If you could have one chance to speak to the world’s most powerful political body, what would you say? When Václav Havel’s invitation came, he told the United States Congress that “the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart.” He told people preoccupied with getting reelected that they should “put morality ahead of politics, science, and economics” and that “the only genuine core of all our actions–if they are to be moral–is responsibility.” Then, as a capper, he explained that our supreme responsibility is “to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success”; it is to the transcendent realm above us.
Havel had indubitably earned his right to be heard by the high and mighty. He had put his successful career as a playwright on hold to lead the dissenters against communist totalitarianism in his native Czechoslovakia, had therefore been repeatedly imprisoned, and then–during our turbulent century’s most sensational year, 1989–moved within months from prisoner to president of his country. This was enough for America’s Most Beautiful People to invite him to a gala reception in New York, where they could have their pictures taken with him, and Barbra Streisand allowed that he could smoke in her presence. The New York Review of Books, that bellwether journal of America’s elite opinion, regularly publishes his essays. Havel has become as much of an icon as our secular establishment can accommodate.
This appropriation is incongruous. Havel’s ideas do not comport well at all with those of our cultural pacesetters in Manhattan or inside the Beltway or in the Big Academy. They do comport well, by contrast, with those of the many ordinary American citizens who also think against the grain of today’s fashions. Havel believes in the old-fashioned concepts of good and evil. He speaks of truth, without quotation marks. He sees individuals as the chief engines of history. Championing human liberty, he warns against the centralization of power, and his plays describe the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy. Challenging the doctrine of progress, he looks to the past for wisdom. He speaks freely about God and religion. He conjoins these themes in a call for each of us to live responsibly. Personal responsibility is his central theme.
Our Century’s Unprecedented Flight from God
As Havel presses this theme, he offers a particularly penetrating analysis of our times. What, would you say, is the distinctive character of the twentieth century? Many, perhaps most, would point out its amazing technological advances. Others call it the American century. Havel says that our century’s distinguishing mark is that “we are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history.” It is no coincidence that “the first atheistic civilization” has produced the bloodiest century in history.
The civic face of atheism is ideology. Havel considers ideology “almost a secularized religion.” His exact synonym for “ideology” is “the lie.” An ideological regime “must falsify everything”–the past, the present, the future, statistics, everything. Citizens under such a regime “need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did.” Havel depicts a greengrocer who puts in his window the slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” He thereby embodies the moral illness of “saying one thing and thinking another.”
Were the greengrocer not to put up the sign, he would wordlessly announce that “the emperor is naked” and would show that “it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal.” This, Havel explains, is exactly what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. And so did other dissenters, whom he calls “ordinary people with ordinary cares, differing from the rest only in that they say aloud what the rest cannot say or are afraid to say.”
According to Havel, ordinary people everywhere can live in the truth only by embracing the “notion of human responsibility.” Responsibility is “that fundamental point from which all identity grows and by which it stands or falls; it is the foundation, the root, the center of gravity, the constructional principle or axis of identity.” Thus, Havel declares, “I am responsible for the state of the world,” and he means a “responsibility not only to the world but also ‘for the world,’ as though I myself were to be judged for how the world turns out.” Citing Dostoevsky’s spiritual dictum that all are responsible for all, he points to that “‘higher’ responsibility, which grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere ‘above us,’ in … an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is liable.”
The Transcendent Reality from Which All Life Draws Its Meaning
Despite his Roman Catholic rearing, Havel does not number himself among the believers. He admits to “an affinity for Christian sentiment,” and he tries “to live in the spirit of Christian morality.” Yet, when queried about a rumor that he had become a Christian, he began ambivalently–“It depends on how we understand conversion”–then said no. No, because “genuine conversion, as I understand it, would mean replacing an uncertain ‘something’ with a completely unambiguous personal God, and fully, inwardly, to accept Christ as the Son of God.… And I have not taken that step.”
Yet the rearing shows. Havel does insist–and this is what matters most for Havel as cultural critic–that there is a transcendent reality from which all of human life draws its meaning. And, despite the impersonal ring of his God-substitutes, such as “the mystery of Being” and “the absolute horizon of Being,” he routinely makes personal references to them, as when he converses with “someone” who “addresses me directly and personally.” He is always approving toward believers and disapproving toward atheists. In his cultural criticism (as distinct from his private life), Havel might as well be a Christian.
This is certainly true in his analysis of the West. Havel and his fellow dissenters took “the traditional values of Western civilization” as their guiding light. He remains wholeheartedly committed to “the ideals of democracy, human rights, the civil society, and the free market”–the values America espouses. As a lay historian of ideas, he particularly praises the “blending of classical, Christian, and Jewish elements” that has created “the most dynamic civilization of the last millennium.”
With the Cold War over, we can now look beneath its surface split in the world and recognize that “the West and the East, though different in so many ways, are going through a single, common crisis,” for both are heirs of the Enlightenment’s legacy of atheism. In both precincts we observe the “arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control.” This worldview “kills God, and takes his place on the vacant throne,” viewing the world as “nothing but a crossword puzzle to be solved.”
Because “communism was the perverse extreme” of this modern world-view, Havel sees life under communism as “a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies.” He once admitted being particularly “taken aback by the extent to which so many Westerners are addicted to ideology, much more than we who live in a system which is ideological through and through.” But the West shows “unwillingness to hear the warning voices coming from our part of the world.” So, it misses the real significance of “the end of communism,” which is “a signal that the era of arrogant, absolutist reason is drawing to a close.”
Havel’s Warning to the West
Thus, Havel laments that “the Western way of affirming Western values … seems to me to have seriously cooled off.” The West has “lost its ability to sacrifice,” he asserts, because its “economic advances,… based as they are on advances in scientific and technical knowledge, have gradually altered man’s very value systems.” We now worship “a new deity: the ideal of perpetual growth of production and consumption.” The American-led West offers the world an “essentially atheistic technological civilization.” It mainly exports not its traditional high ideals but its unsavory “by-products,” such as “moral relativism, materialism, the denial of any kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal, a profound crisis of authority and the resulting general decay of order, a frenzied consumerism, a lack of solidarity, a selfish cult of material success, the absence of faith in a higher order of things or simply in eternity.”
Such an indictment could easily turn Westerners defensive. What about democracy? we might ask. Is not that a high ideal? Havel the democrat considers that we promulgate a cut-flower variety of it. He considers the right to vote, freedom of expression, and private ownership of property to be, by themselves, “merely technical instruments,” which can “enable” but “cannot guarantee [human] dignity, freedom, and responsibility.” Electoral procedures are the husk, not the kernel, of a free society. And do we not ourselves sometimes fear that “the democratic West [has] lost its ability realistically to foster and cultivate the values it has always proclaimed and undertaken to safeguard”?
We might also ask, What about our free-enterprise system, now widely imitated? Havel values its wealth-making ways, as his own policies in the Czech Republic show. However, he also espies “the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.” So, he resists a marketplace without morality. “If [the West’s] own consumer affluence remains more important to it than the laudable foundations of the affluence, it will soon forfeit that affluence.” As we might have learned from another source, we could gain the whole world and lose our own soul.
Our moment in history is, according to Havel, a “watershed” moment “in the history of the entire human race.” Can we come out from under the rubble of our century’s atheism? Michael Novak thinks we can and will. He predicts that “the twenty-first century will be the most religious in five hundred years.” And he cites Havel as one of “the leading spirits of our age [who] have begun to sense that humans are naturally religious.”
Havel’s advice for the future, whether to America or to the world as a whole, is governed by his view that “our very planetary civilization is endangered by human irresponsibility.” In a nutshell, he counsels us to reinvigorate the wisdom of the past. To America, he declares that “the fathers of American democracy knew” what “modern man has lost: his transcendent anchor.” Ironically, it is a foreigner who reminds an audience in Philadelphia that “the Declaration of Independence, adopted 218 years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems that man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.” Is this what American schoolchildren hear?
The Way Forward Is First the Way Back
To the world as a whole, he also suggests that the way forward is first the way back. As Western technology imposes “the veneer of world civilization” through “informational and economic globalization,” we need to locate “sources of a shared minimum that could serve as a framework for the tolerant coexistence of different cultures within a single civilization.” Although Havel asserts that “no unbiased person will have any trouble knowing where to look,” his answer is surprising. He looks to ancient religions. He emphatically rejects the familiar modern move to make the Creator “disappear from the world” and “into a sphere of privacy of sorts, if not directly into a sphere of private fancy–that is, into a place where public obligations no longer apply.”
The religions of antiquity proclaim in common what modern humanity has lost: “The certainty that the Universe, nature, existence, and our lives are the work of creation guided by a definite intention, that it has a definite meaning and follows a definite purpose.” Despite our superior information about the universe, our ancestors “knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.” They knew that “people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them.” They knew that “true goodness, true responsibility, true justice, a true sense of things–all these grow from roots that go much deeper than the world of our transitory earthly schemes. This is a message that speaks to us from the very heart of human religiosity.”
In short, Havel commends, as Christians such as C. S. Lewis before him have commended, the concept we sometimes call natural law. This may not be the whole counsel of the God of the Bible, but what a sharp contrast it provides to the blandishments of our secular elites.
Think of how our public discourse would change if we drank deeply from Havel’s well. We would talk less about such secondary aspects of our being as race, class, and gender and more about our souls. We would couch our conversations about politics and economics in a moral vocabulary. For every mention of rights, we would mention responsibility. We would stop ignoring God. One need not know Havel to live responsibly, but knowing him can only help.