Lev Shestov

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Shestov, Lev

 

(real name Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann). Born Jan. 31 (Feb. 12), 1866, in Kiev; died Nov. 20, 1938, in Paris. Russian existential philosopher and literary figure.

Shestov graduated from the law school of the University of Kiev in 1889. Between 1895 and 1914 he lived primarily in Switzerland. He moved to Moscow in 1914, to Kiev in 1918, and to Paris in 1920.

Combining Nietzschean and Dostoevskian themes, to which he gave his own distinctive imprint, Shestov anticipated the fundamental ideas of later existentialism. At the turn of the century, as though sensing already the world catastrophes to come, Shestov spoke of the tragic absurdity of human existence and brought forth the image of the doomed “hero” who nevertheless lays claim to his sovereign rights and challenges the entire universe. Shestov undertook a revision of traditional philosophy, demanding that the point of view be shifted from the universe to the subject. He proclaimed the “philosophy of tragedy,” which he presented in polemical juxtaposition to the academic style of thinking—the “philosophy of the commonplace” (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy, 1903).

Shestov rebelled against the rule of reason over life experience and against the suppression of the personal and unique by the impersonal and general. But his assertion of the individual’s independence from any form of determination, including generally recognized truths and generally mandatory moral norms, led Shestov to epistemological relativism and immoralism. Although his nonreligious “apotheosis of groundlessness” (1905) was replaced in the early 1910’s by an enthusiastic belief in the spirit of Luther’s “faith alone” (sola fide), Shestov’s world view lost neither its absurd element nor its arbitrary character.

Shestov’s faith is lacking in meaningful definitions; god, who is unconnected to the concept of the logos, appears as the ideal of omnipotent willfulness “beyond good and evil.” On the other hand, hopelessness is now replaced by faith in the divine source of life’s foundations in accordance with the spirit of the Old Testament; revelation is proposed by Shestov in contrast to philosophical speculation (Athens and Jerusalem, 1951; Speculation and Revelation, 1964). In his opposition to reason, Shestov turns to hyperbole when he identifies the cognitive drive with the fall of man—mankind having fallen under the power of “soulless and necessary truths.”

As an author, Shestov revealed a temperament that was bound to attract attention to his ideas; a master of philosophical paradox and aphorism, he gained renown in the West with his biting criticism of academic thinking. References to Shestov are found in works by G. Marcel, A. Camus, and D. H. Lawrence.

WORKS

Sobr. soch., 2nd ed., vols. 1–6. St. Petersburg, 1911.
Sola fide. Paris, 1957. (Bibliography.)

REFERENCES

Asmus, V. F. “Lev Shestov i K’erkegor.” Filosofskie nauki, 1972, no. 4.
Erofeev, V. “Ostaetsia odno: proizvol.” Voprosy literatury, 1975, no. 10.
Camus, A. Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Paris, 1970. Pages 41–42, 51–56.
Wernham, J. C. S. Two Russian Thinkers. Toronto, 1968. (Bibliography.)

R. A. GAL’TSEVA

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Edward Wasiolek, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964), 165, notes that, in addition to Lawrence, Leo Shestov and Vasily Razanov both contend that Dostoevsky stood secretly on the side of the Grand Inquisitor and concludes: "The revolt of so many distinguished readers against Dostoevsky's conscious intention is, whatever else, a testimony to the force and persuasiveness with which Dostoevsky was able to state the other case.