I know and have read little of Solzhenitsyn, but at some point in college I read his address at Harvard’s Class Day in 1978. To me he captured brilliantly Western society’s predominant form of legalism in which the law is obeyed only so far as one is compelled by the phrasing of positive law:
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law . . . . Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, 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. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.
I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.
And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
The apostle Paul calls the law a “guardian,” teaching us how to live the good life as God intends. Solzhenitsyn seemed to think that we have become morally malformed children who hear the nanny’s bidding, but try to get away with as much as they can while they do it. Thus “moral mediocrity” reigns alongside exact obedience of the law. Men need not be good; they need only be clever.
The remedy that Solzhenitsyn identifies for this legalism is a recovery of moral obligationsthe sense that not only do we have negative freedoms from evils, but positive freedoms for good. Just as individuals have rights that their fellow citizens must protect, they have obligations to those citizens that they must fulfill. We have spent so much time emphasizing rights, Solzhenitsyn says, that we have neglected to teach obligations. From those to whom much has been given, much should be expected.
I think Solzhenitsyn would have agreed that we also need to recover a sense of law as not merely the positive commands of a government to be obeyed in letter, but as deeper guidelines for the order of the world that must be obeyed in spirit. In other words, we must recover of the natural law, a topic that Robert George and others have written about in our pages. For when laws are seen as habits to be inculcated and not an obstacle course to navigate, society will be better equipped to pursue true virtue and to flourish.