December 11, 2005


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was bon on this day in 1918, in in Kislovodsk, Russia. Like any great prophet, he's been reviled as much in the West as he ever was in USSR for bluntly telling us the truth about our own flaws. Everyone will be familiar with the Harvard Commencement Address that alienated the Left, but it's sentiments like these that estranged the economic Right:
Bring God Back Into Politics (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated into English by Yermolai Solzhfnitsyn, NPQ: Fall 2000)

What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share, of morality in politics?

Erasmus believed politics to be an ethical category, and called on it to manifest ethical impulses. But of course that was in the 16th century.

And then came our Enlightenment, and by the 18th century, we had learned from John Locke that it is inconceivable to apply moral terms to the state and its actions. And politicians, who throughout history were so often free of burdensome moral constraints, had thus obtained something of an added theoretical justification. Moral impulses among statesmen had always been weaker than political ones, but in our time the consequences of their decisions have grown in scale.

Moral criteria applicable to the behavior of individuals, families and small circles can certainly not be transferred on a one-to-one basis to the behavior of states and politicians: there is no exact equivalence, as the scale, the momentum and the tasks of governmental structures introduce a certain deformation. States, however, are led by politicians, and politicians are ordinary people, whose actions have an impact on other ordinary people. Moreover, the fluctuations of political behavior are often quite removed from the imperatives of state. Therefore, any moral demands imposed by us on individuals, such as understanding the difference between honesty, baseness and deception, between magnanimity, goodness, avarice and evil, must to a large degree be applied to the politics of countries, governments, parliaments and parties.

In fact, if state, party and social policy will not be based on morality, then mankind has no future to speak of. The converse is true: If the politics of a state or the conduct of an individual is guided by a moral compass, this turns out to be not only the most humane, but in the long run the most prudent behavior for ones own future.

Among the Russian people, for one, this concept, understood as an ideal to be aimed for, and expressed by the term truth (pravda) and the phrase to live by the truth (zhit' po pravde), has never been extinguished. And even at the murky end of the 19th century, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov insisted that from a Christian point of view moral and political activity are tightly linked, that political activity must not be anything but moral service, whereas a politics motivated by the mere pursuit of interests lacks any Christian content whatsoever.

Alas, in my homeland today these moral axes have fallen into even greater disuse than in the West, and I recognize the present vulnerability of my position in passing such judgements. When, in what had been the USSR, seven decades of appalling pressure were followed by the sudden and wide-open unchecked freedom to act, in circumstances of all-around poverty, the result was that many were swept down the path of shamelessness, with the unbridled adoption of the worst features of human behavior. It must be noted in this connection that annihilation was not visited upon people in our country in a purely random fashion, but was directed at those with outstanding mental and moral qualities. And so the picture in Russia today is bleaker and more savage than if it were simply the result of the general shortcomings of our human nature.

But let us not partition the misfortune between countries and nations - the misfortune is for all of us to share, as we stand at the end of Christianity's second millennium. Moreover, should we so lightly fling about this term - morality? [...]


It is up to us to stop seeing Progress (which cannot be stopped by anyone or anything) as a stream of unlimited blessings, and to view it rather as a gift from on high, sent down for an extremely intricate trial of our free will.

The gifts of the telephone and the television, for instance, when used without moderation, have fragmented the wholeness of our time, jerking us from the natural flow of our life. The gift of lengthened life expectancy has, as one of its consequences, made the elder generation into a burden for its children, while dooming the former to a lingering loneliness, to abandonment in old age by loved ones, and to an irreparable rift from the joy of passing on their experience to the young.

Horizontal ties between people are being severed as well. With all the seeming effervescence of political and social life, alienation and apathy toward others have grow stronger in human relations. Consumed in their pursuit of material interests, people find only an overwhelming loneliness. (It is this that gave rise to the howl of existentialism.) We must not simply lose ourselves in the mechanical flow of Progress, but strive to harness it in the interests of the human spirit; not to become the mere playthings of Progress, but rather to seek or expand ways of directing its might toward the perpetration of good.

Progress was understood to be a shining and unswerving vector, but it turned out to be a complex and twisted curve, which has once more brought us back to the very same eternal questions which had loomed in earlier times, except that then facing these questions was easier for a less distracted, less disconnected mankind.

We have lost the harmony with which we were created, the internal harmony between our spiritual and physical being. We have lost that clarity of spirit which was ours when the concepts of Good and Evil had yet to become a subject of ridicule, shoved aside by the principle of fifty-fifty,

And nothing speaks more of the current helplessness of our spirit, of our intellectual disarray, than the loss of a clear and calm attitude toward death. The greater his well-being, the deeper cuts the chilling fear of death into the soul of modern man. This mass fear, a fear the ancients did not know, was born of our insatiable, loud and bustling life. Man has lost the sense of himself as a limited point in the universe, albeit one possessing free will. He began to think himself the center of his surroundings, not adapting himself to the world, but the world to himself. And then, of course, the thought of death becomes unbearable: It is the extinction of the entire universe at a stroke.

Having refused to recognize the unchanging Higher Power above us, we have filled that space with personal imperatives, and suddenly life becomes a harrowing prospect indeed. [...]

Although the earthly ideal of socialism-communism has collapsed, the problems, which it putported to solve, remain: the brazen use of social advantage and the inordinate power of money, which often direct the very course of events. And if the global lesson of the 20th century does not serve as a healing inoculation, then the vast red whirlwind may repeat itself in entirety.

The cold war is over, but the problems of modern life have been laid bare as immensely more complex than what had hitherto seemed to fit into the two dimensions of the political plane. The former crisis of the meaning of life and the former spiritual vacuum (which during the nuclear decades had even deepened from neglect) stand out all the more. In the era of the balance of nuclear terror this vacuum was somehow obscured by the illusion of attained stability on the planet, a stability which has proved to be only transitory. But now the former implacable question looms all the clearer: What is our destination?


Today we are approaching a symbolic boundary between centuries, and even millennia: less than eight years separate us from this momentous juncture. Which, in the restless spirit of modern times will be proclaimed a year early, not waiting until the year 2001.

Who among us does not wish to meet this solemn divide with exultation and in a ferment of hope? Many thus greeted the 20th, as a century of elevated reason, in no way imagining the cannibalistic horrors that it would bring. Only Dostoyevsky, it seems, foresaw the coming of totalitarianism.

The 20th century did not witness a growth of morality in mankind. Exterminations, on the other hand, were carried out on an unprecedented scale, culture fell sharply, the human spirit declined. (Although the 19th century, of course, did much to prepare this outcome.) So what reason have we to expect that the 21st century, one bristling with first-class weaponry on all sides, will be kinder to us?

And then there is environmental ruin. And the global population explosion. And the colossal problem of the Third World, still called that in quite an inadequate generalization. It constitutes four-fifths of modern mankind, and soon will make up five-sixths, thus becoming the most important component of the 21st century. Drowning in poverty and misery, it will, no doubt, soon step forward with an ever-growing list of demands to the advanced nations. (Such thoughts were in the air as far back as the dawn of Soviet communism. It is little known, for example, that in 1921 the Tatar nationalist and communist Sultan Gallev called for the creation of an International of colonial and semicolonial nations, and for the establishment of its dictatorship over the advanced industrial states.)

Today, looking at the growing stream of refugees bursting through all the European borders, it is difficult for the West not to see itself as something of a fortress: a secure one for the time being, but dearly one besieged. And in the future, the growing ecological crisis may alter the climatic zones, leading to shortages of fresh water and suitable land in places where they were once plentiful. This, in rum, may give rise to new and menacing conflicts on the planet, wars for survival.

A complex balancing act thus arises before the West: To maintain a full respect for the entire precious pluralism of world cultures and for their search for distinct social solutions, at the same time not to lose sight of its own values, its historically unique stability of civic life under the rule of lawa hard-won stability which grants independence and space to every private citizen.


The time is urgently upon us to limit our wants. It is difficult to bring ourselves to sacrifice and self-denial, because in political, public and private life we have long since dropped the golden key of self-restraint to the ocean floor. But self-limitation is the fundamental and wisest stop of a man who has obtained his freedom. It is also the surest path toward its attainment. We must not wait for external events to press harshly upon us or even topple us; we must take a conciliatory stance and through prudent self-restraint learn to accept the inevitable course of events.

Only our conscience, and those close to us, know how we deviate from this rule in our personal lives. Examples of deviations from this course by parties and governments are in full view of all.

When a conference of the alarmed peoples of the Earth convenes in the face of the unquestionable and imminent threat to the planet's environment and atmosphere (at the Rio Earth Summit in 1991), a mighty power, one consuming not much less than half of the Earth's currently available resources and emitting half of its pollution, insists, because of its present-day internal interests, on lowering the demands of a sensible international agreement, as though it does not itself live on the same earth. Then other leading countries shirk from fulfilling even these reduced demands. Thus, in an economic race, we are poisoning ourselves.

Similarly, the breakup of the USSR along the fallacious Lenin-drawn borders has provided striking examples of newborn formations, which, in the pursuit of great power imagery, rush to occupy extensive territories that are historically and ethnically alien to diem, territories containing tens of thousands, or in some cases millions, of ethnically different people, giving no thought to the future, imprudently forgetting that taking never brings one to any good.

It goes without saying that in applying the principle of self-restraint to groups, professions, parties or entire countries, the ensuing difficult questions outnumber the answers already found. On this scale, all commitments to sacrifice and self-denial will have repercussions for multitudes of people who are perhaps unprepared for, or opposed to them. (And even the personal self-restraint of a consumer will have an effect on producers somewhere.)

And yet, if we do not learn to limit firmly our desires and demands, to subordinate our interests to moral criteria, we, humankind, will simply be torn apart as the worst aspects of human nature bare their teeth.

It has been pointed out by various thinkers many times (and I quote here the words of the 20th century Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky): If a personality is not directed at values higher than the self, corruption and decay inevitably take hold. Or, if you will permit me to share a personal observation: We can only experience true spiritual satisfaction not in seizing, but in refusing to seize. In other words: in self-limitation.

Today self-limitation appears to us as something wholly unacceptable, constraining, even repulsive, because we have over the centuries grown unaccustomed to what for our ancestors had been a habit born of necessity. They lived with far greater external constraints, and had far fewer opportunities. The paramount importance of self-restraint has only in this century arisen in its pressing entirety before mankind. Yet taking into account even the various mutual links running through contemporary life, it is nonetheless only through self-restraint that we can, albeit with much difficulty, gradually cure both our economic and political life.

Today, not many will readily accept this principle for themselves. However, in the increasingly complex circumstances of our modernity, to limit ourselves is the only true path of preservation for us all.

And it helps bring back the awareness of a Whole and Higher Authority above us -and the altogether forgotten sense of humility before this entity.

There can be only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progress of each individual, of the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives.

We were recently entertained by a naive fable of the happy arrival at the "end of history," of the overflowing triumph of an all-democratic bliss; that, supposedly, the ultimate global arrangement has been attained.

But we all see and sense that something very different is coming, something new, and perhaps quite stern. No, tranquility does not promise to descend upon our planet, and will not be granted us so easily.

And yet, surely, we have not experienced the trials of the 20th century in vain. Let us hope: We have, after all, been tempered by these trials, and our hard-won firmness will in some fashion be passed on to the following generations.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 11, 2005 8:52 AM
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