Charles Kesler speaks

Last week we celebrated the week of Charles — Charles Kesler, Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government at Clarmeont McKenna College, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, long-time friend and tutor — for his receipt of one of this year’s Bradley Prize awards along with Allen Guelzo and Jason Riley. I have posted the video of the event below (it is posted here on Vimeo).

Charles is a gentleman, scholar, author, teacher, editor, advocate of America and the American propositions, and one of the wittiest men I know. He has helped turn the CRB into an irreplaceable magazine of ideas.

Charles’s leading qualities are on display in his brief remarks accepting the Bradley Prize. He recalled Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement Address in which “the great Russian novelist and historian warned the West that it was in danger of losing not only the world but also its own soul.” He continued: “In short, the fundamental crisis of the West was internal, spiritual, philosophical. ‘A decline in civic courage,’ [Solzhenitsyn] specified, ‘may be the most striking feature an outside observer notices in the West today.’ Civic courage means the courage of our convictions, which had declined because we had grown unsure of those convictions.” Charles ended his remarks with a call for the reawakening of our own civic courage.

Courtesy of the Claremont Institute, here is the full text of Charles’s brief remarks:

Forty years ago next month I sat among the graduating seniors at Harvard College to hear the most memorable commencement address of the 20th century. That is faint praise, I admit, because there are so few contenders. As a genre, commencement speeches are designed to fade pleasantly and quickly from memory, like the Obama administration. I have heard scores of them over the decades, and the only fragment I can recall is the concluding line from Steve Forbes’s address at Claremont McKenna College. “If you remember nothing else from your college years,” he told the graduates, “remember it’s not who you know. It’s whom.”

Before we go adding new pronouns, we should learn to use the ones we’ve got.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s address to the class of 1978 endures due to the searing words with which the great Russian novelist and historian warned the West that it was in danger of losing not only the world but also its own soul.

The speech touched a nerve, and set off a debate among American and European commentators that lasted for weeks. It contained none of the usual commencement pieties. It did Harvard the honor of taking its motto, Veritas, Truth, seriously, which is more than official Harvard had done for a long time. Modern Harvard’s motto should really be Change, Mutatio, because it understands truth to mean adjusting to changes in society, a reactionary goal that only progressives could mistake for something daring and liberating.

In 1978 the Soviets had driven salients into central America and southwest Africa, were pressing NATO hard in central Europe, and would soon invade Afghanistan. “The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive,” Solzhenitsyn declared. He had spent eight long years in the Gulag, more years in internal exile, and had been expelled from the USSR in 1974. He knew his tormentors well and deeply. His warnings that America and the West were in danger of losing the Cold War helped to awaken us in time to win it.

Yet even then he recognized Communism as part of a larger problem. “In our eastern countries,” he told the graduates, “Communism has suffered a complete ideological defeat; it is zero and less than zero.” Only “Western intellectuals,” he said, still look at it with “interest and empathy.” In short, the fundamental crisis of the West was internal, spiritual, philosophical. A decline in “civic courage,” he specified, “may be the most striking feature than an outside observer notices in the West today.” Civic courage means the courage of our convictions, which had declined because we had grown unsure of those convictions.

Yet forty years later the United States is still here, and the Soviet Union is not. Russia remains, to be sure, and he was quite wrong in thinking that Communism had produced in the Russians “a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience.” He underestimated socialism’s long-term crippling effects, though he had diagnosed them well.

He overestimated the West’s decadence; or more precisely, he didn’t anticipate its ability to recover both its convictions and its courage. Forty years is long enough to be reminded, however, that the recovery is only temporary. Much noble work remains, in short, for the Bradley Foundation and its illustrious prize winners, whose company I am honored to join tonight.

Charles’s speech begins at 24:00 of the video below.

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