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Thoughts on Vaclav Havel’s Anthropology and Cosmology

In my view, Vaclav Havel’s perspective, and contribution of ideas into the intellectual life of our globalizing civilization, is one of the most deep, important and interesting that has been spoken in our time. When a leader of one of the world’s religions – like the Roman Catholic Pope, the Russian Patriarch, the Anglican Bishop, or even the Dalai Lama – makes comments on our life and world, from their various religious perspectives, their comments are most often predictable. When they speak of “God”, religion, or morality to their followers, or to the broader communities and nations of the world, what they say is seldom surprising, and people often perhaps listen only with, as it were, one ear. Vaclav Havel’s speeches and writings are perhaps different in this way – and in a way that seems to me to be essential and important. A playwright who became elected, after the decades of Soviet domination, President of Czechoslovakia (and then of the Czech Republic), Havel speaks prominently in the world as an individual (whose political position gives him serious public forums and audiences). He is not the head of any religious institution or church – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Taoist, Shinto, etc. But still Havel’s speeches reveal a “solution” to the intellectually-troubling problem of the number and variety of “religions” meeting in what is often called the “global village” (though it is surely rather a “global city”).

This is the problem of the religions of the various “tribes” of mankind, as Havel described them in his 1994 Philadelphia address – and their various and differing doctrinal traditions and claims as to the “Truth” of man, world, “God”, reality, etc. The heads of the various “tribal” religions of course represent their own various religious systems of “Truth”, and today they often try to speak of what they have in common with other religions – laudable efforts towards religion community needed in our time. Some eclectics speak of all religions being in essence the same . . . teaching the same truths (which is really uninformed in fact); or that there are many equally-valid paths to God (“equality” having become a sort of democratic “holy” doctrine in our time). Vaclav Havel’s “solution” to the problems of man in our time does not consist of building the obviously necessary peaceful pathways of association, communication and cooperation between the various religions’ doctrines, institutions, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, (covens?, lodges?) etc., and between peoples and nations. His writings and speeches show him calling for a trans-religious, cosmic view of man and world. Though he certainly recognizes that the majority of peoples of the various nations, the various “tribes”, will adhere to their own religions, traditions and “Truth”, he nonetheless still calls for a kind of ‘cosmic religion of global man’. But this is not “religion” in the sense of some institutionalized, doctrinal “belief system” which all people should believe. Havel’s “religious cathedral” is, rather, the greater cosmos . . . with the living story of man.

Astrophysics and Dante

Havel is not calling for the building of some multi-religious, eclectic, idealistic “temples of light” – such as already exist in California, Virginia, and other parts of the world, such as India and England – where all of the world’s major religions (thus avoiding the problem of the tremendous variety of sects) have an equal place, their own alcove, and “chapel”. His “solution” is outside and above all of the world’s “religious” structures, belief systems, institutions, etc. His speeches and writings show that he calls us all to view man sub specie aeternitatis, standing on the earth – under the sight of eternity, of God. Without a Pope’s staff, a Patriarch’s miter, or a Lama’s yellow hat, he speaks in the world’s forums – whether we are conscious of this or not, whether we are “religious” or not – of the spiritual, the eternal significance of mankind’s life on earth . . . inside of a living cosmos, physical and spiritual – astrophysics and Dante as it were.

The Liberty Medal was awarded to Vaclav Havel outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994.
The Liberty Medal was awarded to Vaclav Havel outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1994.

One of Havel’s addresses – which he delivered in English (see the full text) – took place in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, USA, in 1994, in the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. As American Reflections has often had occasion to consider, this document (the preamble to which some social scientists have called the “American Creed”) is one of the most famous, influential documents which has spread its Enlightenment ideas, ideals and rhetoric of man and society around the world. But as Havel sees it, these ideas and ideals are not enough. As he stated in Philadelphia (the “city of brotherly love”): Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect 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 idea of human rights and freedoms [articulated in Philadelphia Hall] must be . . . anchored in a different place, and in a different way than has been the case so far. In Havel’s speech they are to be located ‘in the sky’, in the greater cosmos, physical and spiritual.

Havel’s view seems to be that man does not need to go into a church, cathedral, mosque, synagogue, temple, or such place, to relate to “God”: man on earth – anthropos on Gaia – relates to God, consciously or unconsciously, in his daily, earthly life. As Havel wrote in his 1992 book Summer Reflections:

…everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere “above us” in what I have called the “memory of Being” – an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is subject. Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed “from above”, that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten, and so earthly time has no power to wipe away the sharp disappointments of earthly failure: our spirit knows that it is not the only entity aware of those failures.

Havel’s trans-religious, trans-cultural, trans-institutional anthropology sees man as, in fact, a “microcosm” (the “anthropic cosmological principle”), an idea which he sees to be at the base of all of the “religious” and philosophical systems of human history – back, it might be added, all the way to the “Indo-European culture” (which originally divided into “Orient” and “Occident”). As I wrote to him (in a letter dated 3 July 1996 in reaction to his Aachen address in Europe) his crucial concept of “conscience”:

. . . sources ultimately, in the story of Occidental Man, in the “daena” figure in the cosmosophy, anthroposophy and cacosophy of Zarathustra. It is amazing to trace the full history of the idea of “conscience” in the Occident’s history. It is the deepest idea of man in such figures as Origen and Seneca, as well as in Darwin or Jefferson. It seems somehow to have been unrejectable even by strong sceptics, if they were at least humanists. … The person’s “thoughts, words and deeds” are – to adapt your [Havel’s] words – inscribed in the “memory of being” . . . all of one’s life on earth is influential – whether one ever steps into a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other. But such an idea is as weakly convincing in our sceptical, horizontal time, as the belief in the “Greater Spiritual Cosmos”.

If one compares the much more conventionally-religious (Biblical) views of man, God, religion, and nationality of the US President Bill Clinton, who is a believing (American) Southern Baptist Christian, to Havel’s view of man as a microcosm in the greater physical and spiritual cosmos, one can recognize the trans-religious greatness of Havel’s call to mankind for “transcendence” in his Philadelphia speech. The leaders of the various religions will of course hold to their own religions’ possessions of the “Truth” of man and world. How could they do otherwise? For it is not to be expectable that a Pope, Patriarch, or an Archbishop, or the head of some other world religious institution, would (even if he were in fact unsure in his own heart and mind) publicly confess for example that he is not really sure – in this agnostic, scientific, pluralistic time – whether his religion’s beliefs and doctrines are in fact true or not.

In a way, Havel’s position seems to mirror back to humanity that the world’s various religions are too bound to the historical (and pre-scientific) past, too traditional, too institutionalized and doctrinal – perhaps “all-too-human” – to bring living moral challenge and worry to a global humanity, especially to those who reject or disbelieve religions, claiming more or less systematically and consciously to be agnostics, secularists, or atheists, in their daily secular activities. Havel’s call to mankind, to a renewed awakening to its place in the cosmos, is not bound back (religare) to history’s (mostly pre-scientific) religions, and their doctrines and institutions. Thus his words are free of the problem of religious orthodoxy (in the differing religious systems); they are free of limiting institutions and traditions. He speaks as a man to Mankind.

The Inevitable Struggle with Evil

Havel also sees mankind’s life on earth as a living story, not simply of peace, love, freedom and happiness – goals, very popular today in for example the belief systems of the world-influential “New Age Movement” of California, America and elsewhere, where it is claimed “heaven”, “paradise”, could and should be realized on earth. Havel sees life as a story of struggle, of trial. As Havel wrote in his Summer Reflections essay:

If I talk here about my political – or, more precisely, my civil – program, about my notion of the kind of politics and values and ideals I wish to struggle for, this is not to say that I am entertaining the naive hope that this struggle may one day be over. A heaven on earth in which people all love each other and everyone is hard-working, well-mannered, and virtuous, in which the land flourishes and everything is sweetness and light, working harmoniously to the satisfaction of God: this will never be. On the contrary, the world has had the worst experiences with Utopian thinkers who promised all that. Evil will remain with us, no one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions.

Neither I nor anyone else will ever win this war once and for all. At the very most, we can win a battle or two – and not even that is certain. Yet I still think it makes sense to wage war persistently. It has been waged for centuries, and it will continue to be waged – we hope – for centuries to come. This must be done on principle, because God wants it that way. It is an eternal, never-ending struggle waged not just by good people (among whom I count myself, more or less) against evil people, by honorable people against dishonorable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside of everyone. It is what makes a person a person, and life, life.

So anyone who claims that I am a dreamer who expects to transform hell into heaven is wrong. I have few illusions. But I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to change things for the better, or not at all. Both outcomes are possible. There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.

These are some of the insights which Havel has said that the ‘materially-prosperous West’ needed to learn from the ordeals and experiences of the former “Communist” East; and one that he helps contribute to the intellectual and spiritual life of our globalizing time – about the place of man in the cosmos.

First published in the magazine English, #25, 2000, p. 14.

See also Letter to President Vaclav Havel, Moscow, 3 July 1996 (unpublished)