The Magazine

Man of Courage

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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."