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We’re All Legalists Now: Notes on Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address

April 17th, 2020 | 8 min read

By Vika Pechersky

Alexander Solzhenitsyn opens his Harvard commencement address with a statement that is characteristically Russian, something Dostoyevsky would probably say — “The truth is seldom pleasant; it is invariably bitter.”

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out, and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth 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. There is some bitterness in today’s speech too, but I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.

As one can imagine, after such a warning, the rest of the speech is delivered in the same stern mood. Solzhenitsyn offers a sharp, sometimes shocking criticism of Western society (which views itself as a champion of freedom) from the point of view of a person who, after experiencing the horrors of Communism, had lived in the West for some time. Solzhenitsyn concluded that Western society does not know what to do with its freedom and makes poor use of it. The free Western world is unable to perceive reality as it is and can be remarkably naive on crucial points. According to Solzhenitsyn, the West has lost its grip on truth. Yet it still operates under the lingering illusion of knowing.

In his address, Solzhenitsyn covers some of the main areas of Western culture — the residuals of colonial sense of superiority, its political system, mass media, pervasive materialism, and the underlying philosophy of humanism. However, his criticism of the legal system was the most severe. He ascertained that Western society is essentially legalistic because it “organized itself around the letter of the law.” He writes, “The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws.” Again, “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.”

Some may reply that this is how law and order work. Perhaps it is true. However, should law and order be the measure in and of themselves? Solzhenitsyn argues that it should not be so. Instead, the aim of a free society should be the attainment of the full spectrum of moral possibilities. The legalistic framework of life, he claims, is inadequate for human development. “Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.” In other words, legalistic relations breed moral mediocrity because people tend to rest prematurely, being satisfied with doing the minimum required by the law without going beyond what it prescribes.

The real problem with legalism is not that we are doing too much relying on our human agency, but that we are doing too little, never reaching the fullness of human expression. A robust legal backbone of the society by itself, therefore, is not a sign of mature humanity. Quite the opposite, it can be a sign of its immaturity. The reaction of Europeans to the immigration crisis in Europe and the treatment of migrant children at the U.S. Southern border would provide sufficient illustrations to Solzhenitsyn’s claim.

Solzhenitsyn’s analysis actually fits quite well when read alongside the New Testament. In both the Gospels and 1 Corinthians, Jews and early Christians were shown the standards for human maturity found in Christ, but settled to observe the minimum of what was required of them and thus failed to succeed in one thing that mattered —love for your neighbor.

Throughout his letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls believers to imitate him by excelling in selfless love for others, in setting aside their comforts and rights, and even suffering injustice for the benefit of others. When responding to the reports of legal disputes among Christians (1 Cor 6:7-8), Paul emphatically cries out: “Why not suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” Corinthians, evidently, were legalists too. They reached for legal solutions as the supreme way of dealing with disagreements instead of setting aside their rights to keep the harmony and unity of their community.

Solzhenitsyn seems to echo the Apostle Paul suggesting that voluntary self-restraint is a better way to organize individual and communal life of the whole society. After living in the US, he observed that when reaching for a solution to any dispute, people considered a legal victory sufficient to be proven right. He writes, “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 would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.” Solzhenitsyn concludes, “Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”

The Apostle Paul knew that the law alone does not lead to purer and nobler lives. His strict observance of the Jewish law did not hinder him from killing innocent people and throwing them to prison; in fact, it fueled it. Christians who refused the demands of the Nazi Party knew it well, as they had been losing their lives watching their countrymen commit atrocities in the name of law and order of the land. Many American Christians today raise their voices after seeing believers compromising their Biblical values in droves in exchange for the promised legal powers.

The irony is that laws and politics cannot institutionalize and enforce neighborly love, selflessness, and self-restraint. God knows, Communists have tried. It is foolish and downright dangerous to ascribe to law the power it should not possess. Love and self-restraint have to be a free, willing act on the part of each person converging into a collective will. This is why Jesus never looked to politics for the redemption of the human race. If nothing else, the election of 2016 made it clear that political means or victories, simply cannot deliver the kind of transformation the God of the Bible promises. Instead, Jesus emptied himself, set aside his divine rights, lowered himself, and suffered violent death on the cross. May we have the same mindset among us (Phil. 2:5-11).

At the end of his speech, Solzhenitsyn proposes a way out of the current state of moral mediocrity caused not by faulty laws or political systems but by faulty philosophies that fail to correspond to reality. Therefore, the proposed path does not lie through the valley of legal or political frames. Solzhenitsyn aims higher, pointing us to the mountain’s summit. He calls Western society to nothing less than the overhaul of the entire system of (materialistic) values, and with it a way of life because the current state of affairs will only lead us to self-destruction.

In the first place, we are to abandon the individualistic pursuit of happiness defined by purely materialistic goods and seek moral growth and transformation that goes beyond self. That is to say—we are to exercise our freedom not by gratifying personal desires but by denying them the power of keeping us from reaching the heights of human potential to love. Such moral trajectory is impossible without voluntary self-restraint both individually and collectively. As Oliver O’Donovan said, “Individual freedom shrinks if it lacks the capacity to imagine itself part of a wider common agency.”

Secondly, and this will require all of our imagination, we need to redefine what it means to be human and, subsequently, what constitutes a mature society. Such definitions will have to reflect the reality of human nature adequately and to take into account the fact that humans are both physical and spiritual beings. Solzhenitsyn writes, “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.”

Solzhenitsyn calls our society to a monumental task. Nevertheless, we, Christians, are not to proceed as if into the unknown. The person of Jesus Christ holds the key to the meaning of our human existence and offers the guidance we need, should we heed Solzhenitsyn’s advice, which is ever so urgent in times like this.

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Vika Pechersky

Vika Pechersky is the Submissions Editor at Mere Orthodoxy. She holds an MTS degree from Loyola University Maryland. She lives with her husband and three kids in the Washington DC area.