Existential Despair in Philosophy

Many people criticise philosophy as being disconnected from our daily existence, however, this critique is not new, it is in fact as old as philosophy itself.

In the ancient Greek fable, “The Astrologer who Fell into a Well”, Thales of Miletus, considered as the first philosopher, is said to have been so lost in thought that while gazing at the stars, he fell into a well. How should one have knowledge of the heavenly things above, if one knows not what is beneath one’s feet?

The Astrologer that fell into a well – Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard

In recent history, however, there have been several philosophical movements (such as transcendentalism, pragmatism and existentialism) that turn away from abstract ideas to examine the world around us, towards an interest in our daily life and occupations, with hopes to gain insights into the complexities of the human condition.

Philosophy of Despair

We will be exploring the works of a little known but unique thinker, the Russian–Jewish existentialist philosopher Lev Shestov, known for his “philosophy of despair” or “philosophy of tragedy”. Shestov’s lack of recognition is, however, hardly surprising, whatever insights he had acquired could not be transmitted by intellectual processes to others, but only by going through the same kind of intensive and personal struggle in one’s life.

Lev Shestov

Shortly after his death, his friend Nikolai Berdyaev, himself a religious existentialist, wrote that:

“Lev Shestov was a philosopher who philosophised with his whole being, for whom philosophy was not an academic specialty but a matter of life and death.”

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Fundamental Idea of the Philosophy of Lev Shestov

For Shestov, the sources of philosophy were the human tragedy, the horrors and sufferings of human life and the sense of hopelessness. An inner development almost always requires going through suffering. One must, therefore, include one’s existential experience in one’s philosophy, and this cannot be done by reason alone. Shestov agrees with Nietzsche that every great philosophy is a confession and unconscious   autobiography of the deepest kind.

Shestov underwent what he calls a “pilgrimage through the souls” of the great minds. He encountered the writings of the great Danish thinker Kierkegaard, in whom he found a kindred spirit. He also held Nietzsche as his hero, as well as Dostoevsky. Shestov was the first person to link these existentialists together, seeing the greatness of them in their deep probing into the question of the meaning of life and the problems of human suffering, evil and death, united by the essential tragedy of human life. Nevertheless, Shestov is a thinker in his own right.

In his first original work, All Things are Possible (or as in the original title, The Apotheosis of Groundlessness), Shestov explores something that we all experience at one moment in our lives, it is what he calls “groundlessness”, the uncertainty of our experience of the world. It speaks to those who lived through a tragedy, and felt at a certain point in their life that everything was falling apart, that the ground gave way under their feet.

Shestov believes that if rational thought were to be used in every sphere of life, reason would corrode man’s ability to connect to a more spiritual realm. His keen analysis of the malaise of modern man is more important than ever in our de-personalised society struggling for meaning and purpose in life.

Conflict between Faith and Reason

Shestov undertook a vast critique of the history of Western philosophy beginning with the ancient Greeks, which he saw as a battle between reason and faith. Like Nietzsche, Shestov’s philosophy offers no systematic unity, for no theory can solve the mysteries of life. The culmination of his lifetime intellectual inquiry is his final work, Athens and Jerusalem: An Attempt at a Religious Philosophy, exploring the philosophy of religion from an existential perspective.

He observed that the tragedy of human existence does not conform to materialistic systems of thinking. Athens stands for reason, while Jerusalem stands for faith, and the two are mutually exclusive. He abhorred the rationalisation of religion of Western philosophy, arguing that God is beyond rational comprehension and morality. He criticises both Kant who believed that religion is within the limits of reason alone, and Hegel, with his famous proclamation that “what is rational is real and what is real is rational”, in both, abstractions predominate and ignore the fundamental questions of life.

Shestov’s philosophy is a form of anti-rationalism, but he is not opposed to scientific knowledge or reason in everyday life. This was not his problem. He was opposed to the pretensions of scientism and rationalism, the evil twins in modern society, who consider themselves as the omniscient God who limits man’s possibilities and liberation from the tragic horrors of human fate, life simply becomes a mathematical formula to be solved, as Dostoevsky writes:

“Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it is not supposed to exist! They believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organise all humanity at once and make it just and sinless in an instant, quicker than any living process!”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Faith on the other hand, is concerned with finding the truth in God, Shestov shares Kierkegaard’s view that faith is the only way to free oneself from the despair born out of one’s groundlessness. Thus, spiritual development is bound to progress through a state of sickness.

For Shestov, philosophy is not pure thinking, but some kind of inner doing, inner regeneration, or second birth. Tragedies take place in the depth of the human soul, where no eye can reach out to see. Consequently, He saw the beginning of philosophy starting not with knowledge, not with wonder, but with despair.

Despair is what he considers a “penultimate knowledge”, that is, a preliminary step that we must acknowledge, in order to progress towards something higher.

Penultimate Knowledge: Despair

“Man is a creature without an internal compass. His needs and dreams force him to wander… Perhaps that is why there is so much sorrow on earth that man must wake up? Did the Ghost that appeared to Hamlet not come to wake him up? When we happen to have a nightmare while asleep, we wish to wake up in order to understand what caused it. When in our waking life we encounter a deep unhappiness, rather than try to understand the meaning and value of it, we crave to fall asleep.”

The Lev Shestov Archive, Manuscripts

Shestov draws to Dostoevsky’s close encounter with death when he was put up for the firing squad and at the very last minute was released, a twisted form of psychological torture. Dostoevsky was then sent to a prison labour camp in Siberia, almost a death sentence in itself, but managed to survive that too. The encounter with the Angel of Death gave him “new eyes” for life and produced a radical shift in his writings, publishing The House of the Dead, in which he described his own experience as well as the lives of the variety of prisoners he’d encountered in Siberia, shortly after, he wrote what Shestov considers as his greatest work, Notes from Underground, praising The Underground Man for his descent into the realm of groundlessness.

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky shows the feeling and thoughts of a person before execution, mirroring his own experience. He wrote:

“It seemed my friend that he had only five more minutes to live, he told me that those five minutes were like an eternity, he calculated the exact time he needed to take leave of his comrades, and decided that he could do that in two minutes, then he spend another two minutes in thinking of himself for the last time, and finally one minute for a last look around. There was a church not far off, its gilt roof shining in the bright sunshine, he remembered staring with awful intensity at that roof and the sunbeams flashing from it, he couldn’t tear his eyes of those rays of lights, those rays seemed to him to be his new nature and he felt that he’d somehow merged with them, the uncertainty and the feeling of disgust with that new thing which was bound to come in a minute was dreadful, but he said that the thing that was most horrible to him was the constant thought, what if I had not to die? What if I could return? Oh, what an eternity, and all that could be mine, I should turn every minute into an age, I should lose nothing, I should count every minute separately and waste none. He said that this reflection finally filled him with such bitterness that he prayed to be shot as quickly as possible.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Shestov experienced his own awakening, a nervous breakdown which he described as a “rupture of time”. He delved into the monsters lurking in his psyche, venturing to the brink of the abyss, echoing Nietzsche’s famous words:

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §146

Shestov advances his idea of a near death experience as awakening from “life as sleep”, which combines horror and awe at the same time. We are all sleep-walkers in life until some inexplicable or life-threatening experience, which can activate our thinking about death, awakens us from our deep slumber. He writes:

“The ancients, to awake from life, turned to death. The moderns flee from death in order not to awake, and take pains not even to think of it. Which are the more ‘practical’? Those who compare earthly life to sleep and wait for the miracle of the awakening, or those who see in death a sleep without dream-faces, the perfect sleep, and while away their time with ‘reasonable’ and ‘natural’ explanations? That is the basic question of philosophy, and he who evades it evades philosophy itself.”

Lev Shestov, In Job’s Balances

The motif of awakening encapsulates one of the main ideas of his philosophy: the fight for the individual’s right to freedom and to creative transformation, and, in the face of despair and death, reaffirm human life.

Ultimate Knowledge: Freedom

The penultimate knowledge is knowledge that without God, life is meaningless, however, it is a necessary step, Shestov writes:

“The fool said in his heart: ‘There is no God.’ Sometimes this is a sign of the end and of death. Sometimes of the beginning and of life. As soon as man feels that God is not, he suddenly comprehends the frightful horror and the wild folly of human temporal existence, and when he has comprehended this he awakes, perhaps not to the ultimate knowledge but to the penultimate.”

Lev Shestov, In Job’s Balances

In his fearless and persistent struggle for the unattainable possibility to uncover the meaning in the paradox of human existence, Shestov attempted to expand his thoughts into another dimension. Over against the domain of necessity, the domain of reason, stands God, who symbolises “ultimate knowledge”, unlimited possibilities and freedom without boundaries. For with God all things are possible. Shestov’s philosophy is ultimately life-affirming.

In his last years, Shestov kept returning to what he called “the nightmare of godlessness and unbelief which has taken hold of humanity.” He was convinced that only through the utmost spiritual effort could men free themselves from this nightmare. He aimed to establish a new free way of thinking, which manifests itself as a struggle against the delusion that we have a rational grasp of the necessary truths on matters that are of the greatest importance to us.

Reason tells us nothing in which we can explore the problems of the human condition, it is as if we are thrown into a dark cave without light. Faith, on the other hand, gives us light in order to find our way out of the darkness.


The Philosophy of Despair

The Russian existentialist philosopher Lev Shestov is known for his “philosophy of despair” or “philosophy of tragedy”. For Shestov, the sources of philosophy were the human tragedy, the horrors and sufferings of human life and the sense of hopelessness.

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