When Alexander Solzhenitsyn rose to address the 15,000 assembled faculty, graduates, and parents for the Harvard Commencement on June 8, he must have had feelings akin to those of Paul at Mars Hill. Both men enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity—and faced serious problems.
Solzhenitsyn could not have failed to know that The Gulag Archipelago presented deep challenges to the conventional wisdom of many of his listeners. By documenting the manner of administration of “justice” in the U.S.S.R. through the decades, he laid to rest the comfortable fiction that the accounts of Communist atrocities were the invention of “the kept Western press.” More devastating still is his tracing of the massive system of penal camps to 1917, which demolished the cherished fantasy that “Stalin betrayed the Revolution.”
Now, as if to challenge further the liberal chic, Solzhenitsyn reminded fashionable academia of some (to him) serious shortcomings in the accepted ethos of our Western scene. The sea of umbrellas must have quivered slightly—it was raining—as he denounced the triviality of segments of the media for “the revolting invasion of publicity” with the mania for telling all.
Equally unpalatable must have been Solzhenitsyn’s designation of much of broadcasting as “television stupor.” It seems that there is a tacit agreement within sophisticated circles that TV is doing a massive service in democratizing our people—even if it does so by a large-scale vulgarization of life, language, and manners. Scarcely less pleasing was his criticism of our popular music as intolerable. It is chic to view rock music as the finest fruit of the tree of the counterculture, and one can scarcely expect a sophisticated audience, in Harvard or elsewhere, to appreciate such criticism.
I lack the knowledge to evaluate some of Solzhenitsyn’s social and political views. What appeals to me after reading and rereading his speech is that it abounds in spiritual insights that by their implications touch deeply our national life.
Outstanding among these is his treatment of legalistic life in the West. Setting this against the lack of “any objective legal scale” as is the case in Communist lands, he points out that the West bases its concept of law not only upon the letter of the law but upon the ideal of pushing the limit of all legal frames. Thus, our society sees no place for self-restraint in the approach to behavior, so long as some jury or some majority of justices consider it permissible within the limits of the law.
The net result of this is, of course, norms and forms of public behavior that impose a minimum of self-discipline, or none at all. Thus, by implication Solzhenitsyn accuses the West of a new legalism, the net result of which is “an atmosphere of moral mediocrity.” Advocates of ever-widening boundaries of behavior stifle those who wish to excel. Worse still, they leave society, through their extreme defense of the rights of the individual, helpless against the violent.
The West also seems defenseless against what Solzhenitsyn calls “the abyss of human decadence.” An ethos that makes its guide the ever-expanding boundaries of legal permission ends up being terrorized by violent people whose civil rights take precedence over both public order and public safety.
Solzhenitsyn touched another sensitive nerve when he referred to the thin moral veneer of a nation in which, during a brief power failure in its largest city, its citizens “start looting and creating havoc.” He might well have mentioned the further decay evident when the media carried the word of a pundit, to the effect that “when people are hungry, they steal.” Item: steal stereos and bedroom suites?
In this connection, Solzhenitsyn called attention to the fact that while pressing the limits of legality produces only weak characters, personal discipline produces character, whether under conditions of freedom or even of oppression. In this connection, contrast the cowering confessions that marked the conduct of the victims of the rigged trials in the U.S.S.R. from 1917 to 1963, with the courageous manner in which Anatoly Shcharansky and Alexander Ginsburg stood like men and faced their accusers in recent Soviet court sessions. The years of self-discipline have produced character in them.
(It might be helpful to recall that these men stood tall in defense of what the West believed it was getting at Helsinki, in exchange for final recognition of the boundaries that imprison the peoples of the East. Where do we hear protests today from the intelligentsia of our land?)
What lies behind the massive forces for decadence, for the love for mediocrity, for the loss of taste, for the decline of civility, and for the loss of will in the West? Solzhenitsyn offers a solution to this riddle—one that again was scarcely calculated to produce cheers of agreement in academic circles. In measured language, he lays much of the blame for the current failure of nerve in the West upon a mind-set that “did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man.” A consequence of this denial is a social mentality that cannot “see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth.” With evident pathos, he points out that everywhere in the West there has been a “liberation” from the moral heritage of the Christian faith, a loss of the “great reserves of mercy and sacrifice” produced by it.
Although none will reject man’s struggle for human rights out of hand, what Solzhenitsyn deplores is that such a struggle may be carried to a point at which “man’s sense of responsibility to God grew dimmer and dimmer.” Underlying all this is his conviction that when the intrinsic evil of the human heart and its corollary of man’s need for God’s grace is lost, man falls prey to a loss of spiritual responsibility—to freedom from religion. Such loss opens men and societies to a materialistic humanism.
These significant spiritual losses cause Solzhenitsyn to plead for a return to theological realism with respect to human evil and to a vital acceptance of the true, eternal dimensions of the human soul. He dares to hope that after decades of wallowing in triviality, impurity, violence, and spiritual oppression, the human spirit now is ready to see and hear whatsoever things are pure, lovely, and of good report—things superior to those offered by sensational media, by invasion of human privacy, and by mass entertainment.
As occurred following Paul’s address on Mars Hill, some representatives of the liberal chic and its conventional wisdom mocked Solzhenitsyn. Their media have attempted to dismiss him as “an Orthodox mystic” or as “a hermit from Vermont.” I hope that some people are willing to listen to him. Should not the architects who create the values of the West, and those responsible for inculcating them, take notice?
Harold B. Kuhn is professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.
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