The last few months have been difficult for many Americans. We have watched our nation struggle with a global pandemic, a history of unresolved racism, and violence in the streets. Economic and social turmoil have engendered feelings of helplessness and despair, as events continue to spiral out of control. Many are left doubting the foundations of American democracy, if not western civilization itself. Radical forces are currently seeking the destruction of both. Few seem capable enough or brave enough to defend them.
Years ago, a friend asked me to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, a task I only recently got around to completing. Like Orwell’s 1984, Solzhenitsyn’s message is bound to resonate no matter the historical circumstance of one’s reading, but perhaps now more than ever.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a famed Russian novelist, philosopher, and outspoken critic of Soviet communism. He served in the Red Army during World War II only to be sent to the gulag for the crime of criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter. Even after his release, Solzhenitsyn continued to provoke the ire of Soviet authorities. He was exiled from his native land, ultimately taking up refuge in the United States.
Two years later, when Solzhenitsyn stepped up to the podium at Harvard, the audience likely expected an attack on communism delivered by a grateful exile. Instead, they were treated to a blistering critique of their own supposedly more virtuous way of life. Solzhenitsyn prefaced his speech with the warning that “truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Consider these seven points with corresponding excerpts from the text. One need not strain to see their relevance to the present day.
- The Impossible Trap of Materialism
“The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”
- The Limits of Legalism
“(In the West) the limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad… Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will 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. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.”
- Unlimited Freedom Leads to Decadence and Irresponsibility
“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, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror… Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil…
“Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones…
“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations…”
- The Pernicious Role of the Press
“Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none — and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus… we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”
- The Convergence of Opinion around a Few “Fashions”
“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.”
- Dissatisfaction with Society and Calls for Socialism
“It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development… However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current… Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death…”
- A Lack of Courage
“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days…
“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower… To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Soulless materialism, the shirking of responsibility, a pernicious press, a decadent and depraved “mass” culture, a lack of courage. These features have continued to characterize American life in ways that Solzhenitsyn himself likely could not have imagined at the time of this speech (he died in Russia in 2008).
There is an ongoing debate among political philosophers as to whether liberal democracy can withstand the current storm, or if the end is near. The former position can be found in Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, while the latter is best expressed in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.
Solzhenitsyn falls firmly in the latter camp, locating the source of the West’s spiritual crisis at the very root. The humanism of the Renaissance and the secularism of the Enlightenment put man at the center of his own universe, in particular his material needs. Solzhenitsyn decries the folly of making man the “touchstone” of everything on earth — “imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, vanity, and dozens of other defects.” He notes:
We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed 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 political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis.
America was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy of the likes of Locke and Montesquieu, who inspired our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Solzhenitsyn acknowledges that at the time of the American founding, a strong sense of religious responsibility remained as a check against unlimited human freedom. However, since then we have discarded every limit on the individual’s ability to satisfy his whims. We have lost a proper understanding of freedom, and society has become increasingly materialistic as a result. Communism too developed out of humanism, taking man’s earthly happiness as its highest aim. In this sense, the competing ideologies of East and West have more in common than either side cares to realize.
But Solzhenitsyn points out that “if humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die.” The basic fact of man’s mortality negates it, while pointing to the worthier goal of moral growth. He advises against “attach(ing) oneself to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” declaring that “we cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society.” He concludes:
If the world has not come to its end, it 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. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.
In our quest for spiritual renewal, we cannot simply crawl back into the comfort of the Middle Ages, an era as imperfect as our own. What is needed is a great infusion of the spirit, a moral awakening. Man has both a material and spiritual nature, and the needs of both must be met. However, our spiritual needs are always greater, as they pertain to that immortal part of ourselves. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has witnessed a recent resurgence in popularity, a predictable development considering the rising uncertainty and unrest. Based on the rule of St. Benedict, founder of western monasticism, Dreher calls upon orthodox Christians to turn inward, seek support from like-minded families and building “arcs” capable of weathering the coming secular Dark Age.
Dreher was criticized for surrendering mainstream culture too easily, after the publication of The Benedict Option in 2017. However, his book contains practical, common sense advice. We can start by taking back control of our children’s education, fighting pornography, limiting smartphone use, engaging in meaningful work, and building real communities. In the battle for hearts and minds, we should never compromise the truth. Perhaps most importantly, we can pray.
Sometimes it seems like we are fighting against forces so large and powerful that it is hard to maintain hope. For conservatives, it can be difficult and disheartening to accept that we have lost the battle to define our nation’s culture: in the arts, in the schools, and in the courts. But no lie can last forever, no matter how widespread; “the truth will out.”
Forty-two years ago, a Russian dissident called Americans out for our lack of courage. Only by reorienting ourselves to the truth can we rediscover the strength of will and self-confidence we have been missing for far too long.