Many have known Václav Havel as a dissident and politician who influenced the history of the Czech Republic. But he was also a thought-provoking political philosopher, a poet and a playwright. What can Europe learn from Havel?

Who was the real Havel?

Among the many Eastern and Central European dissidents, only a few got such popularity in the West as he did. Once a political prisoner, he was chosen to be the President of the state. Many saw this as the incarnation of one of the Europe’s oldest topoi – the philosopher on the throne – he was one of the key figures of the Autumn of Nations, a pioneer of the reintegration of Europe, and a laidback, long-haired rock fan and playwright at the same time. A venerable pundit or an old, complaining preachy dreamer? Who was Václav Havel really?

Discussing Havel and his legacy is an indispensable task to make up for the bitter lesson of the 20th century. As he used to say: “no error could be greater than the failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are – a convex mirror of all modern civilisation and a harsh, perhaps final, call for a global recasting of how that civilisation understands itself.” Totalitarianism “has not appeared out of thin air;” it’s an effect rather than a cause. Without comprehending Havel, “learning from our own European history” remains impossible. That’s why from the variety of narratives we decided to emphasise what has often been neglected by the media but is ultimately crucial. We’d like to present Havel as a political thinker, a philosopher for the European crisis.

Photo: Hana Marešová (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0 | Václav Havel a Jaroslav Krejčí

Make politics (very) personal

First of all, Havel was not the kind of political philosopher who proposes some certain ideal political system or clear justification of authority and law. In some ways he may appear to be very similar to the Socrates who emerges from Plato’s dialogues. He does not pose “a question about socialism or capitalism.” He saw such categories as “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused,” and ultimately “beside the point.” Havel wasn’t interested in institutions, socio-technical tricks or the sufficient execution of power. He sought the individual; that was his fundamental assumption. It was perhaps his first and the last question: how can an individual immersed in history rescue his or her own humanity and then affect history? Therefore the crisis Havel refers to is by far more complex, because it’s not confined in the formulas of political technology but concerns the foundations of modern society. It cannot be resolved by traditional means. He claims that it demands a profound change of thinking and a reaffirmation of some of the lost “subjective illusions,” “forgotten awareness” that “endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence” which is indispensable to a meaningful community.

“Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being

Havel used to blame the modern, technological civilisation. However, his was not some naïve, escapist condemnation; he rather tried to point out some specific aspects of modernity that seem to make a man less human and paradoxically provided a world that is more vague than enlightened.

Along with the scientific worldview came false rational objectivity. Man became arrogant and while he supposed he had freed himself from the old myths, it was actually taboos that he had liberated himself from – or rather he had become “alienated from himself as a being.”

As modern man began to examine the world as an objective observer, he somehow lost his personal attitude to it. When he started to describe the world using only scientific measures (and insist that this is the only possibility), he decided “to deny it, deframe and degrade it and, of course, at the same time colonise it.” Havel seemed to say that we deprived ourselves from the world that was “the realm of our inimitable, inalienable, and non-transferable joy and pain,” a world of “tangible content” that was provided by “pre-speculative assumptions,” “pre-objective experience of the lived world” that our less enlightened and less rational ancestors had bequeathed by a word of mouth.

Photo: Martin Kozák (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: Creative Commons | Havel’s contribution to peace and human rights won him many awards, including the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the International Gandhi Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many others

“Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.” Modern man is accustomed to negate, to doubt, and to find rational, objective justification. He negated (“disinherited” himself from) his ancestors’ knowledge as some immature, childish stories. Nevertheless, at the same time he “lives in the conviction he that can improve his life because he is able to grasp and exploit the complexity of nature and the general laws of its functioning.” The “man outside nature” ignores it with a conviction of objective, external superiority. Havel gives an example from his homeland, depicting the failed communist modernisation of Czechoslovakian agriculture: “With hedges ploughed under and woods cut down, wild birds have died out and, with them, a natural, unpaid protector of the crops against harmful insects. Huge unified fields have led to the inevitable annual loss of millions of cubic yards of topsoil that have taken centuries to accumulate; chemical fertilizers and pesticides have catastrophically poisoned all vegetable products, the earth and the waters.”

Alienation from humanity

The man who has “grown alienated” from humanity “has constructed a vision of a scientifically calculable and technologically achievable ‘universal welfare’ that need only be invented by experimental institutes while industrial and bureaucratic factories turn it into reality.”

Modern man created his own alter ego. He disinherited himself from his identity and decided to construct an avatar, which was neither a part of the natural world nor part of human community. Finally he lost the ability to grasp transcendence.

After all, empathy, responsibility, friendship, love, duty, good or evil are exactly those false “subjective illusions.” They exceed the objective, calculable measures. A man who puts himself in the middle and outside of the world at the same time is not ready to take part in it. He learns to expand his individuality but forgets how to transcend it. He is no longer a member of a family or a community – he is no longer himself but an indifferent, lonely and lost traveller guided by a certain objective truth while being sure of nothing. As Havel wrote to his wife: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”

Photo: Chmee2 (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0 | Memorial gathering for Václav Havel in Wenceslas Square in Prague on the day of his death on 18 December 2011

The poor modern man “relegated personal conscience and consciousness to the bathroom, as something so private that it is no one’s business.” As a result politics cannot be perceived from subjective perspective either.

“States grow ever more machinelike; people are transformed into statistical choruses of voters, producers, consumers, patients, tourists, or soldiers. In politics, good and evil, – categories of the natural world and therefore obsolete remnants of the past – lose all absolute meaning; the sole method of politics is quantifiable success. Power is a priori innocent because it does not grow from a world in which words like ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ retain their meaning.” In one of his most famous plays, “The Memorandum,” Havel even creates a newspeak (two, in fact): languages which are invented to eliminate the human ambiguity of emotionally-affected communication and allow the power to communicate to become synthetically designed, mathematically-driven and objective. No matter that almost no one is able to read a sentence (or even pronounce the names of the languages: Ptydepe and Chorukor).

Humanise politics

“As all I have said suggests, it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché – all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought. We must draw our standards from our natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaffirm its denied validity. We must honour with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence. (…) We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their “private” exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community.”

A man who puts himself in the middle and outside of the world at the same time is not ready to take part in it.

Although most of Havel’s works were written in communist Eastern Europe, their application by far surpasses the borders of the charming Czech Republic. The uniqueness of Havel lies in the fact that he did not only observe the decadent communist society from a historical perspective, but rather inquired into the obscure sources of the evil that concerns each political community.

Hence, we can only say: read and debate Havel.

Suggested reading:

Politics and ConscienceThe Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern WorldThe Power of the PowerlessIs there a Europan identity, is there a Europe?Politics and TheatreAn Open Letter to Dr. Husak, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist PartyAnatomy of a ReticenceA Word About Words ,The Great Moral Stake of the MomentEurope: Twilight at DawnEurope as a Spiritual TaskResponsibility and the SpiritWhat Communism Still Teaches Us

Cover photo: Davidlohr Bueso (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

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