When Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard’s Commencement in June 1978, he titled his address, “The Exhausted West.” He was talking about a culture—Western culture generally—in moral decay. In doing so, he acknowledged that he had been exiled from his homeland for four years, a land he described as having been in the captivity of Communism for his entire life. The exhaustion of which he spoke is a spiritual one, where the bounteous freedom, well-being, and availability of material goods led those in the West “to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment,” resulting in few people willing to “risk one’s precious life in defense of common values” (p. 22). According to him, the West had come to make something more fundamental than the common values that had produced the freedom and bounty of the West: a legal system based on the letter of the law.
In comparing Western society with that of Russia, he said, “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. …Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be, simply, impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.” Regrettably, signs of fulfilling Solzhenitsyn’s prescient statement seem to abound in our century. This is easily seen in how we, in our freedom, conduct elections for public offices. His full paragraph on this matter could have been written yesterday:
“A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly: there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him [or her]; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well founded and absolutely flawless. In fact, an outstanding and unusually gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, . . .”
In the next paragraph, he notes, “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” (p. 22). In other words, a culture that forgets that moral foundations are what make freedom and democracy possible, may administer a legal system that becomes impotent in the face of a population who no longer is willing to be “obedient to the unenforceable.”
What Solzhenitsyn laments is the abandonment of the spiritual values that make a culture worthy of preservation and imitation. He asserts that in early democracies—best illustrated in the founding of the United States—all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. “That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. . . . A total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice” (p. 25).
Restoring civic virtue does not require everyone to be religious, but it cannot operate without mercy, sacrifice, compassion, and love of neighbor. How we conduct ourselves must include a sense of obligation to the well-being of the community. Such beliefs and commitments to moral virtue are essential to avoid a morally impoverished society. Being obedient to the unenforceable either begins, or is neglected, in family relationships, where the seeds of relational and civic responsibility are sown (or not).
John Silber offers this proposition, which is a summary of what challenges we (and the Wheatley Institution) face when seeking to lift society by preserving and strengthening its core institutions:
“Authority and civil order depend in a significant measure on the consent of the governed—that is, on obedience to the unenforceable. The more civilized and enlightened the country, the greater its dependence on the voluntary respect and support of its citizens for law and civil order. The rule of law depends on the morality of the people—and that, regrettably, is in precipitous decline.”
Silber’s words are also a decades later echo of Solzhenitsyn’s call for a restoration of moral ground by which moral poverty will actually recede. The signs of moral recovery begin in the hearts of the people—each individual—and require a confidence in the opportunity and obligation to contribute to the moral fabric of a society otherwise sliding towards an abandonment of the foundations that made a free society possible in the first place.