Yesterday morning, I read in the newspaper that Alexander Solzhenitsyn died on Sunday in Moscow. He was most famous as an author and dissident in the Soviet Union, and in my estimation was one of the greatest men of the twentieth century.
I first heard about Solzhenitsyn in college, when I read his most famous book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for a Twentieth Century Russian Lit class. I was fascinated by the man and his story, and decided to read a lot more of his work. I have bought several of his books at used book stores, but up to now the only other full-length book of his that I have read is A Warning to the West, which contains five speeches that he delivered in the United States and Britain after he was exiled from the Soviet Union in the ’70s.
I like Solzhenitsyn so much because of his accurate diagnosis of the problems of our age, and his fearlessness in denouncing those problems. He was so fearless in the face of opposition because, as he stated in his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he believed that “One word of truth outweighs the world.” Chuck Colson has written an article in the August edition of Christianity Today that draws parallels between Solzhenitsyn and the prophet Jeremiah. Unfortunately, like Jeremiah, after a while many people stopped listening to Solzhenitsyn because he always seemed to have bad news.
After he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, he moved to the United States and spent the next 18 years in Vermont. Although he was celebrated for his defiance of the Soviet Union, his honeymoon with the West didn’t last long. The substance of his famous 1978 Harvard commencement speech was, “Communism may be bad, but the West isn’t doing so well itself.” He denounced the West for falling into a “despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.” While there is no official state censorship as in the Soviet Union, Westerners are slaves to fashionable ideas. I think that much of that 1978 address still holds up, and can still serve as a warning to us to abandon unrestrained materialism and freedom without accountability. Here is Solzhenitsyn’s conclusion to that speech, which could also serve as a fitting coda for his own life:
If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It 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 one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance be reduced to the question how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.
It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times. Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?
If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.
This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.