Skip to main content

Ericson – Solzhenitsyn On America

Solzhenitsyn On America

Edward Ericson
Calvin College

The Philadelphia Society, Nov. 12, 2000
The Russell Kirk Center, Mecosta, Michigan


All of us, with egotism and ethnocentrism to spare, like to know
what others think about us. Seinfeld-style, we interrupt, "Enough
about that. Let’s talk about me." And so, when Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn ended up in the United States, Americans asked what he thought of
our fine country. The fact is that Solzhenitsyn had made only limited comments
about the United States and the West as a whole. He once said that he
listens only to the sad music of Russia and writes only of it. However, he
did oblige his hosts to some extent.

As it happens, something went wrong in the communication process. The consensus
among our cultural pacesetters came to be that Solzhenitsyn was sharply
anti-Western and was hostile to the institutions of American society. In
particular, he was anti-democratic in his politics, that category of human
activity about which our elites care most deeply.

For more than a quarter of a century, I have studied Solzhenitsyn’s Western
critics carefully, and large sections of my book Solzhenitsyn and the Modern
World (Regnery, 1993) are devoted to them. And I can report that the great
bulk of what they say about him is wrong, just plain wrong. For example, he has
said that for most of his life he worshiped the West–not admired but worshiped.
He is a critic, he says, not of the West but of the weakness of the West.
That is, he wishes the West would be more the West, would get back to the
principles that gave it its greatness. And about America he declared,
"The United States has long shown itself to be the most magnanimous, the
most generous country in the world. Wherever there is a flood, and
earthquake, a fire, a natural disaster, an epidemic, who is the first to help?
The United States. Who helps the most and unselfishly? The United
States."

Admittedly, Solzhenitsyn did learn to lower his view of those elites who as much
as told him (their version of ) "America, love it or leave it."
Where he saw health was in our heartland–Bush country, as we now call it.
About the West as a whole, he made a distinction that one would think
intelligent people could follow. He was a critic, he said, not of the West
but only of the weakness of the West. Thus, he was calling upon the West
to be more the West, that is, to get back to the foundational principles that
gave it the greatness that brought out the worshipful attitude that he and his
peers living under totalitarianism developed.

We can put the main point about Solzhenitsyn’s view of America succinctly.
He likes early America and dislikes its modern decay, its corruptions of the
original intent of the Founders. The locus classicus for this main point
is to be found in his famous–or infamous–Harvard Commencement Address of 1978:
"And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its
birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s
creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in
the assumption of his constant religious responsibility."

Of course, one is struck immediately by his injection of religion into this
comment about our civic order. In his observation, there was "still a
clear conception of the Almighty" two hundred years ago, when "the
very idea of equality was taken in fact from religion, from religious concepts;
in other words, that all men are equal as children of God." In the
turn away from God, "democracy has lost its higher center."

Solzhenitsyn’s consistent resort to the context of religion for his social and
political pronouncements is apparent in his Templeton Address of 1983, in which
he speaks about his own country. He rehearses how he heard his elders
explain all the horrors that that the Bolshevik Revolution had inflicted upon
the citizenry by saying, simply, "Men have forgotten God. That is why all
this has happened." And he goes on to say that if he were to give an
account for all the horrors of our terrible twentieth century, he could do no
better to provide a pithy explanation than to repeat what he had heard from his
elders: Men have forgotten God.

Solzhenitsyn’s insistence that democracy–and freedom itself–rests upon a
religious foundation is anathema to the general run of our history professors
and other assorted intellectuals. Religion, they are sure, restricts the
range of our liberties as it thunders its "Thou shalt nots." So
it is not difficult to imagine how baffling this next sentence–a few lines
later in Harvard address–must have sounded to his secularized audience:
"The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but
man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and
dimmer."

Rights even to excess? Such is the cultural disconnect that our secular
elites cannot fathom religious motivations in public life. Isn’t it the
glory of our nation that it continues to extend rights and freedoms in an
unbroken line? Isn’t it, for example, high time to extend full human and
civil rights to gays and lesbians, so long discriminated against? And
aren’t we all now First-Amendment purists, even if that means opening the
portals of our mass culture to the mainstreaming of pornography?

How does Solzhenitsyn get from the first passage I cited to the second?
Here are the intervening sentences: "Such was the heritage of the
preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it
would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted
boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims.
Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West;
a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries
with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice."

To contextualize these passages further, we may take one more step back to a
passage that precedes them. Solzhenitsyn locates the key
"mistake" in our historical unfolding "at the root, at the very
foundation of thought in modern times"; it is a mistake which, he says,
"has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment."
He labels it "rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the
proclaimed and practiced autonomy of many from any higher force above him.
It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man as the center of all. . . .
The humanistic way of thinking . . . did not admit the existence of intrinsic
evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on
earth. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of
worshiping man and his material needs."

In sum, Solzhenitsyn sees the American experiment as having its deep moorings
not in contemporaneous Enlightenment thought but in the preceding Christian
centuries. This is the very lineage traced by Russell Kirk in his Roots of
the American Order. Kirk himself recognized the deep kinship between his
thinking and Solzhenitsyn’s. In one of his last books, The Politics of
Prudence, Kirk listed ten modern events "in which the conservative cause
retained or gained ground." And one of them had to do with the life
and vision of Solzhenitsyn, who put the lie to "the lie" of ideology.
When Kirk enumerates the chief problems facing conservatives today, the first
one he mentions is "the problem of spiritual and moral regeneration:
the restoration of the ethical system and the religious sanction upon which any
life worth living is founded." Then he adds, "This is
conservatism at its highest." And it is in that highest sense of
conservatism that Kirk and Solzhenitsyn are at one.

Although it has been common in the West to view Solzhenitsyn as a lone wolf with
highly idiosyncratic and narrowly nationalistic views, this is yet another error
in received opinion. To take just one other thinker who is a luminary in
his own right, V·clav Havel–playwright, erstwhile dissident, and now President
of the Czech Republic–tracks remarkably closely with Solzhenitsyn in his view
of the West in general and of America
in particular. About the West in general, both pinpoint the
"anthropocentrism" of the Enlightenment as the source of our modern
errors and their attendant horrors, both invoke "atheism" to identify
the defining characteristic of the twentieth century, and both see the collapse
of Communism as the chief signal that the modern, Enlightenment-spawned, era has
ended. About America in particular, Havel in 1994 took the occasion of
receiving the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to deliver himself of these words:
"The Declaration of Independence, adopted 218 years ago in this building,
states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems that man
can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with
it." (But of course we have forgotten God.)

Like Solzhenitsyn, Havel, who makes no secret of his indebtedness to the Russian
author, harks further back. "[T]he fathers of American democracy
knew" what "modern man has lost: his transcendent anchor."
This "spiritual dimension" is today "the forgotten dimension of
democracy." Indeed, Havel harks very far back. "[I]f we examine
the oldest moral canons, the commandments that prescribe proper human conduct
and the rules of human coexistence, we find numerous essential similarities
among them. If is often surprising to discover that virtually identical moral
norms appear in different places and at different times, largely independently
of one another." Despite our superior information about the universe,
our ancestors "knew something more essential about it than we do, something
that escapes us." What they knew, for all their disparateness on
details, was "the same basic message: people should revere God as a
phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should
not harm their fellow humans. . . . This is a message that speaks to us from the
very heart of human religiosity."

Reading Havel helps enrich our appreciation for yet another Solzhenitsyn line
that must have seemed to his Harvard audience to be coming from an alien world
of discourse: "On the way from the Renaissance to our day we have
enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete
Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We
have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that
we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual
life."

One sentence that particularly enraged some of the commentators on
Solzhenitsyn’s address at Harvard was this one: "No, I could not
recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours."
Such ingratitude
toward the country providing him shelter–or so it was thought. But to
read Havel is to find a virtual gloss on that text. Says Havel, "The
Western way of affirming Western values . . . seems to me to have seriously
cooled off." The result is that the West now exhibits "limited
ability to address humanity in a genuinely universal way," and the rest of
the world receives from it merely its unsavory "by-products," namely
(in a rolling catalogue), "moral relativism, materialism, the denial of any
kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal, a profound
crisis of authority and the resulting general decay of order, a frenzied
consumerism, a lack of solidarity, a selfish cult of material success, the
absence of faith in a higher order of things or simply in eternity, an
expansionist mentality that holds in contempt everything that in any way resists
the dreary standardization and rationalism of technological civilization."
The West now exports such "merely technical instruments" aselectoral
procedures, freedom of expression, and private ownership of property, all of
which Havel ardently supports but which, "in and of themselves, cannot
guarantee [man’s] dignity, freedom, and responsibility."

What is at stake in Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of America, which is seconded by
Havel, is nothing less than a fundamental matter of worldview. Both of these
authors, one of them a Christian and the other not quite, show a respect for the
religious foundation of the thought of our forebears far beyond what we, their
direct descendants, show. We the descendants have jettisoned their
religion and have left ourselves with only politics as a prism through which to
approach human life. Solzhenitsyn, again with Havel joining him, has lived
to see the far side of Communism’s demise, and thus he has hope for a more happy
and humane future than the world knew in the twentieth century. We in the
West inhabit a twilight world in which we cannot make out markers to guide us on
our way. For our resuscitation he recommends that we embrace those very
aspects of the Western heritage that our elites have taken to dismissing as
antiquated, authoritarian, hierarchical, and oppressive.

© The Philadelphia Society 2019 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.