Solzhenitsyn’s Graduation Speech Revisited
June 10, 2015 in Current Events | Tags: 1978, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, breakpoint.org, charles colson, college commencement speakers, harvard university, john stonestreet, political correctness, truth, what is truth
In 1978, at Harvard, America heard from a prophetic voice. His comments have proven true and are worth revisiting.
Few college commencement speakers these days dare challenge our culture’s rampant political correctness and secularism.
But a generation ago, on June 8, 1978, the renowned Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a stunning address at Harvard University that not only made those assembled there uncomfortable; it provoked many to boo.
Why would the audience boo this moral giant, who had stared down a brutal communist dictatorship’s Gulags and won the Nobel Prize in literature? Because people expected him to celebrate the West and condemn communism, but he came over and condemned communism and the West. Not only this, but Solzhenitsyn had the gall to speak of something reviled at the time by the elites on both sides of the Atlantic: truth.
“[T]ruth,” Solzhenitsyn said at the start, “eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit. But even while it eludes us, the illusion of knowing it still lingers and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
In a classic analysis of our prevailing worldview, Solzhenitsyn said the West had exchanged belief in unchanging truth for a relentless legalism. The most tragic and significant result, he said, was the absence of “civil courage.” And he pointed to three lines of evidence: First, “destructive and irresponsible freedom had been granted boundless space.”
How a culture understands freedom – whether to virtue or for immediate gratification – determines its stability. As Os Guinness wrote in his recent book “A Free People’s Suicide,” the greatest enemy of freedom, ironically, is freedom. I would tweak that a bit—the greatest enemy of freedom is poorly defined freedom, what Chuck Colson called freedom without virtue.
Second, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the decadence of art and a lack of great statesmen. That line makes me think of the Rothko painting called “Untitled, (Yellow and Blue),” which basically is a blue stripe on a yellow background. That’s it… and it just sold at a New York auction for $46.5 million.
And the lack of great statesmen? While there are certainly many courageous individuals worthy of our respect, consider how our society has defined greatness down. This is evidenced by the fact that the Arthur Ashe Courage Award by ESPN, once awarded to Nelson Mandela, will this year be awarded to Bruce Jenner – not for his Olympic feats but for his announcement that he was a woman, a year after they awarded it to Michael Sam for announcing his sexual orientation.