Decline In Courage...
A Decline in Courage may be the most striking feature which an
outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western
world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately,
in each country, each government, each political party and of
course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly
noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite,
causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.
Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have
no determining influence on public life. Political and intellectual
bureaucrats show depression, passivity and perplexity in their
actions and in their statements and even more so in theoretical
reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable as well as intellectually
and even morally warranted it is to base state policies on weakness
and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized
by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part
of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and
weak countries, not supported by anyone, or with currents which
cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed
when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces,
with aggressors and international terrorists.
Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage
has been considered the beginning of the end?
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. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom
and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to
guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally
inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades.
In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked:
the constant desire to have still more things and a still better
life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces
with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal
such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human
thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.
The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure
has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted
well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not
even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people
according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor,
happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to
an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce
all this, why and for what should one risk one’s precious
life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous
cases when the security of one’s nation must be defended
in a distant country?
Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety and well-being
are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being
in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious
Western society has given itself the organization best suited
to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law.
The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by
a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West
have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating
law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average
person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict
is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered
to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point
of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one
could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a
willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless
risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary
self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those
legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases
an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use.
A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons
his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free
not to buy it.
I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell
you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible
one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one
is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on
the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very
scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The
letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial
influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of
legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity,
paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.
And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of
this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic
Remarks given by Russian writer
and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last week
at 89, given at Harvard University
on June 8, 1978.