In his final major work, The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar, Nikolai Berdyaev categorizes the movement of history into two realms– that of Spirit (subjectivity) and of Caesar (objectivity and authority).
The lengths of these historical periods vary and sometimes overlap; nevertheless, the stress Berdyaev places emphasis on particular fractures in history draw attention to shifts in human consciousness that changed how people perceived and understood spirituality and objectivity at different points in time.
These shifts in consciousness are historically rare, definite, and unique, and they change the trajectory of man’s relationship with the cosmos.
Berdyaev’s major assumption about human nature was that people were both social and spiritual beings. Thus, at different points throughout history, people surrendered to and allowed themselves to become enslaved to differing levels of being.
The periods Berdyaev labels focus on a dichotomy of two realms – the realm of Spirit (subjectivity) and the realm of Caesar (objectivity). The latter refers to latent and varying large-scale political organizations such as empires or states. Berdyaev’s framework concentrates on the intersection of the two realms in the development of consciousness.
Berdyaev prophesied that in its later days, the Realm of Caesar would increasingly move toward enslaving totalitarianism but would eventually encounter a peak crisis and dissolve due to a dramatic shift in human consciousness.
During this dramatic shift, people will finally understand that freedom emanates from within (from the internal and the subjective) rather than from without (external authority, institutions and social objectification).
However, getting to this point would entail a period of intense darkness, during which people would experience an era of near-total despiritualization and enslavement to the Realm of Caesar, primarily through the dominance of technology wielded by technocrats.
Berdyaev’s five historical periods illustrate the past and future relationships that human beings have to nature and the cosmos:
First Period – the longest period, encompassing early hunter-gatherer societies, right up to the peak of the Roman Empire. Before the appearance of Christ, human consciousness was largely immersed into and dependent upon its natural surroundings and deeply in touch with its cycles, movements, and patterns. Control over nature was limited and primitive. Man perceived everything as alive, yet his personality remained underformed. He was dependent on the group and nature determined dominated the range of his spiritual consciousness, which was paganistic, polytheistic, and pluralistic.
Berdyaev cites the appearance of Christ as the rupture that shifts human consciousness away from this spiritual pattern. According to Berdyaev, Jesus’s message revealed an unarticulated form of dualism, namely, the Kingdom of God (subjectivity) and the Kingdom of Caesar (objectivity).
The emergence of this radical awareness empowered human personality to develop at an intense spiritual level, separated from the natural and social forces that had dominated human personality up until that point. Put another way, Jesus marked a shift away from the spiritual dominance of the external in favor of the spiritual dominance of the internal.
Nevertheless, Christ’s message of spiritual freedom, everlasting life, and the promise of Heaven eventually ran up against the problem of authority. Toward the end of the first historical period that Berdyaev outlines, social and authoritative forces slowly dilute and confuse the radical simplicity of Jesus’s message. In other words, Christ’s mission of spiritual freedom quickly becomes objectified. People begin seeking Christ in objectified, external forms.
Berdyaev argues that Christ’s original message was intensely personalistic and spiritual (subjective), but it was slowly usurped and used to support and promote authority within the Realm of Caesar (objectivity). Instead of realizing freedom as spiritual beings, man surrenders his freedom to objectifying forces of external, centralized governments and organized religions, which set about “correcting” Jesus’s work, as Dostoevsky illustrates in the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov.
Second Period – This era spans the spread of objectified Christianity from the peak of the Roman empire to the end of the Middle Ages in the 16th century. The emergence of Christianity as an objectified authoritative structure was not an entirely negative development because it helped disrupt the stultifying spiritual patterns of paganism.
Christianity preserved enough of Christ’s original message to allow human beings to spiritually liberate themselves from external, natural forces and the limitless power of society and the state. Nevertheless, Berdyaev describes the period as tainted by the failure of Christ’s original message via its objectification and merging with the authoritative power structures of the Roman state and later monarchical power structures, which were then declared to be invested with authority via God.
Simply put, the second period signified the sanctification of external authority. Though humans were liberated from many external cosmic forces attributed to nature, their personal freedom was severely curtailed by the development of economics and serfdom and the elevation of the “virtues” of obedience, authority, submission, servitude, and a herd mentality.
Third Period – the era of enlightenment, industrialization, humanism, and revolution marked by man’s increasing mechanized control over nature through science. The Realm of Caesar reconfigures itself and shifts away from rural, landowning aristocracy to urban captains of industry. A universalizing streak appears.
Organized Christianity as a temporal power is eclipsed by and merged with the controlling state apparatus. Man enjoys a level of unprecedented freedom over nature and is presented with the opportunity to revisit the inherent meaning of Christ’s original message. Instead of embracing Christ’s message of subjectivity with God, man strikes out his own and tricks himself into believing that he has no need of spirituality or can be spiritually self-sufficient.
This approach meets its ultimate limit in nature. Though he has liberated himself from the dominance of external, natural forces, man’s turning away from God traps him within that dominance. The personal freedom he enjoys is eventually reabsorbed by the Realm of Caesar and its increasing dominance over individuals within society.
Fourth Period – the continuation of the modern era in the 20th century, which Berdyaev describes as the “disruption of cosmic order”. The technological advancements that liberated man from natural forces loop back and ensnare him. Berdyaev experienced the totalitarianism of communism and prophesied that such totalitarian tendencies would become eventually encompass the globe.
External power would work to completely obliterate all traces of internal freedom. Put another way, objectivity would aim to effectively extinguish subjectivity. Lacking the spiritual resources required to repel this onslaught of external, objectified forces, people would sink to an almost slave-like form of consciousness in which they could not think beyond the boundaries imposed by the Realm of Caesar.
Fifth Period – an eschatological revolution that Berdyaev terms “the eighth day of creation”. During this period, Berdyaev predicts man will re-embrace Christ’s original message in a reinvigorated and creative manner, thereby ushering in the decline of the realm of Caesar, the dissolution of state power, and the rise of the Realm of Spirit.
I believe Berdyaev’s metahistorical framework offers some clear insights into the development of human consciousness through time. Moreover, I believe the periods he denotes are largely accurate.
It is easy to determine that we are presently in the final stages of Period Four and – perhaps – on the cusp of Period Five.
Having said that, I must confess that I do not share Berdyaev’s belief concerning the transfiguration of this world – at least not in the sense that he describes it. The spiritual transformation Berdyaev prophesizes will occur at the level of individuals, and, perhaps, at the level of families and small communities, but I cannot conceive of a world in which the Realm of Caesar has been purged and vanquished.
As far as I’m concerned, the creative divine-human activity Berdyaev foresees occurs primarily in Heaven and not in the world for the simple reason that Berdyaev’s realm of subjectivity cannot exist in the world at any large scale. If it could, Jesus’s message and mission would have been accomplished; the world would be transformed.
But perhaps I’m being too pessimistic . . .