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The Day Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard on the Decline of the West

AFP Photo

A portrait of Russian author and historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn taken in Cologne before his departure for Zurich 15 February 1974. Solzhenitsyn was awarded in 1970 the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his work Solzhenitsyn continued the realistic tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and complemented it later with his views of the flaws of both East and West. He produced in the 1960s and 1970s a number of major novels based on his experience of Soviet prisons and hospital life. Later he saw that his primary mission is to rewrite the Russian history of the revolutionary period in the multivolumed work "The Red Wheel" (1983-1991). / AFP PHOTO

Tod Worner - published on 04/18/16

Latest on a series on "Lights in the Darkness" — reminders of the True, the Good & the Beautiful

In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good & the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable Canon of essays, excerpts & speeches which will light a candle in the darkness. It is a Canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right.

He could have been one of them.


Bearded and a bit shaggy. Brilliant and deeply accomplished. Cultured and well-traveled. He could have been one of them.

But he wasn’t.

In fact, as Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stood before Harvard University’s graduating class of 1978, he couldn’t feel further removed. For the graduates had arrived by way of legacy or genius, privilege or influence. Solzhenitsyn came to this commencement by way of the Gulag and exile, terror and deprivation. Having won the Nobel Prize for Literature eight years before and then established residency in the United States, the class of 1978 awaited the adulating words they felt an outspoken critic of Communism owed his adoptive homeland.

But those words never came. Solzhenitsyn had a different message.

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 truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary … It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations … Should I be asked … whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country [Russia], I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our own country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. … Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. The complex and deadly crush of life has produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting personalities than those generated by standardized Western well-being … After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor and by intolerable music. How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? We turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which has imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs … We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life … [our life’s task] has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that [we] may leave life a better human than one started it. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism. … Our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction.

For years Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had served as a truth-teller to an oppressive soul-crushing Soviet regime. But on one June day at Harvard, he spoke truth to a decadent, self-congratulatory West who had forgotten God. His words shook, even angered, his audience. But it also made them think. Perhaps, in our modern times, we would do well to reconsider his message and to really listen to him.

Yes. Perhap.

And, perhaps, we might even consider a change.

To read Solzhenitsyn’s speech “A World Split Apart” in full, please click here.

Tod Worneris a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs at A Catholic Thinker.

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