A world split apart: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address, June 8, 1978

From First Principles:

Solzhenitsyndetail Solzhenitsyn’s June 8, 1978, commencement address at Harvard was the most controversial and commented upon public speech he delivered during his twenty-year exile in the West. His remarks on that occasion challenged many of the pieties that were dear to the contemporary intellectual clerisy. Like Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn insisted that he spoke as a “friend, not as an adversary,” of American democracy. He defended liberty under God and the law even as he criticized soulless legalism and lamented the growing “tilt of freedom toward evil” in the contemporary world. Far from defending political authoritarianism, as his critics sometimes claimed, Solzhenitsyn recommended “freely accepted and serene self-restraint” as the wisest and most prudent course for both individuals and societies. At the conclusion of his searching diagnosis of the modern crisis, Solzhenitsyn announced that the world had reached a “major watershed in history,” one that required nothing less than an ascent to a new “anthropological stage” that would reconcile the legitimate claims of the human soul and the physical nature of man.

Solzhenitsyn’s first tentative effort to sketch a morally serious and politically responsible “postmodernism” obviously has nothing in common with the nihilist currents that typically claim that name. In fact, Solzhenitsyn pointed out how vulnerable liberal humanism is to cooptation by more consistent and radical currents of modern thought. Moderate liberalism gave way to radicalism, radicalism to socialism, and socialism soon found itself powerless before communism’s claim to embody the “full logic of materialistic development.” For Solzhenitsyn, the inherent vulnerability of humanism to “the current which is farthest to the Left” goes some way toward explaining the shameful indulgence of many intellectuals to communism in the twentieth century.

The full text of this remarkable address which my dear friend Sara Suleri and I discussed at length only a week ago is here.