Wanted: A New Height of Vision
by Michael Pakaluk
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard commencement address, “A World Split Apart.” Five months after he delivered it, Karol Wojtyła was elected pope. Both men, from Communist lands, gave warnings to the West. How was Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis different? How has it stood up over time?
We are used to commencement addresses that are left-wing stand-up comedy. But Solzhenitsyn did not go to Harvard to tell jokes. He promised bitterness. “Truth eludes us,” he began, “if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
Likewise, Solzhenitsyn rejected social self-righteousness. The horrors of Nazism and Communism had taught him sober self-knowledge: “There is nothing that so assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “I remember myself in my Captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: ‘So were we any better?’”
What would you have said was the main problem in the West in 1978? For Solzhenitsyn, “the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days is a decline in courage.” But before you think of Jordan Peterson, consider that he means not so much personal manliness but strength of will in public life: “The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”
Clearly, Solzhenitsyn judges societies based on the character traits that they form. He effectively runs through the cardinal virtues, arguing that our successes have led to moral decline. He decries the “welfare state,” by which he means, interestingly, not the habilitation of dependents by government, but a society devoted solely to material prosperity: “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.” So why should someone like that risk his life for any higher good?
Moderation suffers, too, because freedoms are exploited to the full without self-restraint. We enjoy much freedom for evil, he says, but freedom for good hardly exists, as those who want to accomplish good get tripped up on every side. “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.”
As for justice, it gets replaced by legalism: “Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. . . .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.”......
“The world has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.”.....
Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children.
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