chapter 1, Personality.

Note: Berdiaev is not a systematic writer. The categories and the sequencing within the categories reflect the instructor's thought, not the author's. I have underlined the themes especially emphasized by Berdiaev.


Features of personality

unique (21; 22.2)

not classifiable (48.6-i.e., if classification is done, personality is being missed)

changeless in the presence of change (22.4; 23.2--it is the same person who was once younger)

mystery (27.2--never fully predictable or thoroughly comprehensible)

microcosm (21); discloses a universe in itself (36.2)

different from the elements and processes of the world (21)

greater than society (26.2)

open to infinity (22)

the two-fold nature of man, God-like, and animal-like (20; 27.2; 45.1)

there is a spiritual reality within man, the image of God (28.2)

personality comes from God, not from biological parents (36.1)

includes thinking, willing, feeling, activity (24-25); the unconscious (40.2)

not the same as soul (30.3)

what is non-personal is antithetical to personality (46.3, an existentialist idea)

a subject, not an object among other objects (26)

potentially (42.3) indestructible (23.3)

cannot be collective (27.3; 41.2-3)

the form of the body (31-2

the face expresses the person (31.2, a leading theme for Emmanuel Levinas)


Relation to other personality (42.3; note: Buber and Levinas begin with relation)

historically, awareness of divine personality preceded awareness of human personality (33)

relation to God (26; 30; 40.2; 44.3)

presupposes a higher level toward which personality strives (39.2-3; 44.3)

love is comprehended as ascending eros and descending agape (55.2)

God yearns for responsive love (51.2); sex is a yearning (53) [that cannot be humanly fulfilled]

divine humanity: God became man and exalted man to heaven (28.2)

the suffering God is the only basis for theodicy (51.1); God is not being but spirit, freedom, activity (51.3)


Personality growth

develops unity (48.2) and wholeness (23.2)

self-transcendence (29.2; 31.1)

the spirit unifies (32.2)

asceticism (49.1; along with Nietzsche, rejects much conventional Christian practice,

but values self-mastery)

the greatness of character is the victory of the spirit, the ascendancy of the spiritual over the material in human personality (47.3)

greater than genius, beauty, and goodness (29.1,3)



end in itself (39.3)

freedom is a duty not a right (48.2)

personality transcends universal obligations (29.2, joining Kierkegaardís protest against Hegel)

not an individual understood through material or social scientific categories, (35.2)

not a part of some larger totality 21



Features in N. Berdaievís writing typical of many "existentialist" philosophers

- Insists that categories pertaining to things not be predicated of humanity.

- Militant opposition to whatever does not align with the truth of [personality]. There is little or no tendency to harmonize, integrate, make peace, since the other is the enemy of humanity. "Man's difficulty is rooted in the fact that there is no correlation and identity between the inward and the outward, no direct and adequate expression of the one in the other" (46).

- Radically exalts the single personality above the social system.

- Intellect is not what is highest in us; the will reveals who we are more deeply.

- Themes such as anxiety and love and death and suffering are at the center of a writer's focus.

- Writing is done with passion rather than by means of careful argument.