Monday, August 4, 2008

Profits and Prophets


We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

With the arrival of August, I’ve had a couple of things on my mind:

1) It was one year ago that Jackson County enacted steep slope and subdivision development ordinances. At the time they were passed, we were promised that those ordinances would be “revisited” after twelve months. I intend to revisit them this week, whether or not anyone else does.

2) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer and dissident, died yesterday. Many years ago, when I picked up The Gulag Archipelago and read Solzhenitsyn’s account of his arrest by the Soviet authorities, it sent chills through my body. What a powerful and memorable piece of writing he gave us, in that one story alone.

More than once in the year since the passage of the development ordinances, we’ve seen some hideous travesties proposed by one developer or another. And more than one Jackson County citizen who had expected the ordinances to reign in some of the developers’ more egregious acts has raised a voice in protest, “Buh-buh-but, whaddabout the regulations we have on the books now?” Invariably, county officials have explained that the developers’ schemes “comply with the new ordinances." Either that, or we learn that it’s a moot point, since hundreds of developments were grandfathered in and don’t have to play by the rules, anyhow.

If you thought that a few ordinances were going to the stem the tide of rapacious over-development in Jackson County, I can understand your disappointment in how things have turned out. I’m disappointed, too, but not surprised. Right here on the home-front, we’ve seen once again how well-meaning legalistic solutions are insufficient to meet the problems we face. Solzhenitsyn understood this point and elaborated on it during a commencement address at Harvard in June 1978:

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 structure.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to examine the direction of freedom and the direction of the media in Western society (from as far back as the Renaissance) and describes where those trends will lead. If anything, his words have an even more resounding ring of truth in 2008 than in 1978:

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity? If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.

I'd recommend reading the entire text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement address, A World Split Apart. During this political campaign season, the candidates all have plenty that they want us to hear, but none of it is as relevant or thoughtful or challenging or nuanced as what Solzhenitsyn shared more that thirty years ago.

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