The line between good and evil runs “through the human heart,” said Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously. His death on August 3 calls for reflection on a few of the lessons this great Russian thinker left. Best known for exposing the gruesome brutality of the Soviet Union, he was also a critic of the decadence of the West, reminding those of us who do not live under Communist tyranny that there are other ways to lose one’s freedom.
Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, wrote an eloquent testimony to Solzhenitsyn, “The Line Between Good and Evil,” focusing on Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement address at Harvard:
Solzhenitsyn began his speech by telling the graduates that “”¦ truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit.” He added, “”¦ truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” He then shocked and alienated America’s intellectual elites with a stinging rebuke of Western culture. Truth is a double-edged sword that cuts deep wherever it is applied.
Solzhenitsyn said, “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days.” He noted that the lack of courage is most noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite who believed it not only reasonable, but intellectually and morally warranted, to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. He spoke of terrorism and questioned whether the free peoples of the West still had the will to fight it”¦.
The debasement of traditional values, Solzhenitsyn observed, resulted in Western society being organized around thousands of pages of law. In the West, conflicts are resolved based on the letter of the law, he said, rather than on what is right or wrong. “If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right,” he said. Thus, individuals in such a society are restrained only by the limits of the law rather than by a higher moral or spiritual standard. Solzhenitsyn said, “One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of the legal frames.””¦
Solzhenitsyn spoke and wrote the truth about the human condition. In The Gulag Archipelago he wrote, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
As we debate issues surrounding the encroachment of civil and criminal law into more and more aspects of American life, it is good to recall that personal character””including a deep sense of right and wrong””is the first defense against the loss of freedom. As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of his day, “Corruption was rife, and legislation abounded.”
Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director, Development Coordinator, and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.