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.
VIDEO: Full Address by Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Harvard University on June 8, 1978
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.
This article continues at [First Things] Solzhenitsyn’s Prophecy