Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Basic human decency morally surpasses any 'convictions.'”

.... In one memorable scene, Solzhenitsyn describes how a believing Jew shook his worldview. At the time he met him, Solzhenitsyn explains, “I was committed to that world outlook which is incapable of admitting any new fact or evaluating any new opinion before a label has been found for it...be it ‘the hesitant duplicity of the petty bourgeoisie,’ or the ‘militant nihilism of the déclassé intelligentsia.’” When someone mentioned a prayer spoken by President Roosevelt, Solzhenitsyn called it “hypocrisy, of course.” Gammerov, the Jew, demanded why he did not admit the possibility of a political leader sincerely believing in God. That was all, Solzhenitsyn remarks, but it was so shocking to hear such words from someone born in 1923 that it forced him to think. “I could have replied to him firmly, but prison had already undermined my certainty, and the principle thing was that some kind of clean, pure feeling does live within us, existing apart from all our convictions, and right then it dawned on me that I had not spoken out of conviction but because the idea had been implanted in me from outside.” He learns to question what he really believes and, still more important, to appreciate that basic human decency morally surpasses any “convictions.”

Once he admits that he has supported evil, he begins to ask where evil comes from. How do interrogators, who know their cases are fabricated and who use torture every time, continue to do their work year after year? He tells the story of one interrogator’s wife boasting of his prowess: “Kolya is a very good worker. One of them didn’t confess for a long time—and they gave him to Kolya. Kolya talked with him for one night and he confessed.”

One way to commit evil is simply “not to think,” but willed ignorance of evil already means “the ruin of a human being.” Those who tell Solzhenitsyn not to dig up the past belong to the category of “not-thinkers,” as do Western leftists who make sure not to know. The Germans, he argues, were lucky to have had the Nuremberg trials because they made not-thinking impossible. This Russian patriot advances a unique complaint: “Why is Germany allowed to punish its evildoers and Russia is not?"

Solzhenitsyn discovers yet another cause of totalitarianism’s monstrous evil: “Progressive Doctrine” or “Ideology.” In one famous passage, he asks why Shakespeare’s villains killed only a few people, while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions. The reason is that Macbeth and Iago “had no ideology.” Real people do not resemble the evildoers of mass culture, who delight in cruelty and destruction. No, to do mass evil you have to believe it is good, and it is ideology that supplies this conviction. “Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale of millions.”

One lesson of Gulag is that we are all capable of evil, just as Solzhenitsyn himself was. The world is not divided into good people like ourselves and evil people who think differently. “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The core chapter of Gulag, entitled “The Ascent,” explains that according to Soviet ideology, absorbed by almost everyone, the only standard of morality is success. If there are no otherworldly truths, then effectiveness in this world is all that counts. That is why the Party is justified in doing anything. For the individual prisoner, this way of thinking entails a willingness to inflict harm on others as a means of survival. Whether to yield to this temptation represents the great moral choice of a prisoner’s life: “From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and the other descend. If you go the right—you lose your life; and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.”

Some people choose conscience. To do so, they must believe, as Solzhenitsyn came to believe, that the world as described by materialism is only part of reality. In addition, there is, as every religion has insisted, a realm of objective values, which are not mere social constructs. You can’t make the right choice as a postmodernist.

Once you give up survival at any price, “then imprisonment begins to transform your former character in astonishing ways. To transform it in a direction most unexpected to you.” You learn what true friendship is. Sensing your own weakness, you become more forgiving of others and “an understanding mildness” informs your “un-categorical judgments.” As you review your life, and face your bad choices, you gain self-knowledge available in no other way. Above all, you learn that what is most valuable is “the development of the soul.” In the Gulag I nourished my soul, Solzhenitsyn concludes, and so I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” ....  [more]