A Sense of the Transcendental

By Vaclav Havel
[Condensed from a talk given to the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia, March 29, 1995, included in a new collection of his essays, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997); featured also in Cross Currents, Fall 1997. An internationally celebrated essayist and playwright, Vaclav Havel is president of the Czech Republic. Reprinted by permission.]

For virtually my whole life, I was barred from leaving my country. As the long decades went by, I got so used to this absurd situation that I simply assumed I would never get to see any other parts of the world. Needless to say, visiting a continent as distant as Australia was, I thought, absolutely impossible. Australia was one of those fabulous worlds beyond reach, worlds one cannot enter, just as one cannot land on a faraway star or step into another century.

A few years ago, everything changed. The world opened up to us all, and I -- as head of state -- began to travel all over the globe. The most important thing I learned from this sudden freedom was how small our planet really is, and how much closer together places are than I once believed. For this reason, I found it all the more astonishing that the people living on this small planet are incapable of living together, that they constantly wage war and concoct innumerable conflicts. Sometimes it takes only a few minutes to fly over a territory that has been the object of strife for centuries. I am beginning to understand the experience of astronauts to whom all earthly conflicts appear to be no more than trifles -- incomprehensible, petty, and nonsensical -- when they look down on our planet from outer space.

Having said that, I should like to share with you certain thoughts that come to mind when I wonder about why people behave so badly, and where to look for the hope that they might behave better in the future.

For thousands of years, humans lived and evolved in different parts of the earth in fairly autonomous entities. Cultures and whole civilizations appeared and disappeared, cultures that -- seen from a modern perspective -- remained isolated from one another. In those times, few if any events in the human world could have had a substantial and immediate impact on the world as a whole.

Nowadays, things are very different. Within a fairly brief period of time -- no more than a fraction of human history -- a global civilization has come into being and spread around the planet, linking the various parts of it together, absorbing cultures or spheres of civilization that had for so long developed as autonomous units, and forcing them to adapt and adjust. A great many of the problems in our world today, it seems to me, can be attributed to this new reality. They can be explained as struggles of different cultural identities, not against this global civilization, but within themselves, for the survival or enhancement of what they are and the ways in which they differ from one another -- struggles for what they appear to be losing. Some say we are living at a time in which every valley wants to be independent. This desire for independence is an understandable reaction to the pressure to integrate and unify exerted by our civilization. Cultural entities shaped by thousands of years of history are resisting this, for fear that within a few years they might dissolve altogether in some global cultural neutrality. If we mix all the colors together we get gray. Cultures of different colors are apparently wrestling with the danger of turning gray in the monstrous palette of a single civilization.

How can we overcome this contradiction? Where can we turn for hope? The solution certainly does not lie in blindly putting our faith in the essentially atheistic technological civilization of today. We should not rely on the assumption that this civilization, supposedly more progressive than all the cultures and civilizations of the past, is more worthy than they were, or that it is justifiable to suppress and annihilate traditions in its name simply because they are believed to slow the victorious progress of history. Man is also man's own past; suppressing the past would mean declaring war on humanity itself. On the other hand, rejecting the present civilization, abandoning all the good things it has brought, and attempting to return to some bygone tribal life is not a solution, either.

The only wise course is the most demanding one: we must start systematically transforming our civilization into a truly multicultural civilization, one that will allow all to be themselves while denying none the opportunities it offers, one that strives for the tolerant coexistence of different cultural identities, one that clearly articulates the things that unite us and that could develop into a set of shared values and standards enabling us to lead a creative life together.

The main question is this: where should we look for sources of a shared minimum that could serve as a framework for the tolerant coexistence of different cultures within a single civilization? It is not enough to take the set of imperatives, principles, or rules produced by the Euro-American world and mechanically declare them binding for all. If people are to accept these principles, identify with them, and follow them, the principles will have to appeal to something that has been present in them before, to some of their inherent qualities. Different cultures or spheres of civilization can share only what they perceive as genuine common ground, not something that a few merely offer to, or even force upon, others. The tenets of human coexistence on this earth can hold up only if they grow out of the deepest experience of everyone, not just some of us. They must be formulated so as to be in harmony with what man -- as a human being, not as a member of a particular group -- has learned, experienced, endured. No unbiased person will have any trouble knowing where to look. If we examine the oldest moral canons, the commandments that prescribe proper human conduct and the rules of human coexistence, we find numerous essential similarities among them. It is often surprising to discover that virtually identical moral norms appear in different places and at different times, largely independently of one another. Another important point is that the moral foundations upon which different civilizations or cultures are built have always had transcendental, or metaphysical, underpinnings. It is scarcely possible to find a culture that does not derive from the conviction that a higher, mysterious order of the world exists beyond our reach, a higher intention that is the source of all things, a higher memory recording everything, a higher authority to which we are all accountable in one way or another. That order has had a thousand faces; human history has known a vast array of gods and deities, religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals and liturgies. Nevertheless, from time immemorial, the key to the existence of the human race, of nature, and of the universe, as well as the key to what is required of human responsibility, has always been found in what transcends humanity, in what stands above it. Humanity must respect this if the world is to survive. This point of departure has been present in all our archetypal notions and in our long-held instinctive knowledge, despite the obvious estrangement from these values that has come with modern civilization. Yet, even as our respect for the mysteries of the world wanes, we can see for ourselves again and again that a lack of such respect leads to ruin. All of this clearly suggests where we should look for what unites us: in an awareness of the transcendental.

I possess no specific advice on how to revive this awareness which was once common to the whole human race, how to retrieve it from the depths to which it has sunk, or how to do this in a way that is appropriate for this era and at the same time universal, acceptable to all. Yet, whenever I think about it, regardless of the context, I'm always forced to conclude that this is precisely where we should begin the search for a means of coexistence on this planet, and for saving the human race from the many dangers to its survival that our civilization generates. We should seek new ways to restore the capacity to be sensitive to what transcends humanity, to what gives a meaning to the world surrounding it, as well as to human life itself.

Dostoevsky wrote that if there were no God everything would be permitted. Simply put, it seems to me that our present civilization, having lost the awareness that the world has a spirit, believes that anything is permitted. The only spirit we recognize is our own.

However different the paths followed by different civilizations, we can find at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history the same basic message: people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should not harm their fellow humans. To my mind, reflecting on this message is the only way out of the crisis the world finds itself in today. Of course, such a reflection must be free of prejudice and it must be critical, no matter who may turn out to be a target of that criticism.

Allow me to offer you a specific illustration of this general idea. The Euro-American world of modern times has developed a fairly consistent system of values for human coexistence, which is now accepted as the basis of international coexistence as well. These values include the concept of human rights and liberties that grow out of respect for the individual human being and for his or her dignity. They include democracy, which rests on separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, on political pluralism, and on free elections. And they include respect for private ownership of property and for the rules of the market economy. I unreservedly subscribe to this system of values, and so does the Czech Republic.

And yet, from different parts of the world, including the Pacific region, we hear voices calling these values into question, arguing that they are the creation of a single culture and cannot simply be transferred wholesale to other cultures. Naturally, such voices find much at fault in the West, to make their case that these values are flawed or inadequate. One typical argument is that Western democracy is marked by a profound crisis of authority, and that, without respect for authority as a means of ensuring law and order, society is bound to fall apart.

The odd thing is that those who say this are right and wrong at the same time. They are certainly right in saying that the Western world is suffering from a crisis of authority. But is this crisis of authority a direct product of democracy? And if so, does it not follow that an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship, or a totalitarian system is preferable to democracy after all? That is certainly not the case.

The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world today. Humankind, having lost its respect for a higher, superterrestrial authority, necessarily loses respect for all earthly authority, too. Consequently, people also lose respect for their fellow humans, and eventually even for themselves. Such a loss of transcendental perspective, to which everything on this earth relates, inevitably leads to a collapse of earthly value systems as well. Humanity has lost sight of what I once called the absolute horizon; as a result, everything in life has become relative. All sense of responsibility disintegrates, including responsibility for the human community and its authorities. This is a philosophical, not a political problem. However, even a decaying or diminishing democratic authority is a thousand times better than the thoroughly artificial authority of a dictator imposed through violence or brainwashing.

The chances for a successful existential revolution -- as I once metaphorically described the awakening of a deeper human responsibility -- are far better under freedom and democracy than under a dictatorship, where the only room offered to anyone who wishes to take responsibility is a prison cell.

The Western world cannot be faulted for sticking to democracy. What the West can be faulted for is its failure to understand properly and safeguard this fantastic accomplishment. Paralyzed by a general moral crisis, it has been unable to realize all the potential of this great invention, or to give a meaningful content to the space it has opened up. It is because of these deficiencies that madmen have, again and again, managed to devastate democracy and unleash a variety of global horrors.

What conclusion should we draw from this? That there is no reason to fear democracy, or to perceive it as a system that necessarily destroys authority and tears everything apart. Another option is available to those who wish to prevent this destruction: they can rise to the challenge to demonstrate their own responsibility and to introduce -- or, rather, restore -- the spirit and substance democracy had when it first came into being. This is a superhuman task; yet, in the open system which democracy is, it can be accomplished.

In cultures where the roots of democracy are still shallow, or where democracy has not taken root at all so far, and where a free individual means virtually nothing and the leader is omnipotent, leaders often appeal to the centuries-old traditions of authority in their sphere, and seek to legitimize their dictatorial rule by claiming to continue these traditions.

Again, they are both right and wrong. They are wrong in that what they present as the continuity of ancient traditions is in fact their negation. Though recalling the natural authority that leaders may possess in their cultural systems, they replace it with an unnatural authority. Instead of an authority emanating from charisma, authority as an inwardly perceived and widely accepted higher vocation, authority marked by a high degree of responsibility toward their self-imposed task -- instead of this, they establish the utterly secularized authority of the whip.

Thus -- to put it in simplified terms -- if the East can borrow democracy and its inherent values from the West as a space in which a reawakening sense of the transcendental can restore authority, then the West can learn from the East what true authority is, what it grows from, and how it conducts itself. It can then be spread throughout the zone of human freedom which it has created. I think in this context of Confucius, who so aptly described what it means to wield genuine authority. His standards have very little in common with the ideas of today's men of the whip. To him, authority -- be it in the father of a family or the ruler of a state -- is a metaphysically anchored gift whose strength derives from the holder's heightened responsibility, not from the might of the instruments of power he or she may wield. Moreover, charisma is lost when a person betrays that responsibility.

Though many see them as opposites, both East and West are in a sense enmeshed in the same problem: both are betraying their own deepest spiritual roots. If they were to look back and draw from these roots more of their life-giving sap, each might not only do better for itself, but might immediately begin to understand the other better than it does now.

This small example of what the West can give the East, and vice versa, may perhaps illustrate that a search for common principles and objectives can be useful for everyone, and that it may be pursued without anyone's losing his identity in the process. It also shows that such a search would be unimaginable if we did not make contact with the original, long-forgotten transcendental roots of our cultures. In the moral world of antiquity, Judaism, and Christianity, without which the West would hardly have come to modern democracy, we can find more points of agreement with Confucius than we would think, and more than is realized by those who invoke the Confucian tradition to condemn Western democracy.

I hope that you have understood what I meant to say, despite my Czech accent and the simplified way I have attempted to condense, in a few sentences, some of my thoughts about the present-day world. I see the only chance for today's civilization in a clear awareness of its multicultural character, in a radical enhancement of its inner spirit, and in a concerted effort to find the shared spiritual roots of all cultures, for they are what unites all people. It is on this basis that we should articulate anew the standards and practices that will enable us to live together in peace without having to forfeit our identities. We have an opportunity now to open up an entirely new era of mutual inspiration. The preconditions for this are genuine openness, the will to understand one another, and the ability to step beyond the confines of our own habits and prejudices. Identity is not a prison; it is an appeal for dialogue with others.

I invite you all most cordially to come to visit the Czech Republic, a small country situated in the very center of Europe. It is my hope that you will not have to pass through any battlefields on the way, and that you will feel what I feel whenever I travel: that our planet is small, and a rather nice place to live, and that it would be the greatest absurdity of all if those destined to live together on it were to fail to do so even though love for one's fellow humans is the central commandment of all our contending cultures.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, December 1997/January 1998. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press.)

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