Sometimes it takes a person from outside our society to be its most honest critic. On August 3, 2008, one such voice became silent.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn died at the age of 89 of a heart ailment. This once unknown Russian high school teacher published his first book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in 1962, launching him from obscurity to international renown. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 for his brave prose confronting the evils of the former Soviet state.
Exiled from his native land, Solzhenitsyn became an American citizen, and continued speaking out against the Soviet empire. But he was equally critical of the West. He gave the commencement address at Harvard in 1978, a speech the New York Times called a “hectoring jeremiad.” Yet his criticisms seem amazingly prescient and appropriate today, even 30 years later.
In his Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn’s most scathing complaint against American society was its moral poverty. Materialism has triumphed to such an extent that “it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.” The pursuit of happiness as unalienable right, embedded in our founding documents, has (on his view) led us to see material happiness as our highest calling.
Along the way, the very rights guaranteed by our democratic system have gotten in our way. The “supreme solution” to moral matters is found in a legal remedy:
If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, 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.
This confusing of the moral with what is merely legal is at the heart of our distorted American ideal of freedom: “Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.” This means that man has become autonomous in his humanism: “[H]humanistic autonomy [is] the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.”
Is it any wonder, then, that individual preferences become the moral barometer of our social, political, and ethical life? The Russian dissident has said well: “To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects.”
In condemning material happiness as ultimate moral good, Solzhenitsyn makes the observation: “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature.”
Which brings us to the ongoing blindness of our modern culture. Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard remarks received a cool reception when they were delivered, and still fall on deaf ears today. Despite a glowing elegiac tribute to the fallen writer, the New York Times failed to even mention that he was a devout Christian.
Alexandr, rejoice now in union with the Heavenly Father you have so loved. I hope that we may yet listen to your prophetic voice.