The Magazine

Man of Courage

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a hero with the hero's virtue of courage. He displayed courage, he reflected on it. The display was for all to see, the reflection was deep, difficult, and reserved. Back to this in a moment.

But first: A hero deserves hero worship, something between action and reflection, and I begin with my own experience. I was witness to the great man's great speech at Harvard on June 8, 1978. It happened to be my older son's day of graduation and my 25th class reunion, and we were treated to the most, unhappily the only, memorable commencement speech in my nearly 60 years at Harvard.

The speech was given in a mist on its way to rain, yet the audience, on the edge of its seats, listened carefully, eager to find hope and hoping it would be something they already had. But Solzhenitsyn had not come to praise, no, not even to praise Harvard. There was something in his speech to displease everyone. Liberals heard liberalism being assailed and jumped to the conclusion that this was a conservative speech; but conservatives had to endure a criticism of capitalism and of the West that did not exempt them. The word "conservative" was used once to say that we in the West are too conservative. And in Solzhenitsyn's introductory remarks, Harvard had its motto Veritas thrown in its face by a guest speaker who had to reassure the audience as he began that he was a friend, not an adversary.

With me was my late wife, Delba Winthrop, also a hero worshipper, but one who wrote articles on Solzhenitsyn's thought. Later, she had the temerity to send one of them to the subject and was rewarded with a short, personal letter from him praising her for "giving much to think about," while of course keeping mum about the accuracy of her analysis. What I say now came from her.

The obituaries speak of Solzhenitsyn's influence on his time, our time; but one should look also for the permanent value in how he lived and what he said. The obvious point of attention is his courage.

We, today, are in the habit of distinguishing two kinds of courage: The physical courage of facing and controlling the fear of bodily pains, and the moral courage of standing up against conventional opinion. Moral courage is often said to be more difficult because it requires greater intellect, but it is harder to discern because it is frequently confused with zealous, strongly expressed partisanship by intellectuals. Physical courage is easier to appreciate because it is more independent of circumstances; it is a virtue in itself, even when exercised for a dubious end. But it seems less valuable because it is not rare.

Solzhenitsyn had both kinds. He was, above all, a courageous man, defying his enemies to do their worst, which they did. He survived intimidation, arrest, imprisonment, starvation, forced labor, several types of torture--and, let us not forget, cancer. Everyone respects this in him. But he also thought about courage, and made it the theme of his Harvard speech by denouncing the decline of courage in the West. This was not so well received.

Some believed that, if he was not a crackpot, he was as wrong as one; others that he should have been deterred by gratitude from speaking the sort of truth that he himself called "bitter" on a happy occasion such as a commencement. But at this distance from the event, to learn something useful, and to do him honor at his death, it makes sense to try to see what he was saying about courage.

Solzhenitsyn's argument is that the two kinds of courage are not separate but connected. A decline in the ability to control fear of pain leads to a decline in capability for self-defense and to "the dangerous tendency to form a herd," thus becoming subject to fashion. If we all think alike, we will all be safe without having to defend ourselves. This part of the Harvard speech appears to anticipate what we call political correctness.

Where did this decline begin? He could have said the late sixties, and he was addressing Harvard professors, many of whom had recently shown great cowardice in allowing their university to be disrupted, even taken over, by students protesting against the Vietnam war. He mentions opposition to that war, but subordinates it to a mistake "at the root" of Western thinking, the idea of modernity that was first born in the Renaissance and best expressed in the Enlightenment.