The Magazine

Man of Courage

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.