What once was deemed to be self-evident almost 250 years ago, has passed from public consciousness …
In his address, Solzhenitsyn says that Western societies place a strong emphasis on freedom and rights. In the US, in particular, these rights are staunchly defended by the Constitution and implemented by a legalistic process, based on specific rules, which studiously avoids making non-legal moral judgements. At the same time, he observes, there has been a notable decline in individual obligations, or personal responsibility. These values are, of course, nowhere to be found in the Constitution but their importance was taken for granted by its founders. Personal responsibility, they thought, was naturally enshrined in an education steeped in tradition, in individual notions of selflessness, self-restraint, self-reliance, truthfulness, honor, personal sacrifice, etc. It is not that the founders left these virtues out of the Constitution because they considered them dispensable—on the contrary, they were keenly aware of their importance and thought that the type of government they were proposing would be unimaginable in their absence. But they felt that imparting these virtues was best left to the traditions and religious beliefs of the people, a view clearly expressed in the Federalist Papers.
Reflections on Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address
In his 1978 Harvard commencement address, A World Split Apart, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a fierce enemy of the Soviet system, delivered a forceful and insightful critique of the West, a society which he characterized as spiritually weakened by rampant materialism. The man who, when forced to leave his own country four years earlier, encouraged his countrymen to “live not by lies”, gave us a magnificent lesson in how to not be blinded by our own sense of superiority, and urged us to ask hard questions about who we are and where we are going.
When I first heard this speech in 1978 as a young refugee from communist Romania, I was able to appreciate Solzhenitsyn’s address in terms of the competition raging then between the West and the East, but did not comprehend its larger meaning. Rereading it today, in the fall of the horrible year 2020, I find it truly prophetic. It is now painfully clear that, as Solzhenitsyn was able to discern 42 years ago, the West has been gradually losing the will and intellectual ability to defend itself, not so much against foreign armies as it may have appeared in 1978, but against an army of internal critics determined to demolish everything the West used to stand for.
In the central part of the address Solzhenitsyn said:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. 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. Should one point out that from ancient times declining courage has been considered the beginning of the end?
But I have still found myself at a loss to understand how this simplistic, tribalist, intellectually confused, petty, and terribly divisive ideology appears on the verge of displacing our old, magnificent worldview, anchored in the universal “unalienable Rights endowed by our Creator and secured by the Laws of Nature.”
I wrote this essay in the hope that revisiting what Solzhenitsyn had to say in 1978 may provide a clue to why we find ourselves so vulnerable today. I take from his text two important themes which I believe are relevant for this task. One is the growing imbalance between rights and individual obligations, the second is the loss of faith.