Matthew Beaumont: Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night

Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night Book Cover Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night
Matthew Beaumont
Paperback $39.95

Reviewed by: Benjamin Rees (KU Leuven)

In Lev Shestov: Philosopher of the Sleepless Night, Matthew Beaumont gives us a long overdue reassessment of the mostly forgotten Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. History has been both substantially marked as well as unkind to Shestov’s legacy, and modern readers rarely come across his name but for the occasional comment by better known philosophers of the interwar Parisian milieu. Beaumont picks up the potential for a novel reading of the philosopher where Boris Groys’ chapter length treatment in his Introduction to Anti-Philosophers (Groys 2012) left off. In doing so, many of the previously overlooked possibilities for placing Shestov in a dialogue with post-modern and continental philosophies are brought to light as Beaumont carefully reveals the implicit connections between Shestov and anti-enlightenment philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, as well as many others.

Beaumont’s reading of Shestov is an ethical one rooted in a hyper-vigilant insomnia that cannot find rest until there is an accounting for all the suffering of our present time, as well as an impossible accounting for the suffering of the past. This endless vigilance is capable of distorting the world away from it’s current state into a world that does not permit of any suffering, no matter how idealistic this may seem. To accomplish this Beaumont gives us a detailed reading of Shestov’s reading of Pascal. These accounts are all characterized by Beaumont’s, Shestov’s and Pascal’s obsessive orbiting of the idea that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world: there must be no sleeping during that time” (Beaumont 2020, 20). This imperative is rooted in Jesus’ disciples failing Christ at his most vulnerable moment in the garden of Gethsemane when his despair was at its highest point due to his utter alienation from even those closest to him. Beaumont follows Pascal and Shestov in the need to remain absolutely vigilant, and he develops this theme of sleeplessness into a radical and constant rejection of any practice or institution, past or present, that justifies suffering at any level. In this way it is more so a modality of endless vigilance rather than any particular act or systematic way of thinking that can determine in advance how we are to interpret any given moment or event. What is demanded from Shestov then, as an ethical thinker, is constant and perpetual revolt. We can understand the direction, gravity, and force of Beaumont’s argument when he says that this ethics of eternal vigilance:

is […] about ‘staying awake,’ in some active and even agonistic sense. And, to this extent, though it does not address questions of race, it deliberately situates the political discourse of wakefulness, the resonance of which it emphatically underlines, in a rather different, more fully philosophical context, thereby defamiliarizing and displacing it in an attempt to restore a sense of its persistent, and urgent, importance. (Beaumont 2020, 3)

To develop this ethical state, Beaumont points to the idea of homo vigilans (waking man), as opposed to homo dormiens (sleeping man), found in Shestov’s writings.

For Beaumont homo vigilans is a state of engagement so intense that it is metaphorically brighter than the light outside of Plato’s cave, given that the glow of rationality itself can act as a narcotic if compared with his wakefulness. Beaumont shows us the ways in which, according to Shestov, reason can submerge and subordinate the individual to history, such as we find in Hegel, in a way that justifies their suffering as the necessary costs of historical progress and so rationalizes these casualties into a kind of indifferent acceptance (Beaumont 2020, 140-143). Yet we are also shown how the assurances of reason itself can lull us back to sleep with the peace and quiet found in formulations like the agreeable and eternal assurance that two times two is four (Beaumont 2020, 131-132). Beaumont’s homo vigilans is to be on guard against every one of these intellectual balms and is to always be present to the worlds failings. With this in mind, I would like to turn look more closely at Beaumont’s conceptualizing of homo vigilans.

The only locations in Shestov’s texts cited by Beaumont regarding Shestov’s use of homo vigilans are found where Shestov is attacking Husserlian phenomenology. Our first encounter with homo vigilans comes from a debates between Shestov and the Alsatian philosopher Jean Héring. To be exact, Shestov uses the term homo vigilans in “What is Truth? On Ethics and Ontology” (Shestov 1968c, 400-401); an essay that replies directly to Héring’s defense of Husserlian phenomenology. This essay itself, however, is part of a much larger debate that goes back to an essay titled “Memento Mori(Shestov 1968c, 287-359), where Shestov argues that if we are to believe Husserl’s argument that the evidence of consciousness (i.e. the modality of objects given as actual/evidential) can ground a theory of knowledge, then there is no accounting for the fact that dreaming gives to homo dormiens a variety of seemingly real and evident moments that are indistinguishable from the way evidence is given to homo vigilans. To put it differently: while asleep, homo dormiens takes the objects given to consciousness as if they were evidential/actual in the same way that homo vigilans takes objects while awake, and so Shestov argues that Husserl’s notion of evidence cannot used to ground a theory of knowledge unless it can make a distinction between the way objects are given with the same degrees of evidence in both waking and dreaming alike (Shestov 1968c, 326-328). From this perspective, according to Shestov, homo dormiens and homo vigilans end up becoming two states that relativize each other in away that sets up a tension where one “devour[s]” the other (Shestov 1968c, 340).

With these remarks in mind, I feel it is fair to argue that Shestov does not seem to be offering any solid phenomenological state along the lines of homo vigilans in any of his texts. Instead, he is calling into question the possibility for any truly stable state at all – phenomenological or otherwise. The second use of the term homo vigilans is found where Shestov essentially repeats this argument almost two decades later in Athens and Jerusalem (Shestov 1968a, 432), with nothing new added in terms of the possibility for an ethical reading.

On the heels of these comments, Beaumont’s appropriation of homo vigilans as central to his ethical reading of Shestov might not be beyond questioning. While metaphorically sound and proper, this use of homo vigilans does not seem to be found anywhere in Shestov’s writings, and it is only ever spoken of in a problematic context. If there are other instances of Shestov’s use of homo vigilans then Beaumont has overlooked them, as the ones cited in his book only point to these pages that do not support homo vigilans as an ethical state.

There is another perspective taken by Beaumont that is worth considering. Throughout his book he often uses the term ‘anti-Necessity’ to characterize the unpredictable nature of being that marks Shestov’s philosophy, and this term serves as one of the cornerstones of Beaumont’s reading of Shestov as an original thinker. Yet, this phrase is not one used by Shestov himself. Instead, as Beaumont points out, it is one Czesław Miłosz uses to describe Shestov’s precarious understanding of being (Beaumont 2020, 43). While initially this may not appear significant, the use of anti-Necesity is not without a few unintended, though perhaps wide reaching consequences.

The first is the way in which the concept of revelation is replaced and essentially overlooked by this term. For Shestov, revelations are the point at which there may be effects without causes, when what is unpredictable and beyond any given situation comes in and violently disrupt the order of things. This concept of revelation seems to be the precursor to the concept of the event in post modernity, such as Alain Badiou’s understanding of events, and so overlooking this aspect of Shestov accidentally still keeps his impact on European thought in the dark. To truly consider the profundity of this concept, take the following example:

A thing was suddenly revealed to Descartes of which he had been in ignorance; that he, Descartes, really existed. It was revealed to him; it was a revelation which was in direct contradiction to all the principles of reason. Reason, which questions everything, this pure, super-individual reason, this “consciousness as such”, without which all objective knowledge is impossible, had begun to question the existence of Descartes. And where reason is doubted, rational arguments cannot convince. When “the light of truth was revealed” to Descartes (as he himself describes his “cogito, ergo sum“), this was, I repeat, a true revelation which triumphantly dispersed all considerations of reason. (Shestov 1975, 110)

Were we to replace the ‘anti-Necessity’ with the word revelation in the quote above, it is clear that much of the sense will become lost or distorted, as it becomes specifically confusing to grasp the relationship between anti-Necessity and the sense of something being ‘revealed.’ It is for this reason that I believe Beaumont’s use of the term seems to further occlude Shestov’s relationship with future thinkers of the event.

The second problem with the term anti-Necessity is that it still seems to be beholden to necessity at some level; as if anti-Necessity exists insofar as it is a dialectical negation of necessity. Shestov’s understanding of revelation, however, is not in any relation to necessity, but instead is always coming from some kind excess.[1] In this way, if anything, Shestov is more so a pre-Necessity thinker rather than one who champions any anti-Necessity, and if we do indeed attribute to his work any notion of anti-Necessity, I would argue that this is only ever half the story. Taking into account this perspective matters because framing Shestov as a messianic thinker by way of thinking towards anti-Necessity still further accidentally covers over a few of Shestov’s unconventional and novel arguments.

While there are some messianic elements in Shestov, if we would read him as a pre-Necessity thinker, rather than a thinker of anti-Necessity, it becomes merely a choice to either follow the totalizing claims of necessity (which, for Shestov, seems to be synonymous with reason, universality, eternal truths, etc), or to reject it’s claim as the last word in determining the nature of existence. It is of the utmost importance to point out how Shestov ceaselessly argues that we are in fact making a choice when we submit to necessity as the final authority governing reality, and that for him it is a choice, and so one that can be chosen against. Thus it is not a question of refuting necessity, of arguing against it’s alleged authority, but simply a rejection that does entertain the need for any refutation. This kind of rejection resembles Job when he rejects his friends (their reliance on wisdom, on the authority of tradition, their reasoning, etc), rather than engaging in any argument against them on their own terms. Yet there is still a further and more nuanced point to consider with respect to Beaumont’s messianic reading.

Throughout all his writings, Shestov quotes the Psalms, where it is unequivocally declared that “All things are possible.” Messianic along Beaumont’s reading yields the necessity of a future tense to be interjected into this statement, and we would rather need to believe that ‘All things will be possible.’ Yet such an element of futurity is almost entirely absent in Shestov’s oeuvre (and where it does exist, it does not seem to exist in a manner that could be called messianic [Shestov 1968a, 434).

More to the point, in In Job’s Balance we find Shestov reading Dostoyevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man to demonstrate how it is that necessity, as well as the knowledge of good and evil, are not essential characters of humanity but are instead the consequences of choosing to follow the knowledge of good and evil (Shestov 1975, 64-66). The fallen state of man is shown not to be an absolute state of being but rather a state that can one day be radically overturned, perhaps even by a cultivation of the docta ignorantia (Shestov 1968a. 412), and in this way spiritual liberation is not necessarily contingent on any messiah, and so not intrinsically based on something beyond an individual’s capacity at any given moment, including the present. Beaumont does not provide us with this insight, and if anything, he accidentally steers Shestov into a kind of emancipatory ideology rather than towards the existent as being always-already emancipated, yet curiously an existent who willingly turns themselves over to external authorities (ie. necessity, reason, etc.). I would like to focus on one of the last arguments made by Beaumont’s book before turning to some broader considerations of his argument.

In the conclusion Beaumont indicates that Shestov’s anti-Necessity grounds his claim that one day it may no longer be true that “the Athenians poisoned Socrates” (Beaumont 2020, 151-152). Here Beaumont offers a vivid and enlightening way in which Shestov can be read as one of the most hopeful of philosophers. Such an optimistic undoing of Socrates fate rests on the fact that as a truth is born so too may it perish, and one day Socrates will never have been poisoned. Beaumont tells us that Shestov “prophesies a universe in which anti-Necessity finally supervenes, transforming the conditions in which cause and effect unfold from one another in linear narrative sequence, terrible historical events that retrospectively seem to have been inevitable simply will not have taken place” (Beaumont 2020, 153). However, while this kind of thought does match Shestov’s writings, it seems unclear how it is that such anti-Necessity can supervene.

Necessity in Shestov, as well as Beaumont’s reading of Shestov, is a general concept who’s domain extends over all of existence thoroughly and blindly. I am left wondering: in what way can anti-Necessity, itself seemingly a kind of general concept, ‘supervene’ (Beaumont 2020, 153)? In light of this question with the previous considerations of this concept in mind, it becomes evident that Beaumont’s concept of anti-Necessity is still lacking the disruptive nature of Shestov’s understanding of revelation, given that this anti-Necessity more so has the register of something general, like necessity, which acts indiscriminately on all things at all times. It seems to resemble a special category of some sort rather than a specific particular moment of disruption or intervention. I would like to propose instead that, rather than pit anti-Necessity against necessity (which seems to be placing one kind of generality against another generality), we read Shestov’s reversal of the truth of Socrates death as a kind of anti-revelation, as this seems more suited to Shestov’s terms.[2] Shestov’s argument that one day it may come about that Socrates has never in fact been poisoned is not to palimpsestically write over a truth so at to undo its presence, existence, or sense, but is rather for the truth to never have been written at all in the first place. It is to imagine some kind of anti-revelation whose polarity is one that covers what has been done altogether, and in this way is a revelation that is one particular devouring another particular – an anti-revelation that un-reveals what has been disclosed.[3] Strangely enough this ethical idea of a great reversal could be familiar to contemporary readers of French philosophy, as it seems to be touched upon by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux in similarities that are worth considering, even if lightly and in passing.

When Meillassoux says “the fourth World ought to be called the World of justice: for it is only the World of the rebirth of humans that makes universal justice possible, by erasing even the injustice of shattered lives” (cited from: Harman 2011, 190) it is almost impossible not to think back to Shestov’s undoing of Socrates death as it is outlined above. While it is not possible here to determine whether the connection here is accidental or not, this connection should perhaps not be seen as purely arbitrary. Where Beaumont has explored Shestov’s impact on Delueze, the impact of Deleuze on Badiou was not mentioned even in passing and yet aspects of Badiou’s heritage seem to have possibly retained something of Shestov’s radical thinking (whether implicitly or explicitly), and this interesting link deserves a few more words on the matter, as it could contain the link between Shestov and Meillassoux in terms of the degrees in which both of these thinkers are philosophizing on the fringes of thought.

The overlap between Shestov and Alain Badiou becomes evident if we compare the following three quotes. The first is Badiou arguing that there are nothing but differences between anything and everything, a claim fundamental to his differential ontology. Specifically, he says that:

Infinite alterity is quite simply what there is. Any experience at all is the infinite deployment of infinite differences. Even the apparently reflexive experience of myself is by no means the intuition of a unity but a labyrinth of differentiations […]. There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself. (Badiou 2012, 25-26)

By contrast, we also find Shestov arguing in In Job’s Balance similarly, that:

It is impossible to speak of ‘man’ generally, so long as the metaphysical destinies of individual men are different […]. There is a Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and Alexander’s groom, but each of these differs from the other far more strongly than he does from a rhinoceros, a peacock, a cypress, or a cabbage; perhaps even from a tree trunk or a rock. (Shestov 1975, 220-221)

And, furthermore, in Potestas Clavium, Shestov says:

Even when men pronounce the same words, they each mean and see different things. Two orthodox Moslems swear in the name of two different Allahs. And I would say more: every Moslem today worships a completely other Allah than the one for whom he risked his life yesterday. The principle of identity applies only in logic. (Shestov 1968c, 167)

With these quotes in mind that it seems clear to me that some aspects of the differential ontology that came to prominence in post World War 2 French thought can be traced back to Shestov at least at some level, and this claim can be rather well substantiated by Beaumont’s book under consideration, albeit by way of different avenues. And yet, perhaps even more to this point, we can consider an otherwise overlooked rapport between Shestov and Levinas that is absent from Beaumont’ text in question.

It seems clear that Levinas has borrowed (without any citation I am aware of) Shestov’s notion of Socrates and Abraham, while simply changing the name of Socrates to Ulysses (Shestov 1968a, 440) (Levinas 1963, 610). Moreover, both Shestov and Levinas share a strikingly similar perspective with respect to the violence of Socrates’ dialectic in Platonic dialogues (Shestov 1968c, 115-119) (Levinas 1969, 171 – specifically his criticism of ‘maieutics’). While more similarities could be drawn between Shestov’s never ending attack on Western ontology and Levinas’ own ontological deconstruction (though, undertaken in different terms), to explore this at any length is to diverge too far, and I can do nothing more here than encourage a curious reader to simply read In Job’s Balance and Athens and Jerusalem with such suggestions in mind. I have drawn these connections overlooked by Beaumont to indicate how there is still more work to be done in bringing to light Shestov’s profound impact on 20th century philosophy.

Perhaps, in the end, it is worth mentioning that Shestov himself seemed to be a thinker opposed to ethics of any kind, given there can be no form of ethics without an appeal to a concept that is universal, and his attacks on any and every form of universality as the ultimate criteria for truth, and so philosophy, are not few or far between. For example, take the following quote from his book on Kierkegaard:

Reason eagerly strives for universal and necessary truths which are uncreated and dependent upon no one! Is not reason itself in the power of some hostile force that has so bewitched it that the fortuitous and the transitory seem to it necessary and eternal? And ethics, which suggests to man that resignation is the highest virtue—is it not in the same position as reason? It, too, has been bewitched by mysterious spells; man’s destruction awaits him where ethics promises him happiness and salvation. One must escape from reason, escape from ethics, without trying to find out beforehand what the end of the journey will be. (Shestov 1968b, 100)

Yet this is not to say that Beaumont has taken too many liberties with his reading of Shestov, and I am primarily mentioning this to encourage readers to read Shestov for themselves, and not to discredit Beaumont’s ethical insomnia, one that Shestov would have probably approved of at some level. Vladimir Jankélévitch goes so far as to say “je me croyais Chestov lui-même, Chestov réincarné” (Suarès 1986, 79) and still goes further in developing his own ethics (cf. The Bad Conscience or Forgiveness), and it is thus perfectly reasonable for Beaumont to do the same; that is, to work within a Shestovian framework with the intentions of deriving some kind of ethics.

Let me clearly stress that none of my comments above are to detract from the brilliance of Beaumont’s work, which is distinguished for its skillful mixing of clarity and depth. Lev Shestov Philosopher of the Sleepless Night serves as the first overdue step towards bringing to contemporary readers an inspired and original interpretation of an otherwise forgotten philosopher. I cannot strongly enough recommend this book as a fresh and concise starting point for engaging with Shestov’s works as a whole. For these, and many of the other reasons a reader will find while reading this book, Beaumont’s work deserves a close and attentive reading.


Badiou, Alain. 2012. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Translated by Peter Hallward. Verso.

Beaumont, Matthew. 2020. Lev Shestov. Philosopher of the Sleepless Night. Bloomsbury Academic.

Groys, Boris. 2012. Introduction to Anti-Philosophy. Trans. David Fernbach. Verso.

Harman, Graham. 2011. Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1963. “La trace de l’autre.” Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, vol. 25 (3): 605–623.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Duquesne University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968a. Athens and Jerusalem. Clarion Books.

Shestov, Lev. 1975. In Job’s Balance. Ohio University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968b. Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy. Ohio University Press.

Shestov, Lev. 1968c. Potestas Clavium. Ohio University Press.

Suarès, G. 1986. Vladimir Jankélévitch Qui suis-je? La Manufacture.

[1] cf. Shestov 1975, 221 – “The Irrational Residue of Being”

[2] Shestov’s reading of Socrates’ poisoning argues that it was entirely needless and contrary to reason that the wisest individual had an unjust and lowly death. Repeatedly Shestov stresses that something is rationally wrong with seeing how Socrates’ drinking of hemlock is as logically equivalent to that of a dog’s being poisoned in the same manner, and the sheer absurdity of Socrates’ fate in itself seems to fit the bill of the definition of revelation in many respects (Shestov 1968a, 94), and this all the more so if we consider the following lines of the quote regarding Descartes above: “There is something in life which is above reason. What reason cannot conceive is not therefore always impossible. And conversely, where reason establishes a necessity the chain may nevertheless break” (Shestov 1975, 110-111). And so Socrates death itself proves how contingent, accidental, and unstructured the world may be, how the chain of necessity may be broken, and yet how we can be coerced by necessity into accepting this truth of Socrates’ dead as being just as reasonable as the death of a dog’s from being poisoned.

[3]It is precisely in this line of thinking that I would place any hope of approaching Shestov in an ethically fruitful way.