Excerpts from Spirit and Reality By Nicholas Berdyaev
(1939): Geoffrey Bles, The Centenary Press, London
“In this world there is no apparent rational and moral uniformity of goal. There are, instead, irreconcilable good and evil, unjust suffering, the tragic destiny of great and just men. It is a world in which prophets are stoned and unjust men, the persecutors and crucifiers of the just, are triumphant. It is a world in which innocent children and innocent animals have to suffer. It is a world in which death, evil and suffering reign supreme. Is Divine Providence effective in this world? That is the question of reason – meaningless when confronted with the mystery and secret of love. Suffering is also a mystery and secret. Suffering is a mystery because it can also become expiation. We are confronted with the most torturing problem of human consciousness and conscience – the problem of the origin of evil in a divinely created world. ¶ From the remotest times man has longed to be delivered from the intolerable burden of suffering and from servitude to evil. Man’s greatest spiritual flights are associated with this longing. Men of the highest standing in the human hierarchy, men of royal blood like Sakya-Muni, like Marcus Aurelius, have given tentative answers to the torturing problem of evil and suffering; and so have men of humble position like the slave Epictetus, like the carpenter Jesus, who gave a Divine answer to this problem.¶ Buddhism identifies being and suffering. Evil is also suffering. The realization of this truth, that being is suffering, is already a step towards deliverance from suffering, from the bitterness of being. It is salvation through knowledge – self-salvation. Thus Buddhism dispenses with a saviour. It is a debatable point whether Buddhism can be included in the categeory of atheistic religion. It represents rather an apophatic form of pantheism or acosmism. Buddhism is afraid of suffering and renounces the human personality in order to be delivered from suffering. The amazing and touching thing about Buddhism is its sensitivity to human suffering, the great compassion it feels not only for man but for all animals and living creatures. That is the great virtue of Buddhism. But Buddhism knows only compassion but not love; it is spiritually cold and ignores the warmth of the human heart. . . . Love is an eternal affirmation of the being of the human personality. Buddhism abstains from such an affirmation.
The problem of spiritual life does not consist in explaining or justifying the sufferings of life, but in illuminating and spiritually surviving them. The burden of the Cross is such a spiritually illuminating experience of suffering. Man should bear his own Cross in life and help other men to bear theirs. The notion that every suffering is deserved, and is a just consequence of sin, can lead to a conception of life diametrically opposed to that propounded in the Gospel commandments of love and charity. There are austere ascetics and puritans who are predominantly unfavourable and censorious in their attitude to their fellow-men. They have no wish to lighten the burden of human suffering, which they regard as a just punishment.
We shall never understand why one man is so unhappy while another seems so happy – I say seems, because there are no very happy men but only moments of happiness. Man’s entire life, from the hour of his birth to that of his death, is but a day of life torn from the whole, infinite and eternal life. The events of a single day, sometimes very important events, are incomprehensible when regarded independently of preceding and
succeeding days. And so it is with the whole of man’s life.
“The idea that man is a creature longing for happiness is erroneous, just as the idea of happiness itself is invalid, a mere fiction. Nevertheless pessimism is a profounder attitude to life and shows a greater sensitivity to suffering and evil. Optimism is more superficial and lacks this sensitivity. There is, for example, the optimistic theory of progress which regards every concrete human personality as an instrument of future perfection. Pessimism is a more noble philosophy than optimism, because it is more aware of evil, suffering and sin, of the more profound aspects of life. Christianity is opposed to an absolute hopeless pessimism, but a relative sort of pessimism is in accord with the Christian consciousness.”