September 23, 2007


Velvet Revolutionary: TO THE CASTLE AND BACK By Vaclav Havel. Translated by Paul Wilson (Paul Berman, NY Times Book Review)

[M]ostly the flickering anecdotes and commentaries illuminate the implausible incongruities that make up Havel’s strange and appealing personality. Self-effacement is his first instinct. He insists that he has never entertained political ambitions. And yet, as if to show that his modesty is never false, and that self-effacement is not his only instinct, he goes on to remark that most of the historic statements and documents of the anti-Communist dissident movement in his corner of the world were written by himself, and that his rise to leadership followed simply from his superior talent for cool and orderly thinking. He began as a playwright and a man of the arts, and his earliest friends in the non-Communist West, back in cold war times, leaned in pacifist and anticapitalist directions, artsy-style. Yet those were not his own leanings. He never doubted, for instance, that military action was a good idea against the Serbian nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic.

He worries about what he calls “the old European disease, which is the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement.” He disapproves of every single aspect of George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq crisis, except for the part about getting rid of Saddam Hussein, which Havel still thinks was a legitimate thing to do. His sense of right and wrong on the largest of political questions seems to be absolute, as if based on religious convictions — possibly on Christianity in some vague fashion, to judge by some of his remarks. He invokes a philosophical God called Being. Yet he never clarifies or explains these religious and philosophical hints — not in this book, nor in any of his other writings translated into English, nor in his interviews. Ten years ago I had the opportunity to interview Havel, and I did my best to get him to plumb the depths of Being for my benefit and the world’s. He plumbed the depths of NATO instead, and in “To the Castle and Back” he still natters on about NATO, and he still leaves an impression that Being undergirds his faith in it. Even his political ideals are hard to define, beyond the fundamentals of liberal democracy. Post-Communist society disappoints him. He would like to move along to a post-post-Communism. Yet he says nothing at all, not in this book, anyway, about the possible shapes that a new and better post-post society might take.

He is inscrutable, and this may be his genius.

Address by Vaclav Havel President of the Czech Republic to the Senate and the House of Commons of the Parliament of Canada (Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 29 April 1999)
[T]here is a value which ranks higher than the State. This value is humanity. The State, as is well known, is here to serve the people, not the other way round. If a person serves his or her state such service should go only as far as is necessary for the state to do a good service to all its citizens. Human rights rank above the rights of states. Human liberties constitute a higher value than State sovereignty. In terms of international law, the provisions that protect the unique human being should take precedence over the provisions that protect the State.

If, in the world of today, our fates are merged into one single destiny, and if every one of us is responsible for the future of all, nobody - not even the State - should be allowed to restrict the right of the people to exercise this responsibility. I think that the foreign policies of individual states should gradually sever the category that has, until now, most often constituted their axis, that is, the category of "interests", "our national interests" or "the foreign policy interests of our state". The category of "interests" tends to divide rather than to bring us together. It is true that each of us has some specific interests. This is entirely natural and there is no reason why we should abandon our legitimate concerns. But there is something that ranks higher than our interests: it is the principles that we espouse. Principles unite us rather than divide us. Moreover, they are the yardstick for measuring the legitimacy or illegitimacy of our interests. I do not think it is valid when various state doctrines say that it is in the interest of the state to uphold such and such a principle. Principles must be respected and upheld for their own sake - so to speak, as a matter of principle - and interests should be derived from them. [...]

Dear friends,

Many times in the past, I have pondered on the question of why humanity has the prerogative to any rights at all. Inevitably, I have always come to the conclusion that human rights, human liberties and human dignity have their deepest roots outside of this earthly world. They become what they are only because, under certain circumstances, they can mean to humanity a value that people place - without being forced to - higher than even their own lives. Thus, these notions have meaning only against the background of the infinite and of eternity. It is my profound conviction that the true worth of all our actions - whether or not they are in harmony with our conscience, the ambassador of eternity in our soul - is finally tested somewhere beyond our sight. If we did not sense this, or subconsciously surmise it, certain things could never get done.

Let me conclude my remarks on the State and on the role it will probably play in the future with the following statement: While the State is a human creation, humanity is a creation of God.

There seems at least a possibility that Mr. Havel escaped the intellectual trap that ensnared Orwell & Camus.


Posted by Orrin Judd at September 23, 2007 7:29 AM

Belief in "humanity" precludes faith. Unfortunately, the main reason this happens is what I call the imputation of one's own righteousness upon others.

The result is one knowing the truth, but the truth not setting one free (being blinded by the bondage of others).

Posted by: Randall Voth at September 23, 2007 11:49 PM