When I was growing up, in the midst of the Cold War, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) was a household name. Older readers, like myself, will remember his name. Younger readers, tragically, have never heard of him.
He was known for being the Soviet dissident who spent years in a Soviet gulag for a simple critique of Stalin and eventually wrote his famous Gulag Archipelago, which recounted the harsh, miserable existence in a Soviet labor camp, shedding light on the evils of the Soviet Communist system. Because of that, he was one of my childhood heroes. Beginning in 2009, Gulag became required reading in Russia. 1 The Gulag Archipelago has sold tens of millions of copies. 2 His writings were significantly responsible for bringing down the Soviet Union. As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword.
In 1978, he gave his famous Harvard Commencement Address, which did not go very well. Americans naively thought that Solzhenitsyn, a natural political and cultural critic, would spare them the scrutiny he had dished out to the Soviets. They were wrong. His critique of America during that speech is even more relevant now than it was over forty years ago. A link to his speech is provided below.
Life Under Communism and Rebirth
Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia in 1918, a year after the infamous Russian Revolution. His family, like most Russians at the time, was Greek Orthodox, but Solzhenitsyn soon lost his faith in the godless Communist government schools.3 Sound familiar? He became an atheist and joined the Communist Party.
He served at the German front in the Soviet army but was soon disillusioned as he witnessed the heartless murder and raping of German women and children by the Red Army. 4 As a result of this, he critiqued Stalin in a letter and was eventually sentenced to eight years (1945–1953) in a harsh Russian gulag, where he was plunged into an even deeper darkness of Communism than he experienced on the German front.
After he was released, he was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and did not have long to live. As a result, he reverted back to his Greek Orthodox roots and found faith again. Shortly afterwards, his cancer miraculously resolved, and the rest is history. He then went on to write Gulag and eventually won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.
The Harvard Address A World Split Apart
I will italicize various parts of the address for emphasis.
I am sincerely happy to be here with you on the occasion of the 327th commencement of this old and illustrious university. My congratulations and best wishes to all of today’s graduates.
Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.
It is ingenious how he connects Harvard’s motto with the timely theme of his speech. The truth is difficult to take. If this was true in 1978, how much more today when, as a society, we have moved even farther away from it? Overall, I detect a warm and loving tone in his introduction.
Every ancient and deeply rooted self-contained culture, especially if it is spread over a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes a self-contained world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. As a minimum, we must include in this category China, India, the Muslim world, and Africa, if indeed we accept the approximation of viewing the latter two as uniform. For one thousand years Russia belonged to such a category, although Western thinking systematically committed the mistake of denying its special character and therefore never understood it, just as today the West does not understand Russia in Communist captivity.
This is extremely revealing and relevant to events today in the world, with the conflict between the West and Russia. He talks about Western culture not understanding other “self-contained” cultures, but I think this is particularly true of the United States. From the 20th century on, the U.S. has bulldozed its way around the world, imposing its will on others without any significant understanding of who they are.
It is important that Solzhenitsyn is not talking about nation-states but “self-contained” cultures, each having its own unique language and culture. Modern globalism seeks to erase this and meld everything into a nameless, faceless, generic culture that is more easily controllable. The point is that Russia, like Italy, France, Romania, etc., has its own unique culture. In Solzhenitsyn’s time, his complaint was that the West did not understand Russia’s unique culture. Since this speech, I would say that things have progressed to the point that the globalists not only do not understand Russian culture but do not care in the least to understand it.
In fact, the globalists are threatened by any culture that exerts its own unique idiom and refuses to erase its heritage. This is why they attack Russia today: because it refused to go along with the globalist agenda. And if that isn’t enough, it seeks a resurgence of traditional Christianity—the Greek Orthodox version. Ironically, they want to erase true distinctions under the guise of “diversity”. This is Orwellian speak. When you hear “diversity”, it really means the elimination of the rich cultural distinctions of various peoples and the creation of a monolithic, soulless culture.
But the persisting blindness of superiority continues to hold the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems, the best in theory and the most attractive in practice; that all those other worlds are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by severe crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in that direction. But in fact such a conception is a fruit of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, a result of mistakenly measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development bears little resemblance to all this.
This section of the speech was amazingly more prescient than contemporary. For Solzhenitsyn was writing before the “sandbox” wars of the Bush family, where, especially George W., he was “making the world safe for democracy” by imposing the will of the U.S. on countries like Iraq. No price was too high to spread democracy, even if that meant widespread death, destruction, and suffering for unsuspecting people like the Iraqis. Not to mention that, as a result of these invasions, the Christian population in the Middle East was decimated.
I think that Solzhenitsyn is trying to make a couple points. First of all, it is the epitome of hubris to try to impose your governmental and cultural systems on foreign peoples, peoples that you neither understand nor care to understand. To counter this, some in Solzhenitsyn’s day advocated a “theory of convergence,” where they naively believed that two such disparate political systems could one day converge or meet in the middle.
The anguish of a divided world gave birth to the theory of convergence between the leading Western countries and the Soviet Union. It is a soothing theory which overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all evolving toward each other and that neither one can be transformed into the other without violence. Besides, convergence inevitably means acceptance of the other side’s defects, too, and this can hardly suit anyone.
Is Solzhenitsyn advocating some sort of immoral equivalency between communism and democracy? He goes on to say that he doesn’t and that he thinks that the problems in the East are more serious, but since he is in the West, he will criticize the West:
If I were today addressing an audience in my country, in my examination of the overall pattern of the world’s rifts I would have concentrated on the calamities of the East. But since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one, I think it may be of greater interest to concentrate on certain aspects of the contemporary West, such as I see them.
Having said that, and looking back in hindsight, I think that there is a sort of immoral equivalency here. Let’s consider the ideal society as being virtuous and free. Let’s consider Aristotle’s golden mean of excess and deficiency. On the excess side, depending on how you look at it, we have freedom to the point of licentiousness. In other words, we have a society characterized by freedom and marked by unfettered debauchery and lawlessness. This is where we are today in the West. On the deficiency side, there is such a lack of freedom that we end up with an oppressive totalitarian state. Neither extreme is virtuous. Modern, secular democracy is characterized by the former, and communism by the latter. What is missing is the virtuous middle, or golden mean.
A Decline in Courage
I could write ten posts on the following section of the speech:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There remain many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts of boldness and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
Where do I begin with this? If this was true when he wrote, how much more today! Just looking at the so-called leadership in Western countries, the most prominent feature is cowardice. This is true both in the U.S. and Europe. True courageous individuals who speak the truth to power are considered pariahs and thus marginalized from the public square, i.e., cancelled, and therefore deprived of their ability to influence culture for the better. They are relegated by default to the role of prophet rather than statesman. The courageous person is also viewed as some oddball or freak of nature. Just consider how the courageous person was treated during Covid. The true tragedy of all this is that it has a top-down influence. Cowardly leaders promote a cowardly citizenry. When leaders tell the populace to be afraid of everything, that is exactly what 80% of them will do.
What is insightful about Solzhenitsyn’s perspective is how cowardly leadership behaves. On one hand, they bully those weaker than themselves, and on the other hand, they snivel at standing up to true threats. Notice how our governments today are bullying their powerless constituents into submission, but on the other hand, they are too afraid to address true enemies such as the tidal wave of sexual perversion sweeping over the West. As a Catholic, I see this most prominently in the Catholic bishops. We have bishops terrified to stand up against sexual immorality and perversion, but they browbeat their congregations into wearing a mask during Covid. There was one Catholic priest who called the police during Covid to have a pregnant woman in the congregation arrested and physically removed from the premises for not wearing a mask. 5 How pathetic. The priest, Father Ryan, who did this, is a total coward.
Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?
Everyone keeps asking whether or not the West will survive. I concur with Solzhenitsyn. Since ancient times, the loss of courage has signaled the beginning of the end. If this was true in his day, it is even more so today. Why is this? Well, if we think of the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, courage, and temperance—one needs courage in order to undergird the other three virtues. When courage is lost, so are the other virtues. Courage leads to lawlessness.
When the modern Western states were being formed, it was proclaimed as a principle that governments are meant to serve man and that man lives in order to be free and pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence.) Now at last during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings.
Now he is drilling a little deeper into the heart of the matter, the emptiness of materialism. The goal of life, of course, is the accumulation of things. If that were true, then a society that guarantees every one of its members a certain level of material sustenance will therefore guarantee “happiness” for all. If material goods alone were the source of happiness, then the United States should be the happiest country in the world. That is far from true.
Of course, we have redefined happiness to be the accumulation of things. Happiness used to mean the general sense of satisfaction or well-being that arose from living life according to the purpose for which you were created and was undergirded by the pursuit and development of virtue. This is what Aristotle referred to as Eudemonia, or the life of blessedness. Rather than true happiness, such a life in pursuit of material objects can only lead to anxiety and depression, the chief malady of the 20th and 21st centuries. The concealment of such feelings places a thin veneer over the emptiness within. Especially, we can see this not necessarily with the welfare state, but with the “successful” people whose lives are characterized by all of the material accoutrements that one could wish for.
These people are often the most unhappy, and their lives are, more often than not, lived in the quiet desperation of misery. Thus begins the vicious cycle of pursuing things that don’t satisfy, which leads to psychological misery, which leads to an even more vehement pursuit of such, and so on.
This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development. The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of the people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, preparing them for and summoning them toward physical bloom, happiness, the possession of material goods, money, and leisure, toward an almost unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures. So who should now renounce all this, why and for the sake of what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of the common good and particularly in the nebulous case when the security of one’s nation must be defended in an as yet distant land?
You cannot serve two masters: God and money. The blind pursuit of material prosperity has crowded out any semblance of spirituality. And isn’t it true that we groom the next generation for the emptiness of “material goods, money, and leisure” toward an almost unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures” rather than faith and virtue, the true source of happiness? His application of this was to the “defense of the common good”. I would apply it today to the concern for the common good. There is no longer any concept of the common good. Individual good is all that matters, damn the rest of society. Without a definition of the common good and people willing to sacrifice their own pleasures for it, it is not possible to have a cohesive society.
Even biology tells us that a high degree of habitual well-being is not advantageous to a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to take off its pernicious mask.
This little kicker at the end of this section simply tells us that, rather than the accumulation of things leading to happiness and health, just the opposite is true. The accumulation of things leads, if not accompanied by virtue, to decadence and distress.
Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited to its purposes and one I might call legalistic. The limits of human rights and rightness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law (though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert). Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: This would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: Everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames. (An oil company is legally blameless when it buys up an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: After all, people are free not to purchase it.)
Under the cover of the law, many nefarious things are done. A new term has come into use in contemporary times: “lawfare. Waging war against our opponents is not to seek justice or truth, but to see personal advantage and often revenge. We use the law to codify our sexual perversions and sexual license. Large corporations use the law to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people. Myriads of disparate special interest groups utilize the law in a competitive fashion to achieve dominance.
Without virtue, law alone becomes a tool for the propagation of selfish self-interest rather than the pursuit of true justice and the common good.
Solzhenitsyn is saying that the best governance is self-governance. There is no substitute for self-restraint, even self-restraint to the point of limiting or even foregoing legitimate rights for the sake of the greater good. He is absolutely correct. This is unheard of. Part of the reason in the West is the inordinate overemphasis on rights, starting with the philosopher John Locke. (This is a topic for another time, but I definitely will discuss it in the future.) Rather than a society that focuses exclusively on “rights”, a healthy society balances rights and responsibility. Almost no one talks about that today. What is my responsibility to my fellow man, even if it means curtailing my personal rights and privileges? This is considered absurd today, if not even mentally ill.
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man. A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.
A legalistic society has no heart or soul. We live, paradoxically, in a licentious society of legalism. The law is viewed as a vehicle for our selfish self-expression. We claim our rights to their fullest extent, often to the detriment of others, rather than voluntarily restricting our rights for the benefit of others and the greater good.
You would think that each person pursuing their rights to the fullest extent would lead to the fullest realization of their human potential, but quite the opposite is true. Solzhenitsyn states that, by doing this, we severely limit what we can be as humans. And of course, this is not really a paradox, for acting selflessly propagates love and beauty in the world, whereas living for oneself does just the opposite.
And finally, he ads the kicker to this section:
And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure.
We need more than the law to make a cohesive society. A society where everyone clamors for their rights is toxic at best and dangerous at worst. More to come in part two.
I want to leave you with a sentence from the section above simply because I think that it is brilliant:
Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- “Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag’ mandatory in Russian schools”. Reuters. 26 October 2010.
- Scammell, Michael (11 December 2018). “The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire”. The New York Times.
In 1973, still in the Soviet Union, he sent abroad his literary and polemical masterpiece, ‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ The nonfiction account exposed the enormous crimes that had led to the wholesale incarceration and slaughter of millions of innocent victims, demonstrating that its dimensions were on a par with the Holocaust. Solzhenitsyn’s gesture amounted to a head-on challenge to the Soviet state, calling its very legitimacy into question and demanding revolutionary change.
- Pearce, Joseph, “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be Christian”, The Imaginative Conservative
The Gulag Archipelago – An Experiment In Literary Investigation – Nobel Prize Winning Complete Three Volume Trade Paperback Set by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with a forward by Anne Applebaum
Pearce, Joseph, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, Ignatius Press; Revised, Updated ed. edition (April 11, 2011)
Scammell, Michael, “The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire”, New York Times, published on the 100th anniversary to the date of his birth, December 11, 2018, subtitle: “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born Dec. 11, 1918, did more than anyone else to bring the Soviet Union to its knees”.
Solzhenitsyn, 1978 Harvard Address entitled A World Split Apart, Solzhenitsyn Center