November 19, 2009
The Velvet Prophet: Vaclav Havel and his Message of Responsibility
— Lubomir Martin Ondrasek
This week marks the twenty-year anniversary of the beginning of the “Velvet Revolution” (or the “Gentle Revolution” as referred to by the Slovaks), which led to the rapid demise of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. On November 17, 1989 in Prague, a heavily armed riot police squad harshly suppressed a peaceful student demonstration that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the killing of the Czech medical student Ján Opletal by the occupying Nazi forces. This event supplied the needed spark that lit the flames of courage and hope for non-violent political protests across the country. Ten days later, hundreds of thousands of Czech and Slovak citizens gathered in city squares to participate in a two-hour nationwide general strike that called for the abolishment of the leading role of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Before the year was over, the Communist leaders relinquished their grip on power, and Czechoslovakia has embarked on a challenging journey towards a democratic future.
Václav Havel will always remain the principal symbol of this important European revolution, which has joined the annals of history as one of the few that contained no bloodshed. Havel is an enchanting but elusive figure who has been interpreted in a variety of ways – depending on whom you ask, you will find that Havel wears a different suit: prison garb or uniform, toga or tux, hand cuffs or cuff links, cap or crown. My intent here is to add yet another accessory to Havel’s already bulging wardrobe. Along with everything else, Havel wears the mantle of a prophet whose salient message, communicated through essays, speeches, letters, and early plays, is not abstruse: Our world is in a state of crisis, and we must not remain indifferent to both its symptoms and its causes. In Havel’s understanding, it was the “arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control,” which plunged humanity into its present condition. As a playwright, dissident, president, and now as a citizen, Havel has seized whatever opportunity he could to speak about what happens when human beings are not “grounded in humble respect for the order of Being.”
Although Havel does not preach any ideological panacea and has always been hesitant in prescribing definite solutions for making the world a better place, or at least keeping it from getting worse, there is one ubiquitous theme that can be detected whether he addresses audiences in New York or New Delhi: “If humanity has any hope of a decent future, it lies in the awakening of a universal sense of responsibility, the kind of responsibility rooted far more deeply than in the world of transient and temporary earthly interests.” Significantly influenced by the Czech phenomenologist and human rights activist Ján Patočka, Havel’s unsystematized moral theory seems to resemble most closely the dialogical ethics of responsibility. If it is true that the salvation of our world lies in human beings embracing individual and collective responsibility, perhaps the most critical question to ask of Václav Havel is how a person can attain this responsibility. Based on his fundamental presupposition that the origin and grounding of moral responsibility is metaphysical, Havel surprisingly points to “God,” who can awaken and sustain in human beings a deeper sense of responsibility.
People interested in the ethical and religious dimensions of Havel’s thought are often unsure about exactly what he means when speaking so frequently about the “absolute horizon,” the “miracle of Being,” or the “memory of God.” While Havel has been reluctant to confess faith in a theistic God and he is not committed to any particular set of religious dogmas, nevertheless he staunchly adheres to universal metaphysical principles that he sees as undergirding all religious traditions and to the “order of Being” that he sees as transcending all religious traditions. Havel’s religion is mainly characterized by recognition of his own finitude, humility toward transcendent reality and openness to the unknown. It is antithetical to the religion a “fanatic” clings to, who as Havel once so compellingly put, “without realizing it, replaces the love of God with the love for his own religion; the love of truth, freedom and justice with love of an ideology, doctrine or sect; love of people with love of a project.”
Whatever one might think of the basic assumptions that shape Havel’s message of responsibility, we can be grateful on this special occasion that his prophetic voice and witness have been present in our world.
Havel, Václav. Spisy, zv. 1-7 [Writings, vol. 1-7]. Praha, ČR: Torst, 1999.
Havel, Václav. Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Havel, Václav. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvížďala. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Havel, Václav. Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Havel, Václav. The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice. Translated by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Lubomir Martin Ondrasek is a PhD student in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and participated in the Velvet Revolution as a young adult in Czechoslovakia. He is cofounder of Acta Sanctorum, a Chicago-based non-profit that works for the positive transformation of countries that are or once were under totalitarian regimes.