Thursday, September 25, 2014

Under and over the sun

As I explained in my inaugural post 2 years ago, the name of this blog is derived from Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement speech. What he said about the fundamentals of modern Western Civilization are a hundred times more poignant now than 36 years ago, when the Cold War presented a false choice between Communism and secular humanist democracy. The Soviet Union’s bankruptcy was no more a verdict in favor of secular humanist democracy than Nazism’s defeat on the Eastern Front was a verdict in favor of Communism. The writer of Ecclesiastes and the existentialists discovered all life under the sun is meaningless without being given eternal purpose from above, from the heavenly realms.

Solzhenitsyn told the 1978 Harvard graduating class:

Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive...

A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being.

What went wrong? In a nutshell, the notion of worldly perfection through progress in science and technology seduced the post-Enlightenment West. “Well-being” became a chief concern, with all the individual subjectiveness you would expect. Penitence as the mechanism for alleviating guilt was replaced with private, seemingly harmless indulgence. We liberalized divorce laws because we felt entitled to live as we will, without constraints.

We became attached to the things under the sun, none of which we risk for higher things. We fear death, but we fear pain even more, so much so that we invite death to avoid pain.

Today’s Harvard undergrads are an anti-echo of Solzhenitsyn’s warning. Michael J. Lewis comments on this and channels William Deresiewicz:

Today’s students are stronger than their predecessors; they are conspicuously more socialized, more personally obliging, and considerably more self-disciplined. To teach them is a joy, but they will risk nothing.

...

The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.

Taking into account our national leaders are groomed at a handful of elite institutions, the shortcomings these undergrads exhibit portend ill for the civilization. They are collectively the canary in the coal mine. I don’t mean to suggest the attitudes of future movers and shakers, if changed, can redeem us. They reflect the broader culture. The people will resist them if they don’t represent them.

In the democratic process, voting is overrated. Voting happens after democracy has already happened, in the teaching of virtue and righteousness and the weaving of civic participation. The country’s direction is determined then, not by a vote.

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