Vaclav Havel and the Humble, Heroic Soul
This is from a post I wrote while I was studying International Law in Prague, Czech Republic 2008:
“A modern philosopher once said: ‘Only a God can save us now.’
Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.
The truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies – it must be rooted in self-transcendence:
*Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe.
*Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.
*Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.
The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”
-Vaclav Havel, Playwright, Poet and Czech President 1992-2003
…But what I have learned, especially from reading history, is that while at most times it seems that mankind can be satisfied with mere stability, work, and the rule of the powerful and those bred to power, in almost every epoch there are heroes, many unrecognized, that challenge the commonplace and break through in an attempt to expand the boundaries of human liberty and consciousness. And in our age, despite the fact that so many gains have been made in the past twenty years, there remains plenty of areas of darkness where liberty is misunderstood or is being lost in places once vibrant with the hope of greater ideals.
As I mentioned earlier in this essay, although it may seem like it, what I am doing is not commonplace. What is truly incredible is that Prague is now a desireable tourist destination for Americans and one of the hubs of the future for Europe. In my lifetime, the dramatic changes that have taken place in this country are truly astounding and I wonder if this is not lost on the young people I meet here who are bent on enjoying themselves and seeing the architecture. When I was growing up and all through my college years, Prague and the rest of Eastern Europe were shrouded under the dark days of the Communist Iron Curtain. Most Americans feared or pitied this part of the world and even if they could travel through this zone of authoritarian regimes and secret police, they did so at their peril and usually not for enjoyment’s sake. This has all changed, and the story of that change is not commonplace, and that is why, although I am not anyone particularly special, I am engaged now in history and standing on the shoulders of the heroic who envisioned that things could be better and pursued that vision despite repression and resisitance from the powerful.
Since we are talking here about the word, heroism and the Czech Republic, I think it appropriate that we reflect on the fact that it was a writer that spoke for the political ambitions of his people, and had a vision of liberty that broke the backs of the communists. Much has been written about Vaclav Havel and his life. For many years he spoke out against the auhtoritarian communist regime that ruled the Czech Republic since the end of the the Second world War.
He started the Charter 77 Movement that organized the dissident voices of playwrights and artists and other various activists. Eventually he was jailed for his work but lived to see the communists’ downfall and became the newly liberated country’s president from 1993-2002. I am now reading a book of interviews with him that was published in 1990 and it is clear that Havel understands that democracy is based in natural law and its purpose is to deny to the powerful the ability to control the mind and especiually the spirit of man. He sees that only through liberty can man achieve true spiritual transecendence and thus fulfill his purpose in life.Havel is a true hero, not because he brought the Czech Republic a utopia, but because he brought it liberty through the operation of the spirit. There is no greater example of Havel’s spiritual heroism than the influence he had on dissidents in other countries who were struggling to fight the Soviet empire. One essay in particular, called “The Power of the Powerless” had a profounbd influence on Eastern European dissidents and just as Havel was being arrested in Czechoslavakia, his essay was circulating to factory workers in Poland and elsewhere. The response by a solidarity activist to this essay should say it all:
“This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Inspired by KOR [the Polish Workers’ Defense Committee], we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways?”
“Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later-in August ig8o-it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.”
This was true heroism. The courage to write and struggle in the face of repression and imprisonment is no easy road. One cannot know what dark places they will illuminate in the human mind with their words and ideas but must do what is necessary for their own spritual survival and to be able to confront their conscience when they go to sleep at night. Vaclav Havel most likely did not know that his single essay would inspire and sustain a fledgling movement in the factories and shipyards of Poland. He certainly did not benefit from his essay as he spent the next 5 years of his life in prison. But he wrote what he had to and empowered the powerless and changed the world.