Last week I reflected on the genius of Solzhenitsyn’s great novel, In the First Circle.
Some readers weighed in on other aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s thought, especially his famous Harvard Address, given in 1978, four years after arriving in the United States as an exile from Russia.
The Address was quite a shock in its day, much talked about and not a little bit resented by the liberal elites. For instance, there were Solzhenitsyn’s harsh words about our abandonment of South Vietnam.
The most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear?
Let’s just say that fashionable opinion was very angry when one of it’s dogmas was called into question—and the dogma that the Vietnam War was wrong, wrong, wrong was (and remains) central to the liberal American worldview.
But the irritation went deeper.
Solzhenitsyn’s picture was one-sided, of course. He knew that America had real virtues, and he was crystal clear about the fact that it was a very good thing to live in America, where, in contrast to the Soviet Union, a basic (and decent) legality obtained. But he was not interested in cheerleading. He was a moralist to the core, and when asked to speak he focused on what he thought was wrong, precisely because he wanted to exhort Americans to correct their course. Solzhenitsyn basically accused America of sliding into a condition of soulless, spineless materialism. He pointed out that we worship the hearth gods of health, wealth, and hedonism.
Many have said as much. When someone accuses America of succumbing to “secular humanism,” they are saying something similar. But I think Solzhenitsyn added an important insight. He saw that one of the strengths of the West—it’s commitment to the rule of law—had become a temptation.
Jabs at “legalism” run throughout the Harvard Address, which, given Solzhenitsyn’s immersion in the Orthodox culture of Russia, is not surprising. The expatriate Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky zeroed in on legalism as one of the great spiritual vices of the West.
What Lossky meant (and Solzhenitsyn as well) was that people in the West tend to set up institutions and official mechanisms to express and embody their spiritual values. The problem is that in so doing these values tend to become routine, and they lose their grip on the human heart. Or worse: we substitute loyalty to an institution or a set of procedures for the more demanding requirement of loyalty to moral truths.
As I have suggested, this is a common Eastern Orthodox (and especially Russian) criticism of the West. We have very reliable courts and police who accord us our civil right, this line of criticism observes, but we lack social solidarity. And, as Solzhenitsyn points out, we hide behind legality as a way of evading our deeper responsibilities.
I find myself sympathetic to this line of criticism. In my career in academia I have seen many administrators hide behind procedures. It’s the perfect way to avoid personal responsibility. “My hands are tied,” I’ve heard managers say, and so hard decision aren’t made.
But there’s a deeper temptation. One feature of modernity has been the dream of designing a constitutional system or rule of law or an economic system that miraculously requires no virtue. Our private vices will be counter-balanced or coordinated or canceled out.
It is a dream of justice without virtue, and it seems to me that it is a very powerful modern dream, as common on the political right (“the invisible hand”) as the political left (getting rid of “special interests”). It’s a dream that attracts us, because it allows us to imagine ourselves serving the common good while we worship our hearth gods of health, wealth, and hedonism.
I’m not altogether convinced that Solzhenitsyn actually cared enough about the West to discipline himself to enter fully into its spirit—both good and malign. He lived in order to write his great novels about the twentieth-century Russian experience. But on this point I think he has something important to teach us, as does the Russian Orthodox tradition more broadly.
He puts the point with nuance: “It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for it to elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have.”
He does not dismiss the positive goods that come from a well-considered and well-administered legal system or institution. But it is not enough. We need to purify our souls if we are to ourselves capable of public leadership that fully serves the common good.
That sound right to me. After all, it’s the gist of what St. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians when he tries to explain to his readers what makes for a well-ordered Christian community. As St. Paul sums up: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).