Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This is a little late, but I've been busy with myriad sundry things, such as taking two bar exams and visiting the motherland for two weeks.

First, I have a (very tangential) personal connection with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. During the summer of 2006, I worked in the freight department of our local Home Depot. One day, a special order toilet - low water, but high power - arrived for a certain Ignat Solzhenitsyn. A few days later, a middle-aged gentleman came in to pick it up. I asked if the person who had placed the order was related to the noted Russian author. The gentleman looked at me inquisitively, and said that yes, "it was for the family." For those who don't know, the Solzhenitsyn family made their home in Cavendish, Vermont, mere miles from the N.H. Home Depot I was working at.

I respect Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his work. Ten years ago, I read the Gulag Archipelago, and it made quite an impression on me. I do, however, disagree with much of what he stood for, apart from our mutual distaste for Communism.

For example, as some have noted, Solzhenitsyn was more anti-communist than pro-democracy.
Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist, not a liberal democrat. As such, he was suspicious of Western-style democracy and individual rights. While he was not as much of a chauvinist as some other Russian nationalists, his writings defending czarist Russia and Russian culture sometimes verged into anti-Semitism.
But, I agree with Ilya Somin's conclusion in his blog post I quoted above:
Overall, I believe that the good Solzhenitsyn did greatly outweighs his misguided statements on some issues. Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered for the fortitude he showed during his years in the Gulag and for his courage in resisting and exposing the crimes of a brutal totalitarian regime.
More controversially, perhaps, I agree with many of the sentiments Solzhenitsyn expressed in his notable speech, A World Split Apart at Harvard University's Class Day Exercises in 1978. In that speech, he severely, and in some cases, I believe, unfairly, criticized Western/American culture. But some of his criticisms were and remain valid, especially his critique of what he termed our "spiritual exhaustion." Essentially, although he did not use these precise words, he thought the West had arrived at a post-Enlightenment stage that was destructive to the very ideals that had made the West great in the first place.
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 using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert.
[. . .]
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 but 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.
I disagree with his critique of our legalistic society, and would, rather agree with Robert Bolt's Thomas Moore, in his Man For All Seasons:
ROPER: So now you'd give the devil the benefit of law?

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every tree in England to do that.

MORE: Oh, and when the last law was down and the devil turned on you where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's laws not God's, and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - do you really think that you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety's sake.
I maintain that the rule of law, tempered with humanity, is best, because, to paraphrase Justice John Marshall, "we must never forget that these are humans that we are governing."


Post a Comment

<< Home