The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 21, 2014

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Address, June 8, 1978
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - 08/04/08

Editor's Note: The following address is excerpted from The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947-2005 (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006).

Solzhenitsyn’s June 8, 1978, commencement address at Harvard was the most controversial and commented upon public speech he delivered during his twenty-year exile in the West. His remarks on that occasion challenged many of the pieties that were dear to the contemporary intellectual clerisy. Like Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn insisted that he spoke as a “friend, not as an adversary,” of American democracy. He defended liberty under God and the law even as he criticized soulless legalism and lamented the growing “tilt of freedom toward evil” in the contemporary world. Far from defending political authoritarianism, as his critics sometimes claimed, Solzhenitsyn recommended “freely accepted and serene self-restraint” as the wisest and most prudent course for both individuals and societies. At the conclusion of his searching diagnosis of the modern crisis, Solzhenitsyn announced that the world had reached a “major watershed in history,” one that required nothing less than an ascent to a new “anthropological stage” that would reconcile the legitimate claims of the human soul and the physical nature of man.

Solzhenitsyn’s first tentative effort to sketch a morally serious and politically responsible “postmodernism” obviously has nothing in common with the nihilist currents that typically claim that name. In fact, Solzhenitsyn pointed out how vulnerable liberal humanism is to cooptation by more consistent and radical currents of modern thought. Moderate liberalism gave way to radicalism, radicalism to socialism, and socialism soon found itself powerless before communism’s claim to embody the “full logic of materialistic development.” For Solzhenitsyn, the inherent vulnerability of humanism to “the current which is farthest to the Left” goes some way toward explaining the shameful indulgence of many intellectuals to communism in the twentieth century.

In 1978 Solzhenitsyn’s philosophical reflections on the crisis of modernity were overshadowed by his warnings about the imminent global threat posed by totalitarian communism. But now that Solzhenitsyn’s principled opposition to totalitarianism has been fully vindicated, it is easier to embrace his claim that human freedom needs sturdier foundations than those provided by an “anthropocentric humanism” that refuses to defer to a “Superior Spirit” above Man. There was indeed a “measure of bitter truth” contained in Solzhenitsyn’s powerful 1978 address. But far from being inspired by hostility to the West, Solzhenitsyn refuses to break faith with a civilization still capable of drawing intellectual and spiritual sustenance from “the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their rich reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”

—Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, editors, The Solzhenitsyn Reader

 

I am sincerely happy to be here with you on the occasion of the 327th commencement of this old and illustrious university. My congratulations and best wishes to all of today’s graduates.

Harvard’s motto is “Veritas.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

Three years ago in the United States I said certain things that were rejected and appeared unacceptable. Today, however, many people agree with what I then said. . . .

The split in today’s world is perceptible even to a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries readily identifies two world powers, each of them already capable of utterly destroying the other. However, the understanding of the split too often is limited to this political conception: the illusion according to which danger may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance of armed forces. The truth is that the split is both more profound and more alienating, that the rifts are more numerous than one can see at first glance. These deep manifold splits bear the danger of equally manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that a kingdom—in this case, our Earth—divided against itself cannot stand.

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