Several weeks ago I had the good fortune to spend some time with three of my favorite young alumni – Jack Cook ’16, Mitchell Pallaki ’16, and Kellen Dugan ’15. All three are graduates of a little school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that just happens to be the oldest and most prestigious university in America. Jack – who, by the way, holds the record for the longest touchdown reception in Harvard history – just graduated, while Mitchell and Kellen graduated last year.
I can’t imagine what it is like to be on the Harvard campus for graduation, but it must be like the intellectual version of the Academy Awards. I’m guessing that if you closed your eyes and threw a baseball you would hit at least one Nobel Prize laureate and maybe a Pulitzer Prize winner or two as well. Whether faculty members, alumni, parents, or just honored guests, the stars come out during the day at graduation on Harvard Yard.
One of the most memorable of the long list of impressive honorary degree recipients was the Russian writer and exiled former prisoner of the Soviet state, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In 1978, at the 327th Commencement Exercises of Harvard University, he gave what has become possibly the most famous graduation address in the history of American higher education. It is easily found online both in printed form as well as in footage from the event, and a simple Internet search will also list innumerable essays and commentaries on this incredible address.
His speech, fittingly titled “A World Split Apart,” began by taking note of the motto of Harvard: Veritas. That one simple word – “Truth” in Latin – would have been the perfect springboard to laud Harvard, its president and trustees, its faculty and alumni, its graduates and their families. And yet, Solzhenitsyn went in a very different and unexpected direction as he delivered a devastating jeremiad focused not so much on criticism of the totalitarian Soviet regime that he fled, but on the decadent Western culture that took him in.
“Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit...Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my today’s speech too, but I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary, but from a friend.”
With that opening salvo, the great Russian writer gave notice that this would not be a speech filled with platitudes and clichés. Like an Old Testament prophet Solzhenitsyn gave the audience not what they came to hear, but what they needed to hear. What made this talk even more poignant was that it was delivered in the rain to a crowd that certainly became more and more restless as the hour-long speech unfolded.
Solzhenitsyn centered his talk on the lack of courage in the West, and its root in the separation of freedom from spirituality. He in no way promoted the system under which he lived in the Soviet Union – a system that sent him first to a labor camp for eight years and then into exile in Kazakhstan – but he noted that the totalitarian state has made his people strong while the West has become weak as they worship a freedom that has become “tilted in the direction of evil.”
The modern world, both East and West, has “turned its back on the spirit and has embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal” that, especially in the West, did not “see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth.” The lust for earthly happiness has driven the West away from its moral heritage of Christianity “with its great reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”
Mercy and sacrifice: Are there any two more important virtues to be fostered in a nation wishing to be united and healed?
Not as an adversary, but as a friend, did he deliver these words of warning to this audience of American royalty. Their polite applause, as compared to their rousing ovation an hour earlier, indicated that Solzhenitsyn would soon feel the wrath of the 1978 version of “cancel culture.” He once again became an exile, but ironically he was now the victim of those who purported to believe in things like freedom of speech and the liberal exchange of ideas.
Let us today not be as closed-minded as those oligarchs of the late 20th Century. Let us take these words of warning to heart so that we might, through mercy and sacrifice, cooperate with God in healing a world that seems almost irreparably split apart. For as Solzhenitsyn prophetically concludes: “No one on earth has any other way left.”