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Solzhenitsyn’s Prescient Account of “A World Split Apart”

It has now been 40 years since the Soviet dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave the Harvard address that not only flabbergasted those present but predicted the modern world. Solzhenitsyn foresaw the collapse of faith in the West, our addiction to technology, popular culture’s hegemony over deeper forms of learning, political correctness, collegiate censorship, fake news, even Donald Trump. In commemorating the 40th anniversary of A World Split Apart, we read words that are not just relevant, but astounding.

Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 after decades of opposition to the communist regime. After living in Cologne, West Germany and Zurich, Switzerland, he settled in Cavendish, Vermont, in 1976. Two years later, Harvard University awarded the 59-year-old writer an honorary doctorate and chose him as  commencement speaker. His June 8, 1978 address happened to be Solzhenitsyn’s first public statement since his arrival in the United States.

There is enough material for several books in “A World Split Apart,” but the speech, in rough terms, breaks down to six themes.

Decline of Courage

“The Western world has lost its civic courage,” Solzhenitsyn told his audience, “both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations.” This was most obvious in the attitude of many Westerners toward Soviet aggression—particularly “among the ruling and intellectual elites,” causing “an impression of loss of courage by the entire society,” Solzhenitsyn said. “Political and intellectual functionaries  exhibit . . . depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions,” and “even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice.” Our elites “get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.”

Spiritual Collapse

Solzhenitsyn argued that the suffering endured by countries taken over by communism had made their citizens tough spiritually and politically, so that an end to totalitarian oppression, while desirable, would not be an improvement in all respects if these societies were to become Westernized. During the decades spent under communism, the peoples of Russia and Eastern and Central Europe “have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being.” The “human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer,” he said, than the consumerism of the West.

In Solzhenitsyn’s account, “the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment” became “the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed 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.” This “humanistic way of thinking, which had proclaimed itself our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth.”

The result was a hollowing out of the soul, a process that “started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshiping man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and the 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 higher meaning.” Yet “freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones.”

Corruption of the Press

Decades before Chelsea Manning and TMZ, Solzhenitsyn lamented the dishonorable behavior of the Western media, from their enthusiasm for condemning their own country to their invasion of privacy: “Thus we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters pertaining to the nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion into the privacy of well-known people according to the slogan ‘Everyone is entitled to know everything.’” Far greater in value, he said, “is the forfeited right of people not to know, 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.” Consider that he said this at least a decade before the advent of the Internet.

Campus Censorship

Even without any state censorship in the West, Solzhenitsyn observed, “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.” And these fads form “a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds, to such a degree that human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the inexorable crowbar of events.” In one observation, he’s taken account of  the general failure in the West to perceive that communism would collapse in the late 1980s, and also of the character of Americans coming of age in the new millennium, so in thrall to the idols of political correctness today that they cannot bear to hear opposing views on campus and cannot grasp the nature of the freedoms that have been enshrined in their country’s founding charter.

Legalism

Solzhenitsyn did have praise for one aspect of the West: its legal system. “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime,” he said, “and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But,” he added, “a society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities.”  While our laws protect the widest possible freedom, “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.”

Technology

Solzhenitsyn saw “telltale symptoms” of the effects on society of overdependence on technology. “The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then,” covering an “unstable and unhealthy”  social system. Today, of course, people cannot be separated from their phones for even a few minutes.

A Threatened Society

In a lecture full of striking pronouncements, this warning about the nature and quality of statesmanship stands out. The signs of a “threatened or perishing society,” Solzhenitsyn said, were two: “a decline of the arts [and] a lack of great statesmen. Indeed, sometimes the warnings are quite explicit and concrete.” There has not been a compelling artistic movement in the West in decades. And anyone looking for great statesmanship would be wise to avoid President Trump’s tweets.

Reader Discussion

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on June 08, 2018 at 08:01:55 am

Decline in courage? Oh alas for the days when our president would boldly declare, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”—and set in motion events to kill 3.5 million people in Vietnam, including 60,000 dead or missing US troops—as well as unknown others killed in the Bay of Pigs and other endeavors. Somehow a decline of courage (a/k/a a rise of prudence) doesn’t strike me as the greatest threat to ever face the US.

Spiritual collapse? In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis speculates about all the things that demonic forces desire in their efforts to win souls, and by implication, all the things that God opposes. Chief among the things prized by demons is peace. War forces men to face their own mortality and to contemplate things beyond themselves. By implication, because God values spiritual growth, God must love war. And if you regard this world as merely some inconsequential playground for rehearsing morality plays, I guess that makes sense. But for me, a decline in spiritual growth doesn’t strike me as the greatest threat to ever face the US.

Corruption of the press—because it gives us TOO MUCH INFORMATION? True, information overload has its downside. And, true, the press has invaded the privacy of the famous, even going so far as to report upon the sex lives of beloved figures such as Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. Somehow, this doesn’t strike me as the greatest threat to ever face the US.

Campus censorship? Oh for the days when college students were free to speak as they pleased—all those lily-white male upper-class college students. Sure, we ruthlessly suppressed other voices and perspectives—but at least we did it at the college gates, so that we could enjoy the delusion that the resulting conversations on campus were free. Oh, and sure, we might drive people to suicides over accusations of being communists or gay—but at least we didn’t have to face Antifa, right? Somehow, today’s college censorship doesn’t strike me as the greatest threat to ever face the US.

Legalism in defense of immoral speech? Somehow this doesn’t strike me as the greatest threat to ever face the US.

A decline of the arts? Honestly, I can’t claim any great insight about that. For what it’s worth, as we approach the Tony Awards, Broadway has never had a better year. If Hamilton doesn’t count as an advancement in the arts, well, call me a philistine—provided you also call me an Uber in time for the opening number.

A decline in statesmen? The single most important quality for any great statesman is—to live during a calamity. FDR is regarded as a great statesman in part because of the devastation of the Great Depression and WWII. Since that time, no other president has landed the nation in such dire circumstances. Is it a coincidence that none of these presidents enjoy FDR’s stature? If the price of peace and prosperity is a lack of opportunity to demonstrate “greatness,” well, this doesn’t strike me as the greatest threat to ever face the US.

And, arguably, Trump is the culmination of this dynamic. If the US were in the middle of WWII, do you imagine the public would have gambled on electing Trump? No, it is precisely because the US does NOT regard itself as facing an existential crisis that people were willing to focus on smaller objectives—and to elect a man they think would be best able to achieve those objectives, even at the risk of stressing our democratic institutions.

Now, what if the stress Trump imposes on our democratic institutions proves too great? Well, there’s an up side to that, too: Trump will BECOME the calamity that will permit some OTHER statesman to demonstrate his greatness. In the meantime, we’ll all have to demonstrate courage, which will teach us spiritual lessons. The press will have important things to report on. And, who knows, maybe someone will write a musical about all this. This could be just the medicine that Solzhenitsyn ordered....

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nobody.really
on June 08, 2018 at 10:50:35 am

This workingman's Readers Digest-like summary of Solzhenitsyn's Harvard speech includes hortatory matters that appear either to be encouraged by Law and Liberty's editors or to have been adopted as useful selling points by many of L&L's regular contributors: a homiletic on the Trumpian consequences of failing to honor classical liberalism's moral, political and economic virtues as illustrated by at least one virtue-signaling lamentation of President Trump's character.

Here's the tiresome Trump smear:
"And anyone looking for great statesmanship would be wise to avoid President Trump’s tweets."

HaHa the dissimulating eirōneía.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 08, 2018 at 10:54:37 am

While our laws protect the widest possible freedom

That was then; this is now. At the time Solzhenitsyn spoke, we could have gone in one of two directions: either our freedom would develop in the direction of our laws (we would regain the ability to be free under the constraint of a transcendental order), or our laws would move towards our freedom (our laws would progressively restrict our freedom because we are deemed to make such bad uses of it). Well, we now know what direction we took.

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QET
on June 08, 2018 at 15:51:53 pm

Mr.Nobody, you should have prefaced your comment with "Apropos of nothing..." You're so disconnected with common people and common sense that all your examples don't remotely touch on any of the crises that Solzhenitsyn spoke of and yet one can tell you're quite smug in summing up your paltry arguments.( Hamilton? This is the hill you'll die on defending the arts?) Driving homosexuals to suicide? (They're higher numbers than ever) And FDR is a great statesman? ( History is unfortunately not doing its part to substantiate this) It is like Mr.Nobody has lived his entire life in a dream world or fairy story composed only of atheists and democrats and that people seeking God are all villains and incidental to his little planet. Well, here's a big clue...everything and everyone hinges on God. Fear (awe) of God is the beginning of wisdom, without this knowledge, without this love, we're nothing but clanging cymbals, as St.Paul would say. Solzhenitsyn was a Godly man. He had great depth of understanding and a prophet of our age. You would do well to read a good bio of him by Joseph Pearce. Forgive me for sounding sanctionious but it's a knee jerk reaction to condescension and conceit.

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Elizabeth
on June 08, 2018 at 16:58:24 pm

OK, I will call you a philistine - Ha!

And I would not call FDR a great statesman nor a great economic leader. (Recall his reasoning for raising the "price" of gold by $0.21 to Morgenthau -"Well, 21 is a licky number") This does not indicate a great statesman much less a great thinker.

And BTW - WHAT SPECIFIC stress has The Trumpster imposed on our institutions. OOPS, I get it - the institution of the MEDIA and, by extension, the Democrat Party that deploys the institution of the media as its megaphone.

BUT, you are correct. We do not at present face an existential crisis similar to WWII. One could argue however that should we fail to set our house in proper order, we may very well face such a crisis.

And no, nobody.really believes that Solzhenitzn is / was wrong. A rather astute and insightful observer of Western decline. To whom should I listen? Hmmmm! Solzhenitzn, a keen observer or nobody, whose views / analyses consistently rely upon "reference" to all of the "outliers" in behavbior / belief / practice. as the basis of his arguments????

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gabe
on June 08, 2018 at 17:04:07 pm

Elizabeth:

" “Apropos of nothing…"

I absotively LUVV'D IT!

In a nutshell, that is what nobody proffers to all of us at LLB.
Once again, his *spurious* line of argument is designed to induce one to take the wrong track - a track (trap, perhaps?) which he (mistakenly) believes will prove sufficiently alluring / complex to others that they will hasten along it and come to his destination.

Sorry, nobody - the game is up! Ha!

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gabe
on June 08, 2018 at 17:31:08 pm

In re Nobody: I recently described his comments as "slow-witted" and "unforgettable stupidity," which I now see is both wrong and too harsh. Others say that he "obfuscates," is a "Philistine" and "deliberately obtuse" but "no dummy," "just obstinate."

"Econometrician gone mad" fits, although "generally maddening" fits, too, as does "sad but funny" if one views only the dark side and only through Monty Python lenses.

With a wink to the Kingston Trio's "Merry Minuet" any beloved might engrave his tombstone:

"And Nobody don't like Anybody very much."

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 08, 2018 at 18:19:07 pm

OK, I will call you a philistine – Ha!

Great. Now where's my Uber?

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nobody.really
on June 08, 2018 at 18:22:26 pm

Wow--Monty Python AND Kingston Trio? I'm flattered. If I can't count on nature to bestow such honors, it's nice that they're bestowed by my fellow man.

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nobody.really
on June 09, 2018 at 10:54:08 am

OK - NOW you get your UBER!!!!!

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gabe
on June 10, 2018 at 16:16:47 pm

“Freedom per se does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and even adds a number of new ones”: Solzhenitsyn reminds us of what matters.”

True, for to be free to fear the State is not necessarily to desire to be reconciled to the State, whereas to be free to fear God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, is to desire to be reconciled to God.

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Nancy
on June 28, 2018 at 00:12:40 am

Quite so.

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Suzan R Zaner
on June 28, 2018 at 09:07:40 am

Gabe,
This fair-to-middling commentary on Solzhenitsyn on June 8 degenerated into an online spat among commenters about nobody.really, which, per usual and as intended, was generated by nobody.really.
During that contretemps I revised my previously stated negative assessment of our commenter-provocateur, somewhat elevating my prior judgment. Since then, I have modified my revision so that I am back at the negative point of my original conclusion but with a broader theory of what may be behind the nobody.really matter.I

I first stated my revised nobody.really theory on June 25 in commenting on an excellent commentary by Mark Pulliam on legal education governance. For the benefit of the several readers of Mark Judge's Solzhenitsyn article who are so obviously annoyed by nobody.really's obstructionism I repost my recent Restatement of Nobody, as follows:

"I sometimes wonder if “excessivelyperky” is not “nobody.really, ” the splenetic Mr. Hyde-side of nobody.really’s economics cognoscente, Dr. Jekyll.

Nobody.really feigns the brainiac who would obnubilate through artful quibbling, dissemble smartly as he argues, hoping his intended insults will be perceived as mere peccadillos. Excessivelyperky, in sharp contrast, is opprobrious through the use of common epithets, and one reads him as a clod prepared to broadcast his nescience in order to vilipend his victims.

Two people or one mind divided?
I have two views on the matter."

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Pukka Luftmensch

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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