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Standardized systems and ideologies, for Havel then, have deprived human beings of rulers as well as the ruled of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity. States grow ever more machine-like, men 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. In fact this absolute power achieved its most complete expression in the totalitarian systems. And these systems are none other than a convex mirror, for Havel, of all modern civilization.

The question about capitalism and socialism, in the context of such modernization, seems to emerge from the depths of the last century. It seems to Havel that these highly ideological and semantically confused categories (isms) have long since been beside the point. The question for him is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all; whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of all things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speaking, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral and dignified human I, responsible for ourselves because we are bound to something higher. In other words, and in our terms, Havel is seeking to ground himself, and his society, in nature, and thereby emerge through culture, prior to navigating a Czech political way through technology and society.

The task therefore is that 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 ideology, systems, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans. We must honour with the humility of the wise the bounds of the natural world and the mystery that lies beyond them. We must trust the voice of our conscience more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent other responsibilities than the one to which the voice calls us. 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. We must be guided by our own reason and serve the truth under all circumstances as our own essential experience.


Heroic scepticism in central Europe

Why, in the final analysis then, bother with a never-ending, genuinely hopeless search for truth when a truth can be had so readily, all at once, in the form of an ideology or doctrine? Suddenly it is all so simple. Think of all the difficult questions which are answered in advance! Think of all the laborious existential tasks from which our minds are freed once and for all. The essence of this short circuit, for Havel, is a fatal mistake: the tacit assumption that some ingenious, universally applicable artefact can lift from our shoulders the burden of the incessant, always unique, and essentially inalienable question, and essentially transform man from a questioning being into an existing answer.

Havel believes, arising out of its history then, that a distinctive Central European scepticism is inescapably part of the spiritual, cultural and intellectual phenomenon that is Central Europe. Such a scepticism has little in common, say, with the English variety. It is generally rather stranger, a bit mysterious, a bit nostalgic, even tragic, and at times even heroic. Sometimes it gives the impression that Czech people are endowed with an inner radar capable of recognizing an approaching danger long before it becomes visible and recognizable as such. Czechs are keenly sensitive to the danger that a living idea, at once the product and the emblem of meaningful humanity, will petrify into Utopia, or indeed ideology.

Promoting European Uniqueness

Life and the world are as beautiful and interesting as they are because, among other things, they are varied, because every living creature, every community, every country and every nation has its own unique identity. France is different from Spain and Spain is not the same as Finland. Each country has its own geographical, social, intellectual, cultural and political climate. It is proper, for Havel, that things should be that way. Though the Czechs can learn from any place in the world that can offer them useful knowledge, at the same time he sees no reason why they should be ashamed of trying to find their own way, one that derives from their Czech identity.

The country is where it is, its landscape is beautiful in some ways and devastating in others, it has its own history and traditions, the political left and right are the way they are and not the way they are elsewhere. Why not try to understand the inner content of this fact, Havel argues, the potential, the problems and hopes connected with it. The country is what history made it. Czechs live in the very centre of Central Europe, in a place that from the very beginning of time has been the main European crossroads of every possible interest, invasion, and influence of a political, military, ethnic, religious or cultural nature. The intellectual and cultural currents of East and West, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, enlightened and romantic, the political movements of conservative and progressive, liberal and socialist – all of these overlapped here, and bubbled away in one vast cauldron. They combined to form Czech national and cultural consciousness, our traditions, the social models of our behaviour, which have been passed down from one generation to another. In short our history has informed our experience of the world.

For centuries both Czechs and Slovaks, whether in their own state or under foreign control, lived in a state of constant menace from without. Each then is like a sponge that has gradually absorbed and digested all kinds of intellectual and cultural impulses and initiatives. Many European initiatives were born or first formulated in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, its historical experience has imbued it with a keen sensitivity to danger. It has even made us, Havel adds, somewhat prescient; many admonitory visions of the future, such as Kafka's, have come from here. The ethnic variety of the area, and life under foreign hegemony, have created different mutations of a specific Central European provinciality.

Truth as Moral Value

The country's most recent experience, one that none of the Western democracies has undergone, was communism. Often Czechs themselves are unable to appreciate fully the existential dimension of this bitter experience and all its consequences, including those that are currently metaphysical. It is up to us alone to determine, Havel asserts, what value we place on that particular capital. It is no accident here, then, that with the constant need to defend its own identity, the idea that a price must be paid for the truth, the idea of truth as a moral value, has such a long tradition. That tradition stretches from Saint Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity to the region in the 9th century, through the 15 th century reformer Jan Hus, all the way down to modern politicians like Tomas Masaryk and Milan Stefanik, and the philosopher Jan Patocka.

When we think about all of this, the shape of Czech intellectual and spiritual character starts to appear in the outlines of an existential, social and cultural potential which is slumbering here and which if understood and evaluated can give the spirit, or the idea, of our new state a unique and individual face. Every European country in fact has something particular to it and that makes its autonomy worth defending, even in the framework of an integrating Europe, as we shall see in the next chapter. That autonomy then enriches the entire European scene; it is a voice in that remarkable polyphony, another instrument in that orchestra. Havel then feels that his country's historical experience, its intellectual and spiritual potential, its experience of misery, absurdity, violence, its humour, its experience of sacrifice, its love of civility, its love of truth and our knowledge of the many ways it can be betrayed, can, if Czechs wish, create another of those distinct voices from which the chorus of Europe is composed.

Eastern Europe's great, specific experience of recent times is the collapse of ideology. For Havel then, the world of ideologies and doctrines is on the way out for good along with the entire modern age. We are now on the threshold of an era of globality, an era of open society, an era in which ideologies will be replaced by ideas. Building an intellectual and spiritual state based on ideas does not mean building an ideological state. Indeed, an ideological state cannot be intellectual or spiritual. A state based on ideas is precisely the opposite: it is meant to extricate human beings from the straightjacket of ideological interpretations, and to rehabilitate them as subjects of individual conscience, of individual thinking backed up by experience, of individual responsibility, and with a love for their neighbours that is anything but abstract.

Such a state based on ideas should be no more and no less than a guarantee of freedom and security for people who know that the state and its institutions can stand behind them only if they themselves take responsibility for the state, that is, if they see it as their own project and their own home, as something they need not fear, as something they can accommodate without shame or love, because they have built it for themselves.

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