84. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Divisive Harvard Address, ‘A World Split Apart’,1978, Part 4


This is the final installment of a four-part series on Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is the man who achieved with a pen what the nuclear arms buildup of the 20th century could not do: bring down the mighty Soviet Union. I left off in POST 83 discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ideas about the spiritual poverty of Western materialism. (Italics below added for emphasis.)

In that vein, I also discussed Alexander’s point about how the destitution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by Communism actually led to a strengthening of faith and a resilience to persevere.

An Unexpected Kinship

As (secular) humanism in its development was becoming more and more materialistic, it also increasingly allowed its concepts to be used first by socialism and then by communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say, in 1844, that “communism is naturalized humanism.”

It is well known that the road of secular humanism inevitably leads to the dead end of materialism. Therefore, it serves as the basis for both Socialism and Communism. While Socialism may, at times, give lip service to religion, it conducts itself practically as if God does not exist. It acts as a sort of halfway house or decompression chamber between Christianity and Atheism. On the other hand, Communism is entirely atheistic, but both ideologies cut from the same cloth. Socialism can be considered as Communism-light, and Communism can be seen as mature Socialism. Alexander’s message is that there exists a slippery slope from the man-centered ideology of humanism to nihilistic and atheistic Communism. In hindsight, this kinship between them is really expected, not unexpected.

This statement has proved to be not entirely unreasonable. One does see the same stones in the foundations of an eroded humanism and of any type of socialism: boundless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility (which under Communist regimes attains the stage of anti-religious dictatorship); concentration on social structures with an allegedly scientific approach. (This last is typical of both the Age of Enlightenment and of Marxism.) It is no accident that all of communism’s rhetorical vows revolve around Man (with a capital M) and his earthly happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today’s West and today’s East? But such is the logic of materialistic development.

He is particularly perspicuous in pointing out the ‘scientific’ approach to social structures. Whether we are talking about the Enlightenment or Marxism (and really Marxism was one of the children spawned out of the Enlightenment), theology and metaphysics have been thrown aside in favor of a purely materialistic and rationalistic scientific approach. In the 20th century, science turned into Scientism and became the main way to make sense of the universe. Before, science was just one of several ways to gather information about the universe. By implication then, science was no longer a servant. It became the master, dictating its infallible decrees to a gullible populace that had been robbed of both biblical revelation and metaphysics.

I think that C.S. Lewis said it best when he discussed the tyranny of Scientism:

The new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim of knowledge. . . . This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists. . . . Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about science. But government involves questions about the good of man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. . . . On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in’. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science.

-C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock

We are certainly living in the age that Lewis predicted. It’s an age of ‘trust the science,’ even though science has been wrong many times and often to the detriment of many.

The interrelationship is such, moreover, that the current of materialism which is farthest to the left, and is hence the most consistent, always proves to be stronger, more attractive, and victorious. Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition. Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. The Communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals who (feeling the kinship!) refused to see communism’s crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes. The problem persists: In our Eastern countries, communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. And yet Western intellectuals still look at it with considerable interest and empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.

What was prevalent back then is even more prevalent now: the Left’s unqualified romance with Communism. In the 20th century alone, Communism was responsible for the deaths of between 100 and 200 million people. Another way of looking at this is that the government was the biggest killer of humans in the 20th century, and I think probably historically in general. This is why I will never understand the love affair that many have with the Leviathan of big government.

There are two responses by the Left to this fact. The more good-natured and naive among them state that the form of Communism that was practiced in the 20th century was not true Communism. The other, more radical, and I would say those with more integrity, say that millions of deaths are a small price to pay to realize the Marxist “utopia” or heaven on earth. Russian revolutionary Karl Radek said the following:

We were always for revolutionary war. The bayonet is an essential necessity for introducing communism.

Because many in the 20th century recoiled after witnessing the horrors of the Communist Revolution, the Marxists in the U.S., in any case, went underground, taking refuge in academia, government, and the environmentalist movement. Rather than blatantly promoting Communism, which most people still do not find palatable. They promote instead “equity,” “a cleaner environment,” and “social justice.” They stealthily sneak Communism into the body politic by using these as mere Trojan horses. I think that it used to be that Western intellectuals were naive about the evils of Communism. But, since Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s time, many leftists have become more militarized and radical in their orientation, owning the fact that chaos, destruction, and death are part and parcel of the Revolution.

Pol Pot’s Killing Fields in Cambodia

Before the Turn

I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. But as long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we must lead an everyday life. Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.

The three adjectives that he uses—autonomous, irreligious, and humanistic—all point to an attempt to dethrone God, which is what Karl Marx stated as his fundamental thesis.

My object in life is to dethrone God and destroy Capitalism.

-Karl Marx
Alexander goes on to explain the dire implications of such an ideology:

It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West. This is the essence of the crisis: The split in the world is less terrifying than the similarity of the disease afflicting its main sections.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I believe that the Enlightenment was the true culprit, not the Renaissance. It is indeed true that the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of rationalism ushered in an age of hubris where modern intellectuals tend to think they are smarter than their predecessors. Until that time, philosophers would respect and draw upon the wisdom of the past, seeking to build upon it, even in small measures, to contribute to the knowledge and wisdom of civilization. However, with the advent of the Enlightenment, a scholar’s initial reaction is to reflexively reject or at least be suspicious of the ideas of his predecessors. We used to abide by the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” concerning those ideas of the past, but now we seem to operate on the notion of “guilty until proven innocent.”

Due to this unfortunate shift in perspective, rather than turning to the Church for wisdom and guidance in life, we instinctively turn to the government. Consequently, the prevailing belief becomes that the bigger the government, the better. Instead of living lives that are oriented both vertically and horizontally, modern man spends his life seeking to build an earthly utopia, rather than viewing this life as a temporary transition to the next. When government becomes our only savior, we inadvertently cede control of our lives to it.

This explains why, if an election doesn’t go their way, those with faith, while disappointed, do not lose their peace of mind. On the other hand, the Marxists go absolutely crazy when elections don’t go their way. Because, once again, government is their only savior. Those who live in such a manner have no spiritual life whatsoever. Overall though, God is a benevolent ruler, while big government is usually oppressive and tyrannical.

Finally, the most astute point in the above excerpt is the fact that the Capitalistic West and Marxist East both draw from the same ideological source: atheistic materialism. In the former, we worship the corporation as the source of our sustenance, and in the latter, the Communist Party.

If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the president’s performance should be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or to the availability of gasoline. Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism.

My father always used to say that we are just passing through this world, and that is so true. How foolish it is, indeed, for a person to live life as if they are never going to die. Unless we reconcile with death and know how to die, we can never really know how to live. When we come to grips with our mortality, there are only two possibilities: become nihilistic or find God.

Medieval Catholic scholars would often put skulls on their desks to remind them of their own mortality

Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself, though born into a Greek Orthodox home, was indoctrinated into atheism through government schools. Around the time of his release from the Gulag, he was diagnosed with cancer. Confronting his own mortality, he turned back to God and eventually overcame his cancer. A profound spirituality marked his later life, evident in this speech and his other writings. He wrote a novel on the subject of facing cancer; you may be interested in reading it. The information is provided below.

The last point he makes in the excerpt above is one that I often find amusing. In every presidential election in the U.S. during my lifetime, the number one issue has always been the economy. Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” When so-called conservatives engage in such a debate, they are essentially playing on the Marxist playground, as Karl Marx emphasized economics above all other things. As I stated previously, the primary concern for any nation should be its spiritual vitality. The question should then be: how can we become more virtuous? Even the founding fathers believed that only a virtuous nation could be a great nation.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, life will have to change in order not to perish on its own. We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?

We are so pragmatic in the West that the only question we ask is, will this work? The ancient Greeks and others used to ask, ‘What is the nature of man and of human society?’ They surmised that by answering those fundamental questions, they would inevitably answer the more practical questions on how a well-ordered polis should operate. Since the Enlightenment, we have stopped asking those questions and only seek practical and often superficial solutions to our problems.

We come up with trite sayings such as ‘Just say no’ to drugs, rather than asking what one is really seeking when pursuing an altered state. Alternatively, we take the opposite approach and think that if we just kick enough people’s doors with SWAT teams, then we can force people to stop using drugs. Instead, we must ask, what are the deeper needs of people that need to be me in order to achieve a state of happiness and contentment?

We will never arrive at the proper solutions until we ask the proper questions.

If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the [Enlightenment]. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.

This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.

As I discussed above, the pre-Enlightenment West emphasized the spiritual over the physical, sometimes to the detriment of the physical. The post-Enlightenment world emphasizes the physical over the spiritual. In the modern age, an unhealthy divorce of science from the humanities has taken place, metaphorically separating the soul from the body. The next level, I think, in our “ascension,” is to reach for the spiritual, seeking to unite the spiritual and the physical in a harmonious relationship, as the Creator originally intended in the latter part of human history.

Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism.

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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Deo Gratias!

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, Cancer Ward, A Novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (April 14, 2015)
  2. The separation of the sciences and humanities in modern times is the subject of a fascinating C.P. Snow’s Rede lecture given in 1959.

Further Reading:

Harvard Address

Lewis, C.S., God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics,  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; First Edition (January 1, 1970)

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, Cancer Ward, A Novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (April 14, 2015)

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, The Red Wheel, a novel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (August 19, 2014)

Snow, C.P., The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, 1998

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