Up From Modernity
A report from the audience.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This appeared in the September 15, 1978, issue of National Review.

It was startling, sitting there with the graduating class that expected, and alumni who remembered, the traditional commencement pieties, to hear an address that began, “Harvard’s motto is Veritas,” and then proceeded — not to a eulogy of Harvard, but to a sobering examination of Veritas. Truth, after all — the very idea that there is such a thing as objective truth — is not much at home on college campuses these days. Once or twice a year it is invited to class, but only to be dismissed as dogged superstition, or to be debunked as a sort of grand Ptolemaic error. Never mind the paradox that the denial of truth has itself to be true: Solzhenitsyn was arresting because he spoke of the truth as if it were true.

Nothing Solzhenitsyn said at Harvard, however, was as startling as what his critics thought he had said. In general they accused him of what the Washington Post, for instance, called “a gross misunderstanding of Western society,” though they were disagreed as to why he had misunderstood it. A few — you will find them in any crowd — thought him just plain bonkers: James Reston declared that Solzhenitsyn’s address (titled “A World Split Apart), “for all its brilliant passages, . . . sounded like the wanderings of a mind split apart.” But most opted for cultural determinism and charitably pronounced Solzhenitsyn to be, well, incorrigibly Russian. His views “arise from particular religious and political strains remote from Western experience,” the Post said sniffily. Really imaginative commentators espied a theocrat; and the New York Times proclaimed him a “zealot” preaching “holy war,” who, like the eighteenth century “religious Enthusiasts . . . believes himself to be in possession of The Truth and sees error [c'mon guys: that should've been "Error"] wherever he looks.”

Diverse though they are, these critics have one thing in common: they believe themselves to be in possession of The Truth about Solzhenitsyn. In fact they miss his whole point.

Of course it is difficult for journalists who learned in college that all values are relative, and who remain awestruck by that truth, to weigh the heretical claim that all values may not be relative. But that is precisely what one must do, if only for a moment, in order to understand what Solzhenitsyn is trying to say. To understand requires that one first respect the author’s terms; and that means, inter alia, paying attention to things like — the title of his address. Solzhenitsyn spoke of “A World Split Apart,” even though, strictly speaking, his discussion of “worlds” occupies only a few paragraphs. A moment’s reflection on the title provides a key to the full measure of Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of modern society. For Solzhenitsyn’s critics have dismissed him as illiberal without realizing that, in truth, he is anti-modern; that his doubts about the modern enterprise are fundamental, comprehensive; that he is asking, not merely, Is there a way out of Communism? but, Is there a way out of modernity? Or more precisely, Is there a way up from modernity?

1. The first meaning of the speech’s title is easily recognizable as a vision of contemporary politics. “Even at a hasty glance,” Solzhenitsyn says — which is to say, even as journalists and other modern men routinely see things — it is obvious that two great superpowers oppose each other across the globe. But this “political conception” reflects only a partial understanding of the world, one that crystallizes in the “illusion that danger may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations or by achieving a balance of armed forces.”

2. In truth, “The split is a much profounder and more alienating one . . .” whose nature begins to become apparent only when one considers how the split is usually expressed in speech. The United States and its philosophical allies proclaim a belief in “human rights” of the sort embodied in the Declaration of Independence — natural rights — and hold them to be the basis of civil government. Government exists to secure these rights, to protect the conditions of the pursuit of happiness. The Soviet Union and its allies call themselves Marxists. What exactly this means is the sort of question that exercises scholars over lifetimes, but it means at least a rejection of the idea of an unchanging human nature — and hence of natural rights. It is understood that Marxists believe in History or dialectical materialism, which is to say they believe that over time man changes his nature, that he creates himself, as it were, through his labor in time, and that the history of this creation through labor is the history of class struggle.

There is then a philosophical as well as a political division between West and East; or, one might say, a moral division, taking into account both the philosophical difference and the nature of its effect on political conduct. The so-called convergence theory, which tends to be widely discussed in the brief stretches between Soviet atrocities, concentrates on the lowest things — common bureaucratic and technological means, common scientific ends — and so misses the higher, and essential, difference between the U.S. and the USSR. This gulf is not economic, but moral and philosophical. So there is a philosophical split in the modern world or, mutatis mutandis, a split within the world of modern philosophy.

3. Very tidy — but doesn’t a look around the globe reveal more cracks than we’ve allowed for? There is the concept of the Third World,” Solzhenitsyn continues; “thus, we already have three worlds. Undoubtedly, however, the number is even greater; we are just too far away to see.” If any, “ancient, deeply rooted, autonomous culture . . . constitutes an autonomous world,” then China, India, Africa, and pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, must also be counted.

Still, there is a sense in which these countries are a part of the modern world, inasmuch as the very idea of Third and Fourth Worlds is a modern idea. Third World nations are called developing nations for a reason, after all; they are developing into something; they are, to use the totem-word of an entire social science discipline, “modernizing.” It would not take much thought to connect the distinction between modern and developing worlds to the distinction between modern (or “rational — legal”) and traditional societies, a distinction that emerged in late nineteenth century social science — most memorably in the work of Max Weber, whose books have been to sociology roughly what the Authorized Version has been to Protestantism. The division or split of the world into developed and developing halves — like the division into democratic and Communist — is an outgrowth of modern philosophy and social science. Neither of these splits transcends the modern viewpoint that Solzhenitsyn is engaged in identifying and refuting.

While it’s true that the distinction between modern and traditional is not the same thing as a wish or expectation that the traditional should give way to the modern, in practice the one often elides into the other. In the West’s “blindness of superiority,” remarks Solzhenitsyn, the notion is born that “vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day Western systems . . . There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crimes or by their own barbarity and incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy. . . ” The modern taxonomy of traditional and modern “developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds.” It judges countries “on the basis of their progress” toward modernity without questioning what sort of modernity (e.g., Western or Eastern) is the end of progress, or indeed whether modernity as a whole is choiceworthy.

4. “A decline in courage,” Solzhenitsyn declares, “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 . . .” Although this loss is recent and might appear to be adventitious, Solzhenitsyn attributes it to the dynamics of the “prevailing Western view of the world” that was born in the Renaissance and “found its political expression starting in the . . . Enlightenment.” What distinguished this view of the world was a tremendous burst of “human independence and power” and a radical new conception of science. For centuries science had been regarded as essentially contemplative, existing for the sake of understanding. Modern science exists for the sake of human power. When it first burst upon the world it was arrogant, impatient, ambitious — and frightfully exciting, for it promised revolutionary results. For two thousand years philosophers had sought to understand the world; the point now was to master and change it. Science, designed to serve (in Bacon’s shining phrase) for the “relief of man’s estate, ” promised affluence; affluence, a society at once happier and more just, as the motives for injustice were overcome.

In the last few decades, “technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations . . . The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about . . . an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.” However, the concentration on material well-being has jeopardized the way to “free spiritual development.” Man is in danger of not only winning the world but losing his soul; he may soon discover that without his soul it is impossible to keep the world. If modern society is organized around the paramount natural right of self-preservation, as, for instance, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison understood it to be, then why should a citizen risk his “precious life in defense of common values?”

Modernity began as an effort to improve society by enlarging man’s power and dominion over nature. In politics, the means of improvement it characteristically adopted were institutions and laws, which it invested with the confidence of Kant’s bold asseveration that just government “is only a question of the good organization of the state . . . . The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils.” The locus classicus of this confidence is the United States Constitution, whose famous system of checks and balances is an institutional antidote to office-holders who, if not quite a race of devils, are nevertheless a race with little public spirit and much private passion. In the words of Madison’s famous formula in Federalist #51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

When Solzhenitsyn sadly remarks that in the West “the letter of the law . . . is considered to be the supreme solution” to conflict, and that “everybody operates at the extreme limit of the legal frames,” his objection goes to the root of the modern outlook, and to the heart of America’s constitutional arrangements. The reliance on institutions instead of the formation of character — the commitment to a “policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives,” in Madison’s phrase — appears to Solzhenitsyn mean and deficient. “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,” he says. “But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.”

The alternative to reliance on institutions and the letter of the law is not tyranny or Czarist authoritarianism or the absence of law, but “voluntary self-restraint.” This means moral education of the sort that teaches reason to rule the passions; moral education of the sort taught by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and others. As moral virtue is important in an individual, so good character is important in a people; and the role of law is to help shape a people’s character. The modern reliance on institutions, commerce, and other substitutes for virtue implies a separation of law and morality where once there was merely a distinction. It is this separation that has provided “access for evil.” Though the “tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually . . . 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.”

In the modern view, “everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods, all other human requirements and characteristics of a subtler and higher nature, [are] left outside the range of attention of the state and the social system.” Government, according to the familiar metaphor, is an umpire, seeing only that the most elementary and necessary rules are obeyed; scant attention is paid to the quality of the players as men; little effort is expended to educate them in virtue. The result is “an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”

The present peril of the West, its weakness and uncertainty, may therefore be traced to “the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries,” what Solzhenitsyn calls “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.” Modernity, to put it simply, has been a mistake, a grave intellectual error. “We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey,” he observes, hauntingly. “On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but he have lost the concept of a Supreme Compete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.” This loss — of the idea of God, or of nature, in the classical understanding — is the “real crisis” of our time, for “the split in the world is less terrible than the fact that the same disease plagues its two main sections.”

Modernity, in short, is in many ways a greater danger to man than Communism, which is only a particularly pathological mode of modernity — the marriage of the worst of modern science (and philosophy) with tyranny. Conservatives who are use to acclaiming Solzhenitsyn should understand that he is not merely anti-Communist but anti-modern, which means anti-capitalist as well. He objects to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Madison, and Adam Smith as well as to Marx, though of course not so much as he objects to Marx.

Solzhenitsyn’s opposition to modernity should not be identified as an opposition to the West. He is, in many ways, the greatest living representative of the West, an avatar of the West’s most ancient and honorable principles. It is, for instance, no exaggeration to say that his understanding of man and politics is more intelligible in the context of the Nichomachean Ethics than of War and Peace, though that is not to gainsay his fierce love of the Russian people and their culture. But, on the one hand, having witnessed the diminution of man by modern science, and, on the other, having known that greatness of which the human soul is capable even if the most terrible circumstances, it’s not surprising that he should reappraise, indeed resurrect, the almost forgotten alternative to modernity: classical and early Christian political philosophy.

He admitted as much at Harvard. “It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values,” he exhorted. “Its present incorrectness is astounding. . . . We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society” if man wishes to “save life from self-destruction.” Whither shall man turn to recover the idea of a “Supreme Complete Entity?” Not to the “Modern Era,” not even to its early expressions. Nor to the Middle Ages, which reached their “natural end” in an “intolerable despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one.” Here at last is the final meaning of the title “A World Split Apart.” For as between the Middle Ages and the Modern Era the human world is, so to speak, split apart. “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.” The union of the sundered human world, of man as soul and body, would thus seem to belong to the one period of Western history he does not mention — those many centuries of classical thought stretching back beyond the Middle Ages.

When Solzhenitsyn declared that the contemporary West could not serve as a proper model for his country, he touched the love-it-or-leave-it nerve of many Americans. Yet he emphasized, on that unforgettable Thursday afternoon in Cambridge, that the bitterness he spoke was the bitterness of truth, that it had come “not from an adversary but from a friend.” “Enemies never tell men the truth,” Tocqueville wrote. “Just because I am a friend to I dare to say these things [about democracy].” Solzhenitsyn’s address at Harvard struck this senior as a reminder of what I see the West as having lost, and what it must regain, if it is to survive “the trails of our time;” his message was part warning, part prophecy, but also part encouragement. Though the “moral heritage of Christian centuries” has been attenuated, natural right and natural law neglected, voluntary self-restraint abjured — still, Western man may have time to learn again the lessons of self-government. If Solzhenitsyn is more insistent about those lessons than the politic Tocqueville, that is because “the forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive.” And time, for the West, is running out.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review