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Vol. V • 1982


Solzhenitsyn at Harvard. The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections, edited by Ronald Berman. Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C., 1980, Second Printing, 1980. 143 pp., $9.50 cloth, $5.00 paper.

This book contains Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's June 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, and a well-balanced cross-section of essays by liberal, conservative, and politically non-descript critics. We recommend it highly to Christians engaged in the study or teaching of political science, world history, and the proper role of the news media.

The early, brief responses to the address are rather evenly divided between angry opponents (James Reston, Archibald MacLeish, editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post and others) and moderate endorsers (including Arthur Schiesinger, Jr., and the National Review). No critic speaks from an explicit Christian perspective. The strongest and most concise endorsement of Solzhenitsyn comes from George P. Will, the nationally syndicated newspaper columnist singled out by President-elect Reagan for a private visit and luncheon in November 1980. Among the hostile reactions, fury about Solzhenitsyn's sharp criticism of the American news media was most prominent, most to be expected, and, alas, most blind. To this reviewer, Solzhenitsyn's news media criticism was right on target in every respect.

The later reflections respond much more thoughtfully and fairly, even when disagreeing with Solzhenitsyn (none totally disagreed). The essay by Sidney Hook in defense of "democratic pluralism" over against Solzhenitsyn should be carefully studied by all who rightfully suspect such pluralism on Biblical Christian grounds. In another thought-provoking critique, "The Weightier Matters of the Law", Harvard Law School professor Harold J. Berman objects with some justification to Solzhenitsyn's sweeping critique of supposed Western "legalism."

In his own essentially pro-Solzhenitsyn essay editor Ronald Berman convincingly argues that Solzhenitsyn belongs to a long line of traditional Western thinkers beginning with St-Augustine and including "many of the convictions of The Federalist Papers," Edmund Burke, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot. To these, George Will had added Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, Pascal, Thomas More, Cicero, (surprisingly, Hegel), De Tocqueville, Henry Adams, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Peter Viereck, "and others (who) constitute a submerged but continuous tradition that shares Solzhenitsyn's anxiety about American premises and the culture they produce." Several critics point out that Solzhenitsyn's address might easily fit the ''Puritan" Harvard of two hundred years ago. For instance, Arthur Schiesinger, Jr. introduces his essay with a statement by Samuel Langdon, President of Harvard in 1775, which strikingly anticipates Solzhenitsyn.

Other commentators correctly emphasize Solzhenitsyn's kinship with Russian Orthodox Christian thinkers such as Dostoevsky. Hence Solzhenitsyn emerges as the spokesman of a common (and not unilaterally "Western" or "Russian Orthodox") Christian position which is reminiscent of and entirely compatible with the "mere Christianity" of C.S. Lewis.

It is the beauty and worth of Solzhenitsyn's stirring address that it is a clarion call "a "trumpet giving a certain sound" so we Christians who listen to him may prepare ourselves for battle under God (I Corinthians 14:8). This, of course, was what Solzhenitsyn doubtless felt himself called to accomplish— and this is what academic critiques of his address, however well balanced and fair, must perhaps inevitably obscure. Solzhenitsyn did not speak or mean to speak as an academic, but as a Christian prophet.

—Reviewed by Ellen Myers

"Book Review: Solzhenitsyn at Harvard"
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