In 1978, at the Harvard University commencement, America heard from a prophetic voice when renowned Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn boldly and without apology challenged broadly accepted ideas that were then considered politically correct. His comments have not only proven true, but they are more relevant today than ever and, therefore, are worth revisiting.
Though few college commencement speakers these days dare to defy conventional wisdom or the secularism that undergirds it, on June 8, 1978, Solzhenitsyn’s stunning address not only made those assembled there uncomfortable, it provoked many of them to boo him.
Why would an audience boo a moral giant like Solzhenitsyn who had stared down a brutal Communist dictatorship’s Gulags and won the Nobel Prize in literature? Those who booed had expected him to celebrate the West and to direct his condemnations only at Communism. Instead, he condemned Communism and the West. In the process, Solzhenitsyn had the courage to speak of something that was reviled at the time by elites on both sides of the Atlantic, which was truth.
[T]ruth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit. But even while it eludes us, the illusion of knowing it still lingers and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.
In a classic analysis of the prevailing worldview in America, Solzhenitsyn said the West had exchanged belief in unchanging truth for a relentless legalism. The most tragic and significant result, he said, was the absence of “civil courage.” He pointed to three specific lines of evidence for his claim.
First, Solzhenitsyn said, “destructive and irresponsible freedom had been granted boundless space.” How a culture understands freedom—whether as a means of cultivating virtue or as a means of achieving immediate gratification—determines its stability. As Os Guinness wrote in his book A Free People’s Suicide, the greatest enemy of freedom, ironically, is freedom. Specifically, the greatest enemy of freedom is poorly defined freedom. This is what Chuck Colson called freedom without virtue.
Second, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the decadence of art. If that line recalls corrosive popular culture, or self-styled celebrities on social media, or the Rothko painting Untitled (Yellow and Blue), a painting with a blue stripe on a yellow background that sold a few years ago at a New York auction for $46.5 million, well, it’s what he had in mind, too.
Finally, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the lack of great statesmen as evidence of cultural collapse. While there are certainly courageous individuals worthy of our respect, he clarified, consider how society had defined greatness in the past. One rightly wonders what he would think about whom we call “hero” or “historic” today. For example, First Lady Jill Biden recently presented an International Women’s Day Woman of Courage award to Alba Rueda, an Argentinian transgender politician who is a biological male.
Of course, we’ve long struggled to determine who should count as a hero in the West. As Colson Center Senior Fellow Dr. Bill Brown has often observed, heroes make history in other countries. In ours, they make albums and touchdowns.
Solzhenitsyn’s final warning also echoed current events. He referred to a 1977 New York City blackout when, “all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.”
Can anything be done about the loss of civil courage? At the Colson Center, we often talk about two individuals who found themselves in fragile cultural moments not unlike ours: William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Wilberforce was able, by God’s grace, to see a cultural and spiritual recovery, Bonhoeffer was not. And yet, neither man failed. Like them, we don’t know the future of our culture, whether ours is a Wilberforce moment or a Bonhoeffer moment. But that’s not up to us. That’s up to God. What is up to us is to courageously commit ourselves to truth and virtue, to the love God and our neighbor, and to the care of the victims of the bad ideas our culture is promoting. As T.S. Eliot said, “For us, there is only the trying.” The rest is God’s business.
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This Breakpoint was revised from one published 6.9.2015.
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