On Essays and Letters

In the handsome new book, The Loss and Recovery of Truth book cover image(St. Augustine’s Press), we find a short 1978 essay of Gerhart Niemeyer. It was written on the occasion of two commencement addresses. One was the justly famous Harvard Address of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the spiritual condition of the West. The second was the address of William F. Buckley given the same spring at the University of Notre Dame. Niemeyer thought that these two addresses complemented each other.

Throughout his essay, Niemeyer pointedly contrasts these two addresses with the ordinary commencement orations that too often flatter an education that probably never was aware of, let alone confronted, the spiritual crisis of the time. Niemeyer was particularly annoyed by the remark of the then-president’s wife, Rosalyn Carter, that Solzhenitsyn was a “foreigner who did not understand us [Americans].” The trouble was that, in understanding the West, Solzhenitsyn was in a far better position to understand Americans than they were to understand themselves.

The title of this collection of Niemeyer’s essays is The Loss and Recovery of Truth. This title implies that truth had, in fact, once been known but subsequently was lost. We deal here with intellectual history. However, it is possible to recover truth again. The modern loss need not be fatal.

The passage that most struck Niemeyer about Solzhenitsyn’s address was his remark that “truth was often bitter.” The phrase “the bitter truth” is a common one. It points to something that we do not always like to face, namely, that the truth exists in spite of us. Our spiritual role in the matter of truth is not that we “create” it, but that we conform ourselves to it as something already given to us. Our freedom means that we do not have to do this. We can, in other words, lie to ourselves.

Niemeyer compares Solzhenitsyn to an Old Testament prophet and Buckley to the Socratic “gadfly.” Both stand for the truth in the face of dangerous opposition. Thus, “intellectual courage” is a term that could well be applied to Solzhenitsyn and Buckley, as to Niemeyer himself. It means the willingness to speak the truth that is unpopular. This courage is, indeed, the duty of the intellectual, a duty that too often yields to popularity and prestige, a duty that, when missing, “lies at the origin of the paradoxical title ‘the betrayal of the intellectuals’.”

Niemeyer implies that many commencement addresses tell the young what they want to hear, not what they ought to hear if they will live honorably in a world that is not always friendly to their most fundamental interests. “That truth is ‘bitter’ when compared with the sanguine view—held by ‘an enormous number of Western intellectuals’—that there is peace, peace, when there is no peace, and that the foremost task consists in the completion of the welfare state by means of total federal health care, or alternatively in a global campaign against racism.” Both of these two liberal solutions, some three decades later, are still in place preventing any real understanding of the world and its ills.

The notion of intellectual courage comes up in both Solzhenitsyn and Buckley. “You see what ought to be done,” Buckley told the Notre Dame graduates. “You shrink from the exertions required to do it.” One suspects, though, that part of the lack of courage is due to not really understanding what is to be done. “What Is to Be Done?” was in fact the title of a famous essay of Lenin. This question, however, can never be answered unless we first ask the more pressing question, “But what is true?” Action without truth is the bane of modernity.

As we think of these two essays today, some thirty-five years after their deliveries, we see that the issues of China, secular humanism, the welfare state, and public morality are still about. What was unforeseen at that time—the year John Paul II became Pope—was the internal collapse of communism, something that in part seems to date these two addresses. We also find little of the rise of Islam, which has rushed in to fill two voids. The first is caused by the rapid decline in the birthrate in Europe, itself a product of modernity. The second void is the loss of Christian faith in the West.

Islam itself, recalling its own heritage, claims title to world domination. The spiritual issue in the West has gone beyond, though not contrary to, the welfare state. Ecology, religious violence, and helping the poor have all combined to justify state control of the whole of society, as such control is seen as the only solution to human problems. The undermining of the family, the decentralization of marriage, family, and children are key props of this state control. The evaporation of any notion of nature in both man and the universe becomes the central premise of this expansion, since there is no longer, presumably, any reason in nature that would prevent us from making of man whatever we want.

These are the “bitter” truths that flow out of the same spiritual crisis that Solzhenitsyn and Buckley spoke of at Cambridge and South Bend in 1978. College graduates still need to be, as Niemeyer puts it, “confronted with the ‘bitter truth’ and with ‘awesome duties’” that flow from it. “Awesome duties,” not “human rights,” is the correct phrase. The latter, “human rights,” has ironically come to be the ideological basis of our times. “Our rights” permit us to do whatever we want, supported by a government’s power to guarantee and enforce what is “necessary.”

Duties refer to something out there, something that is true and hence something that needs courage to accept. “Rights” refer, in our Hobbesian world, to an empty universe in which we project our desires in the name of democracy. They have no other justification from what man is. Hence we have nothing to protect ourselves from this state power based on the rejection of nature that allows us to do with ourselves, our families, our schools, and our world not what is reasonable but what we want. Ultimately, the recovery of truth must pass through the recovery of a nature that originates not in what man wants for himself, but in what is the good he already is in himself, a good that was not of his own making in the first place.  

James V. Schall, S.J. retired in December 2012 as professor of government at Georgetown University.

Father Schall looks at an essay from Gerhart Niemeyer on the 1978 commencement addresses of Solzhenitsyn and Buckley.