For months, I have inwardly debated writing something about the times we are living in and have— until now— come out on the side of keeping my thoughts to myself. But I just read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address to Harvard in 1978, and the prescience and relevance to our own era are too uncanny not to comment on. He could give the same speech today, and we would have no idea it was written over thirty years ago.
Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago from his experience in the prison camps under Communist Russia. It is a scathing critique of Communism, and Solzhenitsyn pulls no punches. Even in his speech at Harvard, he states unequivocally,
“I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall not speak for such an alternative. The mathematician Igor Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliantly argued book entitled Socialism; this is a penetrating historical analysis demonstrating that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.” [emphasis mine]
However, this Harvard speech is targeted at the West rather than the East (his book does plenty of the latter). He is disgusted by the West’s materialism and reliance on freedom without any sense of responsibility or accountability. His main argument is that, by embracing the humanism put forth during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment (“…the pro-claimed 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.”), the West has neglected the spiritual self for the purely physical, and this has had dire consequences for us.
“Everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtle 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.”
Because we have emphasized freedom, we have become confused about what that word means. It is not uncommon to hear demands for free things– like education and healthcare– out of the same mouths that are demanding lesser or no penalties for crimes. Freedom does not guarantee that we will be given anything; we are responsible for acting morally when given freedom. But that concept has been bulldozed for one demanding more more more while demanding that even less be asked of us.
“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.
[. . .]
It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
On the other hand, destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”
Evil has been given free rein for the very reason we have refused to acknowledge it. If we were to bring it up in everyday conversation, it would be dismissed as superstitious residue from an obsolete religion, one with no relevance to our modern-day lives. The truth is much more serious, and we ignore our spiritual selves at our peril: “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?”
It is easy to avoid the spiritual side of existence. We have plenty of distractions, plenty of other people’s lives to obsess over. But though we may feel entitled to these distractions and even to the details of other people’s lives, Solzhenitsyn believes that we would do far better to exercise our self-restraint and our right not to look, “not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information.”
The sad thing is, I can think of very few who have no need for the “excessive and burdening flow of information.” It is incessant, and it is very often wrong. Yet this is what we base our opinions and sensibilities on– this misleading, unreliable, factually-confused barrage of information that we have insufficient filters for and an inability to entirely contain. Then policies are made in alignment with these unverified ideas, and the domino effect has begun.
“Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad. There is no open violence, as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to accommodate mass standards frequently prevents the most independent-minded persons from contributing to public life and gives rise to dangerous herd instincts that block dangerous herd development.”
We cling even tighter to these ideas because we believe they are legitimized by society’s acting on them. But we are just part of the herd, being pushed along with no idea of where we are going. We believe there is safety in numbers, and we don’t want to know what it’s like to be alone by ourselves.
Therein lies the danger. We need to stop eating the lies we are fed; we need to start fighting for something deeper than material happiness and more eternal than this finite life. There is a lot wrong with the world right now, but it is not what we are being told is wrong. Solzhenitsyn saw clearly what our weaknesses are. If we haven’t gotten better in the thirty years since he showed them to us, what will it take for us to finally understand?