Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008. Solzhenitsyn has became lost to popular memory, but he was once quite famous, specifically for writing about his experiences as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. He was a dissident, eloquent and empathetic in his writing, winning the Nobel Prize in 1970. He escaped the USSR in the 1970s but returned to Russia shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
His most famous work, the Gulag Archipelago, chronicles his prison camp experience. One paragraph from that book has stuck with me since I was a teenager. I remembered it again when the Iraq war began to unravel and Bush raged earnestly about “evildoers” and the “The Axis of Evil” in the Middle East. I remembered it again recently, in the current world of ‘left’ vs. ‘right’, ‘cancel culture’, and the general obsession with defining the good and bad, the enlightened and ignorant.
Here’s that paragraph:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil. Socrates taught us: “Know thyself.” Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t. From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb. And correspondingly, from evil to good.
That line is a deeply uncomfortable thing for us humans to admit. The stupid and the shameful coexisting with the empathetic and the generous, us moving back and forth across the “line” dividing the two as we make our way through life. But it’s what we do. We desperately want to be acknowledged…good. We seek to make that line sharper rather than softer, to make it a bright line that divides the darkness and light. Yet we repeatedly forget the difference between our beliefs and those of other people and so, as Solzhenitsyn also said, “we confidently judge the whole world according to our own home values.”