A Critique of Nihilism by Constantine Pobedonostsev: "The Ideals of Unbelief"

[excerpted from K.B. Pobyedonostseff, Reflections of a Russian Statesman, Robert C. Long, tr. (London: Grant Richards, 1898), pp. 157-171]


The ancient words, " The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God," apply with especial force to-day. Their truth is plainer than the sun, although now all " progressive minds " are possessed by a passionate desire to live without God, to conceal Him, to deny His presence. Even men at heart benevolent and honourable ask themselves how they may realise benevolence, honour, and conscience without God.

The Government of France, in the last stage of political disintegration, has organised its national schools without God. Among us, unhappily, certain representatives of intelligence have rivalled the Moscow princess, who said, " Ah, France, no better country in the world ! "-for not long ago a celebrated schoolmaster pointed out the French scholastic system as a model worthy of imitation.

Among the latest books officially prescribed for study in the female schools of France is one entitled, " Instruction Morale et Civique des jeunes Filles." This is in the nature of a secular catechism of morals, appointed to replace the study of the Word of God.

This book is worthy of notice. It is divided into three sections, each bearing a different title. The first is composed of certain moral precepts on duty, honesty, conscience, and so forth. The second part contains a short description of the State and of the national institutions. The third part treats of woman, her mission, faculties, and virtues. The matter in the book is concise, simple, and clear, written as a textbook ought to be with a multitude of clear examples and illustrations. No exception can be taken to the manner of this book; it preaches order, good morals, purity of thought and intention, kind deeds; it approves with emphasis the sentiment and recognition of duty, and carefully sets forth a woman's duties in social and domestic life.

One thing alone is notable. On no single page is mentioned the name of God, nor is there the slightest' reference to the religious feeling. The author, after explaining the great importance of the part played in man by conscience, defines it thus: " Conscience is our conception of the opinion which others have about us and our actions " (considération de l'opinion des autres). On this treacherous and mutable base, the opinion of others, is affirmed the moral foundation of our lives. How excellently this illustrates the ancient proverb, " Who thinks himself too wise becomes a fool."

Unhappily, to this stream of idiotcy flooding France to-day are drawn even from our poor Russia little rills of native intelligence ; and in our newspapers and gazettes, in our leading articles and feuilletons are repeated in chorus the words of the Moscow princess. To the same chorus too often are drawn those well- meaning, but simple and inexperienced men, who fancy newspapers must bring to them some it new word " of civilisation.

Nothing is more deplorable than the reasoning on the subject of education of our journalist critics, who tell us that while religion and religious training are indispensable, churches and ministers must be abolished. Sometimes they speak more plainly. "We do not reject religious teaching, we even demand it ; we cannot understand education without it; but we object to Clericalism." By this term we must understand the Church and everything appertaining thereto. This jesuitical casuistry, which the apostles of popular education have made peculiarly their own, misleads many readers who cannot appreciate subtlety in writing.

These good men do not know that the word religion, as many other words, has changed its signification, and is made by many to imply something from which, if they but understood it, believers in God would recoil with abhorrence. They do not know that in our time religion may exist without God, and that the very word God, in its application by so-called men of science, has a double meaning.

In 1882 appeared a remarkable book which awakened general interest. Therein the negation of God, by the enemies of all religion, was expressed with ferocity, with reckless and malicious irony, with a demand for the exclusive consideration of matter in the universe. The first part of the work expressed, in a tranquil tone, with dignity, with an ideal outlook on life, the whole teaching of the religion without God. This book was entitled "Natural Religion" (London, 1882). Its author, Professor Seeley of Oxford, was he whose former "Ecce Homo," which appeared ten years before, had attracted the attention, not only of men of science, but of religious idealists who sought in it some new word on Christ and the Christian faith. A Russian translation of this latter work has been published by an admirer.

But to the adherents of the Church Mr Seeley's work seemed strange and questionable. Few could look on it without distrust.

This book contained an artistic analysis of the earthly life and character of Jesus Christ, treating exclusively of his human nature. It was written in a spirit of deep piety, in the language of philosophy, with occasional recourse to the terminology of theologians. The object of the work seemed to be to hold up the image of Christ to pious imitation. The author, it seemed, was a Christian, full of religious feeling. But many religious reader~ took alarm, as if their views and sentiments of Christianity were not in accord with the views and sentiments of the author. The picture of Christ was a picture of supreme holiness, purity, and goodness, but not that picture which we have been taught to venerate from childhood-not the Christ honoured by the Christian Church. Something discordant appeared throughout the book, as if the author had either lost all faith, or was on the point of losing it. Nevertheless, the writer plainly affirmed his faith in the existence of a personal God; in the immortality of the human soul; in the Messianic significance of the appearance of Christ; and even, although with some hesitation, in the reality of His miracles.

Ten years passed; again Mr Seeley appeared as the inspired prophet of religion, this time a new religion, and not the religion of Christ. The ancient revelation, he said, had done its work; instead, a new revelation had come; the naturalists, historians, and philologists of the age had borne us a revelation of which the ancient prophets had never dreamed. The Biblical criticism of German scholars was greater and more perfect than the Bible itself. With uncommon simplicity, turning to the believers and members of the Church, he asks: "Why should we quarrel, why should there be strife between us? We may unite in a single faith. We, men of science, also trust in God. Our God is Nature, which in one sense is a revelation too. Therefore we are not atheists," he repeats, "and the battle between us, men of science, and you, men of faith, is merely a battle of words. Is it not the same? For us God is Nature, and the scientific theory of the universe is a theory of theism also. Nature is a force existing outside of us; its law for us is absolute: there is the divinity which we adore."

Is it not strange that the author, while rejecting the personal existence of God, at the same time protests with energy against the accusation of atheism, which he rejects and condemns? What is atheism, then ? This question Mr Seeley answers with a tortuous subtlety which to a simple mind must seem insanity.

"There is an atheism which is a mere speculative crotchet, and there is an atheism which is a great moral disease. . . . The purest form of such real atheism might be called by the general name of wilfulness. All human activity is a transaction with Nature. It is the arrangement of a compromise between what we want on the one hand, and what Nature has decreed on the other. Not to recognise anything but your own will, to fancy anything within your reach if you only will strongly enough, to acknowledge no superior power outside yourself which must be considered, and in some way propitiated, if you would succeed in any undertaking: this is complete wilfulness, or, in other words, pure atheism." -- Seeley, "Natural Religion," p. 27.

To illustrate this obscure and disorderly argument, our author takes as example a country in its fate a symbol of pure atheism, and points to Poland.

"Sedet aeternumque sedebit," says he, "that unhappy Poland, not indeed extinguished, but partitioned, and every thirty years decimated anew, expiates the crime of atheistic wilfulness, the fatal pleasure of unbounded individual liberty, which rose up against the very nature of things." -- Ibid. p. 29.

Having disclosed this theory of religion, he describes in detail how the religious feeling is born from science, and, passing through the prism of imagination, is refracted in the moral nature of man into a religious trinity: the religion of Nature, the religion of Humanity, and the religion of Beauty.

In this book, written with talent and spirit, is a doctrine by no means new, although for the first time expressed with such completeness. The reader finds there the well-known features of the Positivism so fashionable in our time-features familiar through the writings of Kant, George Eliot, and Herbert Spencer- the well-beloved of Russian translators. Not one of these writers exposes so clearly the internal weakness of this fashionable theory as the author of " Natural Religion." To what idiotcy must the mind have sunken when, drawn by the pride of self-adoration, it rejects the supernatural in life and nature, and strives to build a theory of life in relation to the universe. This theory is condemned to turn in an enchanted circle, and to contradict itself for ever. Denying a personal God, in vain it would sustain religion and establish an object of religious feeling; for, except the living God, there can be no object of religion. Rejecting the invisible world, the immortality of the soul, and the future life, it proclaims that the end of life is happiness, and would confine humanity within the limits of matter and of its earthly nature. Condemning revelation as invention or fantasy, and every dogma as falsehood, it seeks to support itself by a new dogma, proclaiming as an indisputable axiom the constant and endless progress of humanity.

This theory, in a flash, reflects that wilfulness and that obduracy of thought which our author combines in his conception of atheism. It shows no sign of that clear and simple confidence which serves as a symptom of the truth and durability of doctrines. In their sermons on the happiness of humanity, its prophets all stumble on an actuality which they cannot deny. This actuality is the inevitable presence of evil and of evil works, of violence and of injustice in human life-the argument of pessimism.,

This argument cannot be lived down, although; some of the apostles of Positivism strive to stifle its voice or hypocritically to ignore it, while others, more conscientious, stand by it with grief and questioning. To the number of the last belongs our author. While extolling the new religion of

Nature, Humanity, and Beauty, and proving the strength and actuality of the cult it preaches, at the same time he admits that hardly have we found satisfaction in these ideas when pessimism raises its head and brings us to despair. if it were not for pessimism, he declares, nothing would destroy our religious beliefs. And at the end of the book, when crowning his edifice, he makes these remarks:

"The more our thoughts widen and deepen, as the universe grows upon us and we become accustomed to boundless space and time, the more petrifying is the contrast of our own insignificance, the more contemptible become the pettiness, shortness, fragility of the individual life. A moral paralysis creeps upon us. For a while we comfort ourselves with the notion of self-sacrifice ; we say, What matter if I pass, let me think of others! But the other has become contemptible no less than the self; all human griefs alike seem little worth assuaging, human happiness too paltry at the best to be worth increasing. The whole moral world is reduced to a point ; the spiritual city, (the goal of all the saints,' dwindles to the I least of little stars' ; good and evil, right and wrong, become infinitesimal, ephemeral matters, while eternity and infinity remain attributes of that only which is outside the realm of morality. Life becomes more intolerable the more we know and discover, so long as everything widens and deepens, except our own duration, and that remains as pitiful as ever. The affections die away in a world where everything great and enduring is cold ; they die of their own conscious feebleness and bloodlessness.

"Supernatural Religion met this want by connecting Love and Righteousness with eternity. If it is shaken, how shall its place be supplied? And what would Natural Religion avail then?" Ibid. p. 261.

Who would believe that these words were written by the ardent prophet of Natural Religion? Thus may a serious mind be entangled in the intellectual network it weaves.

The essence of this work, with all its moderation of tone, with all the sincerity of its author, is a joyless paradox. That the various systems of cosmology, the scientific, the artistic, and the humanist, contain elements of religious feeling cannot be denied.

But they do not embody the elements of a new faith, of a new church; they are separate limbs -- disjecta membra -- of the Christian philosophy of life. Religion is impossible without the recognition of axiomatic truths unattainable by the path of -- induction. To such truths belong -the existence of a personal God, and the immaterial nature of the human soul, whence springs supernaturalism, without which religion is inconceivable. With the exception of mathematics, scientific truths are by their nature hypothetical : they exist consciously only for scholars, and only by deception may be imparted to the mass in dogmatic form. This.deception obtains among us and progresses-of this we find fresh evidence every day.


Intolerance of strange beliefs and strange opinions has never been so sharply expressed as it is nowadays by the apostles of radical and negative beliefs, among whom such intolerance is merciless and bitter, and joined with animosity and contempt. When we consider the relations of these teachers to the new doctrines they proclaim, their intolerance is more abhorrent than the old religious intolerance which expressed itself in sanguinary persecution. Then persecution was based on unqualified faith in a truth which absolutely existed. When men believe that they possess an absolute truth, sprung from the ultimate principle of life and involving happiness for all, as the Moslem believes in the Koran, it is conceivable that they may consider it a duty not only openly to preach their doctrine, but, if need be, by violence to enforce it upon others. But when it is merely an, opinion, although it may be that nothing is more probable for him who formed it, how can we understand fanaticism so great that its advocate does not admit not only contradiction but even compromise, although conditional and temporary, with adverse opinion? Yet such passionate attachment to their own convictions or to the doctrines of their schools is an attribute to all the prophets of negation. Rejecting, as if it were not, the whole former history of the spiritual development of humanity, ignoring all ancient faiths and the spiritual conditions of peoples, denying all rights of independent existence, repelled not by the sanctity of personal faith, they claim admittance to every soul, and everywhere strive to establish their new religion. This they call the truth of their convictions. One of the representatives of the doctrine of Comte and the Positivists (John Morley " On Compromise") maintains that the first duty of every man to himself and to humanity is to solve in his heart the question, Does he or does he not believe in the existence of God? Should he reach the conviction that faith in God is no better than a blind and unhealthy superstition, it is his sacred duty to break in with this conviction on every soul, to take advantage of every occasion to convert, firstly, his kinsmen and neighbours, and then, if possible, the people; to proclaim it everywhere, and in private and public life wholly to renounce all forms and ceremonies which, directly or indirectly, express a faith opposed to his conviction. What is this but a terrible violence against the conscience of others -- and in the name of what? In the name of a personal opinion.

In this hell of vanity we can find neither love nor faith. But without love and without faith there can be no truth. How different to listen to the voice of the old true teacher! What faith and love, what knowledge of the human soul is there in those words in which the Apostle to the Corinthians enjoins respect for human conscience. He knows the truth, but with his deep spiritual knowledge how cautiously would he approach the human soul! His purpose is that the soul shall accept and embrace the new belief in the spirit of sincerity and truth by faith alone, without disunion, without discord with itself. All that comes not from faith is sin. And the Apostle teaches the strong and learned that they must spare the consciences of their weaker brethren even in superstition, when the soul is not ripe to accept the truth with entire faith.

The Apostle, the herald of Christian freedom, acting from conviction, sacrifices freedom itself to the sanctity of conscience, knowing that conscience is dearer than all. You know, says he, that meat commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better; neither if we eat not are we the worse. You know that the idol is nothing, that the false God does not exist, therefore with quiet conscience buy meat and eat it, which was brought as sacrifice to the idol.


Nothing is more surprising than the fatuity of clever men who have grown up in estrangement from actual life, and who are blinded by confidence in the infallibility of logic. By adoration of reason they are seduced from religion, and at last incited to hatred of every faith in the only living God. But those who at the same time are men of conscience, find that they cannot rid themselves of the aspiration to faith innate in humanity; those whose hearts are unhardened by the severity of logic admit the lawfulness of religious feeling in man, and strive to satisfy it by some religion devised by themselves. We may wonder at the fancifulness of plans contrived by minds apparently striving to drive away everything like fancy out of their reasoning and deliberations. Strauss, in his work on "The Old and the New Faith," while rejecting Christianity, speaks with enthusiasm of the religious sentiment, but as its object and centre replaces the living God with the idea of the World, the so-called Universum. After the death of Mill, his occasional thoughts on religion appeared in London under the title, " Three Essays on Religion: Nature, the Utility of Religion, and Theism." The utility of religion he admits without reserve, and, while rejecting Christianity, he speaks of the individual Christ with the greatest enthusiasm.

"The value of religion to the individual, both in the past and present, as a source of personal satisfaction and of elevated feelings, is not to be disputed. But it has still to be considered whether, in order to obtain this good, it is necessary to travel beyond the boundaries of the world which we inhabit; or whether the idealisation of our earthly life, the cultivation of a high conception of what it may be made, is not capable of supplying a poetry, and, in the best sense of the word, a religion, equally fitted to exalt the feelings, and (with the same aid from education) still better calculated to ennoble the conduct, than any belief respecting the unseen powers." -Three Essays on Religion " (Utility of Religion), pp. 104-5 London, 1874.

The question is worthy of Mill as we know him by the history of his education. It is interesting to note how in his decision of this question, Mill could not, with Strauss, accept as decisive the idea of the Universe, for Mill, strange to say, did not trust in Nature. In the beginning of the same book, true as ever to his estrangement from reality, he speaks of

"Enquiry into the truth of the doctrines which make Nature a test of right and wrong, good and evil, or which in any mode or degree attach merit or approval to following, imitating, or obeying Nature." -- Ibid. (Nature), p. 13

These doctrines Mill rejects, for in Nature he sees blind force and nothing more. Nature inspires desires which it does not satisfy; it builds great edifices, powers, and actions, in a moment to overthrow them; it destroys blindly and indiscriminately all that it has created. For this reason Mill declines to construct on Nature any system of morals or of religion.

What, then, does he think ? These are his own words:

"When we consider how ardent a sentiment, in favourable circumstances of education, the love of country has become, we cannot judge it impossible that the love of that larger country, the world, may be nursed into similar strength, both as a source of elevated emotion and as a principle of duty. He who needs any other lesson on this subject than the whole course of ancient history affords, let him read Cicero De Officiis. It cannot be said that the standard of morals laid down in that celebrated treatise is a high standard. To our notions, it is on many points unduly lax, and admits capitulations of conscience. But on the subject of duty to our country there is no compromise. That any man, with the smallest pretensions to virtue, could hesitate to sacrifice life, reputation, family, everything valuable to him, to the love of country, is a supposition which this eminent interpreter of Greek and Roman morality cannot entertain for a moment. If, then, persons could be trained, as we see they were, not only to believe in theory that the good of their country was an object to which all others ought to yield, but to feel this practically as the grand duty of life, so also may they be made to feel the same absolute obligation towards the universal good. A morality grounded on large and wise views of the whole, neither sacrificing the individual to the aggregate nor the aggregate to the individual, but giving to duty, on the one hand, and to freedom and spontaneity, on the other, their proper province, would derive its power in the superior natures from sympathy and benevolence and the passion for ideal excellence ; in the inferior, from the same feelings cultivated up to the measure of their capacity, with the superadded force of shame. This exalted morality would not depend 'for its ascendency on any hope of reward ; but the reward which might be looked for, and the thought of which would be a consolation in suffering, and a support in moments of weakness, would not be a problematical future existence, but the approbation in this of those whom we respect, and ideally of all those, dead or living, whom we admire or venerate. For, the thought that our dead parents or friends would have approved our conduct is a scarcely less powerful motive than the knowledge that our living ones do approve it ; and the idea that Socrates, or Howard or Washington, or Antoninus, or Christ, would have sympathised with us, or that we are attempting to do our part in the spirit in which they did theirs, has operated on the very best minds as a strong incentive to act up to their highest feelings and convictions.

"To call these sentiments by the name of morality, exclusively of any other title, is claiming too little for them. They are a real religion ; of which, as of other religions, outward good works (the utmost meaning usually suggested by the word morality) are only a part, and are indeed rather the fruits of the religion than the religion itself. The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object, recognised as of the highest excellence, and as rightfully paramount over all selfish objects of desire. This condition is fulfilled by the Religion of Humanity in an eminent degree, and in as high a sense, as by the supernatural religions even in their best manifestations, and far more so than in any of their others." Ibid. (Utility of Religion), pp. 107-9.

The foregoing words explain themselves. They show the narrowness, we should say rather the idiotcy) of human wisdom when it seeks an abstract conception of life and of humanity, while ignoring life itself, and I rejecting the human soul. Such a religion may indeed be sufficient for thinkers like Mill, secluded from the world in abstract speculation, but how shall the people accept and understand it? -- the people, a living organism held in communion only by living sentiment and conscience, and repelled by' abstractions and generalities. In the people, such a religion, if it bore fruit at all, would bear fruit in reversion to paganism. The people-which we cannot co\nceive detached from Nature-if it forgot the faith of its fathers, would again personify the idea, either of the universe, resolving it into separate forces, or of that humanity which stands as a binding spiritual principle, resolving it also into its representative spiritual forces; and there would result so many false gods instead of one true God. It cannot be that we are condemned to suffer this?