“The current Western view of the world was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression in the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists…
This new way of thinking, which had imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the area of attention of state and social systems, as if human life did not have any superior sense. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones…
If humanism were right in declaring that man is born 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 out 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 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.”
From Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s speech “The World Spent Apart” delivered at Harvard University on June 8th, 1978.
“A World Split Apart” was given as the commencement address at Harvard’s graduation exercises, and despite it’s several glaring oversimplifications, is a sinewy and deep meditation on the moral fault line of the Cold War. Solzhenitsyn’s less than nuanced characterization of the West (as a society whose freedom has led to moral decay) is excusable, in my opinion, given his personal history and the honest attention he brings to the corrosive effects of Western decadence. It’s a worthwhile — if slightly simplistic — point to make. Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn’s reading of history here — described in the transition from Dark Ages to Renaissance — is shoddy (and surprisingly Marxist), but still necessary to lend brevity and clarity to his moral appraisal of our civilizational course.
We must also spare a little slack for the speech’s specific political context. At this late date in the 1970’s, observing the Carter administration’s impotence on the international stage, one could hardly count the Cold War as a fait accompli.
Still, in a 2007 interview with Victoria Lautman about his Gulag novel House of Meetings, Martin Amis reflected on the uniqueness of Solzhenitsyn’s spiritual resilience:
“It’s often said that memoirs of the Gulag are unrepresentative because they’re all written by intellectuals, and not by criminals or guards.
But they are deeply unrepresentative in another way, too, I feel, in that these people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Yevgenia Ginzburg and Janusz Bardach — what enormous souls they had, what incredible spirits they were, what amazing force of life they possessed.
The most popular tattoo in the Gulag, sported mostly by the hereditary criminals, the Urkas, read, “YOU MAY LIVE BUT YOU WON’T LOVE.”
But these Solzhenitsyn’s, they lived and they loved, and their integrity was never challenged. The person they could have been apart from the Gulag was never defiled; Solzhenitsyn said, ‘Prison has wings. You can soar in prison.’
So tales of the Gulag are unrepresentative in that sense. And I think most of the millions who passed through the system – tens of millions who passed through the system – suffered a darker fate: their integrity did not survive. Their character was ruined. They couldn’t love; they lived but they couldn’t love.”
Although I agree with Amis’s general assessment, there’s a minor correction or at least point of clarification to be made about his ‘prison has wings’ anecdote. That phrase appears in Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and is uttered by the title character — but not as an affirmation of his vividly imaginative or elevated state within the Gulag. Rather the point being made is the exact opposite.
“Prison” in this context is pedestrian jail; it has wings compared to the spiritually subterranean, emotionally asphyxiating life of a cog in the Siberian forced labor camps administered by the Gulag. Ivan says prison has wings not because he is so spiritually resilient as to transcend captivity; he says it because unlike one of the 14 million Russians who filtered through the Gulag, a regular jailbird, even when confined to a cage, might avoid having his soul defaced, his spiritual wings clipped.