Each year as I begin a new rendition of Christian Manhood I am influenced by things that I have read over the summer – some of which make an overt appearance in the class while others are there in a more subtle way. My reading varies: from classic philosophers and theologians like Aristotle and Aquinas to more modern thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Henri de Lubac, S.J. Sometimes it is a work of literature or some other writing by a famous author, and often the writing chosen is related not so much to the course, but to what is going on in the world.
This summer two things converged and drew me to an obscure piece of writing by a man who in the minds of many was the conscience of the West, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Amidst all of the social unrest and turmoil this summer I happened to be re-reading and re-watching Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard commencement address. That convergence led me to another speech by the famed Russian, this time given at Lucs-sur-Boulogne, France, commemorating those from the region who fought against the French Revolution.
In 1793 people from this area on the west central coast of France, known as the Vendée, rose up against the revolutionary government because of the harsh policies of oppression against the Catholic Church. That Solzhenitsyn called this uprising “courageous and desperate” sounded familiar to my Irish ears attuned to such causes from the romanticized stories of the Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916.
The people of the Vendée who fought in the counter-revolution and who were recalled by Solzhenitsyn in his speech were – depending on which side one took – either the beneficiaries or the victims of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” the slogan of the French Revolution. For the man who was a prisoner of the Soviet inheritors of the Russian Revolution, there is no choice: they were victims.
For Solzhenitsyn, the slogan was both “self-contradictory and unrealizable” since “liberty and equality are mutually exclusive, even hostile concepts. Liberty, by its very nature, undermines social equality, and equality suppresses liberty… Fraternity, meanwhile, is of entirely different stock; in this instance it is merely a catchy addition to the slogan. True fraternity is achieved by means not social, but spiritual.”
Any movement led by the spirit of the French Revolution is prone to the exact same “self-contradictory and unrealizable” goals. The key, for Solzhenitsyn, as for anyone who puts his or her Christian faith before their political aims, lies in the belief that “true fraternity is achieve by means not social, but spiritual.” This spiritual brotherhood transcends denominational divisions, and has the ability to encompass all of humanity if seen through the lens of our universal commonality rather than our less than significant dissimilarities.
Rather than focus on our economic, social, ethnic, and political differences, we need to remember the time-tested adage that transcends time and place: the Golden Rule. From our standpoint as followers of Jesus, this “do unto others” maxim has been refined to include both “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” These are a far cry from the slogan of the French Revolution – especially with its add-on final phrase of “or death!”
It is no wonder that Solzhenitsyn told the people of the Vendée that “I would not wish a "great revolution" upon any nation…the revolution in Russia…drove our people on the straight path to a bitter end, to an abyss, to the depths of ruin.” It is also no wonder that his solution here, as at Harvard 15 years earlier, was the spiritual fraternity that is the only means of renewal in a decaying West.