Self-transcendence as civic duty: lessons from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from new generations.”

So wrote Nobel Prize-winning Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in his monumental The Gulag Archipelago, detailing the history and horrors of the Soviet labor camps, published 43 years ago this week. The book was met with instant international acclaim; one review in the New York Times called its subject “the other great holocaust of our century.” In the wake of its publication Solzhenitsyn became something of a pop-culture cold war hero in the U.S., where interest in militarism and interventionist policies had been fading in the aftermath of Vietnam. Solzenitsyn’s belief that Russia should turn away from international military involvement and embrace the Church and its own rich cultural history was favorably received by conservatives, as was his view that the U.S. had capitulated too quickly in Vietnam. Liberals embraced him as a dissident and rebel, though he was criticized for his insistence that Lenin was as culpable as Stalin for the monstrous atrocities of Soviet totalitarianism, and that the political state is often its own end regardless of its founding ideology.

Solzhenitsyn’s unstinting criticism of Western materialism often made him a difficult figure. He spent nearly two decades in the U.S., yet never stopped railing against what he saw as its moral complacency and spiritual emptiness. In 1978 he shocked many with his commencement address at Harvard University, where he was given an honorary doctorate in literature. In it, he urged his audience to look beyond the material satisfactions of U.S. culture:

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only 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 be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most 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 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.” Link

Critics often shrugged off Solzhenitsyn’s social commentary while acknowledging the truth of the horrors he wrote about; one anecdote in his New York Times obituary recounts Susan Sontag’s conversation with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky:

“We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn’s views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on,” she said. “And then Joseph said: But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers—60 million victims—it’s all true.”

Also included in the Times obituary is the story of how Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out writing under the harshest conditions of Soviet internment. Banished under Stalin to Ekibastuz, a camp where writing was routinely confiscated and which would become the source of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenistyn used a special rosary fashioned for him by Lithuanian Catholic prisoners to commit 12,000 lines of prose to memory, using one bead for each passage.

Such conditions are almost impossible to fathom for Americans living today in a world of relative material comforts and freedom of the press. Yet his critique of our shallow moral standards and sense of entitlement is at least as relevant now as it was in 1978. Should we elect political leaders based on our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with our salaries, or the price of gas? Or should we also have a higher purpose in mind, a vision of somehow making the world a better place?

Solzhenitsyn was prescient about the effect materialism would have on the political landscape, seeming to forecast the yearning for what Ronald Reagan would articulate a couple years later as “morning in America,” the vision that rejected the economic and political uncertainty of the Carter years in favor of a nation characterized by plentiful goods, free enterprise, and military might. Now it appears we are in another 1978 moment, a moment characterized much as it was then, by economic fear, fear of international terrorism, and lack of faith in political leadership. In The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House, Douglas Brinkley describes the moment of Carter’s loss as one that seems on the surface very unlike our own, yet at bottom contains the same underlying fear and malaise. Carter’s era culminated in “inflation in the double digits, oil prices triple what they had been, unemployment above 7 percent, interest rates topping 20 percent, fifty-two American hostages still held captive in Iran, and unsettling memories of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Link

In contrast, the U.S. economy this October, just before the 2016 election, saw the biggest economic growth in two years, increased exports, and a shrinking unemployment rate, yet the economic insecurity of 2008 continues to linger eight years later, much as the effects of recession lingered throughout the 1970s. U.S. growth in October of this year was historically slow compared to historic measures, and our “gig economy,” where people drive their own cars for companies like Uber and Lyft, means that millions of workers are filling temp jobs because they can’t find stable, well-paying work. Link

Thus while we are not nearly as precarious economically as we were in 1980, we feel as precarious as we did in 1980. On the one hand, it is right to take note of economic conditions that leave too many people living in poverty, whether from the unavailability of any work or the availability of only the lowest-paying kind of work, and as a result choose to vote for better opportunities for everyone. On the other hand, faced with having too little, or thinking we have less than we should, or fearing we will lose what we have, some of us vote to have more, no matter the cost.

We find it hard to ask, whether in asking for more than we have, or more than we think we can get, if we are in fact asking for the right things. In the wake of a 2016 election defined for many by the fear of “falling behind,” of losing the material security promised by the American Dream, we need to think about how we define the contents of that dream and examine the entitlement behind the notion of “falling behind.” We now know that many more voters were galvanized this year by appeals to fear and entitlement than were moved by visions of social justice and equality. We need to address the appeal of fear and entitlement before we can go on to articulate a larger vision of a just society where there is opportunity for everyone.

Appeals to morality rarely win elections. We now know that “the unlimited availability of gasoline,” for example, while making certain economic sense, is not the best thing to ask for when electing public officials, especially given the devastating effects of carbon emissions on the global environment. Yet the virtue of self-restraint—temperance, really—called for by Solzhenitsyn in his Harvard commencement address is no more popular now than it was in 1978, when many Americans rejected it in favor of a 1950s-style domestic prosperity characterized by plenty of cheap gas and consumer goods.

President Carter, a famously moral person who spoke openly against violence and advocated daily prayer, was unable to effectively sell his vision that U.S. voters should cultivate temperate, self-transcendent characters. Solzhenitsyn’s warning in this era that human life must consist of more than “the search for the best ways to obtain material goods” vanished in a country weary of recession and fearful of international terrorism, and is similarly lost today in a nation where people fear slipping into poverty at home as a result of stagnant wages and vanishing jobs, and see only an unstable and violent world abroad. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s warning that Americans—humans—are prone to self-interest and self-indulgence is one we should still heed. His insistence that the human tendency to keep one’s head down in the presence of injustice proliferates injustice is especially urgent in our moment, when the temptation to retreat into private life can seem so seductive. In this dangerous world, getting involved is a necessary self-transcendence, “the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty,” a call to witness, and a call to action.

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Food Preferences, Temperance, and Virtue

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The concept of habit plays a central role in Thomas Aquinas’ moral theory, and in his analytic psychology more generally. He identifies habits as one of the fundamental principles of human action, together with the capacities of intellect, passions, and will – appropriately so, because habits are nothing other than stable dispositions of these capacities, which enable them to operate in coherent, appropriate ways. Habits are subject to moral evaluation, just as actions are, and the habits of the passions and the will are always either virtues or vices, just as human actions are always morally good or evil. Even more fundamentally, habits of some kind are necessary to the functioning of both the appetites and the intellect. Without some kind of internal development and formation, the appetites and the rational powers of the human creature cannot function at all, or can only operate in rudimentary and ineffective ways. By implication, human action as we know it, whether from our experience as agents or by observation of others, is almost always shaped by habits of some kind, formed out of natural (or supernatural) principles of operation through processes of training and development. Human existence and action is ultimately grounded in natural principles, but the innate principles of human action do not enter directly into our ordinary experiences – rather, we act and interact with one another through the structures set up by the stable dispositions of our virtues, vices, and other habits.
These are claims about the origins and structuring principles of human action, and as such, they invite comparison with other kinds of claims about human psychology, including those set forth by contemporary experimental psychology. A comparison of this kind might seem to be ruled out by the radical differences in assumptions and methodology that divide Aquinas from contemporary scientists of any kind. Yet when we compare what Aquinas says about the habits, we find unexpected resonances with recent work on the formation of stable dispositions, especially those relating to such fundamental matters as food preferences. We need to be careful not to overstate the extent and significance of these resonances. However, it would seem that at the very least, Aquinas and contemporary psychologists share points of reference that enable us to compare them in fruitful ways. To put it crudely, we can assume that they are talking about the same things, more or less, namely, human activities and experiences, together with whatever principles or structures account for these.
I want to defend and develop this way of approaching Aquinas’ psychology by comparing what he says about the formation and necessity of habit with recent work on the formation of food preferences in infants. This research lends support to Aquinas’ view that even the most fundamental human capacities for desire and aversion need some kind of rational formation and structuring in order to function properly. Indeed, Aquinas’ analytical psychology and contemporary experimental psychology seem to converge, and for a Thomist, this convergence suggests that research in this area might tend to confirm—or at least shed light on—Aquinas’ account of a virtue such as temperance, as it pertains to the pleasures of food and drink. When we turn back to relevant studies, however, it would seem that they challenge Aquinas’ account of temperance, insofar as he defines this virtue by reference to the individual’s bodily needs. On further reflection, contemporary work on food preferences is not inconsistent with Aquinas’ account of temperance, but it does suggest that a Thomistic account of the virtue of temperance needs to be expanded and developed in certain ways, if we are to do full justice to the complexities of developmental formation.

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Habits are commonly associated with stereotyped, repetitive behaviors that often fall outside the range of one’s conscious awareness and may even be experienced as somehow contrary to one’s desires. A habit in the Thomistic sense more nearly resembles a skill, such as touch typing, than a habit like pulling one’s beard – indeed, the skill of touch typing is a habit in Aquinas’ sense, whereas beard-pulling is not. Habits understood in this way are clearly more interesting and important than the kind of habits that we only notice when we want to break them. But we have not yet taken full account of just how important habits are, on Aquinas’ view. He claims that habits of some kind are necessary for the proper functioning of the rational creature. Human capacities for perception, understanding, and desire are naturally indeterminate, and stand in need of some level of development in order to function at all.
Contemporary developmental psychology offers at least one example of a kind of system that would appear at first glance to function in much the same way as do the habits, as Aquinas understands them: “[E]ach of a multitude of core knowledge systems emerges early in development, serves to identify the entities in its domain by analysing their distinctive characteristics, and supports the acquisition of further knowledge about those entities by focusing on the critical features that distinguish different members of the domain (Shutts et al).” A system of core knowledge would thus seem to provide the same kinds of rational structures, and thus to facilitate appropriate functioning, in the same way that habits do. Systems of core knowledge would not be equivalent to habits as Aquinas understands them, but on the contrary, they would provide evidence that habits in this sense would be superfluous.

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We can tentatively identify at least one such system that appears to be comprised of highly general concepts, which can only function properly after some level of formation, namely, the system of core knowledge with respect to food. For more than thirty years, psychologists have been studying the emergence and development of the infant’s ability to distinguish between edible and inedible objects, and between appropriate and healthy, or inappropriate, spoiled, or otherwise unsuitable food. In contrast to adults, older children, and at least some kinds of non-human primates, human infants are remarkably indiscriminate with respect to what they will ingest; one study summarizes that “items regarded by adults as dangerous, disgusting, or inappropriate, and combinations of individually liked foods that are unacceptable to adults were readily accepted by many of the younger children in our sample…. [However,] within the 16 month to five year age range studied, there is a clear developmental trend towards rejection of items that adults consider disgusting or dangerous.” (Rozin)

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Indeed, recent research indicates that the food preferences of young children are not only formed through social interactions, but strongly tied to perceptions of, and feelings about, group identity. This research supports what experience would seem to confirm, that our habituated desires for specific foods may reflect our sense of social identity and a socially mediated sense of what is desirable, seemly, or appropriate for those of our kind. If this is so, then it would appear that at an early stage, the developing child begins to develop normatively laden food preferences, reflecting basic judgments about what one ought to eat.


Young african american father giving milk to  her baby girl in a
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This way of construing the development of food preferences is highly suggestive from the standpoint of a Thomist virtue ethicist. The virtue of temperance, for example, is a habitual disposition towards desires and aversions that reflect normative judgments of some kind. Any suggestion that early childhood food preferences develop in accordance with normative judgments will be grist to the mill for a contemporary Thomist. At the same time, we need to be careful not to move too quickly between contemporary psychology and Aquinas’ account of temperance. It is not immediately evident that the normative ideal informing temperance is the same as the normative standards informing the food preferences of young children. This does not mean that recent research disconfirms Aquinas’ analysis of temperance, but it does point to a more interesting way of thinking about the relation between these two very different ways of thinking about our most basic desires.


Kristin Shutts, Kirsten F. Condry, Laurie R. Santos, and Elizabeth S. Spelke, “Core Knowledge and its Limits: The Domain of Food,” Cognition. 2009 Jul; 112 (1): 120–140.

Paul Rozin, Larry Hammer, Harriet Oster, Talia Horowitz and Veronica Marmora, “The Child’s Conception of Food: Differentiation of Categories of Rejected Substances in the 16 Months to 5 Year Age Range,” Appetite, 1986, 7, 141-151.

Samantha P. Fan, Zoe Liberman, Boaz Keysar, Katherine D. Kinzler, “The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication,” Psychological Science.  July 2015 vol. 26 no. 7 1090-1097.

Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.