Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a name that may not be familiar to many young people today, but in 1978, he gave an incredibly important speech at Harvard University’s commencement in Russian. As a political dissident, he found himself in exile from the Soviet Union, so he found refuge in the United States, and he actually lived in Vermont which is a nice tie to my home state.
Solzhenitsyn was interesting because in his address, he spoke about the crisis of the West. While he did address the problems that were present in his homeland, he addressed his Western audience about their own shortcomings.
Within the first few minutes of his speech, he found what seems to be the Achilles’ heel of the West. “Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. And all of a sudden in the twentieth century came the discovery of its fragility and friability.” We trust so much in human independence, the ultimate triumph of the Enlightenment, that we really don’t know what to do now that there are all kinds of problems associated with unfettered freedom.
In 1978, Solzhenitsyn didn’t even know all of the changes that were going to hit the West in the next 40 years, but our insatiable appetites have only increased. We want more and more of everything, but we still are not really happy. For whatever reason, we think that things can solve all of our problems. At least here in the United States, we have unprecedented levels of prosperity. Beyond that, we really are pretty independent people. I was thinking the other day about how for most of human history, you would have been happy to have one of something. It was enough to have one nice coat. However, now a lot of people even have a nice backup just in case they damage the one they have. It is not just about having enough, but it is about having enough in case we lose the enough that we have now.
Providing all of these unheard-of comforts to the citizenry was thought to be something that would lead to contentment and ultimately happiness. However, Solzhenitsyn observed, “In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life, and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings.”
You probably have heard about keeping up with the Joneses, but it isn’t just about keeping up with them. Even if they have reached a certain level of material wealth, once we catch them, we still want to have more. It really isn’t much a matter of comparison. That is one significant part that we miss out on. We might say that we just want our share of the American dream or whatever other standard we might set, but if we are honest, we only care about comparisons when there is someone above us. Once we hit that standard that we have been talking about forever, then we still want more.
As a result, we are free from the state by and large. We are not dependent on state provision. We have our own stuff, and we have enough of our own stuff. However, we still want more. We want more possessions. We want to be able to purchase more and make more money.
We have simply traded one master for another.
This approach lends itself to some other vices. Solzhenitsyn highlights an obsession with legislation. After all, if we want to protect our own things, we have to build legal system that gives us a solid mechanism for defending our own property. Property is good, but an unhealthy obsession with more and more property means that we push ourselves to the legal boundaries rather than a concern for a good amount of what we need. “Nobody may 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.”
Again, this isn’t rocket science. If Solzhenitsyn were alive today, I don’t think he would be surprised by our current society. The situation didn’t get better. It got worse, and he noted this trajectory 40 years ago. If it isn’t illegal, most of us feel entitled to do it. Never mind what impact it may have on our culture or on anyone else. We push the boundaries right to the edge. We are not willing to sacrifice for other people to make it better for everyone. Rather, we want to push the boundaries to the edge for our own benefits.
One of the most powerful quotes from his entire lecture concerns the legal system. “Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses.” Because we have built the culture of our society around our own independence and our chief concern is our own individual pursuits, we do whatever we can to advance our own situation. The law is the only thing that we see holding us back. Solzhenitsyn frowns on that development.
The problem is that it goes on even further. We want everything, and the only thing that keeps us in place is the legal system that we push to the limit anyway and would probably violate if we could do so without recourse. If it could possibly get worse, it does for Solzhenitsyn because we have idolized the individual, who potentially has the type of character I outlined above. This is not saying that there aren’t good people in the West, but he is saying that it is really dangerous when certain people are able to run, unhindered, in the path of individual choice. He said, “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals.”
This leads to a great deal of freedom being used for horrible things, but that should not be a surprise. Solzhenitsyn points to something that is really unpopular today, and I assume it was unpopular in his day as well. “Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually, but it was evidently born primarily of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature.” For the Christian, this should be a red flag. We understand sin nature. We understand that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and others argued that man was really just a blank slate. There is nothing inherently evil about humanity, and in the right environment, man would just be good. Solzhenitsyn kind of mocks this understanding of human nature by saying, “Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauper and lawless Soviet society.”
Some in the West have realized this and turned to socialism, an idea that Solzhenitsyn rejected. However, he understood that this turn to socialism was responsible for a genuine human emotion. “After the suffering of decades 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.” In this quote he is obviously speaking about media, but it extends far beyond that. We realize something is wrong, and we realize that our society is moving in the wrong direction. We realize that there are problems with what is going on. We start to turn to other things because we want to feel something. We think that there has to be something better.
That’s the question then that we all need to answer. Where do we turn if we are unhappy with where we are at? We have a great deal of freedom and independence. These are good things. I would never argue against them by any means. However, we need to keep in mind that it is one thing to diagnose a problem, and it is quite another to find a solution for that problem. It’s hard because there are always a million possible solutions, and most solutions sound pretty reasonable in theory.
Humanism isn’t always a problem. Humanism can be a really good thing. It is good to embrace a philosophy that puts a great deal of importance on humanity. After all, don’t we want to love our fellow man and try to do what is best for society? I think most of us do, and it scares me to think of a governmental system that does not have the good of humanity at heart.
Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn hits the nail on the head one more time. Humanism has problems when it stands alone, problems we have already diagnosed throughout this entire article. “Humanism without its Christian heritage cannot resist such competition.” The competition he refers to speaks about the intellectual competition with communism in the West. It is an intriguing intellectual exercise in the West because it seems to align very well with much of what we are missing. Communism seems to establish a higher system that provides meaning and order. We’re sick of what we have, so we want something to fill in the gaps. Humanism on its own, perhaps referred to as secular humanism by some, doesn’t have an answer. Instead, in the West we just see the disorder and are unsatisfied with it.
That’s why Christianity is so important. Christian humanism, on the other hand, believes in the inherent value of man not because of the faulty belief in our perfection but rather because we are created in the image of God. As soon as the myth of human goodness is busted by the evident corruption in the East and the West, humanism has nothing. Christian humanism does not make false claims about human nature. That is a substantial difference.
Not only that, but Christian humanism points towards the sense of order and meaning that the West seems to be missing. Solzhenitsyn does not go on to endorse Christian humanism. However, it is a rather obvious implication of his worldview. If there is a lack of meaning and structure in the West, something I would agree with, then there are a few alternatives that we can use to fill in that gap.
Maybe that is the answer to the question then. People are simply unsatisfied with where we are at. We have tried to find meaning in so many places. Why don’t we try to think about where we have found meaning in the past? As we have drifted further and further away from our Judeo-Christian roots and embraced more and more Enlightenment philosophy in its stead, you can see Solzhenitsyn’s argument play out more and more obviously.