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“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” i In time in memoriam, this Christian proverb would be found deep in the hearts and readily on the tongues of all, and if not the proverb itself, then certainly the sentiment thereof. In our modern age, however, men have turned away from the wisdom of the ancients who came before them. “Man has forgotten God,” proclaimed one Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was for the 20th Century a man of profound moral import and, beyond that, a prophet very much in the line of the Hebrew prophets of old. In the minds of many a great intellectual of the 20th Century, Solzhenitsyn held in equal esteem with the likes of men such as Reagan and Pope John Paul II in terms of their contributions to humanity during their time on Earth. This place, sadly, goes unrecognized due in no small part to his pernicious habit of unfiltered honesty. He saw the direction in which humanity was headed, and pronounced what he saw. For this, and to our detriment, he was demonized.

Solzhenitsyn was a man who had seen the deepest darkness of humanity in the Gulag, a man who during his exile in the United States for the remainder of the Cold War had experienced the vapid, spiritual emptiness in our own homeland, and in the name of freedom no less. He was, accordingly, a man who saw life through a great many lenses, and offered his unique, albeit unpopular insights without concern for the resulting vitriol. Telling it is that after delivering his commencement address to the 1978 class of Harvard University, an address in which he outlined the myriad ways that the West had allowed itself to grow dangerously weak and spiritually void, he was met not with applause and praise, but with a chorus of boos. Such is the reception of those who speak the truth in this modern world.

Solzhenitsyn in his Templeton lecture told those in attendance, “The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century…” What follows, then, is a look at this heralded address both through a prophetical and a practical lens. Good music, good art, and good literature endures the tests of time due to the inherent truth contained therein. So, too, do the words of Solzhenitsyn stand firm amidst the swirling winds of a changing world.


The thrust of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s address focuses on what he sees as the catalyst of society’s decay and decline into spiritual, political, and social anarchy: that man has forgotten God. When man forgets God, when whether by choice or indifference he drifts from fellowship and community with the Almighty, Mr. Solzhenitsyn suggests that the quality of the world around them will suffer as well. Mr. Solzhenitsyn points out how medieval and superstitious this sounds, noting that,

 “Today’s world has reached a stage which, if it had been described to preceding centuries, would have called forth the cry: “This is the Apocalypse! Yet we have grown used to this kind of world; we even feel at home in it.”

Mr. Solzhenitsyn begins to lay out his case for he societal effects of forgetting God by tying the French and Russian Revolutions, as well as both World Wars together. As Dostoyevsky said of the French Revolution, “… revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.” ii

His motherland of Russia, he says, forgot God first by internal schism in the 17th Century, and then perhaps more so by “forcibly imposed transformations, which favored the economy, the state, and the military at the expense of religious spirit and national life.” It is in this direction that so many countries in the West have and continue to move – away from a culture that allows individuals to seek out the good, the beautiful, and the true, and rather towards one in which the good, the beautiful, and the true, are only that which is to be found within the bounds of vast legislative enforcements. Men today only value that which they can see, because they are unable to understand that which they cannot.

It was not the policies themselves that brought on the rise of holy ignorance in 18th and 19th Century Russia, but rather that which came through the newly opened doors of these policies. Mr. Solzhenitsyn declares,

“And along with this lopsided Petrine enlightenment, Russia felt the first whiff of secularism; its subtle poisons permeated the educated classes in the course of the 19th century and opened the path to Marxism. By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened.”

As this was the beginning of a new epoch in Russian history, and indeed the history of the world, the evils that were to be born from this shift could not be known as anything more than hypothetical, as some sort of academic exercise of “what if…?” No one could have accurately predicted that these ideas being espoused by the likes of Marx and Engels, Lenin, etc. would lead to such godlessness and, to that end, human destruction. Yet, as Solzhenitsyn points out, this is not an unintended consequence of Communist policies, but rather it’s “central pivot.” In the instance of Russia, then, it is clear to see that its forgetting of God was less by choice than by institutional purge, yet for all the effort put into such an endeavor as the stamping out of the Almighty as naught but the dying embers of a fire, Orthodoxy in mother Russia persevered and, as some might argue, even thrived. It may have been the forgetting of God in the 17th and 18th Centuries that led to so long a period of deep darkness, but out of that darkness, as of every darkness this world can know, eventually did a light shine.

It is not Russia alone who has fallen victim to the results of walking away from God. The Continent, too, in it’s abundance of wealth prior to The Great War, fell away from any sort of divine awareness, and into the din of difficulty only found when one pursues the pleasures of the world. What he says is actually quite shocking in its confidence. To quote Solzhenitsyn,

“It [World War One] was a war when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.”

How bold it is to suggest not only that the reason such a large portion of humanity fell into destruction was due to a falling away from God, but to take it a step further by stating that this is “the only possible explanation.” This degree of certainty is rare to be observed even in the most practical and material of discussions. If only the modern age could have even a handful of men and women of such conviction and moral gumption. Alas, here we are.

Case thus laid out, Solzhenitsyn’s address shifts its focus to the world in which he and his intended audience both exist. To this point one may begin to think that societies only become godless through Communist influence, yet to the contrary,

“The West has yet to experience a Communist invasion… But the West’s own historical evolution has been such that today it too is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness. It too has witnessed schisms, bloody religious wars, and rancor, to say nothing of the tide of secularism that… has progressively inundated the West. This gradual sapping of strength from within is a threat to faith that is perhaps even more dangerous than any attempt to assault religion violently from without.”

With that, attention turns more urgently to the here and now. Pulling from the mindset of his commencement address to Harvard in 1978, he begins to point out a number of ways in which the West has fallen away from God and continues to do so. His diagnosis is decidedly grim.


What is wrong with the West? Down what slippery slope is the West at present sliding? Elsewhere in the Solzhenitsyn canon is the suggestion of an over-dependence by the West on the law as the arbiter of right and wrong. In his brilliant and almost universally panned commencement address to Harvard in 1978, he proclaims that,

“Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme good. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required… A society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking scare advantage of the high level of human possibilities…. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity…”

It is a challenge to argue with this reasoning. By depending on the law, man has no need to get his hands dirty in the mud that is modern moral and ethical debate. The law says what the law says, and thus ends the debate. The problem with this reality, a problem scarcely acknowledged by modern man, is that such are laws written by men in order to govern. This leaves them as inherently flawed, however well-intentioned, and ultimately destined to failure. Yet it is from such laws that man so very often determines right from wrong. The law has become man’s ethic and his morality. No longer do he measure right and wrong against what has always been held to be just so, but instead he bases right and wrong on a law which, should it become too disagreeable to the population, can be rewritten to reflect an ethic or a morality more to his liking. It is a beautiful system in its craftiness, but terrible in its practicality.

Refocusing on the Templeton Lecture, Solzhenitsyn points out that,

“… through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West has ceased to be seen as anything more lofty than the “pursuit of happiness,”… The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries… it has become embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system…”

Men of the West have become so engrossed with the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” that he has ceased to be founded on anything else. What is happiness? The answer to this question is decidedly variable, but it is no doubt on what he focuses. One may speculate, and I believe with a certain level of accuracy, just what he holds to be happiness simply by looking at the culture. The present culture in the West, particularly in America, is notable for two prevailing social trends: the first is materialist consumption, and the second is partisan divide.

00-aleksandr-solzhenitsyn-26-10-13 (1)Modern life is consumed as much by what a man has, as it is by what he has not. In his lust for “stuff,” he has lost sight of that which truly makes a man happy. His wealth has tied him to this world, and has all but severed the ties that bind him to his own soul. He has become an animal that consumes, one whose appetite is insatiable, in which the more he consumes, the more feels he needs.

In addition to rampant consumerism, there is also the matter of the schismatic political divide at play in modern society. Modern life has come to be saturated with politics. All matters, however disparate or seemingly irrelevant, are all brought into the political fold and tied into one prevailing political story or another. Suddenly all matters can be traced back to this politician or that, to the actions of one political party or another. All of this without even a hint of consideration that such conclusions may be over-rought. This matters little, however, for man wants only to be right, and in order to be right someone else must be wrong. The present political debate is less about how so many hundreds of millions of individuals may not only exist in a coherent national community but also in a productive and valuable manner internationally, than it is about who is right and who is wrong. A fine example of this can be found in examining the response to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Less concerned were so many within the chattering classes about how to save those who were stuck on their roofs, or getting food, water, and other essentials to those who were dying on the steps of the Superdome, than about whose fault it was that New Orleans was caught so seemingly unawares.

Factor in a love of the purely temporal with a desire only to prove oneself better than his neighbor, and the result is a society entirely consumed not by materialism or debate, but rather consumed by itself. To this, Solzhenitsyn has insight as well. He says,

“Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transitional stage in the movement toward something higher…”

Something higher indeed, yet this bit of wisdom is looked upon as foolish fairytale in our modern age. To look beyond ourselves requires too much effort, made all the more strenuous given how weakened out spiritual and emotional wherewithal has become due to generations of increased narcissism and selfishness.


Boldness is required to suggest that the roots of society’s problems and the cause of its general degradation is attributable to man having forgotten God. Modern man has been conditioned to hear such a salacious suggestion and immediately call to mind such mass religious panics as the Salem Witch Trials. This is what happens when “the concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed” as they have. Starting with the period of the Enlightenment, all things spiritual came to be seen only as an influence on the weak-minded. Under the present tyranny of rationality, man has come to embrace ideas and practices that in times gone by were roundly accepted to be unwise, sinful, or otherwise wrong, seemingly by the simple virtue that that are not ideas of tradition. Solzhenitsyn phrases it in the following way:

“Today’s world has reached a stage which, if it had been described to preceding centuries, would have called forth the cry: “This is the Apocalypse! Yet we have grown used to this kind of world; we even feel at home in it.”

Whether by design or by consequence, this is the present state of the modern mind. Suggestions and openness towards such ideas as a world of the spiritual, that there may be something beyond our physical sight that neither man may touch, nor instrument may measure, are met at the very best with skeptical indifference, and at the very worst open hostility. In the time before the wide world was known, when men and women shared a single campfire, man was afraid of the night and all that may have been lurking just beyond the reach of the firelight; today man seems to have found his way back to this primitive state.

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974cropThere are those, as well, who simply choose not to believe in God, or else those who believe there is “something” or “someone”, but choose not to submit due to that which they perceive to be restrictions to which they must adhere. The arrogance! To believe that there is a greater power, one capable of creating something from nothing, one who exists on a plane beyond the physical and certainly beyond man’ feeble comprehension, and to think that because one chooses not to submit, he is somehow not bound to the will thereof. A man may stand in the path of a tornado and proclaim to all who are not yet in their storm shelters, “This tornado, though real, has no claim, effect, or influence on me!” but the tornado, by its very nature, will soon prove me wrong. The sirens sound, the skies darken, yet men choose to believe that something greater than himself has only the power that he himself assigns. Behold, the arrogance of man.

This, it seems, is the more common explanation. Whereas in earlier times, such as those of Solzhenitsyn’s, man was thrown unwittingly into an atheist void, in which he was forced to forget, or at the very least suppress the belief in, God, our modern age has the feel that man is not so much being forced to forget, as he is choosing to let go of. As man forgets God, his values change, and as his values change, he drifts ever farther away from God. Russell Kirk writes in his essay, The Rarity of the God Fearing Man that,

“Every age portrays God in the image of its poetry and politics… It has been said that to many of our generation, God is a Republican and works in a bank; but this image is giving way, I think, to God as Chum—at worst, God as a playground supervisor… But in reality God does not alter…”

Perhaps the reason that God is so absent in any real, meaningful, or quantifiable way in the collective life of our present generation is that we have made him to reflect our own image, and being that we are ourselves largely lacking in substance or foundation, it should then come as no surprise that man has forgotten God. Man has made Him to look like His human creation, and said creation knows not what to make of itself.

If man truly and in every sense of the phrase fears God, he has no need whatever to fear anything of this world. Sickness and disease, poverty, war, natural disaster; even down to such seemingly trifling matters are relationships and professional direction – none of these can affect the man who fears God. After all, the only God deserving of his fear, his reverence, and his awe is that which has all creation under his thumb. The troubles of the world are too great to be overcome by strictly human endeavor, as is evident from the countless conflicts made worse by the ill-advised and Godless movements of men. Man must remember God, not at the state level. Man needs no theocracy. Rather, he needs to remember Him in his own life. Where God is, there is peace, love, joy, and hope. Let every man remember this God, and accept these into his own life, and let the world around him be resurrected not by an attempt to bring Heaven to Earth, but as a consequence of reconnecting one’s soul to Heaven.

i Book of Proverbs, 1.7 (ESV)

ii Dirscherl, Denis S.J. Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986. 47.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thank you for this excellent piece. Now that there is no systemic Communism to blame for the world’s ills, thinking about Solzehnitsyn’s work becomes even more pressing; how else can we even begin to explain and confront all that seems to be going wrong in the world and in our selves? I look forward to more of your work on this subject in the future.

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