On several occasions throughout the semester, the students of Thomas More College are asked to consider a work or series of works which follow a single great theme such as Justice, Love, War, or Faith. These common readings form the content for the College’s Traditio days: all-college seminars accompanied by evening lectures. Last Friday, freshmen put aside their editions of Plutarch’s Lives and juniors their copies of Hobbes’ Leviathan to mull over two public addresses delivered by the remarkable 20th century political thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
When he delivered the 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn caused a considerable stir among America’s intellectual elite. While many continue to find his address controversial, few can doubt that his magnificent Gulag Archipelago contains a scathing and insightful criticism of 20th century totalitarianism. Its harsh lessons about the nobility and savagery of the human soul played out on the plane of politics—lessons from a not-too-distant past—are lasting ones.
Assisting Thomas More students in their understanding of Solzhenitsyn, the College was privileged to have Dr. Daniel Mahoney as a visiting lecturer. The author of numerous scholarly works, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology and The Solzhenitsyn Reader, Dr. Mahoney holds the position of chair and professor of Political Science at Assumption College.
Following an afternoon seminar with Writer-in-Residence Joseph Pearce on the significance of Solzhenitsyn’s thought, Dr. Mahoney presented an evening lecture entitled Violence and Lies: Solzhenitsyn’s Phenomenology of Ideological Despotism.
Focusing on a chapter of the Gulag Archipelago entitled “The Soul in Barbed Wire,” Dr. Mahoney expounded on Solzhenitsyn’s powerful critique of the Soviet regime. The consequences that the regime’s politically-enforced ideology had for the basic fabric of society was especially disconcerting to Solzhenitsyn, Dr. Mahoney noted. “He argued that the wellspring of the violence and lies which secured the Soviet polity is latent in any society that exists without reference to a higher power: a godless society,” he said. “Solzhenitsyn learned this bitter lessonsof twentieth-century totalitarianism while spending eight years in a Siberian prison camp. The extraordinary thing is that he retained hope throughout his experience of undergoing violent treatment and gross manipulation at the hands of his own government.” After commenting on the positive political philosophy Solzhenitsyn would later take up, Dr. Mahoney concluded his lecture by addressing questions from the audience.