Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the towering literary figure who gave us the phrase "Gulag Archipelago" and whose life spanned from Lenin to Putin, died on Sunday at the age of 89.
Solzhenitsyn cut an imposing figure. With his curled beard and high forehead, he resembled a cross between a Biblical patriarch and a 19th-century Mormon pioneer.
While he led a brave life, unbowed by the pressures of totalitarianism, he was, apparently, meanspirited personally and loathe to keep friendships alive and active. If there is a photograph of him smiling, I have not seen it -- unless it was taken upon his return to Russia in 1994 after 20 years in exile in decadent Vermont.
In 1978, Solzhenitsyn delivered a commencement speech at Harvard University that was highly critical of Western culture. He condemned freedom and democracy and accused the West of soullessness.
As the New York Times' obituary described him in this context:
His rare public appearances could turn into hectoring jeremiads. Delivering the commencement address at Harvard in 1978, he called the country of his sanctuary spiritually weak and mired in vulgar materialism. Americans, he said, speaking in Russian through a translator, were cowardly. Few were willing to die for their ideals, he said. He condemned both the United States government and American society for its “hasty” capitulation in Vietnam. And he criticized the country’s music as intolerable and attacked its unfettered press, accusing it of violations of privacy.The Washington Post's one-time Moscow correspondent, Robert Kaiser, adds:
Living in this country confirmed Solzhenitsyn's worst fears about the West. He deplored the American way of life, and was not reluctant to say so. At Harvard in 1978, he gave a remarkable speech to the graduating seniors with a clear warning that Western civilization was in grave jeopardy. "The fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future," he said. "It has already started. . . . A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger." He criticized the reliance on law; he criticized the idea of freedom: "Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space" by Western civilization, he said.In his tirade against Western culture, Solzhenitsyn lamented:
The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.He also said in this speech (titled "A World Split Apart"):
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. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
... the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.Harvard graduates, then as now, no doubt listened to Solzhenitsyn's harsh judgment on American society and Western values and nodded their heads in silent agreement. In 1978, remember, Americans were in the midst of a "malaise" that many identified as having its roots in the hypermaterialism of the "Me Decade." (That, and the high inflation, high interest rates, high unemployment, and gasoline shortages exacerbated by misguided Carter administration policies.) Others, however, were not so sanguine and suggested that Solzhenitsyn, a virtual recluse, was personally clueless about America and the West.
The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man's physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and 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 superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.
Two years after the Harvard speech, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where I was working at the time as a Georgetown undergraduate, published a collection of essays called Solzhenitsyn at Harvard. It included some of the editorials and op-eds that had been published in reaction to Solzhenitsyn's address shortly after he delivered it, plus six specially-commissioned essays.
On September 16, 1980, the book was launched at a dinner in Washington with two speakers commenting on it: newspaper columnist George F. Will and social philosopher Michael Novak. Their speeches were later collected in a slim pamphlet called Solzhenitsyn and American Democracy. (The pamphlet seems to be no longer in print, while the larger volume is still, in theory, available through Amazon.com.)
In his remarks, Novak -- who contributed one of the original essays to the larger volume -- began by noting:
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's commencement address at Harvard might be viewed as a contemporary updating of Pope Pius IX's famous critique of modernity, "The Syllabus of Errors." Solzhenitsyn, like Pius IX, is adept at pointing out the errors, onesidedness, and blind spots in many of the things that we, in a liberal, democratic society, hold most dear. Like Pius IX, he holds up in contrast some of the models of Christian civilization from the past -- their ideals rather than their practices.Novak suggested that, for all his emphasis on religion and spirituality, Solzhenitsyn failed to see the link between those and liberal democratic values. He continued:
The great novelist, however, in concentrating so singlemindedly on soul, sometimes overlooks its necessary political, economic, and social artifacts. Human soul does not live alone. It is embodied. It is embodied in social, political, and economic systems as well as in its own human skin, tissues, sinews, and organs of feeling and sensibility.Upon reading that last paragraph, it should come as no surprise that Novak sees a paradox in Solzhenitsyn's thought:
Solzhenitsyn often seems to wish to reject modernity. "Western ideas" -- above all, democracy and all its works and pomps. He sometimes seems to desire a world of soul alone, leaders infused with virtue, peoples astonishingly and simply committed to the evangelical laws of peace, justice, order, and charity. If this were a world of angels, Solzhenitsyn's vision would create a City of Light. Its rulers would be saints, its people willing followers, its constitution the very laws of God. The civilization he envisages would be a heavenly city. The state would wither away. There would be a kind of benevolent dictatorship of, not the proletariat, but the gentle Christian community.
It is stunning, after all, to see how closely the dream of Solzhenitsyn mirrors the dream of his archenemy, Karl Marx, how he has turned Communism inside out as a vision of effortless Christian civilization, populated not by sinners but by the virtuous, organized not by trial and error, checks and balances, separation of powers, and the differentiation of systems (political system, economic system, moral-cultural system, each relatively independent of the other), but by simple righteousness. He guides us to a heavenly city, before we have learned to live in the sinful climes of earth, protecting ourselves against its inevitable tyrannies.(It may be worth noting that Novak's words in the preceding few sentences foreshadow the central theme of his then-yet-to-be-published book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.)
The utopian vision suggested by Novak's interpretation of Solzhenitsyn's thought has another unintended paradox, one often unrecognized by Rockford Institute-type social conservatives who are wary of individual liberty and free enterprise. Novak goes on to say:
Solzhenitsyn does us honor, though he may not think so, by being so affronted by the awful cheapness, vulgarity, and open sinfulness of our way of life. Any system open to human liberty as it actually is must necessarily abound in visible signs of sinfulness. Not even a coercive regime can repress the sinfulness of the human heart. No more can democracy be sinless than can Communism (committed, as Solzhenitsyn sees it, to systemic lies, immorality, and lust for power) drive out all virtue.One sentence there bears repeating: "Any system open to human liberty as it actually is must necessarily abound in visible signs of sinfulness." That is a profound insight, related to the fundamental truth that virtue must be freely chosen, else it is not virtue.
As Novak approached his conclusion, he proved to be remarkably prescient. Remember, this speech was delivered in September 1980. Ronald Reagan had not yet been elected president, and there was no certainty that he would be. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other "students" still held American diplomats hostage in Iran. Leonid Brezhnev would be General Secretary of the CPSU for another two years, and the collapse of the Soviet Empire lay a decade in the future. The Cold War had every indication of being a perpetual condition. So what does Novak say?
Yet with Solzhenitsyn's basic message we stand in agreement. The world is, sadly, split apart. World War III did begin in 1945, and the "correlation of forces" is less in our favor now than then, less so than at any time in the history of this republic. We are at an hour of maximum peril.
Yet so, also, is our foe. A system based on lies cannot endure. The world cannot survive half slave and half free. The reckoning rumbles in Poland. Events are picking up speed. The great chapter of our age is drawing toward its climax.
Whether Novak was aiming for dramatic effect or was somehow clairvoyant is up to him to reveal; few commentators in 1980 would have suggested an "approaching climax" to the Cold War except in apocalyptic terms, predicting nuclear war rather than an outcome favorable to liberty and democracy. (To be sure, Novak's prediction is ambiguously shaded. Perhaps it can only be read as optimistic in retrospect.)
For his own part, George Will focused less on the spiritual notions than the practical political ones suggested by Solzhenitsyn's critique of the West. He drew on American history, with a focus on James Madison's theory of faction. Will spoke mostly without notes, except for a long excerpt from Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, and the published version of his speech is based on a transcript from the recording.
It is essential to the understanding of America to realize that it was founded by men who sought explicitly to tame and submerge passion, to drain it into commercial undertakings and away from the ideological and religious and political divisions that had turned the Old World into a boiling pot and that could ruin a melting pot. James Madison's great breakthrough in the understanding of democracy was the realization that all previous political thinkers had been wrong in one critical particular. All previous political thinkers had said that if -- and it was an enormous hypothesis -- if democracy were possible at all, it would be possible only in a small, face-to-face society, something like Pericles' Athens or Rousseau's Geneva; in such a society, the people, knowing one another and enjoying a relationship of neighborliness, would not be riven by factions, which were assumed to be the enemy and ultimate destroyer of democracy.Continuing, this widely-syndicated newspaper columnist went on to explain:
Madison's breakthrough was to turn that idea on its head. He began with a progression like this: The problem of any political system is the prevention of tyranny; they tyranny to which democracy is prey is the tyranny of the majority; the way to prevent that is to avoid having a majority, to have only shifting coalitions of minorities that can never become a stable and oppressive majority. Therefore faction is to be celebrated, and the United States is to succeed through a saving multiplicity of factions, made possible by a complex economic system and a continental expanse.
To find American political thought summarized in two short newspaper columns, read two of the Federalist papers: Number Ten, where Madison celebrates factions, and Number Fifty-one, where he says, "You will see throughout our system the process of supplying by opposite and rival interests the defect of better motives." Ours is the first nation founded on the premise that it could get along without anyone having good motives, without anyone being public-spirited; that out of the cheerful maelstrom of factions would emerge something that could be baptized, in a magnificent a priori swoop, "the public interest."But what of Solzhenitsyn, the reason for this speech in the first place? Will argues that Solzhenitsyn
says that statecraft cannot just be a matter of social control; it must be, to some extent, soulcraft.(I have to wonder if this was the first time that George Will used the formulation "statecraft as soulcraft," later the title of his 1983 collection of essays.)
Solzhenitsyn, Will says,
is understandably startled by the raucousness of American life. He's not the only one, and it's not just American life. George Orwell made the point, not long before he died, that "all popular entertainments have one thing in common: they seem to aim at the numbing of consciousness." (He said this before recreational drugs, and he never saw American television.)Recreational drugs, I would note, have been with us since man was still a hunter-gatherer. But I might add that Orwell never saw Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft, either -- nor, I suppose, did Solzhenitsyn. Back to George Will:
Solzhenitsyn understands that there is something profoundly disturbing about the sensory blitzkrieg that is part of our social life. He understands the irony of an age in which self-expression is the ultimate -- and some would say the only -- value, yet all the themes of modern literature seem to converge on the fragility of a sense of self.After quoting historian John Lukacs, who had suggested in his 1978 book 1945: Year Zero that Solzhenitsyn would turn out to be the pivotal figure in the conflict between East and West and (perhaps -- remember, this was 1980) in the collapse of the Communist East, Will concluded by saying:
For two centuries the human race has been assailed by the misconstructions first of physics, then biology, then psychology, more recently sociology, and today biochemistry, all telling us in different ways that man is not free, that he is a creature of vast impersonal forces, and that individuals do not make a difference. Solzhenitsyn's life says, "Not true."With the perspective of nearly 30 years, we can add a few more individual lives that say "Not true": Lech Wałesa, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, and others. None of them singly but all of them interrelatedly through their individual efforts made the difference between liberty and serfdom for millions of human beings.
For all his faults, and for all his shortsightedness with regard to Western values and achievements, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was very much an individual who made a difference that mattered -- even to those he disdained.