Thursday, August 17, 2006

What do you get when you cross Jeremiah with Cassandra? Solzhenitsyn

Richard Fernandez of Belmont Club has posted the entire text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1978 Harvard Commencement speech, in which the then-exiled Russian warned the Western world that its time might be up soon if it didn't get religion.

That's a flip summary of Solzhenitzyn's message--his speech is actually much more than that. It's an indictment of many of the flaws of Western society, and when I read it just now I could only imagine how the students, faculty, and guests at that occasion almost thirty years ago received his stern and gloomy Jeremaid.

Solzhenitzyn is a strange figure, a man of a complexity that belies facile description. His speech must have been shockingly strange at the time. Today it is shocking in another way, because the first two-thirds of it--a critique of the flaws of Western society--seems shockingly familiar.

That makes him somewhat prescient; he's both a Jeremiah and a Cassandra, although I don't necessarily agree with his suggested solution to the problem because, paradoxically and ironically, Solzhenitzyn's remedy--a return to religion--gives at least the appearance of resembling the remedy of the Islamicist fundamentalist jihadis.

First, a few excerpts from his speech, to give you some of its flavor:

On courage:

The Western world has lost its civil courage...Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite...

The individual's independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about...So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country?

On politics:

A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that every single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless....

When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists' civil rights.... Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually...

On the press:

The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters, pertaining to one's nation's defense, publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "everyone is entitled to know everything."...Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: by what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?....

On the consequences of the Vietnam War:

However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American Intelligentsia lost its [nerve] and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you.

So, what is Solzhenitzyn's remedy? A return to the overarching influence of religion--specifically, Christianity--in Western society. He believes that godless humanism, elevating the individual above all else, and eliminating the context of a greater and transcendent meaning to human life, has led inexorably to the societal flaws he described so well in his speech.

This is where Solzhenitzyn appears to circle round to a position that resembles that of our current enemies. Because isn't that exactly what they're saying? Counter the flaws of the Western Enlightenment with a return to the hegemony of religion in human life?

The issues are huge, and worthy of a book, or perhaps several books. But I'm only going to briefly touch on them; this is in the nature of a quick sketch.

Solzhenitzyn falls in the tradition of Russian thought known as "Slavophile" (a personal aside: back in the late 60s when I was in college, I learned of the movement in a course entitled "Russian Intellectual History," which I've written about here). His return to Russia in 1994, where he now resides, is no surprise in that context, nor is his devotion to religion.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that some sort of higher meaning seems necessary to get us out of the trap into which we've fallen. But religion can be another trap, and the jihadis are perhaps the best example of where that can lead.

I have no way of knowing what Solzhenitzyn really thinks or feels. But it's my contention that the difference between what he is advocating and what the jihadists are advocating is profound, although there is a superficial resemblance in that they both rely on religion to save us. This difference goes back to a fundamental (pardon the pun) difference between Islam and Christianity, as I understand it.

People are fond of saying that religion is the problem; it's caused no end of trouble on earth. While that's true, it's also true that it's caused no end of good on earth. That paradox is resolved by understanding that religion is a malleable tool that can be used to many purposes.

One extremely important dimension on which religions--and divisions within religions--differ greatly is on how much personal freedom they advocate. Fundamentalists in all religions lean strongly to the side of unquestioning obedience, whereas those in other wings emphasize individual freedom of choice.

Another very important difference between religions is on the dimension of whether that particular religion should be spread, and, if so, how it should be spread. Islam (which means "submission") has historically been a religion that doesn't shy away from the idea of forceable and coercive conversion, whereas the forceably coercive strain in Christianity (never as much a part of its holy texts as in Islam) has now shrunk virtually to the vanishing point.

So there are differences between religions, and differences within each religion. Right now the fundamentalist, coercive, triumphalist, and violent strain of Islam is growing. Thus the special danger that this segment of Islam represents to the world, a danger that no other religion currently presents in anywhere near its numbers, strength, goals, weaponry, and aggressiveness. Fundamentalists in many religions may resemble each other in the rigidity of their obedience to the rules of their respective religions, but they don't necessarily resemble each other in how they view the rights of the rest of the world to practice a different one.

What does mainstream Christianity have to say about freedom? To cite another famous Slavophilic Russian writer, Dostoevsky, in his remarkable work "The Grand Inquisitor," although freedom is part of Christ's message to the world, it has at times been subverted and undermined by Inquisitors who don't trust humanity with freedom.

If you've never read "The Grand Inquisitor," which is actually a chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, you owe it to yourself to do so. Here's the text.

Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor doesn't just stand for the historical figures of the past who were the actual Inquisitors. He represents all attempts by religions and belief systems--including secular ones such as Communism--to perfect humanity by denying people their freedom in the hopes of creating a better world.

I cannot believe that Solzhenitzyn, with his experience in the Russian Gulag, meant to advocate a return to a religion that denies that individual freedom. At any rate, it's not Solzhenitzyn's particular views that are important, it's the questions he raises. The dilemma remains, and it's an ancient and exceedingly important one: how to foster and protect freedom without leading to anarchy and loss of meaning, including the loss of the courage to protect ourselves?

The answer is still unclear, but the hour is getting late--much later than it was in 1978.

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