Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich after serving in Stalin’s gulag due to criticizing the Soviet leadership’s actions during World War 2. His book became a resource by which many Westerners came to understand the evils of Stalin’s totalitarian government.
After the Soviet Union exiled him in the early 1970’s, he came to live in the United States. Here is a prophetic speech he gave at Harvard’s commencement in 1978 (click here for the full text).
Here are the highlights I found most illuminating.
1. Pursuit of truth
…truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on it’s pursuit. But even while it eludes us, the illusion of knowing it still lingers and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.
2. West vs East
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 — 60 years for our people and 30 years for the people of Eastern Europe. During that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally [produced] by standardized Western well-being.
3. Consumer culture
After the suffering of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.
4. Fake societal stability
The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.
5. Technology as savior
All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the 19th Century.
6. Spiritual emptiness
We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible — The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.
7. Purpose of life
If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.
What could possibly go wrong from having a culture that passes on spiritual or traditional life in favor of consumerism, narcissism, and fornication? We’re currently finding out.