My Life With Kant: Lev Shestov

In case you haven’t heard, I will be out of town for awhile. So I’m releasing a sort of Best of My Life With Kant.

I should also state, that I have a love of things that don’t make sense. I like works that not only shock you intellectually, but also forces you to reassess how you approach life. And Lev Shestov’s All Things Are Possible certainly doesn’t make any sense.

But it’s YOUR responsibility to bring meaning. I don’t care if that doesn’t make any sense.

BUT….please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors. Enjoy!

My Life With Kant: Lev Shestov

It recently occurred to me that I have a sweater that I’ve owned since I was at least 15 years old. Now that I am pushing 30, I noticed that the sweater looks as good as the day I bought it. Then I looked at the tag to see where it was made. What I read, I will never forget. It said….Maid in Russia.

As an American, along with my fellow citizens, I have this view of Russia as being this massive monolith that sits on top of the Eurasian continent. I’ve always been interested in Russian culture. I remember being fascinated with the Russian Revolution when I was in the sixth grade, yet till this day…I don’t know if I fully understand that part of the world. They must be the awkward middle child of the planet. They’re not quite Asian, but they’re not quite European as well.

I had a history professor that was talking about Karl Marx, and the state of political thought in Europe during the late 19th Century. And he said that if told European citizens that it was going to be Russia that would turn communist first, they would have thought that you were crazy. Russia has always had this stigma attached to it because everyone thought that it was this backwater country sitting at the top of the world.

DH Lawrence in his forward to Lev Shestov’s All Things Are Possible, said of the Russian People :”European Culture is a rootless thing in the Russians. With us (meaning Europeans), it is our very blood and bones, the very nerve and root of our psyche. We think in a certain, we feel in a certain fashion, because our whole substance is of this fashion. Our speech and feeling are organically inevitable to us….With the Russians it is different. They have only been inoculated with the virus of European culture and ethic.

So Europeanism is a virus. And the pain and anguish that this virus inflicts on the Russians is played out through literature. So think about that next time you read Tolstoy.

But in the mean time, let’s go back to Lev Shestov. Ever heard of him? Probably not. But as you very well know, I have a thing for philosophy that’s a bit…out there. And, in actuality, we can think of Shestov’s philosophy as not really being philosophy at all. It’s more about the pain and anguish that DH Lawrence was referring to. So I guess that we can think of him as the Russian Fredrick Nietzsche, but I might be overstepping my analysis here. So, for this episode, I will just be attempting to follow Shestov’s stream of consciousness, and convert to my own sort of heavy-handed philosophy.

Shevstov’s work All Things are Possible might be his best known book. And it certainly reads more like prose than any sort of systematic treatise. And from the very opening, he has a very bleak view of life…stating that the traveler has to fumble his way through the dark. And then he begins to wonder why does the world appear to have order, rather than present chaos.

And then it becomes clear to me the deeper I read this book that, there is no linear thought. Each paragraph seems to take a life of its own. One moment Shestov, speaks about how the world is dark and mysterious, and then the next moment it’s orderly and lacking chaos, at least in the mind of the observer.

But then he says something interesting. That because mankind can observe order in the universe, that suddenly he becomes the dictator of all nature. So there might be a degree of arrogance because humanity is so sure that it holds the master-key to the universe. And possibly because of this arrogance, he (the negative side of humanity) becomes comfortable in its knowledge…to the point where it becomes impossible to understand how one could live without modernity. However, we are all just one misfortune away from living without modern conviniences. And when we lose them, after awhile we are able to adapt to our circumstances. And it can become easier for us to return to a state before modernity.

But the Shevstov speaks of something that is very much applicable to myself. He says the writer feels compelled to provide answers, so he quote “begins to speak of first and ultimate things.” Which, guilty as charged. But we have no such authority to speak of such things. And if we have any sort of success, which I am not guilty of, then we become seen as a prophet. But if we’re average, which is me, then we try to preserve our influence till the end of days. So, I guess that’s what I have to look forward to.

But Shevstov bemoans how painful it is to read Plato and his last conversations with Socrates. And what’s interesting about this is that he says that what it means to be a beloved master. And to be a beloved master means to have lots of followers, so you won’t die alone. Now you would think that that would be a good thing. No one wants to die alone right? Not Shestov. He bitches and complains that when you’re beloved, you can’t even die alone. To him, the best way to die is the worst way, like dying like a dog under a hedge. So, speak for yourself Shestov. But his reasoning is that that is a way to die honestly. So, I guess there must be a false way to die.

But, in all actuality, what Shestov is trying to do here is shock the reader. It’s not so much about DYING honestly, as it is about LIVING honestly. But there’s a willingness to embrace death on Shestov’s part. So dying isn’t the hard part, the real problem is living. And it’s not just life and death that we need to be embracing, but we should also be open to ideas. Which is, I presume, a further extension of the whole embracing-life thing. But Shestov’s reasoning is that if you close your mind to an idea, it will slowly seep its way in.

I’ve talked before about my experience in a Christian private school. Would couldn’t talk about ungodly music, pop culture, none of that stuff. We weren’t even allowed to talk about philosophy like Plato and Aristotle. And we fully tried to abide by those rules, we truly thought that those things were un-Christian. But you can imagine what happened anyway. We can all think of examples where we tried to banish things from our minds, only to become fully enveloped in them later on. But as Shestov says: “ideas have no regard for our laws and honour or morality.”

He would go on to discuss realism in literature, and how the initial reaction towards it wasn’t welcoming, but overtime it clawed it’s way in. And speaking of literature, Shestov brings up everyone’s favorite Russian writer, Tolstoy. I admit that I don’t know enough about Tolstoy as Shestov presumably did, but he claims that the writer preached inaction. And he sort of goes all over the place here, but he talks about how idleness has become a chief characteristic of his time. Shestov was speaking directly towards the aristocracy, who wrote books, painted pictures, and composed symphonies. And then he asks, “is that labor?” Which he classically replies that it is only the amusement of idleness.

But clearly Shestov is not a fan of, for a lack of a better description, knowable knowledge. He says that in order to look at the infallibility of common knowledge, all we have to do is study history. We then come to realize that quote “eternal laws” become abortions. Which is curious wording. But ideas are replaced all of the time. Standing theories exist only to later become updated or obsolete. Therefore, we shouldn’t even accept one theory over another as a modus vivendi. Not even positivism, which we can recall from the previous episode. Shestov says, quote: “man is free to change his conception of the universe as often as he changes his boots or his gloves.” Which is almost an unthinkable concept among the modern day educated.

Now clearly Shestov is not a philosopher of science. I mean, I think that Newton’s Gravity has held up quite well over the years. And I’m presuming that evolution, big bang theory, and a number of other ideas will continue to hold up. But this may not be the point that he’s trying to get at. In fact, he may not be making any point in this paragraph. Because a few sentences later he says: “on principle, man should respect order in the external world and complete chaos in the inner.” So that sounds quite contradictory on its surface. But perhaps this is Shestov’s modus vivendi….coming to an acceptance that the outer world is in fact ordered in a logical way, even if that way can’t be completely understood, but also embracing the chaos that rages inside.

And if we want to put a Wes Michael-ian spin on this, which, I can do because no one can stop me…I would like to add that, in addition to embracing the chaos that rages inside, we should also take steps towards distinguishing ourselves, our internal world, from the structured world on the outside. Meaning, that I would argue, that to become fully individualized, and perhaps Shevstov would agree, or maybe he wouldn’t, but to become an individual the spark inside of us must not become part of the system. We can’t just become another cog in the machine by checking all of the boxes that society makes us check. I won’t say that you should go full psycho, but perhaps that small smidgen of insanity that resides in all of us is part of what makes us individuals.

Despite his colorful rhetoric, Shestov isn’t really out there trying to prove anything. In fact, he would say that there is little to choose from between metaphysics and positivism, despite appearing as two opposites along the philosophical spectrum. He simply says that they are just painting the horizon, albeit with different methods and colors. But perhaps what he’s also trying to say here is that, we are missing the point when we try to argue proofs. He states that task of the writer, and presumably philosophers and other artists, is to share their impressions with the reader. It’s not our job to prove anything.

Quote:” The Business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty-man who is supremely afraid of uncertainty, and who is forever hiding himself behind this or the other dogma. More briefly, the business of philosophy is not to reassure people, but to upset them.”

Whatever sense we try to make of Shestov, I want to think of him as the ultimate contrarian. Whatever our common beliefs are, whatever supposed truths we have found…laugh at them and espouse the opposite. Not because you necessarily support them, but because the only thing that we can be certain in life, is that we can’t be certain of anything. The world is chaos. Perhaps this is all just an exersise in tearing down philosophy, not into conclusions, but into raw ideas where All Things Are Possible.

But Shestov could also be trying to create a distinguishable Russian philosophy. Where Europeans before him attempted, possibly in vain, to answer all of life’s questions, the Russians of his time were only beginning to explore these depths. Because they lacked failures in their explorations, they had no fear of the truth, which was a truth that would have offended critics in the West.

Unfortunately, I wish that I could go on discussing this book, and all of the work of Shestov, but, as with everything, this must come to an end.

But I once said that…what this world is REALLY missing…is a Socrates and a Diogenes. But We also lack a Leo Shestov.

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