Versions of these remarks were delivered this spring at the commencement ceremony for the Mount Academy of the Bruderhof community in Esopus, New York, and at the commencement ceremony for the Wilberforce School in Princeton, New Jersey.
On June 8, 1978, a man with a craggy face and a beard came to Harvard University, where I was then a graduate student, to give the annual commencement address. The man was not a Harvard graduate. He was not a professor. He was not an American. He did not speak English. His address, given in his native Russian with simultaneous English translation, was not universally well-received. I suspect that some Harvard officials regretted their decision to invite him to speak.
The man’s name was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a brilliant novelist who had spent several years as a political prisoner in the gulag in the Soviet Union. He was a strong Orthodox Christian and a fierce critic of atheistic communism and Soviet tyranny. His writings had exposed the corruption, cruelty, and injustice of the communist regime that had come to power in Russia in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and would remain in power until 1989—a regime that had enslaved its own people and reduced those of many other nations to serfdom under puppet governments. It was a regime as totalitarian and as murderous as the Nazi regime in Germany, which the U.S. and Britain had allied with the Soviets in World War II to defeat.
In 1978, the Cold War was raging, and the U.S. was still reeling from its humiliation in the disastrous war in Vietnam. Anti-Americanism was flourishing both abroad and at home. Many Americans—particularly young Americans—had lost faith in their country, its institutions, its principles, its culture, its traditions, its way of life. Some proposed communism as a superior system; many suggested what came to be known as “moral equivalency” between American democracy and Soviet communism. By 1978, to suggest such equivalency had become a mark of sophistication—something to distinguish one from the allegedly backward hicks and rubes who believed in the superiority of the American to the Soviet system. There were many such “sophisticated” people at Harvard. And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to Harvard to confront them and others.
His speech was not, however, an encomium to America or the West. On the contrary, it was a severe critique—one might even say a prophetic rebuke—and a warning. Of course, Solzhenitsyn did not argue for the moral equivalency, much less the superiority, of the Soviet system. He hated communism in all its dimensions and he loathed the gangsters who ruled the Soviet empire. What he faulted America (and the West more generally) for was its abandonment of its own moral and, especially, spiritual ideals and identity.
He viewed the West’s weakness, including its weakness in truly standing up to Soviet aggression, as the fruit of the materialism, consumerism, self-indulgent individualism, emotivism, and narcissism—in a word, the immorality—into which we had allowed ourselves to sink. Solzhenitsyn, the (by then) legendary human rights activist, warned America and the West that we had become too focused on rights and needed to refocus on obligations. We had come to embrace a false idea of liberty, conceiving of it as doing as one pleases, rather than as the freedom to fulfill one’s human potential and honor one’s conscientious duties to God and neighbor.
At the heart of this moral confusion and collapse, Solzhenitsyn argued, was a loss of faith, and with it the loss of a particular virtue—the virtue of courage.
Here are Solzhenitsyn’s own words:
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. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
I submit to you today that, despite the American victory in the Cold War (for which we should all be grateful) and the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, nothing has changed that would diminish the force or relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s words. The virtue we lack—and it is an indispensable virtue—is courage. And we must recover it. Our young men and women must regain it—not to defend us from a hostile foreign power armed with nuclear weapons, but to protect us from a far more dangerous foe, a truly deadly enemy: our own worst selves.
At all times and in all places all of the virtues are needed. No virtue is superfluous or dispensable. But it seems that at any given time in any particular society there is a particular virtue that is lacking and therefore desperately needed. Moreover, because the virtues are integrally connected to one other—they are like a network—the loss of any one virtue tends to weaken and imperil all the others. Or worse, the loss of a given virtue threatens to turn other virtues into engines of vice.
Take, for example, the virtue of compassion. It is an essential virtue—like the others. It can move us to work selflessly and even heroically for the good of our fellow human beings—especially those who are needy or suffering. We cannot do without it. We rightly praise the compassionate for their good deeds in caring for the least, the last, and the lost. But consider what can happen when compassion remains strong but other virtues, such as love of truth and justice, have eroded or disappeared. Operating by itself, in isolation from the other virtues, compassion can motivate every manner of evil—from the killing of the unborn in abortion to the killing of the disabled and the frail elderly in euthanasia. We can convince ourselves that kindness calls for these things.
Well before the Nazis gave eugenics a bad name, well-intentioned, decent, compassionate people in places such as Germany, England, and the U.S. embraced eugenics, precisely out of a sense of compassion. It was they, not the Nazis, who invented the doctrine of lebensunswertes Leben—“life unworthy of life.” Because they did not want people to suffer, they supported mandatory sterilization for some classes of persons and even “mercy killing” for those whose lives they considered so burdensome as to be “not worth living.”
We live at a time of great moral confusion. If anything, our situation is worse today than it was when Solzhenitsyn visited Harvard in 1978. There has been, to borrow a concept from Friedrich Nietzsche, a “transvaluation of values” in many spheres. What is good—such as marriage considered precisely as the conjugal union of husband and wife—has been redefined as bad. What is bad—such as sexual immorality of a wide range of types—has been redefined as good. To defend the conjugal understanding of marriage and traditional ideas about sexuality and morality is to be accused of “hatred” by people on one side of the political divide today. To welcome the migrant and the refugee is to court being accused of disloyalty to your country by some on the other side. To stand up for the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, beginning with the defense of the precious and vulnerable child in the womb, is to risk being labeled a “misogynist.” To speak out for religious freedom and the rights of conscience is to invite being smeared as a “bigot.”
It is not pleasant to be subjected to these types of abuse and defamation. And these days it goes well beyond unpleasantness. To speak moral truth to cultural power is to put at risk one’s social standing, one’s educational and employment opportunities, one’s professional advancement; it is to place in jeopardy treasured friendships and sometimes even family relationships. And the more people, in reaction to these threats, acquiesce or go silent, the more dangerous and therefore more difficult it becomes for anyone to speak the truth out loud, even if they know it in their hearts. Anyone who succumbs to the intimidation and bullying—anyone who acquiesces or goes silent out of fear—not only harms his or her own character and fails in his or her Christian duty to bear faithful witness to truth, he or she also makes things harder for others. We owe it not only to ourselves to be courageous, but to our brothers and sisters too. And because we owe it to ourselves and others, we owe it to God.
Our own worst selves are our unvirtuous selves. Our own worst selves are our selves when we lack the self-mastery that possession of the virtues—including the virtue of courage—makes possible. Our own worst selves are slaves—not to alien masters, but to our own weaknesses and wayward desires. Our own worst selves are what we are encouraged by so much of our culture today to be. When we are our own worst selves, what we seek are ephemeral and ultimately meaningless things, such as pleasure, status, social acceptability, wealth, power, celebrity—things that are not bad in themselves, since they can be used for good ends, but things that are not good in themselves, either. And they can lure us into supposing that—and acting as if—they were. When we are our own worst selves, we fail in our duty to bear faithful witness because a desire for ephemeral things and a fear of losing them paralyzes us. When we are our own worst selves, we lead lives that are marked by those vices against which Solzhenitsyn railed forty years ago: materialism, consumerism, self-indulgence, narcissism. We place the focus on doing as we please, no matter what we please; getting what we want, no matter what it is we happen to want. Instead of seeking what is true because it’s true, what is good because it’s good, what is right because it’s right, we seek what we desire, for no better reason than our happening to desire it; indeed, we fall into the profound moral and philosophical error of imagining that the human good consists in the satisfaction of human desires.
Thus it is that we rationalize our failing to behave like rational creatures—creatures blessed with the powers of reason and freedom—and our behaving instead like brute animals, slaves of our passions. By definition, slaves to passions can never be masters of themselves; and no one who lacks self-mastery can practice and exemplify the virtue of courage. Courage always presupposes a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others or for something higher; someone who is not master of himself, someone who cannot rise above his own wants, desires, and passions, can never give himself to, or live for, others, or give himself to, or live for, something higher. Self-mastery is a precondition of the willingness and ability to live self-sacrificially. One cannot give oneself to others if one is not first master of oneself. Lacking self-mastery, one simply has nothing to give.
The Christian story is all about self-giving, self-sacrificial living—and dying. God himself sends his only begotten Son to us, in our sinfulness, to be our Redeemer and Savior by a supreme act of self-sacrificial love. We, as disciples of Jesus, are to model our lives on his, emptying and sacrificing ourselves for others. Bearing witness to truth, no matter the cost.
I have suggested that Solzhenitsyn saw a connection between the decline of courage and a loss of faith. Five years after his Harvard address, in a 1983 speech accepting the Templeton Prize in Religion, he stated this in the most explicit terms. The title of the speech could not have made the point more clearly. That title was “Men Have Forgotten God.”
Thirty-five years later, who can deny the truth of Solzhenitsyn’s lament? Today, the cultured despisers of Christianity and Judeo-Christian values do not speak of communism or its ideals—communism having been discredited by Soviet gangsterism. They speak instead of “liberation” or of “equality,” by which they seek to marginalize and stigmatize the principles of Judeo-Christian morality and justify acts and practices that contravene those principles. And they are certainly aggressive—moving, to cite just one of many examples, from the legalization of abortion, to the demand for its approval and even public funding, to the insistence that people or institutions—including religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals—who refuse to perform or refer for abortions be made to suffer professional or civic penalties or disabilities.
What is behind all this? According to Solzhenitsyn, the moral decline of the West has behind it the same factor that produced the horrors of communism, namely this: “Men have forgotten God.” People worship themselves, deify their own desires, fall into an idolatry of the self, because they have forgotten that there is something—indeed someone—higher. They have forgotten God. And absent faith in God, how can they—how can we—muster the courage to bear bold witness, as Solzhenitsyn himself did, to Christian values in an increasingly hostile culture and world? How can there be courage in the absence of faith? Fear is a powerful emotion—a very powerful emotion indeed. Faith alone can overcome it.
When people forget God, when they come to suppose that they don’t need Him or His grace and guidance, when they fall into the hubristic error of imagining that they are too smart and sophisticated to believe in Him, a catastrophe always ensues.
This was no novel insight or discovery of Solzhenitsyn’s. It is the central teaching and theme of the prophets—all prophets, and not just the Biblical ones.
In March of 1863 another man with a craggy face and a beard spoke to the American people words of critique and prophetic warning of precisely the sort spoken by Solzhenitsyn at Harvard and in his Templeton Address. Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the catastrophe of the Civil War and on its causes, issued a Proclamation of a National Day of Prayer and Fasting. What he said in that proclamation was, in a sense, echoed by Solzhenitsyn, and we would do well to heed it today. Indeed, we fail to heed it at our mortal peril. Here are Lincoln’s words:
Whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
It has been 155 years since Lincoln wrote those words. And yet, it is as if he wrote them yesterday and directed them to us today. Yes, as a culture, as a people, we have forgotten God. That is reflected in our laws, in the edicts of our Supreme Court, in our public policies, in our news and entertainment media, in our schools and universities, in our economic and cultural institutions, on the streets of our cities, and even, alas, in many homes. We “have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts,” that our “blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.” And, as a result, we find ourselves in the condition so accurately and brutally diagnosed by Solzhenitsyn.
But what has been forgotten may be remembered. What has fallen into decay can be renewed. What has been lost can be rediscovered. But for these things to happen, those who remember God and sincerely seek to do His will must look to Him for the grace necessary to be His courageous and faithful witnesses—to be, in the words of another modern prophet, Pope John Paul II, “signs of contradiction” to a world that has forgotten God. This, allow me humbly to say, is your mission. You must remember God to a world that has forgotten him. By the example of your lives, as well as by the words of your mouths, you must be the salt and light that repairs what is broken and points the way to true freedom for those who have fallen into forms of slavery that are all the more abject for masquerading as liberation.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.