Virtue in American political thought : an examination of Solzhenitsyn's "A world split apart" and Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic



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Few men have brought contemporary America to such a profound awareness of moral values as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In "A World Split Apart," his commencement address to the 1978 class of Harvard University, he portrays America as a society which has fallen away from the principles on which it was founded. These principles, he claims, are a reflection of traditional Judeo-Christian ideals for human behavior: namely, each individual embodying a sense of personal responsibility for promoting the welfare of the whole society. As he sees it, our society today has replaced spirituality with sensuality; it has become a collection of autonomous individuals seeking immediate personal gain. Unless there are reforms, the ignominious death of such a society is certain. But he places no faith in political or social reforms. Instead he calls for a "spiritual blaze," a return to those values on which America was founded. An investigation into the claims of Solzhenitsyn reveals a competing point of view. One of the preeminent scholarly works of the thoughts and motivations of the founders of the American democracy is Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. It is Wood's claim that by 1787 the American founders had rejected the idea of founding a government on the assumption that men would pursue public interest in favor of self interest. Instead it was the intent of the framers to ensure, through institutional devices, the security of government and the liberty of the people in the absence of widespread political virtue. That the principles which frame a government in large part determine the ultimate state of that society is self evident. Since there are competing claims as to the foundation of our government, nothing less than a way of life is at stake. Solzhenitsyn's claim is that the basic tenets of American society have been radically altered. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that if Wood's account of the founding of the American republic is accurate, then Solzhenitsyn's claim rests on false premises, and thus a "return" to a government founded on these premises would be impossible--if not altogether contrary to the original intentions of the founders. We will proceed by establishing the basic content, first of Solzhenitsyn's argument, and then of Wood's argument relating to the assertions of those arguments made above. Next we will compare the thoughts of Solzhenitsyn with Wood's portrayal of the changes that have taken place in American political thought during the founding era. We shall see that the founders have already struggled with the problems that Solzhenitsyn is concerned with in "A World Split Apart." Indeed they anticipate his criticism on almost every major point. From this comparison it will become evident that if Wood's account of the revolutionary period can be relied upon, then an attempt to place the foundations of society on the basis that Solzhenitsyn advocates would be contrary to the intention of the founders.