Learning from Solzhenitsyn
by Jeremy A. Kee
I. “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.
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