Solzhenitsyn proved that the pen is mightier than the sword, for his writings were instrumental in toppling an evil superpower. If you would like to start at the beginning, see Post 81. Click the link to read his speech in its entirety.
In Post 82, I left off Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address with his discussion of the compromised media and the West’s infatuation with Socialism in all of its forms. In quotations, I have added italics for emphasis.
Not A Model
In this section, after criticizing Socialism and the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn asks whether or not the US should be a model for the Soviet Union. The answer he provides gives us an insight into why his speech was so offensive.
But should I be asked, instead, whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just enumerated are extremely saddening.
Notice how, in every presidential election, the state of the economy becomes the pivotal factor that can make or break an incumbent’s chances. This illustrates the dismal state of spirituality in the United States. And, this is the very raw nerve that Solzhenitsyn touches. It’s not to say the economics aren’t important, it’s just that the most important rubric for the health of any nation is its spiritual condition or its virtue.
It is also true that prosperity, although good, tends to lead to decadence and spiritual complacency. That’s why Jesus talked about it being easier to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that the people of the Soviet Union have been spiritually tempered and refined through their intense suffering. He may have had the following verse in mind penned by St. Peter:
Your faith will be like gold that has been tested in a fire. And these trials will prove that your faith is worth much more than gold that can be destroyed.-1Peter 1:7
This is the contrast that he lays out. Faith refined through suffering in the East versus spiritual poverty amidst material abundance in the West. And I know this to be true in my own life. My faith tends to develop deep roots during times of suffering, as opposed to times when most things seem to be going well.
So we in the West think that material prosperity is the ultimate goal of life. We believe that we have succeeded if we possess all the trappings of the American Dream, such as a house, car, vacations, and so on. We celebrate our secular culture, as if a culture devoid of spirituality is desirable. However, in the Revelation of St. John, Jesus rebuked the wealthy Laodicean church for its spiritual poverty.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich-Revelation 3:17-18
He than goes on to explain why exporting mere materialism is not an option for the East:
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human personality in the West while in the East it has become firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being. Therefore, if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant points.
In the West, do we view suffering as “spiritual training”?
After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music. All this is visible to numerous observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.
Maybe this is why the United States has intervened in countries that have shown reluctance to embrace “democracy.” After all, who would willingly embrace such a hollow way of life? Those who say that we live in the greatest country in the U.S. never really mention our virtue or spirituality, but only our material prosperity.
But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?
What does he mean by this?
Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan1, say: “We cannot apply moral criteria to politics.” Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute evil in the world.
During the 1990s in the U.S., there was this ongoing discussion about whether character mattered in politics. This came up especially in relation to the famous tryst that then-President Bill Clinton had with White House Intern Monic Lewinsky. His supporters argued that his private life didn’t matter as long as he was a good leader.
This really epitomized what had come to characterize American pragmatics. Morals don’t matter as long as we achieve good results. And to be honest with you, Americans come by it honestly. After all, those who founded and built up the United States had to make something out of nothing. They gravitated towards what worked and didn’t have time for such things as philosophy and abstract thinking. That’s why pragmatism is in our DNA, and, in many cases, it can be a good thing. We Americans are problem solvers and do not give up as easily as those in other cultures might.
Where we run into trouble is when we separate virtue from politics. Aristotle was correct in emphasizing the significance of virtue within the body politic. He argued that for a society to function well, it must be virtuous. And that was one of the roles of a civic leader: to cultivate virtue within himself and the citizenry. I have a link below to a fascinating paper on this topic.2
This brings us back to Solzhenitsyn’s point above. It is absurd on face value to say that we cannot apply moral criteria to politics. In essence, we are talking about good morality. The opposite of good is evil, and therefore, if we refrain from applying morality to politics, we will left with a chaotic blend of good and evil, right and wrong. And as the old saying goes, “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel”. Just a little evil mixed in will eventually create a space for evil to triumph. In line with another saying, one can’t do evil thinking that good will come.
He then cites an example to prove his point, the coopting of the Soviet Union to help the West win WWII against Hitler.
In World War II against Hitler, instead of winning the conflict with its own forces, which would certainly have been sufficient, Western democracy raised up another enemy, one that would prove worse and more powerful, since Hitler had neither the resources nor the people, nor the ideas with broad appeal, nor such a large number of supporters in the West—a fifth column—as the Soviet Union possessed. Some Western voices already have spoken of the need of a protective screen against hostile forces in the next world conflict; in this case, the shield would be China. But I would not wish such an outcome to any country in the world. First of all, it is again a doomed alliance with evil; it would grant the United States a respite, but when at a later date China with its billion people would turn around armed with American weapons, America itself would fall victim to a Cambodia-style genocide.
The U.S., for practical reasons, made an alliance with the Soviet Union, something that Solzhenitsyn claimed was unnecessary, to defeat their main enemy at the time, Nazi Germany. Thus, the U.S. raised up an enemy that would come to haunt them later. It reminds me of the stories in the Old Testament about ancient Israel always making alliances with evil nations in order to defeat an enemy. Afterwards, they would find themselves in even more trouble.
Ever since WWII, the U.S. has not learned its lesson. In the 20th and early 21st centuries, the U.S. went around the world militarizing first one country, then another, as its foreign policy strategy saw fit. For example, we built up Iraq against Iran until Iraq became a problem. It is well known that the United States funded the Taliban to repel the Soviets in Afghanistan. But once the Soviet threat was gone, the Taliban became the enemy of the United States. And as Solzhenitsyn amazing predicted, the U.S. alliance with the evil CCP is now bearing rotten fruit, not so much in a hot war but in the gradual takeover of the United States internally.
The Enlightenment and its Consequences
Solzhenitsyn then asks how the United States declined from its once great position in the world. He answers the following:
This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.
Solzhenitsyn traces the root of the decline to the Renaissance Humanism that began in the late 14th century in Europe. I personally don’t think that that movement caused a shift towards secularism. Instead, it illuminated the concept of the individual within the framework of Christian teachings, shifting the focus from the community as a whole. This all began with Petrarch, but that is a story for another time.
The so-called Enlightenment is an entirely different phenomenon. It was spawned by the fracturing of Catholic Europe by Luther’s Reformation into Catholicism and Protestantism, with a plethora of denominations and splinter groups eventually emerging out of Protestantism. Prior to this, church teaching was uniform under the Catholic Church. Afterwards, the truth was hotly contested between Catholics and Protestants and among the many Protestant groups with one another.
The philosophers observed this situation and concluded that if the Church couldn’t figure out the truth, then it’s the philosophers’ responsibility, and mankind’s, to navigate the realm of truth using reason alone. As a result, reason took supremacy over revelation and theology. Whereas prior to that, philosophy was the servant or “handmaiden” of theology.
As a result of all this, Christendom started to disintegrate, and Christianity eventually lost its preeminence in the public square. One could argue that the secularization of the West resulted more from the Reformation than the Renaissance. Regardless of one’s beliefs regarding the cause, the outcomes were disastrous, as man’s reason is intended to be guided by revealed truth; otherwise it is like a boat sailing without any navigational guidance.
The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, having become an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. But then we recoiled from the spirit and embraced all that is material, excessively and incommensurately.
This is very insightful and a topic on which I wanted to do some articles. It seems that from the Greek Ionian Revival to the Enlightenment, the emphasis of life in the West was placed on the spiritual over the physical, virtue over prosperity. This held true for Greek philosophy as well as Christianity. Obviously, the physical was important but really relegated to the back seat, so to speak. After all, the first hospital wasn’t built until the time of the Crusades. In this period, many were more interested in measuring success by the development of virtue than material prosperity. Of course, I am oversimplifying it, but the general point remains.
This lack of emphasis on the physical extended beyond the human body to encompass the physical sciences as well. It wasn’t until the publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in 1620 that science, as we understand it today, began to be practiced. With the publication of that book and the deemphasis on theology and metaphysics in philosophy, the material began to take ascendancy. Theology seemed like a futile pursuit since the more people attempted to find theological truth, the more infighting and division occurred.
Thus, once the Wars of Religion settled down, a new world emerged where science and reason, not theology, reigned. This latter half of history, on which we are currently focusing, measures success through material acquisition and conquering of nature through science. The idea of developing virtue has been relegated to the back seat. I like to say that the first part of Western history was dominated by the humanities, or soul, and the second part by the sciences, or body. Imagine if we could combine both of those together in the proper proportion. Mankind would soar. Mankind would truly find its humanness instead of being a soulless body like we are now. He really goes on to explain this in the next part of his speech:
The humanistic way of thinking, which had proclaimed itself our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshiping man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. Thus gaps were left open for evil, and its drafts blow freely today. Mere freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones.
The results of this overemphasis on the physical is as follows:
And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.
My contention with what he said above is that our rights weren’t “granted” to us but were recognized by the founding fathers as being innate, “inalienable”. We, in the United States, have always recognized that our rights aren’t given to us by our government, but that the government’s role is simply to recognize and protect those rights. When they fail to do so, then we address our grievances. If that doesn’t work, then, like Thomas Jefferson said, it is time for a new government. I understand how Solzhenitsyn could fail to make a distinction. After all, he lived his entire life in Russia and was unfamiliar with the nuances of American history.
The point that I wholeheartedly agree with is that our definition of liberty has changed considerably since our founding. Liberty is the freedom to live a virtuous life without government interference. Now, and to his point, it has come to mean unrestrained license to gratify any and every desire, moral or immoral, that we may have. The nucleus of these modern “rights” is Unbridle sexual indulgence and even perversion. In summary, our definition of freedom has changed from a God-oriented one to a hedonistic one. Without virtue, it is impossible to have a healthy, cohesive society.
Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure.-James Madison
And this has occurred as a result of our “total emancipation” from our Christian moral heritage. Which has resulted in not only a lack of morality, but also a loss of the “great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.” Because of its “heavy demands,” many people regard Christian morality as oppressive. However, it is liberating for two reasons. First and foremost, because the truth sets us free, particularly from ourselves, we no longer remain bound by our carnal desires and lusts. Second, when we fail, we have abundant supplies of mercy and grace to enable us to try again.
Notice how, with the modern emphasis on liberation from “oppressive Christian morality”, we have become a hardened society lacking forgiveness and mercy for one another. Notice how the left, with their emphasis on “tolerance”, is the first to cancel and even threaten death to those who disagree with them. When they find a questionable social media post that someone posted twenty years ago, instead of extending understanding and even forgiveness, there is nothing except a Stalin-like harsh judgment and sentencing. There is absolutely no mercy with the new “liberated” Marxist society in the West.
State systems were becoming ever more materialistic. The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistic selfishness of the Western approach to the world has reached its peak and the world has found itself in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse.
This is what I discussed in more depth in Post 82, and is a good way to end this article. We are out of balance between rights and responsibilities. Because of Lockean liberalism, the West has become a giant playground of immature people all wanting their way. The government gives them largesse to keep them quiet so that they don’t pay attention to their corruption. The lack of emphasis on responsibility results in a lack of accountability in the government. Additionally, it leads to poor citizenry exercised at the local and state levels.
One of the reasons for this, and this is a topic for another day, is that between America’s workaholism and the necessity to work many hours due to excessive tax burden, the average American does not have time to exercise his duties and become involved in his local government. The balance to this is that with the rise of social media. There are no new platforms by which to exercise influence without having to be physically present at various meetings. And this is why the federal government, in particular, is seeking to censor and even shut down peaceful virtual assembly online in order to express grievances against their government.
I will leave you with yet another brilliant quote by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
All the celebrated technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty, which no one could have imagined even as late as the nineteenth century.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- George Frost Kennan (February 16, 1904 – March 17, 2005) was an American diplomat and historian. He would have been of interest to Solzhenitsyn because he lectured and wrote extensively about containing Soviet expansion and about the historical relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. His idea of containing the expansion of the Soviet Union was know formally as Containment.
- Aristotle and the Importance of Virtue in the Context of the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics and its Relation to Today, Kyle Brandon Anthony, Bucknell University, 2010
Henry, John, Knowledge Is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision Helped Francis Bacon to Create Modern Science,
Thomas, D.M., Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, St Martins Press; First Edition (February 1, 1998)