Living by lies … but with no help from me!
It is dangerous to draw too close parallels between one nation’s history and another’s. But if we are to learn anything from the past, we must pay attention to the parallels that do exist. We’ve been twice warned. The philosopher George Santayana told us almost same thing that the British statesman Edmund Burke warned about in the 1700s: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
Combining caution with encouragement to learn from history, we can glean insight for our present moment from the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian writer who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. After some thirty years of speaking out against Soviet tyranny (much of the time spent in labor camps), Soviet officials had had enough. On February 12, Solzhenitsyn was taken into custody and flown to exile in West Germany.
Solzhenitsyn’s time and place are not ours. But the temptations and the consequences are similar if not the same. Silence may make us complicit in the lies of our time! Silence—staying away from the current debates about biology, marriage, and religious liberty—can endanger our souls. And nothing will have been won by our quiescence. We will also pay in the currency of lost freedoms—freedom of speech, press, religion, and association.
In an essay published on the day of his exile, “Live Not By Lies,” Solzhenitsyn sketched out the rationale and the costs of participation in lies through silence. A few quotes will introduce the broad outline of the essay, but it should be read in its entirety at one of the links provided below.
Solzhenitsyn begins by describing the passivity of Soviet citizens and their rationale for their quietism.
We have already taken refuge in the crevices. We just fear acts of civil courage….
We fear only to lag behind the herd and to take a step alone-and suddenly find ourselves without white bread, without heating gas and without a Moscow registration.
We have been indoctrinated in political courses, and in just the same way was fostered the idea to live comfortably, and all will be well for the rest of our lives. You can’t escape your environment and social conditions. Everyday life defines consciousness. What does it have to do with us? We can’t do anything about it?
But we can—everything. But we lie to ourselves for assurance. And it is not they who are to blame for everything—we ourselves, only we. One can object: But actually you can think anything you like. Gags have been stuffed into our mouths. Nobody wants to listen to us and nobody asks us. How can we force them to listen? It is impossible to change their minds.
It would be natural to vote them out of office—but there are not elections in our country. In the West people know about strikes and protest demonstrations—but we are too oppressed, and it is a horrible prospect for us: How can one suddenly renounce a job and take to the streets? …
But to do nothing is to participate in the culture of lies that governs everyday life and endangers one’s soul.
The circle—is it closed? And is there really no way out? And is there only one thing left for us to do, to wait without taking action? Maybe something will happen by itself? It will never happen as long as we daily acknowledge, extol, and strengthen—and do not sever ourselves from the most perceptible of its aspects: Lies.
When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: “I am violence. Run away, make way for me—I will crush you.” But violence quickly grows old. And it has lost confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies—all loyalty lies in that.
And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me. …
Our path is to walk away from the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.
That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.
So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries. …
No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.
But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.
And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul—don’t let him be proud of his “progressive” views, don’t let him boast that he is an academician or a people’s artist, a merited figure, or a general—let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It’s all the same to me as long as I’m fed and warm. …
You say it will not be easy? But it will be easiest of all possible resources. It will not be an easy choice for a body, but it is the only one for a soul. Not, it is not an easy path. But there are already people, even dozens of them, who over the years have maintained all these points and live by the truth. …
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies” is available online here and here. For an excellent introduction to the life, work and influence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, link to “The Enduring Achievement of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn” by Edward E. Ericson, Jr.