A World Split Apart

An Address by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Harvard College

June 1978


I AM SINCERELY HAPPY to be here with you on this occasion and to become personally acquainted with this old and most prestigious university. My congratulations and very best wishes to all of today’s graduates.

Harvard’s motto is Veritas. Many of us have already found out, and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the delusion still lingers of knowing it, and that leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my speech today, too. But I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary but from a friend.

Three years ago in the United States I said certain things which at that time appeared unacceptable. Today, however, many people agree with what I then said . . .

The split in today’s world is perceptible even at a hasty glance. Any of our contemporaries can readily identify two world powers, each of them already capable of entirely destroying the other. However, understanding of the split often is limited to this political conception, to the illusion that danger may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance of armed forces. The truth is that the split is a much profounder and more alienating one, that the rifts are more than one can see at first glance. This deep, manifold split bears the danger of manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that Kingdom—in this case, our Earth— divided against itself cannot stand.

Then there is the concept of the Third World: thus, we already have three worlds. Undoubtedly, however, the number is even greater; we are just too far away to see. Any ancient, deeply rooted, autonomous culture, especially if it is spread over a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking. At a minimum, we must include in this category China, India, the Muslim world, and Africa, if indeed we accept the approximation of viewing the latter two as compact units. For one thousand years Russia belonged to such a category, although Western thinking systematically committed the mistake of denying its autonomous character and therefore never understood it, just as today the West does not understand Russia in Communist captivity. It may be that Japan has increasingly become a distant part of the West, I am no judge here; but as to Israel, for instance, it seems to me that it stands apart from the Western world in that its state system is fundamentally linked to religion.

How short a time ago, relatively, the small new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance but also usually despising the conquered peoples and denying any possible value in their approach to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success. There were no geographic frontiers to it; Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. Then all of a sudden, in the twentieth century, came the discovery of its fragility and friability. We now see that the conquests were short-lived and precarious, and this in turn points to defects in the Western view of the world which led to these conquests. Relations with the former colonial world now have turned to the opposite pole, and the Western world often goes to extremes of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West, and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender, not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns will cover the bill.

But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and supports the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day Western systems, which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the basis of their progress in this direction. However, this is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet’s development is quite different.

Anguish about our divided world gave birth to the theory of convergence between leading Western countries and the Soviet Union. It is a soothing theory which overlooks the fact that these worlds are not at all developing into similarity; neither one can be transformed into the other without the use of violence.Besides, convergence inevitably means acceptance of the other side’s defects, too, and this is hardly desirable.

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 here to concentrate on certain aspects of the West in our days, 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 civic 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 that the loss of courage extends to the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions, in their statements, and most of all in their theoretical reflections intended to explain how realistic and reasonable as well as intellectually and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. The decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of those same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and weak countries that are not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

Should one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?

When the modern Western states were created, the following principle was proclaimed: 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 recent 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 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 obtain them, imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates 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 this ideal, leading 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 as 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 purpose, 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 using, interpreting, and manipulating law, even though the laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. 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 may mention that one could still be not 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 the legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention for a new type of energy order to prevent its use. A food-product, manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his product to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on letter of the law and never reaches higher is scarcely taking 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.

And it will be simply impossible to survive the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.

In today’s Western society, the equality has been revealed between freedom to do good and the freedom to do evil. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and press keep rebufling him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, traps will be set out all around him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power, which, in fact, has been drastically weakened in all Western countries. The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. 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, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This 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.

And what shall we say about the dark realm of criminality as such? Legal frames (especially in the United States) are broad enough to encourage not only individual freedom but also certain individual crimes. The culprit can go unpunished or obtain undeserved leniency with the support of thousands of public defenders. When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists’ civil rights. There are many such cases.

Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually, but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature; the world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems which must be corrected. Strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still is criminality, and there even is considerably more of it than in the pauperized and lawless Soviet society. (There is a huge number of prisoners in our camps who are termed criminals, but most of them never committed any crime; they merely tried to defend themselves against a lawless state, resorting to means outside of a legal framework.)

The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media.) But what sort of use does it make of this Freedom?

Here again, the main concern n is to avoid infringing the letter of the law. There is no moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases where the same journalist or the same newspaper has publicly recognized and rectified such mistakes? No, it does not happen, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification? The press can both stimulate public opinion and mis-educate it. Thus we may see terrorists turned into heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusions on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: « Everyone is entitled to know everything. » But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the twentieth century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press. It stops at sensational formulas.

Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press — but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too sharply contradict their own, or the general trend.

Without any censorship, fashionable trends of thought and ideas in the West are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researches are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.

I have mentioned a few traits of Western life which surprise and shock a new arrival to this world. The purpose and scope of this speech will not allow me to continue such a review, to look into the influence of these Western characteristics on important aspects of a nation’s life, such as elementary education, and advanced education in the humanities and in art.

It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development, even though in the past years it has been strongly disturbed by chaotic inflation. However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current.

I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system in order to present socialism as an alternative. Having experienced applied socialism in a country where that alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death. Shafarevich’s book was published in France almost two years ago, and so far no one has been found to refute it. It will shortly be published in English in the United States.

But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just mentioned are extremely saddening.

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West, while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western, experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger deeper, and more interesting characters than those generated by standardized Western well-being. Therefore, if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores. It is true, no doubt, that a society cannot remain in an abyss of lawlessness, as is the case in our country. But it is also demeaning for elect such mechanical legalistic smoothness as you have. After suffering decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, exemplified by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.

All this is visible to observers from all the worlds of our planet. The Western way of life is less and less likely to become the leading model.

There are various meaningful warnings which history gives a threatened or perishing society — the decadence of art, for instance, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and 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.

But the fight, physical and spiritual, for our planet, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future: it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

Very well-known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: We cannot apply moral criteria to politics. Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world. On the contrary, only moral criteria can help the West against Communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the size and meaning of events.

In spite of the abundance of information, or maybe because of it, the West has difficulties in understanding reality such as it is. There have been naive predictions by some American experts who believed that Angola would become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam or that Cuban expeditions in Africa would best be stopped by special U.S. courtesy to Cuba. Kennan’s advice to his own country —- to begin unilateral disarmament — belongs to the same category. If you only knew how the youngest of the Moscow Old Square officials laugh at your political wizards! As to Fidel Castro, he frankly scorns the United States, sending his troops to distant adventures from his country right next to yours.

However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam War. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or Communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. antiwar movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide, and in the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American intelligentsia lost its nerve, and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing space; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small Communist half country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?

I have had occasion already to say that in the twentieth century Western democracy has not won any major war without help and protection from a powerful Continental ally whose philosophy arid ideology it did not question. In World War II against Hitler, instead of winning that war with its own forces which would certainly have been sufficient, Western democracy cultivated another enemy who would prove worse and more powerful yet: Hitler never had so many resources and so many people, nor did he offer any attractive ideas, or have such a large number of supporters in the West — a potential fifth column — as the Soviet Union does. At present, some Western voices already have spoken of obtaining protection from a third power against aggression in the next world conflict, if there is one; in this case the shield would be China. But I would not wish this on any country in the world. First of all, it is again a doomed alliance with Evil; also, it would grant the United States a respite, but when at a later date China with its billion people would turn around armed with American weapons, America itself would fall prey to a genocide similar to the one perpetrated in Cambodia in our days.

And yet —- no weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of will-power. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal. Thus, at the shameful Belgrade conference, free Western diplomats in their weakness surrendered the line where enslaved members of Helsinki Watch groups are sacrificing their lives.

Western thinking has become conservative: the world situation should stay as it is at any cost, there should be no changes. This debilitating dream of a status quo is the symptom of a society which has come to the end of its development. But one must be blind in order not to see that the oceans no longer belong to the West, while the land under its domination keeps shrinking. The two so-called world wars (they were by no means on a world scale, not yet) meant the internal self-destruction of the small progressive West, which has thus prepared its own end. In the next war (which does not have to be an atomic one, and I do not believe it will) may well bury Western civilization forever.

Facing such a danger, with such historical values in your past, at such a high level of realization of freedom and apparently of devotion to freedom, how is it possible to lose to such an extent the will to defend oneself?

How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression starting 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.

The turn introduced by the Renaissance evidently was inevitable historically. The Middle Ages had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one. Then, however, we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. 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 toward worshiping man and his material needs. Everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, were left outside the range of attention of the state and the social system, as if human life did not have any higher meaning. That provided access for evil, of which in our days there is a free and constant flow. But freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life, and it even adds a number of new ones.

At that, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, on the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred years ago — even fifty years ago — it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. Meanwhile, state systems were becoming increasingly materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past few decades, the legalistic, selfish aspect of Western thinking has reached its apogee, and the world is now in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty, which no one could imagine even as late as in the nineteenth century.

As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation, at first by socialism and then by Communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say in 1844 that « Communism is naturalized humanism. »

This statement turned out to be not entirely meaningless. One does see the same stones in the foundations of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility, which under Communist regimes reaches the stage of anti-religious dictatorship; concentration on social structures, with a seemingly scientific approach (this is typical of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and of Marxism). Not by coincidence, all of Communism’s meaningless pledges and oaths are about Man, with a capital M, and his earthly happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today’s West and today’s East? But such is the logic of materialistic development.

The interrelationship is such, too, that the current of materialism which is farthest Left always ends up being stronger, more attractive, and finally, victorious, because it is more consistent. Humanism without its Christian heritage cannot resist such competition. We watch this process over the past centuries and, especially in the past decades, on a world scale, as the situation becomes increasingly dramatic. Liberalism was inevitably displaced by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could never resist Communism. The Communist regime in the East could stand and grow, thanks to the enthusiastic support of an enormous number of Western intellectuals who felt a kinship with Communism and refused to see its crimes. When they could no longer ignore them, they tried to justify them. ‘In our Eastern countries, Communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero. But Western intellectuals still look at it with interest and with empathy, and this is precisely what makes it so immensely difficult for the West to withstand the East.

I am not examining here the disastrous case of a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days 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 political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the fact that the same disease is plaguing its two main sections.

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 is not possible to reduce the assessment of the President’s performance to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntarily inspired self-restraint can raise man above the stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless before 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 Higher 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 anthropological stage. No one on earth has any way left but — upward.

(From National Review, July 7, 1978; pages 836-855)

J’en ai trouvé une traduction : http://plunkett.hautetfort.com/archive/2008/08/04/adieu-alexandre-issaievitch.html

Adieu, Alexandre Issaïevitch

Il est mort hier à Moscou : hommage international  à Soljenitsyne, témoin et dénonciateur du matérialisme mercantile de l’Ouest

Le 8 juin 1978, à Harvard, Alexandre Soljenitsyne prononçait ce discours prophétique :

<<  Je suis très sincèrement heureux de me trouver ici parmi vous, à l’occasion du 327e anniversaire de la fondation de cette université si ancienne et si illustre. La devise de Harvard est  VERITAS. La vérité est rarement douce à entendre ; elle est presque toujours amère. Mon discours d’aujourd’hui contient une part de vérité ; je vous l’apporte en ami, non en adversaire.

Il y a trois ans, aux Etats-Unis, j’ai été amené à dire des choses que l’on a rejeté, qui ont paru inacceptables. Aujourd’hui, nombreux sont ceux qui acquiescent à mes propos d’alors…

La chute des « élites »

Le déclin du courage est peut-être le trait le plus saillant de l’Ouest aujourd’hui pour un observateur extérieur. Le monde occidental a perdu son courage civique, à la fois dans son ensemble et singulièrement, dans chaque pays, dans chaque gouvernement, dans chaque pays, et bien sûr, aux Nations Unies. Ce déclin du courage est particulièrement sensible dans la couche dirigeante et dans la couche intellectuelle dominante, d’où l’impression que le courage a déserté la société toute entière. Bien sûr, il y a encore beaucoup de courage individuel mais ce ne sont pas ces gens là qui donnent sa direction à la vie de la société. Les fonctionnaires politiques et intellectuels manifestent ce déclin, cette faiblesse, cette irrésolution dans leurs actes, leurs discours et plus encore, dans les considérations théoriques qu’ils fournissent complaisamment pour prouver que cette manière d’agir, qui fonde la politique d’un Etat sur la lâcheté et la servilité, est pragmatique, rationnelle et justifiée, à quelque hauteur intellectuelle et même morale qu’on se place. Ce déclin du courage, qui semble aller ici ou là jusqu’à la perte de toute trace de virilité, se trouve souligné avec une ironie toute particulière dans les cas où les mêmes fonctionnaires sont pris d’un accès subit de vaillance et d’intransigeance, à l’égard de gouvernements sans force, de pays faibles que personne ne soutient ou de courants condamnés par tous et manifestement incapables de rendre un seul coup. Alors que leurs langues sèchent et que leurs mains se paralysent face aux gouvernements puissants et aux forces menaçantes, face aux agresseurs et à l’Internationale de la terreur. Faut-il rappeler que le déclin du courage a toujours été considéré comme le signe avant coureur de la fin ?

Quand les Etats occidentaux modernes se sont formés, fut posé comme principe que les gouvernements avaient pour vocation de servir l’homme, et que la vie de l’homme était orientée vers la liberté et la recherche du bonheur (en témoigne la déclaration américaine d’Indépendance). Aujourd’hui, enfin, les décennies passées de progrès social et technique ont permis la réalisation de ces aspirations : un Etat assurant le bien-être général. Chaque citoyen s’est vu accorder la liberté tant désirée, et des biens matériels en quantité et en qualité propres à lui procurer, en théorie, un bonheur complet, mais un bonheur au sens appauvri du mot, tel qu’il a cours depuis ces mêmes décennies.

Une société dépressive

Au cours de cette évolution, cependant, un détail psychologique a été négligé : le désir permanent de posséder toujours plus et d’avoir une vie meilleure, et la lutte en ce sens, ont imprimé sur de nombreux visages à l’Ouest les marques de l’inquiétude et même de la dépression, bien qu’il soit courant de cacher soigneusement de tels sentiments. Cette compétition active et intense finit par dominer toute pensée humaine et n’ouvre pas le moins du monde la voie à la liberté du développement spirituel.

L’indépendance de l’individu à l’égard de nombreuses formes de pression étatique a été garantie ; la majorité des gens ont bénéficié du bien-être, à un niveau que leurs pères et leurs grands-pères n’auraient même pas imaginé ; il est devenu possible d’élever les jeunes gens selon ces idéaux, de les préparer et de les appeler à l’épanouissement physique, au bonheur, au loisir, à la possession de biens matériels, l’argent, les loisirs, vers une liberté quasi illimitée dans le choix des plaisirs. Pourquoi devrions-nous renoncer à tout cela ? Au nom de quoi devrait-on risquer sa précieuse existence pour défendre le bien commun, et tout spécialement dans le cas douteux où la sécurité de la nation aurait à être défendue dans un pays lointain ?

Même la biologie nous enseigne qu’un haut degré de confort n’est pas bon pour l’organisme. Aujourd’hui, le confort de la vie de la société occidentale commence à ôter son masque pernicieux.

La société occidentale s’est choisie l’organisation la plus appropriée à ses fins, une organisation que j’appellerais légaliste. Les limites des droits de l’homme et de ce qui est bon sont fixées par un système de lois ; ces limites sont très lâches. Les hommes à l’Ouest ont acquis une habileté considérable pour utiliser, interpréter et manipuler la loi, bien que paradoxalement les lois tendent à devenir bien trop compliquées à comprendre pour une personne moyenne sans l’aide d’un expert. Tout conflit est résolu par le recours à la lettre de la loi, qui est considérée comme le fin mot de tout. Si quelqu’un se place du point de vue légal, plus rien ne peut lui être opposé ; nul ne lui rappellera que cela pourrait n’en être pas moins illégitime. Impensable de parler de contrainte ou de renonciation à ces droits, ni de demander de sacrifice ou de geste désintéressé : cela paraîtrait absurde. On n’entend pour ainsi dire jamais parler de retenue volontaire : chacun lutte pour étendre ses droits jusqu’aux extrêmes limites des cadres légaux.


 » Médiocrité spirituelle « 

J’ai vécu toute ma vie sous un régime communiste, et je peux vous dire qu’une société sans référent légal objectif est particulièrement terrible. Mais une société basée sur la lettre de la loi, et n’allant pas plus loin, échoue à déployer à son avantage le large champ des possibilités humaines. La lettre de la loi est trop froide et formelle pour avoir une influence bénéfique sur la société. Quand la vie est tout entière tissée de relations légalistes, il s’en dégage une atmosphère de médiocrité spirituelle qui paralyse les élans les plus nobles de l’homme.

Et il sera tout simplement impossible de relever les défis de notre siècle menaçant armés des seules armes d’une structure sociale légaliste.

Aujourd’hui la société occidentale nous révèle qu’il règne une inégalité entre la liberté d’accomplir de bonnes actions et la liberté d’en accomplir de mauvaises. Un homme d’Etat qui veut accomplir quelque chose d’éminemment constructif pour son pays doit agir avec beaucoup de précautions, avec timidité pourrait-on dire. Des milliers de critiques hâtives et irresponsables le heurtent de plein fouet à chaque instant. Il se trouve constamment exposé aux traits du Parlement, de la presse. Il doit justifier pas à pas ses décisions, comme étant bien fondées et absolument sans défauts. Et un homme exceptionnel, de grande valeur, qui aurait en tête des projets inhabituels et inattendus, n’a aucune chance de s’imposer : d’emblée on lui tendra mille pièges. De ce fait, la médiocrité triomphe sous le masque des limitations démocratiques.

Il est aisé en tout lieu de saper le pouvoir administratif, et il a en fait été considérablement amoindri dans tous les pays occidentaux. La défense des droits individuels a pris de telles proportions que la société en tant que telle est désormais sans défense contre les initiatives de quelques-uns. Il est temps, à l’Ouest, de défendre non pas temps les droits de l’homme que ses devoirs.

D’un autre côté, une liberté destructrice et irresponsable s’est vue accorder un espace sans limite. Il s’avère que la société n’a plus que des défenses infimes à opposer à l’abîme de la décadence humaine, par exemple en ce qui concerne le mauvais usage de la liberté en matière de violence morale faites aux enfants, par des films tout pleins de pornographie, de crime, d’horreur. On considère que tout cela fait partie de la liberté, et peut être contrebalancé, en théorie, par le droit qu’ont ces mêmes enfants de ne pas regarder er de refuser ces spectacles. L’organisation légaliste de la vie a prouvé ainsi son incapacité à se défendre contre la corrosion du mal…

L’évolution s’est faite progressivement, mais il semble qu’elle ait eu pour point de départ la bienveillante conception humaniste selon laquelle l’homme, maître du monde, ne porte en lui aucun germe de mal, et tout ce que notre existence offre de vicié est simplement le fruit de systèmes sociaux erronés qu’il importe d’amender. Et pourtant, il est bien étrange de voir que le crime n’a pas disparu à l’Ouest, alors même que les meilleurs conditions de vie sociale semblent avoir été atteintes. Le crime est même bien plus présent que dans la société soviétique, misérable et sans loi…

Les médias fabriquent un   » esprit du temps « 

La presse, aussi, bien sûr, jouit de la plus grande liberté. Mais pour quel usage ? (…) Quelle responsabilité s’exerce sur le journaliste, ou sur un journal, à l’encontre de son lectorat, ou de l’histoire ? S’ils ont trompé l’opinion publique en divulguant des informations erronées, ou de fausses conclusions, si même ils ont contribué à ce que des fautes soient commises au plus haut degré de l’Etat, avons-nous le souvenir d’un seul cas, où le dit journaliste ou le dit journal ait exprimé quelque regret ? Non, bien sûr, cela porterait préjudice aux ventes. De telles erreurs peut bien découler le pire pour une nation, le journaliste s’en tirera toujours. Etant donné que l’on a besoin d’une information crédible et immédiate, il devient obligatoire d’avoir recours aux conjectures, aux rumeurs, aux suppositions pour remplir les trous, et rien de tout cela ne sera jamais réfuté ; ces mensonges s’installent dans la mémoire du lecteur. Combien de jugements hâtifs, irréfléchis, superficiels et trompeurs sont ainsi émis quotidiennement, jetant le trouble chez le lecteur, et le laissant ensuite à lui-même ? La presse peut jouer le rôle d’opinion publique, ou la tromper. De la sorte, on verra des terroristes peints sous les traits de héros, des secrets d’Etat touchant à la sécurité du pays divulgués sur la place publique, ou encore des intrusions sans vergogne dans l’intimité de personnes connues, en vertu du slogan : « tout le monde a le droit de tout savoir ». Mais c’est un slogan faux, fruit d’une époque fausse ; d’une bien plus grande valeur est ce droit confisqué, le droit des hommes de ne pas savoir, de ne pas voir leur âme divine étouffée sous les ragots, les stupidités, les paroles vaines. Une personne qui mène une vie pleine de travail et de sens n’a absolument pas besoin de ce flot pesant et incessant d’information. (…) Autre chose ne manquera pas de surprendre un observateur venu de l’Est totalitaire, avec sa presse rigoureusement univoque : on découvre un courant général d’idées privilégiées au sein de la presse occidentale dans son ensemble, une sorte d’esprit du temps, fait de critères de jugement reconnus par tous, d’intérêts communs, la somme de tout cela donnant le sentiment non d’une compétition mais d’une uniformité. Il existe peut-être une liberté sans limite pour la presse, mais certainement pas pour le lecteur : les journaux ne font que transmettre avec énergie et emphase toutes ces opinions qui ne vont pas trop ouvertement contredire ce courant dominant.

Sans qu’il y ait besoin de censure, les courants de pensée, d’idées à la mode sont séparés avec soin de ceux qui ne le sont pas, et ces derniers, sans être à proprement parler interdits, n’ont que peu de chances de percer au milieu des autres ouvrages et périodiques, ou d’être relayés dans le supérieur. Vos étudiants sont libres au sens légal du terme, mais ils sont prisonniers des idoles portées aux nues par l’engouement à la mode. Sans qu’il y ait, comme à l’Est, de violence ouverte, cette sélection opérée par la mode, ce besoin de tout conformer à des modèles standards, empêchent les penseurs les plus originaux d’apporter leur contribution à la vie publique et provoquent l’apparition d’un dangereux esprit grégaire qui fait obstacle à un développement digne de ce nom. Aux Etats-Unis, il m’est arrivé de recevoir des lettres de personnes éminemment intelligentes … peut-être un professeur d’un petit collège perdu, qui aurait pu beaucoup pour le renouveau et le salut de son pays, mais le pays ne pouvait l’entendre, car les média n’allaient pas lui donner la parole. Voilà qui donne naissance à de solides préjugés de masse, à un aveuglement qui à notre époque est particulièrement dangereux. (…)

L’erreur matérialiste de la pensée moderne

Il est universellement admis que l’Ouest montre la voie au monde entier vers le développement économique réussi, même si dans les dernières années il a pu être sérieusement entamé par une inflation chaotique. Et pourtant, beaucoup d’hommes à l’Ouest ne sont pas satisfaits de la société dans laquelle ils vivent. Ils la méprisent, ou l’accusent de plus être au niveau de maturité requis par l’humanité. Et beaucoup sont amenés à glisser vers le socialisme, ce qui est une tentation fausse et dangereuse. J’espère que personne ici présent ne me suspectera de vouloir exprimer une critique du système occidental dans l’idée de suggérer le socialisme comme alternative. Non, pour avoir connu un pays où le socialisme a été mis en oeuvre, je ne prononcerai pas en faveur d’une telle alternative. (…) Mais si l’on me demandait si, en retour, je pourrais proposer l’Ouest, en son état actuel, comme modèle pour mon pays, il me faudrait en toute honnêteté répondre par la négative. Non, je ne prendrais pas votre société comme modèle pour la transformation de la mienne. On ne peut nier que les personnalités s’affaiblissent à l’Ouest, tandis qu’à l’Est elles ne cessent de devenir plus fermes et plus fortes. Bien sûr, une société ne peut rester dans des abîmes d’anarchie, comme c’est le cas dans mon pays. Mais il est tout aussi avilissant pour elle de rester dans un état affadi et sans âme de légalisme, comme c’est le cas de la vôtre. Après avoir souffert pendant des décennies de violence et d’oppression, l’âme humaine aspire à des choses plus élevées, plus brûlantes, plus pures que celles offertes aujourd’hui par les habitudes d’une société massifiée, forgées par l’invasion révoltante de publicités commerciales, par l’abrutissement télévisuel, et par une musique intolérable.

Tout cela est sensible pour de nombreux observateurs partout sur la planète. Le mode de vie occidental apparaît de moins en moins comme le modèle directeur. Il est des symptômes révélateurs par lesquels l’histoire lance des avertissements à une société menacée ou en péril. De tels avertissements sont, en l’occurrence, le déclin des arts, ou le manque de grands hommes d’Etat. Et il arrive parfois que les signes soient particulièrement concrets et explicites. Le centre de votre démocratie et de votre culture est-il privé de courant pendant quelques heures, et voilà que soudainement des foules de citoyens américains se livrent au pillage et au grabuge. C’est que le vernis doit être bien fin, et le système social bien instable et mal en point.

Mais le combat pour notre planète, physique et spirituel, un combat aux proportions cosmiques, n’est pas pour un futur lointain ; il a déjà commencé. Les forces du Mal ont commencé leur offensive décisive. Vous sentez déjà la pression qu’elles exercent, et pourtant, vos écrans et vos écrits sont pleins de sourires sur commande et de verres levés. Pourquoi toute cette joie ?

Comment l’Ouest a-t-il pu décliner, de son pas triomphal à sa débilité présente ? A-t-il connu dans son évolution des points de non-retour qui lui furent fatals, a-t-il perdu son chemin ? Il ne semble pas que cela soit le cas. L’Ouest a continué à avancer d’un pas ferme en adéquation avec ses intentions proclamées pour la société, main dans la main avec un progrès technologique étourdissant. Et tout soudain il s’est trouvé dans son état présent de faiblesse. Cela signifie que l’erreur doit être à la racine, à la fondation de la pensée moderne. Je parle de la vision du monde qui a prévalu en Occident à l’époque moderne. Je parle de la vision du monde qui a prévalu en Occident, née à la Renaissance, et dont les développements politiques se sont manifestés à partir des Lumières. Elle est devenue la base da la doctrine sociale et politique et pourrait être appelée l’humanisme rationaliste, ou l’autonomie humaniste : l’autonomie proclamée et pratiquée de l’homme à l’encontre de toute force supérieure à lui. On peut parler aussi d’anthropocentrisme : l’homme est vu au centre de tout.

Historiquement, il est probable que l’inflexion qui s’est produite à la Renaissance était inévitable. Le Moyen Age en était venu naturellement à l’épuisement, en raison d’une répression intolérable de la nature charnelle de l’homme en faveur de sa nature spirituelle. Mais en s’écartant de l’esprit, l’homme s’empara de tout ce qui est matériel, avec excès et sans mesure. La pensée humaniste, qui s’est proclamée notre guide, n’admettait pas l’existence d’un mal intrinsèque en l’homme, et ne voyait pas de tâche plus noble que d’atteindre le bonheur sur terre. Voilà qui engagea la civilisation occidentale moderne naissante sur la pente dangereuse de l’adoration de l’homme et de ses besoins matériels. Tout ce qui se trouvait au-delà du bien-être physique et de l’accumulation de biens matériels, tous les autres besoins humains, caractéristiques d’une nature subtile et élevée, furent rejetés hors du champ d’intérêt de l’Etat et du système social, comme si la vie n’avait pas un sens plus élevé. De la sorte, des failles furent laissées ouvertes pour que s’y engouffre le mal, et son haleine putride souffle librement aujourd’hui. Plus de liberté en soi ne résout pas le moins du monde l’intégralité des problèmes humains, et même en ajoute un certain nombre de nouveaux.

L’Ouest, aussi matérialiste que l’Est

Et pourtant, dans les jeunes démocraties, comme la démocratie américaine naissante, tous les droits de l’homme individuels reposaient sur la croyance que l’homme est une créature de Dieu. C’est-à-dire que la liberté était accordée à l’individu de manière conditionnelle, soumise constamment à sa responsabilité religieuse. Tel fut l’héritage du siècle passé.

Toutes les limitations de cette sorte s’émoussèrent en Occident, une émancipation complète survint, malgré l’héritage moral de siècles chrétiens, avec leurs prodiges de miséricorde et de sacrifice. Les Etats devinrent sans cesses plus matérialistes. L’Occident a défendu avec succès, et même surabondamment, les droits de l’homme, mais l’homme a vu complètement s’étioler la conscience de sa responsabilité devant Dieu et la société. Durant ces dernières décennies, cet égoïsme juridique de la philosophie occidentale a été définitivement réalisé, et le monde se retrouve dans une cruelle crise spirituelle et dans une impasse politique. Et tous les succès techniques, y compris la conquête de l’espace, du Progrès tant célébré n’ont pas réussi à racheter la misère morale dans laquelle est tombé le XXe siècle, que personne n’aurait pu encore soupçonner au XIXe siècle.

L’humanisme dans ses développements devenant toujours plus matérialiste, il permit avec une incroyable efficacité à ses concepts d’être utilisés d’abord par le socialisme, puis par le communisme, de telle sorte que Karl Marx pût dire, en 1844, que « le communisme est un humanisme naturalisé ».  Il s’est avéré que ce jugement était loin d’être faux. On voit les mêmes pierres aux fondations d’un humanisme altéré et de tout type de socialisme : un matérialisme sans frein, une libération à l’égard de la religion et de la responsabilité religieuse, une concentration des esprits sur les structures sociales avec une approche prétendument scientifique. Ce n’est pas un hasard si toutes les promesses rhétoriques du communisme sont centrées sur l’Homme, avec un grand H, et son bonheur terrestre. A première vue, il s’agit d’un rapprochement honteux : comment, il y aurait des points communs entre la pensée de l’Ouest et de l’Est aujourd’hui ? Là est la logique du développement matérialiste…

Je ne pense pas au cas d’une catastrophe amenée par une guerre mondiale, et aux changements qui pourraient en résulter pour la société. Aussi longtemps que nous nous réveillerons chaque matin, sous un soleil paisible, notre vie sera inévitablement tissée de banalités quotidiennes. Mais il est une catastrophe qui pour beaucoup est déjà présente pour nous. Je veux parler du désastre d’une conscience humaniste parfaitement autonome et irréligieuse.

Elle a fait de l’homme la mesure de toutes choses sur terre, l’homme imparfait, qui n’est jamais dénué d’orgueil, d’égoïsme, d’envie, de vanité, et tant d’autres défauts. Nous payons aujourd’hui les erreurs qui n’étaient pas apparues comme telles au début de notre voyage. Sur la route qui nous a amenés de la Renaissance à nos jours, notre expérience s’est enrichie, mais nous avons perdu l’idée d’une entité supérieure qui autrefois réfrénait nos passions et notre irresponsabilité.

Nous avions placé trop d’espoirs dans les transformations politico-sociales, et il se révèle qu’on nous enlève ce que nous avons de plus précieux : notre vie intérieure. A l’Est, c’est la foire du Parti qui la foule aux pieds, à l’Ouest la foire du Commerce : ce qui est effrayant, ce n’est même pas le fait du monde éclaté, c’est que les principaux morceaux en soient atteints d’une maladie analogue. Si l’homme, comme le déclare l’humanisme, n’était né que pour le bonheur, il ne serait pas né non plus pour la mort. Mais corporellement voué à la mort, sa tâche sur cette terre n’en devient que plus spirituelle : non pas un gorgement de quotidienneté, non pas la recherche des meilleurs moyens d’acquisition, puis de joyeuse dépense des biens matériels, mais l’accomplissement d’un dur et permanent devoir, en sorte que tout le chemin de notre vie devienne l’expérience d’une élévation avant tout spirituelle : quitter cette vie en créatures plus hautes que nous n’y étions entrés.

 » Revoir à la hausse l’échelle de nos valeurs humaines « 

Il est impératif que nous revoyions à la hausse l’échelle de nos valeurs humaines. Sa pauvreté actuelle est effarante. Il n’est pas possible que l’aune qui sert à mesurer de l’efficacité d’un président se limite à la question de combien d’argent l’on peut gagner, ou de la pertinence de la construction d’un gazoduc. Ce n’est que par un mouvement volontaire de modération de nos passions, sereine et acceptée par nous, que l’humanité peut s’élever au-dessus du courant de matérialisme qui emprisonne le monde.

Quand bien même nous serait épargné d’être détruits par la guerre, notre vie doit changer si elle ne veut pas périr par sa propre faute. Nous ne pouvons nous dispenser de rappeler ce qu’est fondamentalement la vie, la société. Est-ce vrai que l’homme est au-dessus de tout ? N’y a-t-il aucun esprit supérieur au-dessus de lui ? Les activités humaines et sociales peuvent-elles légitimement être réglées par la seule expansion matérielle ? A-t-on le droit de promouvoir cette expansion au détriment de l’intégrité de notre vie spirituelle ?

Si le monde ne touche pas à sa fin, il a atteint une étape décisive dans son histoire, semblable en importance au tournant qui a conduit du Moyen-âge à la Renaissance. Cela va requérir de nous un embrasement spirituel. Il nous faudra nous hisser à une nouvelle hauteur de vue, à une nouvelle conception de la vie, où notre nature physique ne sera pas maudite, comme elle a pu l’être au Moyen-âge, mais, ce qui est bien plus important, où notre être spirituel ne sera pas non plus piétiné, comme il le fut à l’ère moderne. Notre ascension nous mène à une nouvelle étape anthropologique. Nous n’avons pas d’autre choix que de monter : toujours plus haut. >>

Alexandre Soljénitsyne, Harvard, 8 juin 1978