NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, June 7th.
Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
Over the last few weeks schools from coast to coast have held commencement exercises, and each one included a keynote address.
Most of these fade into history, but a few stand the test of time. Today we’ll revisit one of those.
EICHER: 40 years ago tomorrow, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivered memorable remarks at Harvard University’s commencement ceremony.
This was at the height of the Cold War. The Russian Solzhenitsyn was world famous for speaking and writing bluntly about the brutality of the Soviet Union. And for that, he earned the Nobel Prize for Literature only a few years earlier.
But on this day Solzhenitsyn turned his attention to the West—and what he saw as the beginning of its decline.
REICHARD: Solzhenitsyn delivered this speech in his native Russian. You’ll hear him speaking in the background, with an English translator speaking over him.
SOLZHENITSYN: I am sincerely happy to be here on the occasion of the 327th commencement of this old and most prestigious university. My congratulations and very best wishes to all of today’s graduates.
If I were today addressing an audience in my country, examining the overall pattern of the world’s rifts, I would have concentrated on the East’s calamities. But since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one, I think it may be of greater interest to concentrate on certain aspects of the West, in our days, such as I see them.
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
Should one point out that from ancient times declining courage has been considered the beginning of the end?
When the modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness. See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence. Now, at last, during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state.
Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.
The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed. The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about. It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leaving them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.
So who should now renounce all this? Why? And for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one’s nation must be defended in a distant country? Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law, and this is considered to be the supreme solution.
If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses…
It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
EICHER: That’s the late Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, delivering the commencement address at Harvard University 40 years ago this week. You can find a link to the full transcript and video here.