N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
WORDS AND REALITY
IN SOCIETAL LIFE
(1915 – #206)
Words possess an enormous power over our life, a magical power. We are under the enchanting spell of words and to a remarkable degree we live in their realm. Words act, like independent powers, and independent of their content. We are accustomed to pronounce words and to hear words, not rendering ourselves an accounting of their real content and their real gravity. We take words on faith and provide them limitless credit. At present I propose to speak exclusively about the role of words in societal life. And in societal life it is a conditional phraseology, having become customary, that acquires sometimes a power almost absolute. Label-words — possess a societal power all their own. The words themselves per se can inspire and they can kill. Apparently it was Thackeray who said: “Men kill by deeds, and women — with words”. But men also can quite go the womanly route, — and their words can kill. Behind the words follow the masses. Every agitation to a remarkable degree is based upon the power of words, upon the hypnotic spell of words. The customary phraseology is spliced together with the instincts of the masses. For one segment of the masses it is necessary to employ “leftist” phraseology, for another — “rightist” phraseology. And demagogues well know, what words necessary are to be employed. Societal life gets weighed down with the routing of words. How impressively and how powerfully come across in effect such words as “the left”, “the right”, “radical”, “reactionary”, etc., etc. We become hypnotised by these words and are almost unable to think on society outside of these labels. And yet the real gravity of these words is not so great, and their real content gets to be all the more and more inverted. In the societal word useage it is a nominalism that reigns, and not realism. I might hear, how everyone says: this is a very “radical” fellow, vote for him. And this “radical” fellow — is a lawyer, pulling down 20,000 rubles a year, neither believing in anything nor given to any values, and behind the radical phraseology is concealed a quite complete societal callousness and irresponsibility. The personal preparedness of a man for social action is relegated to the background in the face of conditional and routine phraseology. With us, the qualities of the person in general are little valued, and have no defining role in societal life. With us therefore is so many completely false a societal reputation, and there is many a name, created by the power of words, and not by the reality. The inertia and conditional aspect of words impedes the analysis of genuine character. In societal life almost not at all does there occur a natural selection of persons of character. And in the life of the state clearly there occurs the selection of characters unfit and lacking in good qualities. With us, amidst the help of conditional phraseology, people profound of idea and with a moral tempering of character in a trice are made scoundrels of, while people bereft of idea and lack of moral tempering get to be highly exalted. Least of all tolerated are people of an independent and original frame of mind, unable to be crammed into any of the customary routine categories. With us, people often kill by means of affixing labels — “reactionary”, “conservative”, “opportunist” etc., even though perhaps behind this be hidden a more complex and original phenomenon, undefinable by the customary categories. In the other camp they kill with the help of words of an opposite stamp. And everyone lives in terror of the words and labels.
The vast masses of the people live not by realities and not by the essentials, but by the outer trappings of things, they see only the cut of the clothes and only in accord with the cut of the clothes is anyone met. Broad segments of the Russian Intelligentsia within society live especially by fictional watch-words and illusional trappings. The power of inertia is truly frightening. If there be the great power of inertia and habitually ingrained categories in the unsophisticated circles, then this is understandable and forgivable. But the Intelligentsia make pretense to be the heralds of thought and awareness, and it is more difficult to forgive this laziness and indolence of thought, this servility to the rote and obligatory and outward. It is difficult to live by the realities. For this there is necessary an independent working of spirit, an independent effort, an independent thought. It is easier to live by fictions, by words and the outer trappings of things. The vast masses of he people accept on faith words and categories, worked out by others, like a vampire it lives off the experience of some stranger. There is no sort of properly real experience bound up with the words, by which however, are defined all the values in life. The words were real content for those, whose own experience and whose own thought and spiritual life they were. But these selfsame words have become normal and without content for those, which live by inertia, by rote and by imitation. Thus also it happens in the religious life, where too many feed off the experience of a stranger and live purely by a literal dogmatics, and it is there too in societal life, where the memorised party slogans, the formulas and words are repeated without any independent act of will and thought. Upon this basis is worked out the political formalism, bereft of any desire to know the real content of human life. In the life of society everything indeed — is in the strength, the energy of spirit, is in the character of the people and their society, in their will, in their creative thought, and not in abstract principles, formulas and words, all not worth the half-copeck. The indeed most important and essential thing — is the people, the living souls, the interweaves of the societal fabric, and not he external forms, behind which can be hidden whatever the content one pleases or even the full absence of any content. A democratic republic, in which everything is set together upon fine formulas and words, can reflect a most abject slavery and violence. This long ago already became apparent with the bitter experience of life of European mankind, which ought to teach us to be mistrustful towards the purely outward forms and not be duped by the pretty phraseology of equality, brotherhood and freedom. How merely formal, how indeed nominal even people of a Socialist bent can prove to be. Here is why it is necessary to strive with one’s will towards an essential freedom, towards a regeneration of the fabric of society, towards the realisation of values yet higher, those of the life within. This inward process would lead inevitably to an outward change of the societal order and societal system, but always in correlation with a real content and direction by the will of the people.
Many think, that the chief woe of Russia is in this, that Russian society is insufficiently liberal or radical, and they expect much from a turnabout of our society leftwards in the traditional sense of this word. And in this opinion there is evoked for us the fatal power of words and formal concepts. Our society — is liberal and of a leftist bent, but this liberalism and this leftism — is powerless and is expressed primarily in an oppositional mindset or else indignation. The chief woe of Russia — is not in any insufficiency of leftism, which can grow even without any essential changes for Russian society, but in a poor societal fabric, in an insufficiency of authentic people, such as history could summon forth for a real and genuinely radical transformation of Russia, it is in the weakness of the Russian will, in the insufficiency of societal self-nourishment and self-discipline. For Russian society there is an insufficiency of character, of the ability to define oneself from within. The “means” too easily entangle Russian man, and he is too wont to emotional reactions upon everything outward. The “radicals” and the “leftists” might be completely unsuitable a material for a new, regenerated Russia. It is unseemly to get caught up in the illusions of word-play. The important and the essential thing, is of what sort is the man himself and of what sort is the people, and not the what sort are his word slogans and abstract political concepts.
Thus too, for example, our “rightists” have been poor material for a true conservatism. They have always been sooner the destroyers, rather than protectors of whatever the values. The patriotic, the national and state phraseology of the “rightists” — is words, words and more words. Our rightist circles are bereft of a true state of national consciousness. Such an awareness is possible to be met with only in individual persons, but not in their societal segments and groups. The complete absence of a genuine conservatism — is a fatal peculiarity of Russia. The Russia of the “right” had begun already to decompose, when the Russia of the “left” was still not yet fully matured. Everything happens for us too late. And we for too long have found ourselves in a transitory condition, in a sort of interregnum.
Russia needs, first of all, radical moral reform, a religious rebirth of the very wellsprings of life. But, alas, even a religious renewal can become merely nominal and formal. The great power of words exists even in the religious life. The labels — “Orthodox”, “sectarian”, “the Christian of a new consciousness” etc., have assumed a significance nowise corresponding to their real gravity. The “Orthodox” nominalism has long since already poisoned the religious life in Russia. The religious phraseology of the rightist circles long since already has degenerated into an hideous hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. But there is no help for us even having the assertion of whatever the “leftist” religious consciousness, applicable to the societal aspect externally and formally. In the depths of the fabric of the life of the people there has to happen a rebirth, occurring from within, and I believe, that it will happen, that the Russian people spiritually is alive and that a great future lies ahead of it. The troubled era will pass. Time will fling aside the outer trappings and discover the true essence of things, the true realties. Our greatest moral task — is a passover from fictions to the realities, a surmounting of the hypnotic effect of words. Fearlessness in the face of words — is a great virtue. And on the positive side of this fearlessness always there will be the love for righteous-truth. The pathos of the love for righteous-truth — is a great pathos of the people. But around our words, our formulas and concepts, of the right, the left and the middle, there has accumulated too much of the conditional lie and rot. In truth, the singularly great revolution facing us to achieve, is a revolution of dethroning the false and the lie-laden, the empty and invented words, formulas and concepts. It is necessary to stop being afraid of labels, which hey so love to stick on, in order literally to exalt or degrade people. It is necessary to catch sight of the realities beyond the words. And genuine insight involves also a scorn for much, which is insignificant and insubstantial. And thus ought to transpire the nurturing of the independence of the societal character, the maturing of autonomous societal thought.
The tragedy of the war gives a primacy to deeds over words — it manifests the realities and casts down the fictions. The rightist bureaucracy with its national state phraseology thus clearly has lived by fictions and empty words. This has become evident. The lie is toppled. Now already it is becoming more clear, who actually is the patriot, who it is that loves his native-land and is prepared to serve it. The words of the nationalists are being weighed on the scales of history. Last Winter among us here began to spread about a pseudo-patriotic mindset, intolerant of self-criticism in Russia, a mindset irresponsible and tending to self-praise. With some it found expression in the restoration of a religio-Slavophil phraseology, the more lofty option, and among others — a state national phraseology, less lofty. But these frames of mind were swept off by events. And this Summer there has begun a genuine and healthy patriotic upsurge, there has grown a sense of societal responsibility, which always presupposes self-criticism. The words and fictions face opposite the realities. The unhealthy patriotism, fearful of the truth and given to expression to a literal idealisation of what actually is, is being replaced by an healthy patriotism, staring fearlessly into the eyes of the bitterest truth, as expressed in service to that, what ought to be. And to breathe it will become easier, though events be gloomy and onerous. One can speak the truth and appeal for the deeds of truth. In that stifling atmosphere, which one time formed, only false words could be dealt, only fictitious ideologies could flourish.
A freedom of words is necessary for the dethroning of the fictitious power of words.
In an atmosphere lacking in freedom it is the empty words that flourish, and they become irrefutable. The word itself per se betokens something Divine [trans. note: the Logos-Word of God underlying the logical, through the word], and the Divine signification of words can be revealed only in an atmosphere of freedom, where the realism of words wins out in struggle over the nominalism of words. A lack of freedom but encourages the empty phraseology of the “left” and the empty phraseology of the “right”. The realities, such as stand behind the words, cannot be made apparent in this setting. The complete freedom of the word is a singularly real struggle against the misuse of words, against a degeneration of words. Only in freedom does the truth of words win out over the lie in words, the reality wins out over the nominalism. The freedom of words leads to a natural selection of words, to a survival process of words vital and genuine. The false and empty words will continue to be heard, but hey will no longer have the halo, which is created for them by an atmosphere oppressive and stifling.
Render the word more powerful, and the power of words over societal life will cease; the word-realities will win out over the word-fictions. Freedom leads to responsibility. The lack of freedom makes everything all irresponsible. The restoration of the meaning of words, of a correct, real and fully-weighed use of words would lead to the awareness, that our society ought not to remake a mere change of clothes, howsoever very radical the costume should be, not merely replace the outward trappings, but actually instead it should be reborn and change its very fabric. The power of words has been an external power. And e ought to convert it into an inner one. The whole entirety of life has to begin to define itself from within, not from without, it has to be from the depths of freedom, and not from some superficial intermediation.
© 2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1915 – 206 (15, 26) – en)
SLOVA I REAL’NOSTI V OBSCHESTVENNOI ZHIZNI. First published in the newspaper “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 26 August 1915, No. 15049. Republished thereafter in the 1918 Berdyaev’s anthology text of articles, “Sud’ba Rossii” (“The Fate of Russia”), Ch. 26, (p. 410-415 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).