Skip to main content

berdyaev on dehumanization

"Man cannot be the image either of nature or of the machine. Man is the image and likeness of God."

Below is an excerpt from The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1935), by Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). [University of Michigan, 1935; pp 25-35.]

Writing in 1935 Berdyaev is analyzing the direction of western Europe since the turn of the twentieth century. In view are the great war (World War I), the advance of communism, and the rise of national-socialism in Germany. He views the twentieth century as being that point in history where humanism dies. He notes that the existence of God (theism) had been widely rejected and now man as a special creation no longer made sense. Classical humanism is losing its influence. Humanity is going into one of two directions: the bestial (identification with nature) and the technological (identification with the machine). By "bestialism" Berdyaev means a philosophy or practice of life that is brutish, animalistic, that is, driven by natural instinct and desires, rather than by reason and higher moral principles. Also, Berdyaev's use of the word "technics" is now archaic. What he was denoting was "technology", and I've updated those occurrences with the more current term.




The central theme of our epoch is that of all history -- the fate of man. What is taking place in the world today is not a crisis of humanism (that is a topic of secondary importance), but the crisis of humanity. We face the question, is that being to whom the future belongs to be called man, as previously, or something other? We are witnessing the process of dehumanization in all phases of culture and of social life. Above all, moral consciousness is being dehumanized. Man has ceased to be the supreme value: he has ceased to have any value at all. The youth of whole world, communist, fascist, national-socialist or those simply carried away by technology or sport -- this youth is not only anti-humanistic in its attitudes, but often anti-human. Does this mean that we should defend the old humanism against today's youth? In many of my books I have called attention to the crisis in humanism, and tried to show that it inevitably develops into anti-humanism and that its final stage is a denial of man. Humanism has become powerless and must be replaced. Humanism bound up with the renaissance of antiquity is very frail; its development implies an aristocratic social order and democracy has dealt it terrible blows, with the masses and the power of technology breaking into cultural life. The machine dehumanizes human life. Man, desiring no longer to be the image of God, becomes the image of the machine. In its process of democratization, beginning with the eighteenth century, humanism goes along line of subjecting to society, to social ordinariness, it generalizes man -- it is losing itself. 

This democratized and generalized humanism has ceased to be attentive to man: it is interested in the structure of society, but not in man's inner life. This is a fatal and inevitable process.  Hence humanism can never be a force capable of withstanding the process of dehumanization. From humanism, which is, after all, a sort of middle-of-the-road humanity, progress is possible in two directions, up and down; toward the idea 
 of the God-man, or toward that of the beast-man. Movement toward super-humanity and the superman, toward super-human powers, all too often means nothing other than a bestialization of man. Modern anti-humanism takes the form of bestialization. It uses the tragic and unfortunate Nietzsche as a superior sort of justification for dehumanization and bestialization. Few there are who are moving toward the god-man, "god-humanism", toward the true super-humanism: many move bestialism, the deification of the bestial. A bestial cruelty toward man is  characteristic of our age, and this is more astonishing since it is displayed at the very peak of human refinement, where modern conceptions of sympathy, it would seem, have made impossible the old, barbaric forms of cruelty. Bestialism is something quite different from the old, natural, healthy barbarism; it is barbarism within a refined civilization. Here the atavistic, barbaric instincts are filtered through the prism of civilization, and hence they have a pathological character. Bestialism is a phenomenon of the human world, but a world already civilized. It does not exist in the animal world, which belongs to a different degree of being, with its own significance and justification. The animals are something much higher than bestialized man. Hence we speak of man's fallen state. Just now bestialism is set up higher than humanism, as the next degree to which we should progress. But bestialism at all events is worse and lover than humanism, although the latter is powerless resist it. The bestialism of our time is a continuation of the war, it has poisoned mankind with blood of war. The morals of wartime have become those of "peaceful" life, which is actually the continuation of war, a war of all against all. According to this morality, everything is permissible: man may be used in any way desired for the attainment of inhuman or anti-human aims. Bestialism is a denial of the value of the human person, of every human personality; it is a denial of all sympathy with the fate of any man. The new humanism is closing:  this is inescapable. But if the end of humanism be held to be the end of humanity, this is a moral catastrophe. 

We are entering an inhuman world, a world of inhumanness, inhuman not merely in fact, but in principle as well. Inhumanity has begun to be presented as something noble, surrounded with an aureole of heroism. Over against man there rises a class or a race, a deified collective or state. Modern nationalism bears marks of bestial inhumanity. No longer is every man held to be a man. a value, the image and likeness of God. For often even Christianity is interpreted inhumanly, The "Aryan paragraph" offered to German Christians is the project for a new form of inhumanity in Christianity. But this is nothing very new. Too often in the past Christianity, that is to say Christian humanity, has been inhumane. The old bestialism, naive, barbarian, instinctive, was not self-conscious; it was pre-conscious. But modern bestialism is conscious, deliberate, the product of reflection and civilization, self-justified. Over against the inhumanity of modern  nationalism stands that of modem communism. It also refuses to consider every as of real value, as the likeness and image of God. The class-enemy may be treated as you like. We to this subject, later and shall see that nationalism and racialism are worse than communism.

There may have been a time when the image of man, his truly human nature, was not yet revealed -- man was in a sort of potential state. This the case in the past. But now we face something quite different. The image of man has been shaken and has begun to disintegrate after it was revealed. This is going on now in all spheres.  Dehumanization has penetrated into all phases of human creativity. In making himself God, man has unmanned himself. This is, of course, a collapse of the humanistic theory of progress. The fate of man is infinitely more complex than it was thought to be in the nineteenth century. The new world which is taking form is moved by other values than the value of man or of human personality, or the value of truth: it is moved by such values as power, technology, race-purity, nationality, the state, the collective. The will to justice is overcome by the will to power. The dialectic of this process is very delicate , man desires power for himself, but this leads him to put power above self, above man; it leads him to readiness to sacrifice his own humanity for the sake of power. Power is objectified and drawn away from human existence. Such values as those of technocracy, the state, the race or the class bestialize man:  for the sake of these sorts of power, any desired treatment of the individual is permitted. 

It would be a mistake to think that modern bestialism and its attendant dehumanization are based upon the triumph of base instincts and appetites and a denial of all the values ordinarily held to be idealistic. Modern bestialism and dehumanization are based upon idolatry, the worship of technology, race or class or production, and upon the adaptation of atavistic instincts to this worship. We have already noted that modern barbarism is a civilized barbarism. The war aroused ancient instincts -- racial and national: the instincts of power and violence, instincts of revenge, but all these are now realized in the forms of technological civilization. In reality we are witnessing a return of the human mass to the ancient collective with which its history began; the return to a state which preceded the development of personality. But this ancient collective takes on civilized forms and uses the technological instruments of civilization. 

In modern tendencies the influence of two thinkers of the nineteenth century is very strongly felt—the influence of Marx and Nietzsche. They signify the end and destruction of humanism. Marx and Nietzsche are in conflict for the control of the world. The influence of Nietzsche upon fascism and national-socialism is unmistakable. His influence is felt in the modern apotheosis of a powerful leader, and in the development of a cruel type of youth devoid of all sympathy with suffering. Nietzsche himself, that solitary aristocratic thinker, would turn away in horror from the social results of his preaching. Nietzsche did not like the idea of Pan-Germanism, he was not a German nationalist and would probably suffer pangs of disgust at the modern plebeian spirit, devoid of all traits of nobility. 

But influence works that way, in the subterranean and subconscious sphere, and often arouses forces which it was far from the thought of the mind to set in motion. The historical influence of Luther, for instance, moved in quite a different direction than he intended. Luther never thought that Protestantism would become rationalistic and moralistic. The influence of Marx on communism is apparently developing much more as he intended, but still the Russian communist revolution would doubtless greatly surprise him, since it quite contradicts or even renounces his teaching. At the same moment the influence of Marx and Nietzsche is active in the direction of the dehumanization of society and culture. And this dehumanization is at the same time de-christianization. Conservative Christians rarely note how completely this is true. They are inclined to think that humanism was a de-christianization, and for some reason they do not associate dehumanization with the fact that the image of God in man is being darkened, that man is losing the sense, which Christianity revealed to him, of being a son of God. 

In the cultural and ideal tendencies of our epoch dehumanization moves in two directions, toward naturalism and toward technocracy. Man is subject either to cosmic forces or to technological civilization. It is not enough to say that he subjects himself: he is dissolved and disappears either in cosmic life or else in almighty technology; he takes upon himself the image, either of nature or of the machine. But in either case he loses his own image and is dissolved into his component elements. Man as a whole being, as a creature centered within himself, disappears; he ceases to be a being with a spiritual center, retaining his inner continuity and his unity. To the fractional and partial elements of man there is offered not only the right to autonomy, but to supremacy in life. The self-assertion of these disunited elements in man, as, for instance, the non-sublimated elements of the subconscious, sexual desire, or the will to dominance end power, bear witness to the fact that the unified, whole image of man is disappearing and giving place to non-human and natural elements. Man has disappeared; there remain only certain of his functions. 

This dissolution of man into certain functions is the product, first of all, of technological civilization. The  process of dehumanization attains its climax in the technique of modem war, where human bravery is no longer necessary. Technological civilization demands that man shall fulfill one or another of his functions, but it does not want to reckon with man himself -- it knows only his functions. This is not dissolving man in nature, but making him into a machine. When civilized man yearns for nature, he is longing to return to wholeness and unconsciousness, since consciousness has shaken his unity and made him unhappy. This is romanticism. When man strives for complete fulfillment of his technological functions, when he tries to be like his new god, the machine, the tendency is just the opposite to that noted above: not toward wholeness, integrity, but toward greater and greater differentiation. But man disappears in both these tendencies, both dehumanize him. Man cannot be the image either of nature or of the machine. Man is the image and likeness of God. The formation of man as an integral being, as a personality, that process which began in the world of the Bible and the Greek world, was finished only in Christianity.  Now we are witnessing a sort of reverse cosmic process, against not only Christianity, but against the Bible and against Greek culture. 


I have been greatly enriched by reading the writings of those in the 1930/40s who saw our present world on the horizon, such as T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and others. Now I am adding Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) to that list. The best online resource for his works is the Internet Archive at 


Popular posts from this blog

bible reading nov 1-2

  Bible reading for weekend Nov 1 -- 2 Nov 1 -- Hosea 7 and Psalms 120-122 Nov 2 -- Hosea 8 and Psalms 123-125 ================   "Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands, they would be regarded as a strange thing." (Hosea 8:12) THE RESULTS OF SIN (ch 7-8). Notice the words and metaphors to describe Israel's sinful condition: they are surrounded with, and proud of, their evil (7:1-3); like adulterers in the heat of passion (7:4-5); their anger is like a hot oven (7:6-7); they are like a half-cooked (one side only) cake (7:8); their strength is gone (7:9); they are like silly doves easily trapped (7:11-12); they are undependable like a warped bow (7:16). In spite of all of this they are so proud of themselves! (We might say they have a strong self-esteem.) They have spurned what is good (8:3); they sow to the wind and have no real fruit (8:7); they are a useless vessel (8:8) and a wild donkey wandering alone (8:9); they regard God's law as a strange thing

bible reading dec 3-5

  Bible reading for weekend December 3 -- 5  Dec 3 -- Nahum 1 and Luke 17 Dec 4 -- Nahum 2 and Luke 18 Dec 5 -- Nahum 3 and Luke 19 ================ "The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness." (Nahum 1:7-8)  TIME'S UP FOR NINEVEH (Nah 1-3). The prophecy of Nahum is God's word to the people of Nineveh, part two. Jonah was part one, chronicling a city-wide repentance of Assyrians in the capital about a hundred years earlier. The closing bookend is Nahum, and the Assyrian empire is big, powerful, and aggressive. Notice the references to chariots (2:3-4, 13; 3:2). The Assyrians were a militarily advanced culture, and cruel in their warfare. Whatever spiritual receptivity they had at the time of Jonah was gone by the time of Nahum. Nahum may not have actually visited Nineveh, for it seems the book was w

bible reading dec 13-14

Bible reading for December 13 -- 14  Dec 13 -- Haggai 2 and John 3 Dec 14 -- Zechariah 1 and John 4 ================ "Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts..." (Haggai 2:4) THE LATTER GLORY (Haggai 2). The Jews, having returned from Babylonian exile, must get to work and finish rebuilding the temple. For this reason, the post-exilic period is called the "second temple" period. King Herod would later enlarge and add many embellishments to the site. But the beginnings in Haggai are so modest compared to the temple originally built by Solomon, and the people were discouraged. The Lord asks, "Is it not as nothing in your eyes?" (v 3) He tells them that they are to be strong and to keep working, for he is with them, no matter how humble the project may seem. This principle applies to us, as well (Matt 28:20; Eph 6:10). We should not become disheartened at the smallness of the return on our