Solzhenitsyn on our secular legalism

From Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address at Harvard that so enraged students and faculty:

Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. . . . 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.

HT: Nathaniel Peters at First Things

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I remember my heart being stirred as I read Solzhenitsyn’s words over 20 years ago–assigned to me in freshman lit in college. I remember being appalled, on the other hand, at those who reacted to it in a knee jerk way. The more I see of life, the more I see that Solzhenitsyn was right.

    On the light side, a friend of mine went to the USSR’s booth at the 1986 World’s Fair, where they had a fairly extensive bookstore, and asked for “Gulag Archepelago.” He was stiffly informed that they didn’t have anything by Solzhenitsyn. :^)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I remember my heart being stirred as I read Solzhenitsyn’s words over 20 years ago–assigned to me in freshman lit in college. I remember being appalled, on the other hand, at those who reacted to it in a knee jerk way. The more I see of life, the more I see that Solzhenitsyn was right.

    On the light side, a friend of mine went to the USSR’s booth at the 1986 World’s Fair, where they had a fairly extensive bookstore, and asked for “Gulag Archepelago.” He was stiffly informed that they didn’t have anything by Solzhenitsyn. :^)

  • Manxman

    What he’s written should give conservative Americans pause about putting too many eggs in the old “rule of law” basket. Law can be a double-edged sword, as he points out so well.

  • Manxman

    What he’s written should give conservative Americans pause about putting too many eggs in the old “rule of law” basket. Law can be a double-edged sword, as he points out so well.

  • fw

    Well.

    The choice presented here is a false one.

    The idea is that the rule of law requires the concept of god (small g here I must remind you all. Deism. the only cap G God is the one that is described in detail in scripture and his name is Jesus).

    This is a seductive idea. It is a false idea.

    Consider the following…

    Has no one here ever met a religious person, perhaps even a Lutheran, who insists on following the letter of the law? who is a legalist through and through. Who has never seemed to consider the intent of the law but wants to crucify everyone with the letter? people who are in fact moral as to the letter but are totally immoral as to the spirit of the law? exactly as solzinitzen (sp?) describes?

    further….

    could it be that often pagans do the law better in this regard than christians,because like aristotle and the stoics, they are able to start a conversation about morals (as in “why is it wrong to kill or to steal. Why is homosexuality wrong, why is abortion wrong…?”) and not feel compelled to END the conversation abruptly by saying “GOD says it is wrong so how DARE you question God here….”

    Insight:

    by being able to argue these things, a person makes the law into a personal possession. He becomes convinced of the rightness of the law. This means that that person then has a morality beyond the letter of the law. This is entirely possible and perhaps more probable for a very thoughtful pagan or atheist that it is for many christians.

    As a christian I believe that morality works. Morality is practical. The “practical” part of all of this is EXACTLY what makes me NOT a legalist. It is also EXACTLY what makes a christian a legalist when he/she is seduced with the reasoning of “following principles and not practicality”. Practicality is NOT the enemy of morality. It is the handmaiden of morality so long as “practicality” is not morphed into “expediency”. I try to avoid rushing to the conclusion that that morphing has in fact occurred. I am not a legalist.

    Laws ultimately come from God. This means that I have faith that if proper logic is used, proper laws will result and those laws will have always a beneficial consequence with a rarity of bad unintended consequences. This also would look like alot of judicial discretion where the absurdity of a law applied legalistically in a situation where it does not fit could be avoided. Mercy could, logically, be applied, as a part of rule of law and not the whim of the rule of men.

    There is NO difference between justices making up their own laws and the public deciding democratically that something should be the law. BOTH are the rule of men opposed to the majestic rule of law. This is why the “conservatives”, on the issue of gay marriage and abortion et all ( to name just SOME of the cultural battle ground issues) are dangerous and against the good in their tactics. They present a false choice here that is merely a manipulation of public sentiment and not something that edifys and educates and places us all on a firmer foundation as to our ideas of proper governance.

    The founding jurists of our country looked at the pursuit of law as a science, where, through the trial and error of the the experimentation of applied logic, immutable and eternal laws would be discovered that preexisted. Yes, for them this did presuppose the idea of a God that had created those laws. I am not convinced that this is absolutely necessary to view things thusly in that i know many a-theists who are thusly convinced. You can argue with the logical consistency of their view, yet what remains is that it IS their view.

    The proof for the founding jurists was practical. The laws worked in the sense that they approximated or equaled impartial justice in their results.

  • fw

    Well.

    The choice presented here is a false one.

    The idea is that the rule of law requires the concept of god (small g here I must remind you all. Deism. the only cap G God is the one that is described in detail in scripture and his name is Jesus).

    This is a seductive idea. It is a false idea.

    Consider the following…

    Has no one here ever met a religious person, perhaps even a Lutheran, who insists on following the letter of the law? who is a legalist through and through. Who has never seemed to consider the intent of the law but wants to crucify everyone with the letter? people who are in fact moral as to the letter but are totally immoral as to the spirit of the law? exactly as solzinitzen (sp?) describes?

    further….

    could it be that often pagans do the law better in this regard than christians,because like aristotle and the stoics, they are able to start a conversation about morals (as in “why is it wrong to kill or to steal. Why is homosexuality wrong, why is abortion wrong…?”) and not feel compelled to END the conversation abruptly by saying “GOD says it is wrong so how DARE you question God here….”

    Insight:

    by being able to argue these things, a person makes the law into a personal possession. He becomes convinced of the rightness of the law. This means that that person then has a morality beyond the letter of the law. This is entirely possible and perhaps more probable for a very thoughtful pagan or atheist that it is for many christians.

    As a christian I believe that morality works. Morality is practical. The “practical” part of all of this is EXACTLY what makes me NOT a legalist. It is also EXACTLY what makes a christian a legalist when he/she is seduced with the reasoning of “following principles and not practicality”. Practicality is NOT the enemy of morality. It is the handmaiden of morality so long as “practicality” is not morphed into “expediency”. I try to avoid rushing to the conclusion that that morphing has in fact occurred. I am not a legalist.

    Laws ultimately come from God. This means that I have faith that if proper logic is used, proper laws will result and those laws will have always a beneficial consequence with a rarity of bad unintended consequences. This also would look like alot of judicial discretion where the absurdity of a law applied legalistically in a situation where it does not fit could be avoided. Mercy could, logically, be applied, as a part of rule of law and not the whim of the rule of men.

    There is NO difference between justices making up their own laws and the public deciding democratically that something should be the law. BOTH are the rule of men opposed to the majestic rule of law. This is why the “conservatives”, on the issue of gay marriage and abortion et all ( to name just SOME of the cultural battle ground issues) are dangerous and against the good in their tactics. They present a false choice here that is merely a manipulation of public sentiment and not something that edifys and educates and places us all on a firmer foundation as to our ideas of proper governance.

    The founding jurists of our country looked at the pursuit of law as a science, where, through the trial and error of the the experimentation of applied logic, immutable and eternal laws would be discovered that preexisted. Yes, for them this did presuppose the idea of a God that had created those laws. I am not convinced that this is absolutely necessary to view things thusly in that i know many a-theists who are thusly convinced. You can argue with the logical consistency of their view, yet what remains is that it IS their view.

    The proof for the founding jurists was practical. The laws worked in the sense that they approximated or equaled impartial justice in their results.

  • fw

    communism looks so very much like a religion. this explains why religious legalists do exactly as solz. describes. it is not really about believing in a god or not.

    And in a pluralistic society we are arguing about belief in A god. Or Gods (if you are mormon or hindu or….)

    It is so very not about belief in God.

    Key observation:

    Belief in the wrong god(s) is THE reason for sin in the world. Belief in god is THE problem.

    My personal idolatries are the cause of ALL my sin and suffering. Ditto for all of you and for the society you create.

    Belief in (small g) god is NOT the solution to anything at all.

    So where does this leave us logically?

    it puts us back to the 30 years war where christians felt compelled to fight even other christians (on principles) to be able to have one true religion rule in the land (much like the muslim concept of sharia law I might point out here.) These war participants would have been shocked at our “tolerance” and “condoning” of false religionists. Unacceptably liberal they would say.

    it also leads to the conclusion that no correct system of law would be possible outside of an orthodox Lutheran territory. and that a calvinist or roman catholic or orthodox territory would only be relatively correct, and forget about justice or the rule of law in any pagan land….

    like ancient rome or greece…..

    this is an absurd proposition and it looks like some of us Lutherans are willing to drink the kool-aid here.

    I am truly surprised.

  • fw

    communism looks so very much like a religion. this explains why religious legalists do exactly as solz. describes. it is not really about believing in a god or not.

    And in a pluralistic society we are arguing about belief in A god. Or Gods (if you are mormon or hindu or….)

    It is so very not about belief in God.

    Key observation:

    Belief in the wrong god(s) is THE reason for sin in the world. Belief in god is THE problem.

    My personal idolatries are the cause of ALL my sin and suffering. Ditto for all of you and for the society you create.

    Belief in (small g) god is NOT the solution to anything at all.

    So where does this leave us logically?

    it puts us back to the 30 years war where christians felt compelled to fight even other christians (on principles) to be able to have one true religion rule in the land (much like the muslim concept of sharia law I might point out here.) These war participants would have been shocked at our “tolerance” and “condoning” of false religionists. Unacceptably liberal they would say.

    it also leads to the conclusion that no correct system of law would be possible outside of an orthodox Lutheran territory. and that a calvinist or roman catholic or orthodox territory would only be relatively correct, and forget about justice or the rule of law in any pagan land….

    like ancient rome or greece…..

    this is an absurd proposition and it looks like some of us Lutherans are willing to drink the kool-aid here.

    I am truly surprised.

  • fw

    might i suggest that letter=principle and ideal and that spirit=practical (!) and intended end purpose?

    might i further suggest that the two are both equally necessary and complimentary, and do not, as is often suggested war with one another?

    legalism and expedience are the two extremes, the excess and deficit ….. of the singular virtue of justice who´s ultimate end is mercy and goodness.

    Justice exists because God truly wants our happiness.

    He neither wants nor needs our sacrifice to rote rules on the altar of expediency.

    Even justice then is a means to an end and not the ultimate purpose.

    We must truly believe that God´s end is our happiness, not our groveling obedience to a sovreign God.

    The law and structure God places among us is practicality in it´s highest art of practice. Practi-cal. Something that can actually be practiced. Things practiced are things imperfect. They are things that strive for an ideal state (principles!) none the less.

    Our joy in this happy trust give us freedom to truly serve our neighbor in whatever human condition we find him in, trusting the Truth, and becoming dead and deaf to the twin siren songs of legalism and expediency.

    Only by looking at God in Jesus can we see that this is true. This is why I am a Lutheran Christian.

    We indeed have so very much common ground with these secularists who give thought to the principles of the practical. This is a gift of our good God among us.

    The only difference is that WE are priviledged to see the structured hand of God at work even in these men and women, especially when they are logically inconsistent. Rejoice in that!

  • fw

    might i suggest that letter=principle and ideal and that spirit=practical (!) and intended end purpose?

    might i further suggest that the two are both equally necessary and complimentary, and do not, as is often suggested war with one another?

    legalism and expedience are the two extremes, the excess and deficit ….. of the singular virtue of justice who´s ultimate end is mercy and goodness.

    Justice exists because God truly wants our happiness.

    He neither wants nor needs our sacrifice to rote rules on the altar of expediency.

    Even justice then is a means to an end and not the ultimate purpose.

    We must truly believe that God´s end is our happiness, not our groveling obedience to a sovreign God.

    The law and structure God places among us is practicality in it´s highest art of practice. Practi-cal. Something that can actually be practiced. Things practiced are things imperfect. They are things that strive for an ideal state (principles!) none the less.

    Our joy in this happy trust give us freedom to truly serve our neighbor in whatever human condition we find him in, trusting the Truth, and becoming dead and deaf to the twin siren songs of legalism and expediency.

    Only by looking at God in Jesus can we see that this is true. This is why I am a Lutheran Christian.

    We indeed have so very much common ground with these secularists who give thought to the principles of the practical. This is a gift of our good God among us.

    The only difference is that WE are priviledged to see the structured hand of God at work even in these men and women, especially when they are logically inconsistent. Rejoice in that!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X