"It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments, I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil."
- The Gulag Archipelago, Part 4, C. 1, The Ascent
Before going any further, I must stress that my use of integrity here refers to the completeness of Solzhenitsyn's insight, not its sincerity. Despite the ridiculous claims of some communist apologists, I have never doubted Solzhenitsyn's honesty, nor his strong moral and Christian principles. At the same time, I understand that, for many, the mere notion of criticizing or questioning anything the prophet recorded is akin to blasphemy. After all, who am I to scrutinize wisdom wrung from such unimaginable oppression and suffering?
Well, before anyone stops reading, let me quickly and emphatically state that I believe Solzhenitsyn's pronouncement is true. More specifically, I believe it is an accurate assessment of the human experience and, unlike other assessments, it also contains a profound Christian truth. Unfortunately, the Christian truth within the passage can be easily ignored, leaving the concept of the line separating good and evil in the hearts of men susceptible to poisoned relativist interpretations that sloppily conclude that the existence of good and evil in the hearts of all human beings demands increased levels sympathy and tolerance for evil as well as the suspension of moral discernment and judgement. After all, if what Solzhenitsyn says is true, then who are we to judge?
Many Christians view judgement as the Achilles' heel of their faith. Within this framework, the limits of Solzhenitsyn's "line separating good and evil passage" from The Gulag Archipelago become readily apparent. We are all sinners, and we are all capable of both great good and unimaginable evil. As such, we should demonstrate forbearance in our judgement, think twice before casting stones, and practice restraint in our condemnation.
The problem with the line separating good and evil in the hearts of men lies not in the concept itself, but in the confusion the concept generates as its oscillations blend and blur sin, virtue, vice, righteousness, morality, immorality, lawfulness, lawlessness, ethics, and a thousand other aspects of the human experience. Removed from a Christian context, the concept of the line separating good and evil becomes meaningless; the line fades and disappears. Inversions materialize. Sins are praised and rewarded; virtues, condemned and punished. Discerning good from evil becomes an act of open interpretation palm reading.
The line passing through human hearts obscures the distinctions between the philanthropist billionaire who finances a clean drinking water project in an underdeveloped, third world country - thereby saving thousands from death and illness - but who concurrently evades paying taxes in every part of the world he does business and loses no sleep as the non-profit organizations he funds enable and support the unsubtle machinations of a global totalitarian regime that seeks to enslave all in the name of human dignity; and the foulmouthed barfly who is bigoted against foreigners, frequently gets into pointless drunken brawls, but otherwise spends the majority of his spare time tenderly caring for his elderly, invalid aunt.
Who is evil and who is good? Who knows? And who cares? After all, who are we to judge?
Defending the Solzhenitsyn's concept of the line through the heart by focusing exclusively on contextualization - by correctly pointing out that excerpt cannot be accurately elucidated in isolation beyond the boundaries of Solzhenitsyn's massive tome - does little to mitigate the damage. Yes, Solzhenitsyn's insight is more lucid when the all three volumes of the work from which it has been extracted are taken into consideration, but who among those who tout the line/heart passage as proof of the relativity of good and evil have ever read even the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago to the end? And why would they bother? They relish the limits of Solzhenitsyn's observations concerning good and evil because it provides them with exactly what they need - ambiguity and doubt.
So, is Solzhenitsyn's line dividing good and evil in the hearts of men forever lost as a profound Christian truth? Not exactly, but any effort to reclaim it requires the support of another Solzhenitsyn's dictum to serve as a premise - "Men have forgotten God; that's why all of this has happened." Beyond being an open refutation of atheism and an explanation for the disasters that befell Russia in the twentieth century, "men have forgotten God" serves to remind us of the importance of motivation, alignment, and repentance when it comes to the line dividing good and evil in the hearts of men.
One need look no further than Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to understand the significance of motivation, alignment, and repentance when it comes to discerning the good and evil within men's hearts. In the novel, Raskolnikov is convinced of his sound and rational motivations for killing the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanova. He is a man of reason; a man of will; a man unburdened by obsolete notions of good and evil. He would be doing the world a favor by ridding it of an evil, corrupt old wretch who caused nothing but suffering. He would use the money to continue his education, become a great man, better the world.
Raskolnikov's motivations are anything but rational, and his decision to commit the murder, which inadvertently morphs into a double murder, squarely aligns him with the side of evil. His actions put him in direct opposition to God's creation, an alignment that refuses to shift even after he confesses his crime to Sonya, who informs him that he must publicly confess and embrace his punishment for turning away from God. At the same time, Sonya responds with immense pity and promises to support Raskolnikov and not abandon him.
By the end of the novel, Raskolnikov is on the edge of true repentance and on the verge of realignment with God's creation through Christ. The bridgehead of good in which Sonya puts her faith begins to extend within him, but Sonya's faith in Raskolnikov's bridgehead of good does not imply any discounting of the inherent evil of Raskolnikov's motivations and actions. Nor does it discount the evil of his turning away from God. In other words, her affection for Raskolnikov and her Christian faith do not obscure her discernment of evil. On the contrary, both help her refine her judgment.
The line separating good and evil that passes through the heart of every man is the revelation of a simple truth, but the simplicity of this truth is only supported when it is set against the backdrop of motivation, alignment, and repentance. A man of good motivations aligned with God's creation stands a greater chance of controlling the oscillations of good and evil within his heart. Moreover, the same man will also tend to notice when the line has slipped and seek repentance rather than excuses and rationalizations whenever he falls into sin. Conversely, a man of evil motivations inevitably chooses to side against God's creation. Once there, he will find it difficult to repent and will quickly justify his choice with excuses and rationalizations. The bridgehead of good within him must not be dismissed, but it also must not serve as a defense or justification for evil.
Many of history's greatest atrocities were committed in the name of eliminating evil in the world. The impossibility of this task reveals the most profound truth in Solzhenitsyn's concept of the line separating good and evil in the hearts of all men. This impossibility must be acknowledged, but it cannot serve as justification for the tolerance and acceptance of evil motivations. Nor should it serve to blind us to the reality of those who actively and unrepentantly choose to work against God's creation. Yes, even in the darkest of hearts, the small bridgehead of good exists, just as the unuprooted corner of evil exists in the very best of hearts, but whether the line passing over the heart oscillates toward or away from either of these depends almost exclusively on a person's motivation, alignment, and capacity for repentance - that is, on an person's active and conscious choice to side with good or evil.
And now that things have reached the point, these are not only simpler to discern, but simply must be discerned.
Note added: This post was partly inspired by Bruce Charlton's clarifying remarks on the subject of motivation, alignment with creation, and repentance.