This year marks the 40thanniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard commencement address, “A World Split Apart.” Five months after he delivered it, Karol Wojtyła was elected pope. Both men, from Communist lands, gave warnings to the West. How was Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis different? How has it stood up over time?
We are used to commencement addresses that are left-wing stand-up comedy. But Solzhenitsyn did not go to Harvard to tell jokes. He promised bitterness. “Truth eludes us,” he began, “if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
Likewise, Solzhenitsyn rejected social self-righteousness. The horrors of Nazism and Communism had taught him sober self-knowledge: “There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’”
What would you have said was the main problem in the West in 1978? For Solzhenitsyn, “the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days is a decline in courage.” But before you think of Jordan Peterson, consider that he means not so much personal manliness but strength of will in public life: “The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”
Clearly, Solzhenitsyn judges societies based on the character traits that they form. He effectively runs through the cardinal virtues, arguing that our successes have led to moral decline. He decries the “welfare state,” by which he means, interestingly, not the habilitation of dependents by government, but a society devoted solely to material prosperity: “It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.” So why should someone like that risk his life for any higher good?
Moderation suffers, too, because freedoms are exploited to the full without self-restraint. We enjoy much freedom for evil, he says, but freedom for good hardly exists, as those who want to accomplish good get tripped up on every side. “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.”
As for justice, it gets replaced by legalism: “Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. . . .Nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint.”
The “culture of death” plays no role in the speech. But a criticism of abortion might, by friendly amendment, be placed here. We tend to think of the putative abortion right as “substantive due process,” the opposite of legalism. Someone who accepted Solzhenitsyn’s analysis, however, might say, “Of course it’s wrong and should be forbidden. It is claimed that it must be allowed only on a legalistic pretext, ‘what the constitution says.’ So let’s be clear and say: that is not its true basis at all.”
We can hardly believe it now, but it was true, that incipient “political correctness” then involved ignoring the evils of Communism: “There is a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation, which works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from seventeen countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it.” Without any censorship, he says, the media was marching in lockstep to preserve this viewpoint.
It is not that liberalism failed, but that it abandoned the medieval heritage that it had always required. Thus it failed to realize the synthesis of material and spiritual goods which was its original promise:
In American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because 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 thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims.
Both the West and Communism reveal the failure of materialism. The path forward for the West, however, is not a reform, but something completely new. The only truths it is willing publicly to affirm are “ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” a “social dogmatism” inadequate to the trials we must face. Solzhenitsyn seems to agree with Marx on one point: that liberalism is on an inevitable path to, first, radicalism, then socialism, then Communism. “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” but the West as currently constituted seems to lack the resources to do this.
“The world has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, 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.”