Home » Philosophy of Literature » Paradox & Despair in Lev Shestov’s ‘All Things Are Possible’

Paradox & Despair in Lev Shestov’s ‘All Things Are Possible’

Marina Jijina-Ogden
Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts


Only death and the madness of death can awaken people from life’s nightmare (Shestov, 1993, p.107).

One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; one remains young only on condition the soul does not relax, does not long for peace… (Nietzsche, 1990, p.54).

I believe that truth has only one face: that of violent contradiction (Bataille, 198, p.26).

What, then, is The One? It is what makes all things possible (Plotinus, 1964, p.173).

Though the works of the Ukraine-born Russian philosopher Lev Shestov have been translated into several European languages, they are still little-known within the continental tradition. His philosophical versatility as one of the most respected Russian thinkers has not been underestimated, however: V. V. Zenkovsky’s A History of Russian Philosophy (1991) characterizes Shestov as ‘a believing consciousness, rare for its sustained and lucid quality,’ claiming that in his writings the development of twentieth-century Russian thought reached its highest point (p.91, 82). According to Nikolai Berdyaev (1938), another celebrated Russian philosopher and Shestov’s lifelong friend, ‘Shestov philosophised with all his being; for him philosophy was not an academic speculation, but rather a matter of life and death’ (p.44).

In this essay I aim to examine a method of paradoxical thinking adopted by Shestov in All Things Are Possible (1923), where I attempt to unfold the significance of paradoxes and paradoxical principles within the context of his writing. The second aim of my study is to anticipate and elaborate on the concept of despair as a fundamental notion in Shestov’s philosophy.

Lev Issakovich Shestov (1866-1938), born to a Jewish family, studied law and mathematics at the Kiev and Moscow Universities. He married in 1896 and swiftly began his career as an author of essays and articles for a number of publications. His first book, entitled Shakespeare and his Critique Brandes, was published at St. Petersburg in 1898. Tragedy struck Shestov’s life with the commencement of the First World War, when he learned his son, Sergei, had been killed in service of the Russian military. In 1919, soon after the October Revolution, he and his remaining family were forced to flee the country. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in Paris, where he lectured on Russian literature and established contacts from within the French literary circles—there he befriended some of the most prominent writers of his generation. He died two decades later, on the 19th of November 1938.

Michael Finkenthal (2010) observes that from an early age Shestov ‘lived intellectually under the spell of the Russian and the Western European cultures’ (p.17). Indeed, from the age of thirteen, Shestov immersed himself in the classic authors of Russian literature, such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Nekrasov, Belinsky, and Dostoevsky. Though the first foreign authors with which Shestov became familiar were Shakespeare and Goethe, the most radical impact was made when he discovered Nietzsche in the late 1890s, during one of his many visits to Europe. G.L. Lovtzky (2002), his brother-in-law, remembers that Beyond Good and Evil (1909) was the first of Nietzsche’s work explored by Shestov, followed shortly by On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Many years later Shestov would tell his disciple Benjamin Fondane that the reading of this latter text had a stratospheric influence on his imagination and disturbed him to the point of insomnia (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).

‘Paradox’ is a mid-sixteenth-century noun originating from the Greek paradoxon (para ’distinct from’+ doxa ‘opinion’). A paradox is defined as a seemingly contradictory statement which, when investigated, might be proven to be true. In the history of philosophy paradoxes are known to provide a valuable material for critical thinking; Kierkegaard (1946) deems the paradox ‘the source of the thinker’s passion,’ claiming that ‘the thinker without paradox is like the lover without feeling’ (p.29).

At first glance, it would seem that in All Things Are Possible Shestov emphasises the impossibility of finding satisfactory answers. The book reveals the major notion of his philosophy: the belief in the  revelation of a divine being through tragic experience of ‘groundlessness,’ deformity, and faith. For Shestov, truth lives by contradictions, and does not depend upon logic; the reader is invited to embrace the tragic side of existence, confronted by a controversial investigation. Willingly rejecting the concepts of reason, morality and universal truths, distinctive in the rational tradition of thinking, the author concentrates his attention on the subjective experience, i.e. one’s struggle with the self.

Shestov offers his reader an alternative means of perception, an unconventional perspective on life by way of a critical analysis of contemporary Russian and Western philosophical ideas. His original style of writing in this book is characterized by a gradual unfolding of the text, which contains numerous references to the ideas of Eastern and Western European thinkers. This impressive collection of ideas serves as a playground for Shestov’s often provocative, bold, and seemingly careless statements. The book is, on the whole, a collection of brief and deeply paradoxical, almost ironic thoughts.

Shestov (1923) defines doubt and uncertainty as the sustainable creative force of the mind, and an essential motivation when the field of its application is limitless (p.24, 90). Opposing the rationale of Kant and Hegel, he daringly states that philosophy has nothing in common with science, for science relies on logic and therefore ‘cannot know what truth is’ (Ibid., p.228). For Shestov, philosophy is rather an art and aims at breaking stereotypes by unlocking the imagination. The philosopher, then, is an artist of sorts, an artist to whom her work is dearer than anything else in her life, sometimes dearer than life itself (Shestov, 1916, p.115). He emphasises that in order to embrace a liberating, ‘groundless’ experience, one must free the mind of its own bonds and ethical dogmas. Likewise, philosophers must first set themselves free of all constraints in order to learn to doubt everything and ask questions where others do not, even at a risk of making themselves an object of ridicule (Shestov, 1923, p.38, 225).

The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty. More briefly, the business of philosophy is not to reassure people, but to upset them (Shestov, 1923, p.24).

Shestov’s vision is conceptually complex. With the help of self-contradictory statements, the philosopher’s thought operates within a paradigm of unique self-negating oppositions, such as doubt/reason, truth/knowledge, experience/science, infinity/finale, distraction/harmony, ugliness/beauty, necessity/empiricism, originality/commonness, hopelessness/hope, immorality/morality, temporality/eternity, genius/talent, sickness/ health, and night/day. Overall, the intention is to rearrange and displace conventional, traditional values and commonly-held truths. By reducing the rational subject to nothingness, Shestov highlights groundlessness and uncertainty as the primary conditions for the start of a radically new irrational experience.

Shestov derives his penchant for contradiction from ancient Greek tradition.  In his Metaphysics (1987), Aristotle establishes the principle of contradiction as the fundamental law of logic (pp.65-9). Plato (2000) believes God created the world and is the author of good, but not of all things (p.52). Plotinus (1964, p.79), to whom Shestov often refers in his writing, suggests that ‘the One is every thing and not every thing. It is not every thing because it is the source of every thing’ (p.79). For Socrates, too, death may be the greatest of all human blessings (Russell, 2004, p.93). Following the Greeks, Shestov identifies the subject of death and passing to be the real aim for all philosophers (Shestov, 1923, p.45). Radically reconsidering Greek tragedy, he adduces tragic experience and despair as an example of a paradoxical encounter between the individual and the other (i.e. God). The conflict of Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy will become a fundamental theme in Shestov’s final book, Athens and Jerusalem (1938), in which he returns to the subject of death in Greek tragedy. Thus, referring to Socrates’ tragic death, Shestov (1966) emphasises its paradoxical nature:

It seems that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon who, in decisive moments, demands of him judgments and acts whose meaning remains incomprehensible to him and forever hidden (p.30).

Unlike those of his contemporaries (viz. Vasilii Rozanov, Vladimir Solovyev and Dmitri Merezhkovsky), Shestov’s writings do not exuberate poetic lines or mystical whimsicality. By contrast, adopting Nietzsche’s aphoristic style, the author takes his reader on a challenging journey through a multi-layered texture of provocative thoughts, scrupulously uncovering the groundlessness of logic, reason, and common sense in the established tradition.

In the way of Nietzsche, Shestov is compelled to go ‘beyond good and evil.’ In On the Genealogy of Morals (1989) Nietzsche (1989) writes, ‘Whoever has at some time built a “new heaven’’ has found the power to do so only in his own hell’ (p.115). In All Things Are Possible (1923) we see Shestov respond to Nietzsche: ‘Nearly every life can be summed up in a few words: man was shown heaven – and thrown into the mud’ (p.202). In the vein of Plato and Nietzsche, we see him illuminate despair as a place from which philosophy originates. For Shestov, tragedy is the starting point; it is the area where the most obvious things fade and lose their appearance. Everything becomes questionable, and life itself falls under the cloud of uncertainty.

Man only thinks properly when he realises he has nothing to do, his hands are tied. That is why any profound thought must arise from despair (Shestov, 1923, p.138).

Shestov highlights the notion of despair in order to unveil the real face of truth in all the groundlessness and uncertainty of life. The author asserts truth by way of contrast to knowledge, creating a dialogue of polemical ideas. His truth cannot be universal, for it is related to changeable human tastes and desires. Paradoxically, while the horror of death is present in all living beings, the horror of the sensation of groundlessness brings man back to himself (Shestov, 1923, p.75, 31).

Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus place God in subordination to reason and necessity. Shestov, conversely, places God outside of frames, definitions and necessities, seeing despair as a chance for philosophical advancement beyond rational knowledge, and an opportunity to establish a new understanding of consciousness adequate to the mind’s amorphous, infinite, and incomprehensible performance. Curiously, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always been moderate in recognising inherent contradictions in things, viewing coexistence of good and evil as the only given and acceptable reality (Makrides, Uffelmann, 2003, p.100).

In an ambitious attempt to create a unity of Eastern and Western European thought, Shestov builds his argument on a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Appealing to Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, Shestov identifies Kant and the rationalist thinkers as his main opponents (Finkenthal, 2010, p.33, 41). Shestov praises Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’ for standing against reason, facing the weaknesses of the mind and descending into the tragic atmosphere of the underworld. Groundlessness and uncertainty surrounding Dostoevsky’s characters in Poor Folk (1845), Humiliated and Insulted (1861), and The Notes from The Underground (1864) give them a chance to redeem themselves, and according to Shestov (1923), ‘In a crisis, a stupid man becomes clever’ (p.157). For many of Dostoevsky’s characters there is no other path to the truth that of penal servitude, the dungeon, or the underground (Shestov, 1969, p.157). In a way similar to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky is destroyed by his personal encounters and the horrors of a tormented existence: the extreme experiences of their own lives bring both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to ‘the philosophy of tragedy’ (ibid., p.241).

Shestov wrote Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching in 1900, and like many of the philosopher’s works it is an inquiry as to the relationship between truth and its seeker. Many of the problems stated in this paper refer to Shestov’s later writings, and to All Things Are Possible in particular. Undertaking a deep analysis of Tolstoy’s stories, Shestov (1900) assert that his literary world is dominated by the idea of moral existence motivated by the intention of serving good. Shestov takes the side of the German thinker against Tolstoy’s ‘preaching’ and the conviction that there is no salvation outside the ‘good’:

Tolstoy now tells us that ‘’the good is God’’… He had, it is true, sought the good all his life, but he always had the ability to stretch the good on the Procrustean bed of his own needs (Shestov, 1969, pp.111-112).

As in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy’s literary creativity is roused by the need to find a solution for the problems that torment the writer. But unlike Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy always presents answers to the questions he poses. Shestov (1969) argues that morality can’t exist without its counterpart – immorality – and consequently the questions ‘whom to blame?’ and ‘whom to reproach?’ inevitably become its essence (p.38, 19). This is why, for Shestov, Tolstoy’s philosophy does not pass beyond the limits of morality.

Significantly, Shestov defines his own philosophy as ‘the great and final struggle’ (Baranoff, 1982); that is, the struggle against the dictatorship of reason, the force of knowledge, the heavy chains of morality and logic. Hence, Shestov brings knowledge, logic, and morality to the centre of his philosophical investigation. He passionately negates abstract formalism and rational truths, rejecting Kant’s notion of a priori and universal laws. As Ramona Fotiade (2001) points out, ‘The fight against rational a priori and moral conventions is located at the level of individual consciousness and individual mind’ (p.26). By paradox, Shestov (1923) asserts that the sublime is but a single step from the ridiculous (p. 45). Ultimately, Kantian philosophy is limited by a categorical imperative; there is no room for doubt: for Kant, just like for Tolstoy, real contradictions cease to exist in the domain of moral life (Shestov, 1969, p.39).

According to V. V. Zenkovsky (2003), Shestov, whilst he was writing All Things Are Possible, was not yet familiar with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849), where the Danish philosopher ponders the notions of despair (p.783). Shestov read Kierkegaard for the first time in 1929, following his acquaintance with Husserl. Although Husserl and Shestov occupied radically different philosophical positions, the two became friends after meeting at a philosophical symposium in Amsterdam in 1928 (Sinigoj, 2006). Interestingly, Shestov (1923) conceives of despair in a way similar to Kierkegaard: as an absurd negativity and a means to the revelation of truth. Kierkegaard (2008) considers truth both paradoxical and absurd, claiming that ‘despair is itself a negativity, ignorance of it a new negativity. But to arrive at the truth one has to pass through every negativity; it is just as the old story says about breaking a certain magic spell: it won’t be broken unless the piece is played right through backwards’ (p.50). Crucially, for both Kierkegaard and Shestov, liberation from rationalism is the fundamental task of philosophy.

Shestov aims to take our minds outside the constraints of preconceived limitations and judgements. We soon find ourselves descending into the groundlessness of the unknown, an underground space in the mind where all boundaries fade, and darkness prevails. Here we experience a disturbing sensation, confusion and displacement, which all provide an opportunity to despair and doubt everything that we previously believed or trusted to be true. Eventually, this experience would lead us to faith. The intense feeling of despair is metaphorically identified with the darkness of the night. For only in the gloom of the night sky are we able to gaze at the stars above, and even the brightest of the stars are not apparent to the human eye in the daylight. In a sense, Shestov creates a unique and unorthodox link between powerlessness and freedom. Thus, contradicting himself, Shestov (1923) arrives to a surprisingly logical conclusion:

We must make use of everything, even of death, to serve the ends of this life of ours (p.215).

The idiosyncratic style of Shestov’s writing, characterized by a free flow of thought, reflects the author’s daring conviction that reason and knowledge cannot fully comprehend all the absurdity of human nature. The poignant idea of an apology for the insanity of the mind, seeking to be liberated from the chains of rational thinking in search for truth, already belongs to modernity.

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 (Shestov, 1923, p.139).

The wealth of ideas put together in All Things Are Possible ensures important developments for the philosopher’s later thought, such as that present in The Theory of Knowledge (1916), Potestas Clavium (1923), and Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (1936). Written between 1903 and 1905, the book poses major questions regarding religion and faith that the philosopher later explores after leaving Russia for the last time. The problems of truth and knowledge reoccur in Shestov’s writing as central notions within his philosophical inquiry. At a time when the majority of the Russian intelligentsia was under the influence of a materialistic interpretation of life, Apotheosis of Groundlessness  (1905) crashes upon Russian literature as a stone upon glass (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71). Possibly predicting the revolutionary changes in his homeland, Shestov (1923) talks about ‘the Russian man,’ describing him as ‘an elementary man waiting for a miracle, craving for the unknown’ (p.90, 163). Published in 1905, just a few months before the first Russian Revolution, the book incites heavy opprobrium (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71).

Due to its compelling discourse with rationalism and an enlightenment of the personal experience, the philosophy of Shestov has been described as existentialist. Nikolai Berdyaev (1938) was among the first to suggest that ‘this type of philosophy presupposes, that the mystery of being is comprehendible only within the human existential condition’ (p.44). Shestov’s provocative and often paradoxical ideas influenced many contemporary authors, among them Gabriel Marcel, Albert Camus, Benjamin Fondane, George Bataille, Czeslaw Milosz, and D. H. Lawrence. By some readers, however, his interest in the question of the revelation of death as the revelation of true life has been deemed absurd. Yet it seems that Shestov (1923) successfully fulfilled the challenge he set himself at the beginning of All Things Are Possible: the challenge of inventing his own truth. Accordingly, Shestov’s thought initiates a radical idea that each man has the right to possess his or her own truth. His philosophy does not provide a system of eternal truths, but attempts to show us how to live in uncertainty (p.71). By accepting the principle of paradoxical thinking, corresponding to the revelation of the incomprehensible mystery of being, Shestov offers a radically new experience for the human consciousness, which is no longer limited by the need to worry about the form or consistency of argumentation. The unconventional execution of thought characteristic of Shestov’s style of writing, provides an opportunity for refreshing ideas, setting the imagination free, and exploring alternative ways of thinking.

Shestov puts an individual’s experience at the centre of his philosophical investigation: where God stands outside the circle of necessity, there is no subordination, no ground; and therefore everything is possible.


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