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.

Solzhenitsyn paints with rough strokes, but clearly enough. The Western mistake was to turn our backs on the spiritual--devotion to which had grown to excess and come to a natural end in the Middle Ages--and to embrace materialism with an opposite unwarranted zeal. Under this idea there was no intrinsic evil and no higher task than to attain happiness on earth. Happiness is to be understood as physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods, and anything beyond these was left outside the attention of the state and society to the option of the individual, as if there were nothing higher than matter in human life.

For a time, in the American democracy at its birth, human rights were still considered to be the gift of God, so that freedom was given to the individual conditionally, under the assumption of a religious responsibility in him. But that assumption was weakened as materialism became increasingly radical, taking the form of a scientific socialism and, finally, communism. The more radical materialism is more convincing because it is more consistent, and "the situation becomes increasingly dramatic" to the point where it is clear that the split in the world between democracy in the West and communism in the East is less terrible than the similarity of the materialist diseases that plagues the two sides.

Capitalism and communism are the two hostile parts of modernity, and the world is approaching a new major turn in history equal in importance to the founding of modernity in the Renaissance. The new age will have to revalue the spiritual without returning to the Middle Ages.

Quite a vision! Too much for Harvard to accept and too much to judge here. But what is the connection to courage? Courage in the raw, physical sense is the noble ability to control one's fear and terror of bodily pains. When Aristotle said that the noblest courage is to confront death in battle, he implied that society depends on this individual virtue. Courage as a virtue practiced for its own sake is not undertaken to defend society, but society needs it and must cultivate and reward it. Now, modern materialism is an attempt to avoid depending on virtue generally and, especially, on courage.

Modern materialism rests on self-preservation or the right to life, in which survival is paramount. But one can never be courageous with such an attitude, for courage requires willingness to sacrifice one's life for something higher, for a noble life. That is why modern democracies have such difficulty defending themselves. They require a virtue that is not explained or justified in their principle. The Declaration of Independence begins by setting forth rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and stating that all men are created equal. But it ends with a vow in which the signers mutually pledge their sacred honor to one another.

Where was "sacred honor" in the first paragraph of this wonderful document? Honor is the inspiration of courage, and the sacred is immaterial and comes from above. It seems that materialism somewhat shamefacedly rests on the immaterial for its self-defense. Courage is the suppressed virtue of modernity, honored only in the breach of its principle.

We see this problem in America today in the gratitude we express to our military. They risk their lives in harm's way, we like to say. Yes, unlike us who face death by traffic accident and "natural causes." The military are the courage element in our community, at odds with the appetite element, but necessary to it. They do more than "serve"; they are our guardians. It sounds like Plato's Republic, except that, with us, appetite is the sovereign element. Our philosophers are not kings, but they are called intellectuals and they serve sovereign appetites.

In perhaps the most interesting and original of Solzhenitsyn's insights in the Harvard speech, he notes the importance that Western democracies confer on legalism. Legalism is our substitute for virtue: You don't have to distinguish good from evil and do good while avoiding evil; all you have to do is obey the law. This is a minimal requirement exacting only a form of behavior, not an attitude of soul. You do not even have to believe that you have a soul or are capable of "voluntary, inspired self-restraint."

Only this last quality, Solzhenitsyn says, can lift the world above materialism. It is voluntary because it must freely come from you, and yet be inspired by something higher than your bodily self. His formulation seems to restate courage in the terms of moderation, or to combine the virtues of courage and moderation. Courage is the restraint of one's fear for the sake of what is noble, hence also the restraint of one's appetite for material goods that diverts the soul from courage. With restraint of appetite comes abandonment of zeal for the principle of happiness in this world, the principle of materialism. For modern materialism has used its own inspiration--from below or perverted from above--to drive vicious actions that have the feel of noble sacrifice to the doer if not the recipient.

Materialism is a doctrine that weakens humanity and thus deprives itself of strong defenders. Yet America does have defenders even though it does not understand them. Our philosophy is unworthy of our courage and cannot do it justice. Still, it cannot do away with courage. This means that our philosophers are free riders or parasites on our military.

Courage is unphilosophic by itself, insofar as it is the unquestioning defense of whatever is one's own. But it needs and wants a meta-physics to combat materialism and to call attention to the importance of human courage. This is the connection between physical and moral courage shown in the life and thought of Solzhenitsyn. Courage likes the taste of bitter truth, which to it is bittersweet. Courage enjoys "the situation [that] becomes increasingly dramatic," the big picture shown to us in the Harvard speech that has us approaching "a major turn in history." In that picture, the Communist East is weak but the West is weaker. Things did not turn out that way, and the West prevailed despite the weakness that Solzhenitsyn correctly pointed out. Courage is in our nature if only we look for it, but the next time it may not be ready to hand if we continue trying to suppress it.

I forgot to mention that courage in Greek is also the word for manliness. Which prompts me to assert that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a manly man if ever there was one. For us, he was Homer to his own Achilles, the best statement and explanation of himself. And let me suggest to those with time to read The First Circle that he was as Greek as he was Russian.

Harvey Mansfield, a member of the Hoover Task Force on Liberty and the Virtues, is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of government at Harvard.