Solzhenitsyn Indictment of the West Still Stands

“I seen the kingdoms of this world and it’a making me feel afraid.” — Bob Dylan

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

While sorting papers from my files I stumbled upon Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement Address titled “A World Split Apart.” I remember the stir it created as the great author, four years into his exile from Soviet Russia, shone a fierce light on the status of our own Western culture. I recall reading one review which stated that he would never get another speaking engagement, for his speech was such a harsh indictment of our way of life. His biggest concern was that we as Americans were not really ready to lead the world, in part because we have never understood the world and how it sees us. (I wonder what he would be saying today!)

Part of the problem is due to our arrogance, believing in the superiority of our Enlightenment foundations. States Solzhenitsyn:

Today it would be retrogressive to hold on to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Such social dogmatism leaves us helpless before the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, life will have to change in order not to perish on its own. We cannot avoid reassessing the fundamental definitions of human life and 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 should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?

If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; 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.

The ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

But the author of these words appears pessimistic as he goes on to note our cowardice, our compromises and especially the loss of our moral compass which defines right and wrong by whether it is legal or not.

Western society has chosen for itself the organization best suited to its purposes and one I might call legalistic. The limits of human rights and rightness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting, and manipulating law (though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert). Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution.

If one is risen from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: this would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames. (An oil company is legally blameless when it buys up 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 purchase 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 based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take full advantage of the full range 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 relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.

And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure.

These words were written during the Cold War, just before Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Western-propped Shah of Iran. The collapse of Communism gave us more years to feel self-confident, but the new challenges in our world are harder to fit into neat little explanations to comfort us. When I first shared this, I had just watched a video about the collapse of our economy. Someone from Germany recently told me that the global economy is propped on our shoulders, but what if that gives? The speaker in this video stated that he anticipates 25 years of global anarchy, which sounds pretty darn scary to me.

When you read the speech in its entirety, it’s sobering.

Originally published at
Photo at top of page by the author.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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