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Will To Truth: On the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 6, 2008
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..."  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.
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
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
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."
 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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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
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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