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Le Déclin du courage

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Le 8 juin 1978 Alexandre Soljénitsyne disait aux étudiants de l'université de Harvard :
« Non, je ne peux pas recommander votre société comme idéal pour transformation de la nôtre. (…) Nous avions placé trop d’espoirs dans les transformations politico-sociales, et il se révèle qu’on nous enlève ce que nous avons de plus précieux : notre vie intérieure. À l’Est, c’est la foire du Parti qui la foule aux pieds, à l’Ouest la foire du Commerce : ce qui est effrayant, ce n’est même pas le fait du monde éclaté, c’est que les principaux morceaux en soient atteints d’une maladie analogue. »

72 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published October 21, 2014

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About the author

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

411 books3,479 followers
also known as
Alexander Solzenitsyn (English, alternate)
Αλεξάντρ Σολζενίτσιν (Greek)

Works, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975), of Soviet writer and dissident Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, exposed the brutality of the labor camp system.

This known Russian novelist, dramatist, and historian best helped to make the world aware of the forced Gulag.

Exiled in 1974, he returned to Russia in 1994. Solzhenitsyn fathered of Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a conductor and pianist.


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Profile Image for P.E..
779 reviews558 followers
June 26, 2021
The dead-end of anthropocentric rationalism

In this speech delivered by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Harvard on June 8, 1978, the writer addresses
what he sees as the fundamental failure of Western countries, driven by rationalist humanism, and a pure materialism only masked by the veneer of legalism.

Here is a link to the English text:


'A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.'

On the Welfare State and legalism:

'When the modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness. See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence. Now, at last, during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state.

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness -- in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.'

'Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, one the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.'

'A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly. There are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him; parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself. From the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus, mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.

It is feasible and easy everywhere to undermine administrative power and in fact it has been drastically weakened in all Western countries. The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It's time, in the West -- It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.'


Looking for a limit to set to the licentiousness allowed by the triumph of legalism (the letter of the law over its spirit), according to Solzhenitsyn:

'Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually, but it was evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent to human nature. The world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems, which must be corrected.'

An implicit definition of the part that should be played by the media in society, according to Solzehnitsyn:

'The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media.) But what sort of use does it make of this freedom?

Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to his readers, or to his history -- or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? It hardly ever happens because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist usually always gets away with it. One may -- One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none -- and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers' memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press -- The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus, we may see terrorists described as heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one's nation's defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "Everyone is entitled to know everything." But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it's a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information. [...]'

'One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspaper[s] mostly develop stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend. [...]'

=> See The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera on the matter of uniformization of thought and 'the termits of reduction' operating throughout the world.

'Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life. [...] This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of a petrified armor around people's minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.'

[He then talks about the responsibility of the US in the cessation of war in Vietnam and Cambodia and the ensuing genocides].

What is the cause of the crisis of Western countries?

'The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.'

What should serve as the cornerstone of society?

'As humanism in its development became more and more materialistic, it made itself increasingly accessible to speculation and manipulation by socialism and then by communism. So that Karl Marx was able to say that "communism is naturalized humanism."

This statement turned out not to be entirely senseless. One does see the same stones in the foundations of a despiritualized humanism and of any type of socialism: endless materialism; freedom from religion and religious responsibility, which under communist regimes reach the stage of anti-religious dictatorships; concentration on social structures with a seemingly scientific approach. This is typical of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century and of Marxism. Not by coincidence all of communism's meaningless pledges and oaths are about Man, with a capital M, and his earthly happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today's West and today's East? But such is the logic of materialistic development. [...]'

' As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging everything on earth -- imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible -- The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.'

'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.'

=> See the analogous remarks made by Albert Camus regarding the impasse of a world driven by the communistic-soviet model and the capitalistic-liberal models in The Rebel.

There is a sizeable difference in between Camus and Solzhenitsyn, however: for the former, there is no salvation to be achieved through a divine backworld, but dignity is to be ceaselessly fought for, down an infinitely more challenging path: the upholding of human dignity by a personal cultivation, embodiment, enactment of the universal values of rebellion. Which are nowhere near inane violence, but on the contrary rely on skeptical individuals risking themselves for relative values of justice and freedom to be acknowledged. For measure to be restored.

This definition is much more in keeping with my own (atheistic) notion of what courage is, and as a result, much more convincing than Soljzhenitsyn's own definition of the main value questioned and sought after in his speech.

Then, I wonder what is the part played by society and political leaders in Solzehnitsyn's worldview?

'It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times. Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.'


Another speech given by A. Solzhenitsyn on September 25, 1993 about the French and Russian revolutions

Regarding religion and State:
De la Démocratie en Amérique, tome I
De la Démocratie en Amérique, tome II
Dieu et l'Etat

The part played by mass media:
Travels in Hyperreality
La Langue des medias : Destruction du langage et fabrication du consentement

Regarding the history of world trade, colonization, decolonization:
Musée de la Compagnie des Indes, Musée d'art et d'histoire de la ville de Lorient
Le goût de l'Inde
Capital and Ideology
The Theft of History
The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt
Histoire de la décolonisation au XXème siècle

Related essays:
The Rebel
The Art of the Novel
Exégèse Des Lieux Communs

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Profile Image for yelenska.
575 reviews124 followers
September 17, 2021
Ce discours est honnêtement une petite pépite, et je dois avouer que j'aurais beaucoup aimé pouvoir voir la mine déconfite des Américains lorsqu'ils ont assisté à, ou écouter, ce discours. Ca a dû être quelque chose à mon avis, la façon dont leur ego s'est vu blessé d'un coup assourdissant !

Ce discours ne fait que 64 pages, donc je vous le recommande vivement. Sachant en plus que la police d'écriture n'est pas petite, il est certain que ce discours peut être lu assez rapidement.

Au menu? Les "faiblesses de l'Occident". Sa vision et application de la liberté. Le déclin de courage. "L'épuisement spirituel" de l'Occident. Le problème de l'humanisme, ce sur quoi reposent les sociétés modernes occidentales.

Ma partie favorite? Celle où Soljénitsyne dit que, si on lui demandait s'il pouvait recommander la voie occidentale à son pays, il répondrait "non". ✌
Profile Image for Aurélie.
1,647 reviews88 followers
October 16, 2017
Si l'auteur a bien posé le diagnostic de l'agonie de l'Occident, s'il en énumère les symptômes avec une brutale justesse, les raisons qu'il invoque pour expliquer la maladie sont vraiment trop théologiques et réactionnaires pour moi.
Le constat est excellent, le baratin religieux/arriéré appartient en revanche définitivement à un autre temps.
Après, le texte reste fondamentalement d'actualité, moderne, percutant, sans espoir. Il convient juste de replacer la vision de Soljenitsyne dans son contexte et son parcours personnel.
Dans l'ensemble, une courte lecture que j'ai beaucoup apprécié.
Profile Image for João Pereira.
32 reviews3 followers
March 31, 2019
Não querendo soar a cliché, mas podia ter sido proferido ontem (ou, pior, não poderia ter sido proferido, nem ontem, nem hoje, o que é pior.
77 reviews2 followers
September 26, 2021
Brillant, clairvoyant et toujours d'actualité 👍💖
December 12, 2022
1978 et plus que jamais d'actualité, Soljénitsyne avait parfaitement identifié les fissures des sociétés occidentales qui sont aujourd'hui des failles béantes pour qui veut bien ouvrir les yeux. En attendant que le vieux monde s'écroule, un discours ardent et bref qui ne manquera pas d'embraser les cœurs romantiques!
116 reviews3 followers
August 15, 2022
Alexandre SOLJÉNITSYNE était un visionnaire.
Voilà un discours tenu à Harvard en 1978 et qui s'avère prophétique un peu plus de 40 ans après.
Et quel style littéraire !
À recommander chaudement dans notre civilisation occidentale à l'agonie.
Profile Image for Alain.
846 reviews
January 20, 2018
le texte et les idées sont interressants, courageux pour sa position, toujours d'actualité même si l'opposition au communisme a un peu vieilli. Le style est un peu reche sans vraiment de fluidité dans le developpement des idées. est ce la traduction ?
9 reviews
January 11, 2022
On y retrouve une analyse de l'époque que nous traversons, édictées par un Soljénistyne brillant et légitime. Texte criant de vérité datant de 1978.
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