N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
The Souls of Various Peoples
The Fate of Paris
(1914 – #181)
When the Germans advanced on Paris and Paris feverishly prepared itself for a defense, many an heart upon the earth experienced an acute agitation and disquiet. There was readied a blow not only at the heart of France, but also at the heart of modern mankind. And from the wound, inflicted upon Paris, there flowed the blood as it were not of France alone, but of all cultural mankind. Paris — is a world city, a world city of modern Europe and of all the modern European mankind. The same acute distress would be experienced, if danger were to threaten Rome. Rome — is a world city of the old mankind and a sacred memorial for modern mankind. The endangering and even destruction of Berlin, Vienna, London and other capitals of Europe would not so acutely agitate every cultural soul. The wound, inflicted upon these capitals of various states, would be first of all on the order of a national misfortune. And only a wound, inflicted upon Rome and Paris, would be a misfortune all-European and for all mankind. I believe, that even the finest of the Germans, the most refined of them, have experienced a moment of apprehension for the fate of Paris. We as Russians are under the inspiration of a great and just war, but we have not yet experienced the direct fear for the fate of the fatherland, with us there is not yet any feeling, that the fatherland is in peril. No one would grant the possibility of the approach of the Germans to the heart of Russia — Moscow. Russia in this threatening hour of world history has sensed itself strong, and not weak, and summoned to assist others. Worldwide tasks face Russia, and world perspectives have opened up. This war is altogether differently being experienced in France. There actually have been moments there, when direct danger has threatened the fatherland and Frenchmen have experienced fear for the fate of their native-land. In modern France there is a sense of fragility and fatigue from its great history, in which there was quite much of the great and heroic, there is a sense of exhaustion. The modern Frenchman is also too cultivated, and too sunken in philistine satisfaction, enslaved to the thirst for pleasure and love for women. France is not at all a militaristic land. The military spirit in it has long since been extinguished. It has experienced its own heroic military spirit, it dominated Europe but now is no longer a threatening military power. And however bad it would be for Paris, it would be terrible for France. Many Russians have felt an affinity for France and have thirsted to aid it with their power, to sustain it. The saving of France — is one of the great and world tasks of Russia. Certainly, France — is not Belgium, not Serbia, France — is a great power, and it renders us great aid, as our ally. But the predominance of power is on our side. And the direct danger for Paris has diminished to a large degree thanks to our victories. The Franco-Russian alliance, both diplomatic and of state, is now experienced by us as heartfelt, emotionally, popularly. In our alliance with France there is something deeper, than a mere consideration of international politics.
Paris — represents a world effort of modern mankind, the home of great beginnings and bold experiments. Paris — reflects the free expression of human powers, their free interplay. The life of the world city is the life of man at freedom, a life autonomous, independent of sacred authority, secularised. Modern mankind has associated together with Paris the honeymoon of a free life and free thought; the great Revolution, socialism, aestheticism, the final fruits of bourgeois atheism and philistinism. The image of Paris is for us twofold and evokes a sense of contradictions. We know the charm of Paris, the singular magic inherent in this city, the unique beauty of the very old and the very new combined within it.
Paris — is a living being, and this being is something higher and more attractive than the modern bourgeois French. The visage of its soul possesses an “uncommon” expression, not that, which usually is found with the great cities of Europe. This — is a singularly modern, a new city, in which there is the beauty and charm of the new and the modern. How lacking in beauty, how disturbing is everything new and modern at Rome, how formless and obnoxious it is at Berlin. Our unarchitectural epoch, lacking in plasticity, creates only ugly houses and ugly clothing, the streets it makes are repulsive for the aesthetically refined man and recourses us to an aesthetic living off the old. In the City of Paris alone there is the beauty of the present day, a beauty twofold, perhaps illusory and revolting, but all the same it is beauty. Paris — is a magical City, — within it is concentrated all the magic of the modern great City, with all its attractiveness and all its evil. The magic of Paris — a city in a very concentrated and ultimate sense — the magic of it wraps about every refined and susceptible man. Any another of the great cities of Europe — is already but a second or third rate Paris, not pure embodiments of the idea of the modern City, only but half-fast and watered-down provincialism. Only Paris — is the City of streets, a world City, the modern City of modern mankind. Berlin — is a well-built barracks, technically perfected, with all the conveniences, but tasteless and lacking all the magic of the City, all its demonic power. Paris, not even a well-built city, is technically backwards as compared to Berlin, but its magic, the right to be the City preeminently and a world-class City is not rooted in this external technical process. In Paris there is the irrational mystery of the City, a power that is magical, and not technical. Paris is a place demagnetised by the currents, given to the free play of human powers. And in it there is a flash and a sparkle, a levity, inconceivable in the onerous bourgeois life of the modern city, a gaiety, terrible afront so tortuous a struggle for existence. Upon all of Paris lies the imprint of an exceptional acuity of mind, of the national genius of the French people, which knows how to die well-spoken. In Paris — is an ultimate refinement of culture, of the great and worldwide Latin culture, before the face of which the culture of Germany is but barbarity, and in this selfsame Paris — is the extreme evil of modern culture, of the modern free life of mankind — a kingdom of the philistine and the bourgeoise. The free play of human powers, free of any sanctity, has led to a reinforced kingdom of the philistine. The bourgeois slavery of the human spirit — is one of the results of the formal freedom of man, of his immersion within himself. Suchlike is the antinomy of being. The philistinism — is another face of Paris, a face frightful and repulsive. Paris — is an enormous experiment of modern mankind, and within it are hidden all kinds of contradictions.
It is namely within the talented, the mentally acute, the gay, free and bold Paris that the philistinism has found it end-point, its aesthetically completed expression, its limit. The whole period of the Third Republic was a perpetual developing of the philistine life, the fruition of an irreligious and atheistic spirit. The French had grown weary from their catastrophes, their revolutions, wars, their explorations, and they wanted a tranquil and satisfied life, shut-in within its philistinism, shut-out from every spiritual stirring. They love to call Paris the new Babylon, a city of debauchery. And actually in Paris there are the appearances of an ingenious and inventive debauchery. The debauchery — is the fate of the modern City. But this selfsame Paris — is a city of the shut-in philistine family, very strongly and well barricaded. Paris — is a city of philistine morals and philistine virtues; useful for succeeding in life.
The self-satisfied philistine family — is an isolated cell, in which personal egoism is multiplied into a familial egoism, flourishing not among us as Russians, nor amongst the Slavs, but namely amongst the Parisians, who otherwise are known to the world only on the side of their reputation for debauchery. The philistinism is the flip side of the unrestrained thirst for pleasure. The philistine norms — are the fruit of unbelief in the auspicious self-restraint of man. And a genuine existential freedom, a freedom from false conventions and hypocritical norms is only in the Russians. With Russians there is an openness of spirit. Nowhere is there such a pursuit of profit, of a successful life, such a cult of wealth and scorn for poverty, as among the Parisians. The French are misers, they make an economy and are full of a philistine fear in facing an unsuccessful and unfavourable position. Philistine France has exalted personal and familial egoism into a virtue. This France is nowise so casual, as might seem with the superficial acquaintance with it. We Russians namely are the ones casual in worldly matters. Hertsen discerned this victorious march of the kingdom of philistinism and he shuddered with horror, he sought salvation from it in Russia, in the Russian peasantry.1 Not in vain did there appear in France that great exposer of philistinism, Leon Bloy, writing a fiery expose of “both sides” of the philistine wisdom, — he was an indigent knight within philistine Paris. Philistinism — is a metaphysical, and not social category. But socialism is pervaded by the spirit of philistinism. The nature of philistinism — is atheistic, irreligious. The philistine life is a life of the superficial aspects of life, substitutes for the core, the depth and essence of life. In the philistine life there have begun to perish the national virtues of the French people, their capacity for heroism and magnanimity, their love of freedom and fecklessness afront death. In philistine France, rich, orderly and self-satisfied, it is impossible any longer to recognise the land of Joan of Arc and of Napoleon, of a great Revolution and of great searches for freedom. The thirst for wealth has passed over into dishonesty and corruption. The political forms have ultimately vanished. Everything has reached the limit, beyond which is but still — disintegration and death. The philistinism gradually has killed the soul. And it was said to the Christian world, that there is a greater need to fear the killing of the soul, than the killing of the body. Now they have begun to kill the body, — the outward man, but perhaps the soul, the core of man, will be reborn from this. For the deadened soul sits up to its knees in philistine life, rather than up to its knees in water in the trenches. The philistine life in Paris has become so stuffy, so murderous for the soul, that only great catastrophes and great tribulations can cleanse and free man from the philistinism. The smug and shut-in philistine life has begun already to believe in its own earthly immortality, in its own enduring endlessness. But to let man remain in this faith in the unshakable stability of the philistine realm would mean the ruination of Paris, the death of his soul. There are in the world higher powers, which will not permit this. And inevitably it had to be revealed to the world, that in the very depths of bourgeois life there lay already the seeds of a great war, of a great catastrophe. It is impossible eternally to live by the worldly bourgeois life of saeity; for the very goals of bourgeois life it becomes necessary to make war with great sacrifices and sufferings. In this there is an inner dialectic, exposing the falsehood in life. The principles, having begotten too peaceful the bourgeois life, have begotten also war. The mysterious dialectic is especially to be felt in Paris, in France, in a land nowise military. The bourgeois and gay Paris is summoned at present to make an effort and it does make efforts. It is covered with blood. Through great tribulations and shocks there is awakened anew the heroic in the French, forsaking the too self-satisfied philistine life.
It does not become man to remain at the heights of the too peaceful, too satisfied, too felicitous a life. For philistine France there was necessary the threat, and inevitable was the misfortune and suffering. But everything in time will have passed. The world catastrophe, so immediately a threat for France, will be a crisis and a finish for the philistine ideals of life, confined within an earthly satisfaction. Read a letter from Paris. Paris has become serious, capable of sacrifices, the philistine cells within it are shaken open. There has awakened the finest sides of the French people — the love of native-land, the sense of citizenship, enthusiasm, magnanimity, fearlessness in the face of death. France once again faces something worldwide and it has forced back the philistine part. Deliberate judgements of the love for native-land and for world justice have won out in the hearts of the French over the love for women, for pleasure and for saeity. The world war — is a great exposer of the lie of the carefree philistine life. There are wars, which are sent by Providence, in order to compel the peoples to start thinking, to deepen, to stand up. The inevitability of the present-day war was lodged already within an inner sickness of mankind, in its bourgeois aspect, in that philistine smugness and limitedness, which could not but lead to mutual slaughter. The philistine isolatedness has shaken loose in the blood, the politics in the war. And in the nervously susceptible refined culture of France this is felt more acutely, than where it had not been so. And the fate of France, as a great land, is first of all the fate of Paris, its heart and the heart of Europe. There is distress for Paris and the desire to aid it. The world City cannot be allowed to perish, it is needed by the world, in it are the nerves of the new free mankind with its good and its evil, with its truth and its untruth, in it pulses the blood of Europe, and it will sicken the blood, if Paris suffers the blow. Inevitable was the end of the philistine atheism and the bourgeois hostility towards religion. And Paris is being reborn for a new life. The symptoms of a religious rebirth were there already prior to the war. The fate of Paris — is the fate of the new man and fate of the new City.
© 2005 by translator Fr. S. Janos.
(1914 – 181(15,17) – en)
SUD’BA PARIZHA. First published in literary gazette “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 22 nov. 1914, No. 14510. Later incorporated by Berdyaev into his 1918 book, “The Fate of Russia” (“Sud’ba Rossii”), Section III segment 1, Chapter 17, (p. 355-360) in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).
1 The selfsame Hertsen prophetically predicted the kingdom of Prussian militarism and the inevitability of the clash with it.