Essay Writing Samples

Special Blog Series on Existentialism: Part V – Lev Shestov

Lev Shestov is a lesser-known existentialist philosopher, at least within the contemporary English-speaking world. There are few standard editions of his key works widely available in print. However, Shestov was quite famous in his own day and not only are his ideas profound, they also have especial significance within the intellectual-historical context in which they were developed. This sample essay from the world class writers at Ultius will discuss Shestov’s works and philosophical contributions in greater depth beginning with a biographical overview of Shestov considering three key themes within Shestov’s philosophy:

  • The power of the keys
  • Reason versus subjectivity
  • Philosophy as poetry

Finally, the essay will reflect on the significance of Shestov as an original thinker within his historical and cultural context, despite his relative obscurity in the present English-speaking world.

The Life and Work of Lev Shestov

Shestov was born in 1866 in the city of Kiev, when Kiev was still a part of Russia. Is life was characterized by intermittent travels and periods of financial difficulty. He eventually left Russia and ultimately settled in Paris as a result of disagreements he had with the emerging Soviet regime within his home nation and he was quite active in emigré literary circles within that city (see Fotiade). Several of his works were published in foreign languages before they were published in the original. In addition, several of his works also consisted of compilations of articles and passages written over the course of years, but this does not really detract from their quality.  Given the fragmentary and aphoristic style that Shestov’s thoughts and writings possessed in the first place, the style was an integral part of the non-systematic nature of what Shestov was actually trying to convey.

Shestov’s defense of human subjectivity

That message was nothing other than a radical defense of human subjectivity, in the face of a world that was becoming increasingly rational and objectivistic over the course of the years. As such, Shestov often tends to dismiss the very language and style of the philosophers themselves, on the grounds that such a language/style is emblematic of the hypertrophy of reason that he is actually trying to combat through his own works. Shestov’s style is perhaps most reminiscent of Nietzsche, with even the lengthier passages maintaining a decidedly aphoristic quality. This probably got on the nerves of several of his contemporaries. However, it was an essential component of Shestov’s basic philosophical mission of passing a prophetic judgment on the capacity of reason itself.

Power of the keys

One of Shestov’s most significant works is called Potestas Clavium, which can be translated as “the power of the keys.” Shestov means to refer to the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, or the notion that philosophers and activists across the ages have had that they, and they alone, possess the secret for the salvation of the entire species. Historically speaking, this is also an allusion to a doctrine of the Catholic Church, according to which no one would be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven except on the condition that the Church were to open the doors for them. More generally, though, it can refer to the hubris of the general belief that anyone can know what the ultimate truth is for anyone else, or that the Truth (with an intentional capitalized letter) can ever even be exhausted by any single rational or conceptual definition of it. Shestov rails with passion against this notion and instead advocates for the deeply individualistic and personal nature of real existential Truth.

Dostoevsky as context

In order to make this point, Shestov makes reference to the chapter of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, known as “The Grand Inquisitor.” In that story, there is an Inquisitor who has taken charge of the Church and reduced all of the population except for his colleagues to a state of sheep-like passivity—on the grounds that this is for their own good, and that most people would never even be able to handle the gift of real freedom. When the Savior actually returns the world, the Inquisitor has him arrested, on the grounds that the Savior is disrupting the smooth functioning of his own Church. Near the end of this passage, the Inquisitor raves at the Savior:

“You thirsted for a love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified” (Dostoevsky 256).

In short, the Savior believed that the Kingdom of Heaven could only ever be found through subjective freedom, whereas the Inquisitor wanted to claim the keys to the Kingdom for himself and lead others to those doors through sheer force and brutality.

Existentialism versus science

Shestov’s point, then, would seem to be that there has been a basic methodological confusion at play in the works of most philosophers and leaders across the ages. They have all sought to find a truth that is “objective” and universally valid in nature, whereas in fact existential Truth is necessary subjective and utterly individual in its very essence. Another way of stating the same thing is to suggest that the existential attitude to the world is fundamentally at odds with the scientific attitude to the world, much like Descartes who sought to differentiate science from religion. With the scientific attitude, one seeks to objectively analyze the world and find a truth for which a broad consensus can be developed; with an existential attitude, one goes forward on one’s own and seeks to find a truth for which the very concept of consensus itself becomes irrelevant. As such, Shestov’s call to renounce the power of the keys can be read as a deep vindication of the general existential ethos as developed by the several writers discussed in this present series of essays.

Reason versus subjectivity

This is related to the fact that Shestov sets up what is perhaps the most intractable opposition between reason and subjectivity in the history of all of philosophy. He follows Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard in this move but in some respects formulates positions that are even more extreme that what can be found in the works of those writers. Albert Camus has somewhat humorously put the matter in the following way:

Shestov, who is so fond of quoting Hamlet’s remark: “The time is out of joint,” writes it down with a sort of savage hope that seems to belong to him in particular. For it is not in this sense that Hamlet says it or Shakespeare writes it. . . . To Shestov reason is useless but there is something beyond reason (35).

Camus disagrees with this position, but it is nevertheless a highly lucid and accurate summary of Shestov’s basic philosophical ethos.

Greek versus Hebrew foundations

The conflict that Shestov envisions between reason and subjectivity is exemplified by the very title of his most important work, Athens and Jerusalem. Athens, and Greek culture for that matter, of course, is the birthplace of the spirit of philosophy, with the ancient Greeks, whereas Jerusalem is the birthplace of the spirit of prophecy, with the ancient Jews. Shestov imagines a basic and irreconcilable tension between these two poles of influence within the modern world. And even as he sees the world steadily getting overtaken by the rationalism of Athens, he cuts sharply in favor of the subjectivity of Jerusalem. At one point, for example, Shestov even goes so far as the challenge the orthodox theological idea that even God cannot change the past—on the simple grounds that if God is real, then he can do literally anything. This gives a good flavor of the extremism that is characteristic of Shestov’s thought. Although it may be something of a turn-off to people schooled in more sober traditions of thought, it is also quite inspiring to any reader who would like to delve into a more intoxicated alternative to the dominant rationalistic ethos of the modern world.

Shestov’s view of philosophy as poetry

From what has been suggested above, it is perhaps clear enough that Shestov’s philosophical project to a substantial extent called for the implosion of what Western civilization had always traditionally understood by the very concept of philosophy itself. Throughout his works—and with increasing intensity over the course of his literary career—Shestov emphasizes that existential Truth cannot be found through reason or consensus, but only through the subjective will to go forth alone in pursuit of one’s own imaginative visions and desires. As Iyer has pointed out, though, insofar as this is the case, it would no longer be appropriate to call philosophy by the name of philosophy. Rather, the subjective pursuit of one’s own visions is nothing other than the project of poetry (303-307). As such, it would be fair to suggest that Shestov essentially transmutes philosophy into poetry, and that according to his vision, even all of what has traditionally been called metaphysics falls within the domain of poetry.

Shetov’s ideas in daily lives

The best way to explain this aspect of Shestov’s thought may be to make an analogy to the experience of falling in love. When a man falls in love with a woman, he probably does not go around asking all his friends and acquaintances for a “consensus” about whether he is really in love. Rather, the man just knows what he sees and what he experiences, and he decides to just subjectively go forth on this basis. He probably knows that no else sees what he sees, insofar as no one else is in love with that particular woman in the way he is in love with her. According to Shestov, metaphysical Truth operates in the same way: a person must go forth in search of what he—and only he—sees, and relinquish any notion of trying to find an objective “truth” that can be found on the basis of consensus and/or other rationalistic protocols.

The significance of Shestov’s work

In order to understand Shestov’s full significance as an original thinker, it is necessary to consider him within his historical context. In truth, several of Shestov’s ideas could be understood as consisting primarily of reiterations and/or intensifications of key points made by other, preceding existentialists such as Dostoevsky and Søren Kierkegaard. However, one must remember the fact that whereas those writers expired before the turn of the twentieth century, Shestov lived until the year 1938. What is most impressive about Shestov is thus the fact that he was able to keep the religious existentialist ethos alive this far into the heart of the modern era; and indeed, the extremism of several of his formulations should probably be understood as a dialectical response to the intensification of the secular, rationalistic worldview that he saw gaining more and more ground over time. In a world where reason was increasingly eclipsing the existentialist attitude to the world, Shestov developed one of the most trenchant critiques of reason in the entire history of philosophy.


The fact that Shestov lived and wrote at this cusp can be clearly seen if one considers the main existentialists who rose to dominance after him. Unlike Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, these writers were essentially secular and rationalistic in their outlook, even as they continued to develop the existentialist tradition in the midst of the modern world. Two of the key figures in this respect were Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. What must be made clear, however, is that the climate for existentialism fundamentally changed as the twentieth century progressed, and one became less and less likely to see the kind of radical defense of subjectivity found in writers such as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, and which perhaps reached its swan song (at least for the time being) in the works of Shestov.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage. 1991. Print.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.

Fotiade, Ramona. “Lev Shestov: Biography.” 10 Sep. 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2016. .

Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2000. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966. Print.

Shestov, Lev. Athens and Jerusalem. Trans. Bernard Martin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. Print.

Shestov, Lev. Potestas Clavium. Trans. Bernard Martin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *