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Learning from Solzhenitsyn: Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address. “The Farther A Society Drifts


Learning from Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn’s commencement addressI. “The Farther A Society Drifts

As the generations progress, man’s relationship with what the ages have known as the truth grows evermore tenuous. It is rejected for reasons as laughable as being considered in our eyes not applicable, as if after the many thousands of years of man walking upright, man is suddenly the arbiter of what is and is not true. Man, accordingly, wields this fictitious staff with much erroneous license. Truth, however, neither yields nor changes in the face of criticism or critique. Historically speaking, if one were to conduct what would be the most ambitious survey in the history of intellectual pursuit, one would likely find the truth to be a leading cause of unnatural death among the whole of human existence. The ability to know the truth is what makes us human. It follows, therefore, that the ability to hear, discern, and accept the truth is critical in laying claim to our humanity, yet in the modern day our collective interest in hearing, discerning, and acting upon the truth has all but vanished.

As Orwell so succinctly put it, “The farther a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” Man has drifted far, indeed. There is simply no place for the hard, objective truth in this world, and for those who insist upon speaking it regardless, little—if any—grace is afforded. In man’s abundance of sinful pride, he has come to believe himself to be infallible in thought and deed. To be proven wrong is to therefore be proven imperfect, thus contradicting his perceived infallibility. For this reason, every topic on the table of public discourse seems to lead not to rational, intentional, and thoughtful discourse, but rather to virulent, vitriolic, and hostile aggression. We walk on eggshells in our Lord of the Flies society, lest we step out of line and end up with our heads on pikes.

This neglect of truth is done to our own peril, and it is because of our unwillingness to accept the truth that modern society finds itself in its present state. The catalyst for all social and cultural degradation lies not in flawed policy, but in flawed self-perception, rejection of truth-as-absolute regardless of preference, and equally so in an inability to accept criticism from others when our imperfection is laid bare. Just as the confession of sin is critical in the reception of salvation from Christ, so too is acknowledgement of imperfection brought to light by uncomfortable truth necessary for a healthy society.

It is no wonder, then, that those who speak truth either at individual or societal levels are so often chided and exiled in their own time, only to be remembered generations later as beacons to which man should have paid greater attention. There has been no shortage of such figures throughout history, to be sure, but I would like to home in on one in particular—one Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

In 1978, Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard University, and it was in this speech in no uncertain terms that Solzhenitsyn proceeded to lambast Western materialism and spiritual weakness not from a place of hate, disgust, or political benefit, but rather from a place of concern and philanthropic interest. Having experienced the brunt of Soviet political oppression, he quickly became a staunch advocate of democracy. Why, then, did he criticize these future leaders and the system in which they were reared? Simply put, he wanted this American experiment to succeed, and in the echo chamber that is the American aristocracy he knew that mistakes would only be perpetuated as long as no one spoke up, lest someone confess to wrong doing or thought. In what is a most foreign concept to us today, he criticized with the intent to reform, rather than to score cheap political points.

What proceeds is a look at the aforementioned address—the prophetic nature of the content, the style and tone in which it was delivered, and finally a contemplation on the benefits of considering the criticisms of others. In so doing, there can be gleaned insight in the value of being honest and speaking the truth regardless of consequence. We shy away from delivering the truth with the heat of a Solzhenitsyn because of the fire it may create, but the truth in order to be effective must not—cannot—be watered down.

II. “The Truth is Seldom Pleasant…”

Solzhenitsyn prefaces his intellectual reckoning by conveying to the audience, “…the truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter,” but reassures by saying that, “…it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.” This is the fulcrum of this essay, that the truth, however critical it may be to our pitiable ears, is always intended for our benefit, not harm. Solzhenitsyn spoke the truth from a place of munificence, and chose to let come what may. This also validates what we as a culture have since forgotten, namely that honest criticism does not flow from a place of malice. After all, honesty is naught but a sign of respect and concern. This, conversely, is the unspoken evil of lies, not only that one is not being forthright with the truth, but also that one does not respect the other enough to speak truth to them. To this we will look closer as we approach the end.

Solzhenitsyn proceeds to make two main points: first, that because of the excess of freedom experienced in the West, comfort and pleasure have become the chief pursuits; and second, that this search for comfort and pleasure has thus weakened the West, leaving us spiritually exhausted. No doubt, these were and remain highly controversial statements, and yet as will be shown through the following examples, his reasoning is sound and his observations true.

Solzhenitsyn points out that men of the West have gained such impressive levels of freedom and material prosperity that they have forgotten what it means to pursue happiness, and thus fail to see the dark side of such freedom and possession. He states,

“In the process [of exercising our abundant freedom], however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: 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.”
It is rare that one brings up the psychological effects of material possession in abundance in the modern psyche. As man wants, he gains, and as he gains he soon thereafter begins to want once more. This is the vicious cycle of materialism, and of this, all stand accused. This cycle is, in theory, not entirely bad. If properly applied, this can lead to great advancements in all areas of human endeavor. Yet as our desires turn ever more squarely on material possessions, they turn away from the moral, the eternal, and the virtuous. As he states in summation,

“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 is it destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it.”
Solzhenitsyn next turns his focus to a curious aspect, which today would almost certainly elicit calls for deportation—the merits of the rule of law. He makes it abundantly clear that he is not advocating the abolition of the law, but he does see a point which has only become more true with the passage of time, namely that Western societies have grown increasingly dependent on the rule of law to be the arbiter of all things, be them political or moral. He tells the audience,

“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… A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities… Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.”
As a result, our defense of individual rights has become the sole object of Western life, because all that we now hold dear is germane to the laws of man. Increasingly we hold that there is no higher aim than the upholding of the law. We have become the modern day Pharisee, criticizing Christ for healing on the Sabbath. To this, Solzhenitsyn points out that there is something we neglect when we focus entirely on individual rights. To wit, in the West the focus has been on human rights, rather than human obligations.

The truly scathing thrust of his address, however, comes as he speaks of Western weakness. All else up to this point was a preface meant to primer the minds of those in attendance. He claims that,

“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… Life’s complexity and moral weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally [produced] by standardized Western well-being.”
By this, Solzhenitsyn claims that the comfort and ease so enjoyed by the West as a result of our market driven economies, and our dependence on the rule of law as the arbiter of all right and wrong has softened us to the realities of the world. The former has led us to believe that material possession is the chief end of human happiness, and that the latter is absolute, so we need to dig deeper than the laws that we ourselves have written. In effect, we live in a bubble, but all bubbles sooner or later burst.

Solzhenitsyn chooses to take a distinctly Christian line of reason as he offers an explanation of the benefit of suffering. As he states,

“After the suffering of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.”
Having said all manner of controversial statements, Solzhenitsyn now brings into the fold the Almighty. Rather than parse his thoughts, I will here quote them verbatim, as I see no need to elaborate them further. He states,

“… We turned our backs upon the Spirit and embrace all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which has imposed upon 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… Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.”
III. In Retrospect

Thus spoke Solzhenitsyn. He knew then what we know now: Americans are by and large not altogether capable of acknowledging our moral, political, social, or religious shortcomings. He told that audience what they needed to hear, and what he spoke echoed throughout the decades since. His words are not minced, nor are his intentions masked. Today it can hardly be doubted that if any public figure were to utter one such anti-American blasphemy, all outlets of modern media would be set ablaze; and yet, Solzhenitsyn spoke all these in a single address. From start to finish it was one criticism after another. However, as he states at the onset, it came not from an adversary, but from a friend. He spoke harsh, bitter, seemingly anti-Western rhetoric for the benefit of the West.

How was Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address greeted? Was it what one would expect from a Hollywood masterpiece, in which the protagonist’s clear and evident genius was met with thunderous applause? No. The response elicited was a chorus of boos from trust-funded future elites. Certainly, there were some in attendance on whom the message was not wasted, but whatever praise they had to offer was drowned out by the arrogance of those who rejected the truth. This should come as a surprise to no one. In fact, it perfectly illustrates the thrust of this essay—men love the truth when it is directed at his foe, and hates it when it is directed at him.

What Solzhenitsyn demonstrates is what we today seem to have forgotten en masse—that it is possible to not just disagree, but to clearly and brutally admonish others for their own good. It is for this reason that we have access to the truth, that we may bring good into the lives of others, and by extension to the world around us. Holy Writ is littered with one example after another of the benefits of being told we are wrong.[1] One may indeed suggest that in terms of human relations there are few greater acts of mercy than admonishment. When a man is wrong and is left unaware, it is only a matter of time before tragedy or embarrassment catches him. By pointing out his wrongdoing, we aim to save him from such an end. His pride may override the truth, but that is an issue of his own creation. Pride always comes before the fall, but rare is the example in which it stays thereafter. Surely Solzhenitsyn’s criticism was meant for edifying purposes.

It is no great wonder why man suffers so greatly when he hears the truth. The reason is that so much of the world we have built for ourselves has come as a result of a sham materialist dream. We have equated the possession of “things” as equitable to happiness and, in the process, have grown more disconnected with our individual and collective souls. The truth is the language of the soul and, much in line with the Orwellian contention of our drifting from the truth, the more disconnected we are from our soul, the less we will understand its language. As we increasingly seek fulfillment in the temporal things of the world—possessions and acclaim among our neighbors—we will only continue our drift from our true selves.

We must all of us remember that truth exists not for our detriment, but for our benefit. No man who pursued, discovered, and adhered to eternal truth was ever led to ruin. Understanding the truth and accepting it when it presents itself to us requires humility. We are likely only made aware of a truth when it is in contradiction to our own understanding the world around us. We know the truth because we stood against it and found our cup was filled.

IV. Cause and Effect

The truth may effect society in one of two ways: either we accept it within ourselves and in our own lives, and allow it to proliferate throughout society from the bottom up, or else we may advocate for truth at a societal level, focusing more on the political and cultural trends and mores of the day. The former of these options is much more likely to bring about real and lasting change. It is not enough to tell the culture that an act or philosophy is morally empty. Far more meaningful and effective is to demonstrate its emptiness by showing the fullness of life that exists in its absence. A believer in the redeeming power of Christ may tell an atheist about the joy of Christian fellowship, but this will be meaningless unless said atheist is allowed to experience, or at the very least to witness the fullness and joy proclaimed by our hypothetical Christian. This is where we who believe in these time-tested truths have failed miserably. We proclaim, but we fail to live the example we want to set. We claim the emptiness of worldly pleasures and pursuits, only to measure ourselves by these same metrics. We hold this act to be sinful, only to be caught in it ourselves. What’s more, when confronted with this hypocrisy, of which all are guilty at one point or another, we are often slow to repent and quick to anger.

Everyone favors the truth when it speaks in favor of one’s actions. It is only when it stands contrary to such actions that man rejects it. Unwillingness to admit fallibility leads to destruction. Modern man is no different from Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden. He has done wrong, he is aware of it, and yet he fights to the bitter end to justify his actions. This habit of irresponsible behavior—first in the sin and then in the cover-up—must be brought to an end. Until it is, we have no hope or expectation to see a lasting improvement in the world around us. This is not to say that sin—spiritual, moral, cultural, etc.—must be eliminated. Like the poor, sin will always be with us. This is exactly what must be accepted. Once it is understood that some actions and belief are and always will be wrong, it will then become easier to repent and move forward, not only for our own good, but for the good of the world around us.

V. Further Reading and Post Mortem

I have, admittedly, left out a great deal of his Harvard address with each omission proving more painful than the last. This was done in the interest of both concision and brevity. His address, even all these years later, still stands on its own. There have been many responses written offered since then, some in favor and others in opposition, which without question speaks to the power in truth of the article. For those who have not had the pleasure of reading his address in its entirety, it can be found in many places. This address, as well, not only generated decades of critiques, but also quite interestingly spawned a book comprised of his speech, 12 responses from the era in which it was given, and several later responses. All of this over a speech that was greeted by a chorus of boos.

Proving that the Universe has a certain sort of humor, it is worth noting that during the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games, during the portion of the ceremony in which Russia’s greatest literary figures received honor, Solzhenitsyn was deemed worthy of honor.

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