As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.
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. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. 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, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.
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. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.
It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times.
Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?
If the world has not come to its end, it 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.
This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.
— Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University, 1978
Russian author, historian and political philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. As the full text of the Harvard address above demonstrates, he despised Russian communism, and despised the glib commercialized freedom of Western Europe and America no less. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he believed above all in human salvation through religious transcendence, though at times (as in this ill-received Harvard address) he seemed to relish the notion of an agonizing worldwide transformation more than any possibility of self-realization and peace that might follow such a change.
In this sense, he also resembles Dostoevsky (whose greatest work, like Solzhenitsyn’s, followed a long period of painful imprisonment for crimes against the Russian state). Solzhenitsyn was best known for two works — the simple and spare A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the more ambitious Gulag Archipelago, which introduced a tone of bitter satire (the Soviet prison bureaucracy is described mechanically as a “human sewage system”) into the dissident’s voice. Both books were so widely celebrated by anti-Soviet political thinkers that it’s hard now to evaluate the author on strictly artistic grounds. He does not seem to measure up to Dostoevsky’s psychological brilliance, nor to Chekhov’s poignant sense of humanity. But his courageous devotion to truth and his confident authority as a political gadfly give him some standing alongside Russia’s earlier literary greats.
It’s interesting to look back at a 1974 New York Times review of the just-published Gulag Archipelago by Stephen F. Cohen:
“The Gulag Archipelago” is a non-fictional account from and about the other great holocaust of our century — the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government, mostly during Stalin’s rule from 1929 to 1953.
How quaint! There was a time in 1974 — with our new friend Chairman Mao’s genocidal crimes still largely unrecognized, with the citizens of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina still innocent of their futures — when we thought the 20th Century would only rack up two holocausts.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn may or may not have had all the answers, but the celebrated former prisoner did seem to know the most important questions.