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Will To Truth: On the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 6, 2008

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The closest thing to an Old Testament prophet that we have seen in the modern world is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and historian, who died on August 3. He is certainly a great man of our times. Not too long ago, I asked a large class if they knew his name. None did. I hardly knew whether to laugh or cry. When communism first fell, the average student was two or three years old. Thanks to China and sundry professors, it has again become attractive to not a few.

When I was born, World War I had been over for exactly ten years. It took me fifty years to give it a thought. And World War II had been fought by that time by forces that disputed about how to end the Great War. Solzhenitsyn comes out of the aftermath of this second war, though he wrote a great novel about World War I, August 1914. World War I was a civil war, World War II an ideological one, as have all wars been since. A civil war is about who rules one polity; an ideological war is about what is a human being.

The virtue that I most associate with Solzhenitsyn is "courage"—not military courage but intellectual courage, the courage to tell the truth when the regime, any regime, is built on a lie. The soldier is courageous in war. The prophet is courageous in peace, or at least the relative peace of the totalitarian state in which war is mostly directed not against enemies, but only against its own citizens. We think an internal war like this cannot happen in democratic societies. We are not cautious.

Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard in 1978 to assure us that such a war can and is happening in our very souls. On hearing this powerful address, many a liberal went away sad, often infuriated. But Solzhenitsyn spoke a truth we do not want to know about ourselves. "A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage..." [1] He wrote this before Reagan and John Paul II, who both had courage. He did not know of the rise of Islam.


Solzhenitsyn spent time in the Gulag prisons. Indeed but for him, few would know of them, even fewer would believe that they existed. He was, later on, saved from being himself killed because he was famous. One can kill the insignificant man with impunity. Even tyrants respect world opinion at times. They do not want to be called "tyrants" even when they are, itself a testimony to the existence of natural law among us. If one kills the famous man, like Socrates, the world will forever remember who killed him, even when it kills him again. But the Soviets did not kill Solzhenitsyn, perhaps thanks to Socrates. His exile took him to Vermont, which the cynic says may be worse. But he lived quietly there, wrote, and seemed out of place, which he was. When he could, he finally returned to Russia.

In the Gulag Archipelago (IV, 1), Solzhenitsyn wrote: "Looking back I saw that, for my whole conscious life, I had not understood either myself or my strivings.... It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back ... this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good." We are too often taught that evil and good are outside of us, causes of civil unrest. We have "rights" to happiness so we can blame someone else if we do not achieve what we think we deserve by our own powers.

Solzhenitsyn's prison experience taught him what is already found in Genesis, that the first temptation is for us to be the causes of good and evil. "In the intoxication of youthful success, I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.... In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good." This is how we rationalize, as we must, our evil deeds. In them, we tell ourselves, we are really doing good. The principal evils of our time tell us that they are good and the law often backs them up.

"And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not thorough states, not between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts." This, of course, is the teaching of Scripture.

I remember that when I first came across that passage I took it to class and read it aloud. I could no help it. The passage continues: "This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains...an un-uprooted small corner of evil." Aristotle would have no trouble with this. The doctrine of original sin is here, as is the presence of hope in the hearts of men if they would but just greet it.

David Walsh, in his fine book, After Ideology, has shown, I think, how Solzhenitsyn's experience of personal suffering and absolute honesty, together with a will to preserve the truth, is one of the few ways modern man has found whereby he can escape from that lure of ideology that promises to elevate inner-world utopias over the transcendent Kingdom of God. The principal way that Solzhenitsyn saw this truth was through his imprisonment in which everything was taken away from him. He learned the fact that it is through suffering in actual human lives that we see finally the lies of the regime.


A poignant passage in the Gulag Archipelago recalls the moment when Solzhenitsyn realizes that he is free of the tyrants and the ideology precisely because everything is taken away from him. When nothing else can be done, the powers of the state no longer can reach him through fear or pain. Hobbes, as the spokesman of modernity, had said that men's ideas could be controlled through fear of violent death. In prison, Solzhenitsyn learned, with Socrates, that something worse than death is found even in this world. Given a choice between death and doing evil, Socrates said, we do not know that death is evil. Solzhenitsyn realized this truth also.

Solzhenitsyn did not consider himself an immigrant to the United States. He was a forced exile awaiting his return to his homeland where he understood he belonged. In his gracious farewell talk to the Town Meeting in Cavendish, Vermont, on February 28, 1994, when he was about to leave for Vladivostok and Russia, Solzhenitsyn thanked the local folks for their understanding of his privacy and work. He told them that his sons went to school with their children and would remain in the house in which he had lived.

"I have worked here for almost eighteen years. It has been the most productive period of my life. I have done all that I have wanted to do." These are remarkable lines. Because he was not killed in prison, a work that no one else could do was done in Vermont. "Exile is always difficult, and yet I could not imagine a better place to live, and wait, and wait for my return home, than Cavendish, Vermont." A place "to wait, and wait..."—such are moving words.

Solzhenitsyn spoke briefly to the people of Cavendish of the cost of ridding his country of communism, a task probably not even yet completed. "During a seventy-year reign of terror we (Russians) lost up to sixty million people, just from the regime's war on its own nation." That is a sober thing to say in farewell, hardly comprehensible to most of us. He left his "well-translated" books to the local library. One wonders if they are read.

Solzhenitsyn is dignified, human. "Lately, while walking on the nearby roads, taking in the surroundings with a farewell glance, I have found every meeting with my neighbors to be warm and friendly." One cannot help but thinking that this local town appreciation, which Solzhenitsyn praised so much, is in the direction in which all towns and civilizations should go. It is symbolic that he settled in Cavendish, not New York or Paris.


Solzhenitsyn began a 1974 address entitled "Repentance and Self-limitation in the Life of Nations," a theme we find in John Paul II's Memory and Identity, with these memorable words: "The Blessed Augustine once wrote: 'What is the state without justice but a band of robbers?' Even now, fifteen centuries later, many people will, I think, readily recognize the force and accuracy of this judgment. But let us note what he is about. An ethical judgment about a small group of people is applied by extension to the state. It is in our human nature to make such judgments...." No doubt, one of the things that most upset people about Solzhenitsyn was this very power to "make judgments," or, perhaps more accurately, the very power of the judgments he made. We should not be overly surprised that this same issue of judgment occurs again in Spe Salvi, now on an even more universal basis of the Last Judgment itself. The dividing line of judgment ultimately and first runs through our own souls before it runs through the robber bands, the classes, and the nations. Plato knew this also.


Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, but he was forced to accept the Prize in absentia. His Address, however, exists and after his exile, he did receive the prize in 1972 in Sweden. It is a powerful speech. Solzhenitsyn was an eloquent man. He shows the power of oratory, of which Aristotle and Cicero spoke so clearly.

In this address, Solzhenitsyn spoke of art and literature, whose power is caught in the title of Russell Berman's recent book: Fiction Sets You Free. Two types of art or artists exist. Solzhenitsyn depicts the worldview out of which they approach what they write and hence how they view the world. "One artist imagines himself the creator of an autonomous spiritual world; he hoists upon his shoulders the act of creating this world and of populating it, together with the total responsibility for it. But he collapses under the load, for no mortal genius can bear up under it, just as, in general, the man who declares himself the center of existence is unable to create a balanced spiritual system."

This is the autonomous man who does not think any independent order exists in the world of things. Thus, so he assumes, he is free to do what he wants. He is the higher order.

But a second worldview is more observant of things. An artist can take and write about them. He is the man who bears some moderateness about his condition knowing that, while responsible, he has received much, very much. This man
recognized above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God's heaven, though graver and more demanding still is his responsibility for all he writes or paints—and for the souls which apprehend it. However, it was not he who created this world, nor does he control it; there can be no doubts about its foundations. It is merely given to the artist to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and ugliness of man's role in it—and vividly communicate this to mankind.

Solzhenitsyn was of this latter kind. He was a Christian who understood that one writes more truly when he knows that he is not the creator but the receiver of what is good.

It is also the role of the artist to tell us the difference between what is just and what is not, of what is beautiful and what is ugly. It is his role to see how the sins that lurk in our souls can, on repentance, lead to blessedness. And even, if we do not repent them, can lead others by those devious ways of providence by which even our sins—even the Gulags of this world—guide some to redemption rather than to pride or bitterness that they were chosen to suffer.

Solzhenitsyn lived as an exile among us. He had witnessed in his homeland the worst things man can do to man. In so doing, he saw that when all is taken from us, we are free. Only at that moment do we see that we really stand before God at all times and not merely before those who think that they control the world. They claim to define good and evil so that they can make us perfect. This was how the fall was described in Genesis.

"Not everything can be named," Solzhenitsyn said in the Nobel Lecture. "Some things draw us beyond words." When we read this great prophet of our time, as we must continue to do to understand even ourselves, we realize also that his words themselves also can draw us "beyond words."


[1] All citations from Solzhenitsyn are from The Solzhenitsyn Reader (ISI Books, 2006), edited by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel J. Mahoney.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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