The following link is a speech given by the Soviet émigré and author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a man I respect both for his great character and the power of his words.
Go ahead and read the whole thing, it’s quite interesting. Solzhenitsyn’s basic message is that the modern world (which in his time included both the USSR and the Western world, and the first hints of a “Third World” out there) is utterly lacking in spiritual fibre. He discusses the commercial and legal forces of mediocrity in the West, and the lawlessness of the USSR. Solzhenitsyn hammers home the Christian (and specifically Orthodox) message, and hard.
This, to me, was the most moving passage.
“If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it.”
He follows that up with “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our integral spiritual life?”
To Solzhenitsyn, the answer lies in a re-Christianization of the West, a rededication to the “moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.” But, as I was reading the article, I was making equal allegories in my own mind. His critiques of the Western sickness are accurate, just as much and perhaps more so now than when he wrote it, but his prescription doesn’t seem to match the sickness. But one could make an equal argument for a re-Romanization of the West, a return to the idea of civic virtue, “civis Romanus sum” and all. Or even a reconsecration of the very values that the Western sicknesses spring from: the values of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
There’s also the tired counterargument to the Christianization of anything, the inherent dangers of Christian morality. I won’t bother repeating them here, this is the Internet, go to YouTube and look up the first dozen or so. Solzhenitsyn’s only comment are a few fleeting references to the physical side of man being “cursed” in the Middle Ages.
And yet, I keep coming back to that passage. There must be something to life other than the acquisition and consumption of material things. Even Charlie Stross seems to think so, although I don’t know about Eliezer Yudkosky. Solzhenitsyn also shows his Soviet heritage there, since a cornerstone of Marxist doctrine is that “liberty” is personal fulfillment, not purchasing power. Elsewhere, he touches on how eerily silent the Western world was, at that time, on personal and spiritual fulfillment. Since the 1960s, I would argue that such concerns have largely been incorporated into the superficial information glut that Solzhenitsyn decries elsewhere in the article.
“Leaving life a better human being than one started it,” is as basic and as concise a description of the non-material, spiritual drive that I can find. Stripped of Solzhenitsyn’s orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy), that is the aim, and one that I believe theist or atheist, humanist or Humanist, could get behind. One must, of course, start defining “better” (and work on defining “human being”), but a basis is there. Solzhenitsyn seems to believe that self-restraint, and a sense of duty, are key elements of becoming a better person. I can’t disagree.
Which brings us to the core of the passage, Solzhenitsyn’s Marxist and Christian assertion that “[life] has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty.” Solzhenitsyn’s whole speech is a critique against freedom outstripping duty in the modern Western world. He rails against the letter-of-the-law nature of Western society, with the sense of a higher duty simmering under the surface. He speaks of the side effects of modern plenty as a timidity to sacrifice; duty hides there, too. During the Roman republic, and the merchant republics of the Renaissance and even into the early revival of republicanism (small-R) by America and by France, civic duty was seen as the companion and balance of civil liberty.
While I do not agree with Solzhenitsyn that the Orthodox Christian God should be the object of this duty, that duty is necessary to make our lives fuller and richer, and our nations, and the world, I can’t find myself contravening. The questions that Solzhenitsyn never asked, but that we must, are “duty to whom?” and “duty to what?”
But, in laying the foundations for such questions, and in establishing duty as a cornerstone of a new approach, Solzhenitsyn is, truly, the man who arranges the blocks.