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Lev Shestov (Yehuda Leib Schwartzmann) - biography

Lev Isaakovich Shestov (Russian: Лев Исаа́кович Шесто́в), born Yehuda Leyb Schwarzmann (Russian: Иегуда Лейб Шварцман), was a Ukrainian/Russian existentialist philosopher. Born in Kiev (Russian Empire) on February 13 [O.S. January 31] 1866, he emigrated to France in 1921, fleeing from the aftermath of the October Revolution. He lived in Paris until his death on November 19, 1938.

Life

Shestov was born Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann in Kiev into a Jewish family. He obtained an education at various places, due to fractious clashes with authority. He went on to study law and mathematics at the Moscow State University but after a clash with the Inspector of Students he was told to return to Kiev, where he completed his studies.

Shestov's dissertation prevented him from becoming a doctor of law, as it was dismissed on account of its revolutionary tendencies. In 1898 he entered a circle of prominent Russian intellectuals and artists which included Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Diaghilev, Dmitri Merezhkovsky and Vasily Rozanov. Shestov contributed articles to a journal the circle had established. During this time he completed his first major philosophical work, Good in the teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching; both authors mentioned in the title had a profound impact on Shestov's thinking.

He developed his thinking in a second book on Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, which increased Shestov's reputation as an original and incisive thinker. In All Things Are Possible (published in 1905) Shestov adopted the aphoristic style of Friedrich Nietzsche. Shestov dealt with such issues as religion, rationalism, and science in this brief work, issues he would examine in later writings.

However, Shestov's works were not met with approval, even by some of his closest Russian friends. Many saw in Shestov's work a renunciation of reason and metaphysics, and even an espousal of nihilism. Nevertheless, he would find admirers in such writers as D. H. Lawrence and his friend Georges Bataille.

In 1908 Shestov moved to Freiburg, Germany, and he stayed there until 1910, when he moved to a small Swiss village named Coppet. During this time the author worked prolifically. One of the fruits of these labours was the publication of Great Vigils and Penultimate Words. He returned to Moscow in 1915, and in this year his son Sergei died in combat against the Germans. During the Moscow period, his work became more influenced by matters of religion and theology. The seizure of government by the Bolsheviks in 1917 made life difficult for Shestov, and the Marxists pressured him to write a defence of Marxist doctrine as an introduction to his new work, Potestas Clavium; otherwise it would not be published. Shestov refused this, yet with the permission of the authorities he lectured at the University of Kiev on Greek philosophy.

Shestov's dislike of the Soviet regime led him to undertake a long journey out of Russia, and he eventually ended up in France. The author was a popular figure in France, where his originality was quickly recognized. In Paris, he soon befriended, and much influenced, the young Georges Bataille. That this Russian was newly appreciated is attested by his having been asked to contribute to a prestigious French philosophy journal. In the interwar years, Shestov continued to develop into a thinker of great prominence. During this time he had become totally immersed in the study of such great theologians such as Blaise Pascal and Plotinus, whilst at the same time lecturing at the Sorbonne in 1925. In 1926 he was introduced to Edmund Husserl, with whom he maintained a cordial relationship despite radical differences in their philosophical outlook. In 1929, during a return to Freiburg he met with Edmund Husserl, and was urged to study Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

The discovery of Kierkegaard prompted Shestov to realise that his philosophy shared great similarities, such as his rejection of idealism, and his belief that man can gain ultimate knowledge through ungrounded subjective thought rather than objective reason and verifiability. However, Shestov maintained that Kierkegaard did not pursue this line of thought far enough, and proceeded to continue where he thought the Dane left off. The results of this tendency are seen in his work Kierkegaard and Existential Philosophy: Vox Clamantis in Deserto, published in 1936, a fundamental work of religious existentialism.

Despite his weakening condition Shestov continued to write at a quick pace, and finally completed his magnum opus, Athens and Jerusalem. This work examines the necessity that reason be rejected in the discipline of philosophy. Furthermore, it adumbrates the means by which the scientific method has made philosophy and science irreconcilable, since science concerns itself with empirical observation, whereas (so Shestov argues) philosophy must be concerned with freedom, God and immortality, issues that cannot be solved by science.

In 1938, Shestov contracted a serious illness whilst at his vacation home. During this final period, he continued his studies, concentrating in particular on Indian Philosophy as well as the works of his contemporary Edmund Husserl, who had died recently. Shestov himself died at a clinic in Paris.

Main Works

  • The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, 1899
  • The Philosophy of Tragedy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, 1903
  • All Things are Possible (Apotheosis of Groundlessness), 1905
  • Potestas Clavium, 1919
  • In Job's Balances, 1923–29
  • Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy, 1933–34
  • Athens and Jerusalem, 1930–37





Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Lev Shestov (Yehuda Leib Schwartzmann)

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