16 жніўня 2006

Solzh's speech

Pajamasmedia links to a post at The Belmont Club that has the full text of Solzhenitsin's speech at Harvard in 1978. Before I write about the speech, I want to say what I think about Solzh.

I think he is - or at least was - a brave, honest human being, concerned with Russia and her fate. I also think he is arrogant and narcissistic, the way Russian writers come prophets get, and ungrateful to America for giving him a refuge from the Soviets. Finally, I think his prose is mediocre and boring.

Now that we got Solzh's persona out of the way, let's examine his speech, which after decades got so many people thinking and talking. He makes several point that are indeed worth discussing.

Contemporary worlds - here Solzh talks about the West not understanding other cultures, including those it conquered in the past.

How short a time ago, relatively, the small new European world was easily seizing colonies everywhere, not only without anticipating any real resistance, but also usually despising any possible values in the conquered peoples' approach to life. On the face of it, it was an overwhelming success, there were no geographic frontiers to it. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power. And all of a sudden in the twentieth century came the discovery of its fragility and friability. We now see that the conquests proved to be short lived and precarious, and this in turn points to defects in the Western view of the world which led to these conquests. Relations with the former colonial world now have turned into their opposite and the Western world often goes to extremes of obsequiousness, but it is difficult yet to estimate the total size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West, and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns will be sufficient for the West to foot the bill.

On this point I pretty much agree. Most of Western colonial expansion was motivated by opportunities to get rich, and backed by the self-righteousness of the Christian doctrine, which basically says that only Christians go to heaven. People from former colonies keep coming to Europe, and we how some of them are destroying it from within.

Then he talks about "blindness of superiority" in the West, and the westerners' tendncy to measure other cultures by their own yardstick. Wich I think is funny, considering this passage:
When the modern Western States were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free to pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration). Now at last during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state.

What we have here is a superficial understanding of American and Western values. Anyone who has read J.S.Mill can understand how much Solzh is missing in his understanding of what liberty is - and liberty is just one of the Western values, though probably the most important one. So, here we have a bearded sage who accuses the West (which had saved his freedom if not life) of not understanding other people's values - and ten seconds later, he does just that: demonstrated the shallowness of his own understanding of others' values. Then he talks about how the West lives a "legalistic life" - Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution.

Agains, there is some truth to that, as we can see from all kinds frivolous lawsuits which serve anything but justice. But Solzh again demonstrates the shallowness of his understanding of Western values. Yes, our administration of justice has been over-formalized. But it doesn't mean that we in the West care more about the letter of the law than we do about justice. Justice - a latin word - has been a cornerstone of Western civ since Rome. And the reason that our legal system, inherited from the Romans, has worked for so long, is because we attach value to the principle of justice itself, not its formal representation (a sin, that according to historians, destroyed Rome) This is something that the separation of Church and State allows for: while the State is busy with the mechanical aspect of justice, people still gather in their churches and aspire justice as a principle, divorced from the formalities of civil law.

to be continued


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