Skip to main content

Attributes of Compassion

A Sense of the Transcendent

by Václav Havel

By once more taking nourishment
from their life-giving spiritual roots,
East and West can open an era of mutual inspiration.
The precondition is readiness to step beyond
dead habits and deadly prejudice.

VÁCLAV HAVEL was president of the Czech Republic. This article was first given as a talk to the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia, March 29, 1995. and is included in a new collection of his essays, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (New York: Knopf, 1997). An internationally celebrated playwright, he is also the author of Letters to Olga, Disturbing the Peace, Summer Meditations, and Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990.)

For virtually my whole life, with the exception of a brief period in the late 60s, 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. In my mind, Australia was one of the those fabulous worlds beyond reach, worlds one cannot enter, just as one cannot land on a far-away star, or step into another country.

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 sweeping change 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 countless wars and have innumerable conflicts. Sometimes it took only a few minutes to fly over a territory that has been the object of strife for centuries. Though on my official trips I travel by ordinary plane and not by spacecraft, I still feel I am beginning to understand the experience of astronauts to whom all earthly conflicts, when they look at our planet from outer space, appear to be only trifles, petty, and nonsensical.

In the light of this awareness, I would like to share with you certain thoughts that come into my mind when I wonder why people behave so badly, and where to look for the hope that they might behave better in the future.

For thousands of years human 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 largely confined within their own territories, isolated from one another. If they knew about each other at all, their contacts were minimal. 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 whole planet, linking the different parts of it together, absorbing cultures or spheres of civilization which had so long developed as autonomous units, and forcing them to adjust. A great many of the conflicts or 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 and enhancement of what they are and the ways in which they differ from each other -- struggles for what they appear to be losing. Some say we are living at a time in which every valley wants to be independent. Sometimes this really seems to be the case. 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 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 melting pot of a single civilization.

How can we overcome this contradiction? Where can we turn for hope?

The solution certainly does not lie in 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 multifarious cultures and civilizations of the past, is more worthy than they are, or that it is justifiable to suppress and annihilate traditions in its name because they are believed to slow the victorious progress of history. Humanity includes its own past; fighting with 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 to transform our civilization into a truly multicultural civilization, one that will allow everyone to be themselves while denying no one 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 can develop into a set of shared values and standards enabling us to lead a creative life together. I am happy to be able to reiterate this profound conviction here in Australia -- a country that could serve many others as an example of a working multicultural democracy that is trying to follow a course offering a way out of the maze of pitfalls in which humankind currently finds itself lost.

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 anyone is to apply these principles, identify with them, and follow them, those principles will have to appeal to something that has been present in him or her before, to some of his or her inherent qualities. Different cultures or spheres of civilization can share only what they perceive as genuine common ground, not something that some simply offer to or even force upon others. The rules of human coexistence on this Earth can work only if they grow out of the deepest experience of everyone, not just some. They have to be formulated so as to be in harmony with what all of us -- as human beings, not as members of a particular group -- have learned, experienced, and endured.

No unbiased person will have any trouble knowing where to look. If we examine the oldest moral canons, the commandments that prescribe 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 arise in different places and different times, largely independently of one other. Another important thing is that the moral foundations upon which different civilizations or cultures were built always had transcendental or metaphysical roots. 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, since 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 that of the world is to survive, To this day, the point of departure has been present in all our archetypal notions and in our long-lost knowledge, despite the obvious estrangement from these values that modern civilization has brought with it. Yet, even as our respect for the mysteries of the world dwindles, we can see for ourselves again and again that such a lack of respect leads to ruin. All this clearly suggests where we should look for what united us: in an awareness of the transcendent.

I have no specific advice on how to revive this awareness which was once common to the whole human race, on how to retrieve it from the depths to which it has sunk, or how to do this in a way that is both appropriate for this era and at the same time universal, acceptable to all. Yet, when thinking about it, no matter where or in what context, I always -- without intending to -- come to the conclusion that this is precisely where we should begin the search for the means of coexistence on this planet, and for the salvation of the human race from the many dangers to its existence that civilization generates. We should seek new ways to restore the feeling for what transcends humanity, for what gives 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. To put it simply, 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 that we recognize is our own.

However different the paths followed by different civilizations, we can find the same basic message at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history: 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.

Let me offer 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 a basis of international coexistence as well. These values include the concept of human rights and the liberties growing out of respect for the individual human being and his or her dignity. They also include democracy, which rests on separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, on political pluralism and free elections. And they include respect for private ownership of property and 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 transformed into other cultures. Naturally, such voices point out all the faults to be found in the West in order to make their case that these values are faulty 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, 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. As someone who is a fairly recent arrival in the world of high politics, and who has suddenly seen it from the inside, I have time and again experienced the odd fact that the public, other politicians, and the media as well, are far more interested in casting doubt on the authority of a politician that they are in whether it is desirable that he or she should wield authority in the first place. This is not something I mind personally -- for one thing, nobody can have as many doubts about myself as I can. But I am concerned about this phenomenon as a political reality. If politicians have no authority at all, the state and its various constituent parts cannot have any authority either. This, in turn, has an adverse effect on society.

But is this crisis of authority a product of democracy? And if so, does it not follow that an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship or a totalitarian system, would be preferable to democracy?

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 at present. Humankind, having lots its respect for a higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well. Consequently, people also lose respect for their fellow humans and eventually even for themselves. This loss of a transcendent perspective, to which everything on this Earth relates, inevitably leads to a collapse of earthly value systems as well. Humanity has lost what I once privately described as the absolute horizon; and 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.

Democracy is an open system, and thus it is capable of improvement. Among other things, freedom provides room for responsibility. If that room is not sufficiently used, the fault does not lie with democracy, but it does present democracy today with a challenge. Dictatorship leaves no room for responsibility, and thus it can generate no genuine authority. Instead, it fills all the available space with the pseudo-authority of a dictator.

Potential dictators are well aware of the crisis of authority in democracy. The less that atheistic people today heed the challenge that democracy presents, the less they succeed in filling the room it offers by taking genuine and unquestioned responsibility, the faster a dictator, posing as the bearer of universal responsibility, will proceed to occupy that room until finally he will occupy it entirely. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao were typical examples of this species. Filling all the available room with a completely false authority, they closed it off, destroyed it, and eventually destroyed democracy itself. We all know where this leads: to hecatombs of the dead, the tortured, and the humiliated. In a word, while democracy paves the way for the creation of real authority, an authoritarian regime blocks that path with a terrible barrier, with the caricature of authority.

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. Though democracy may surely take different forms, it is, today, the only way open to us all. What the West can be faulted for is its failure to understand and safeguard properly this fantastic accomplishment. Paralyzed by a general moral crisis, it has been unable to make use of all the opportunities offered by this great invention, and give a meaningful content to the space democracy has opened up. It is because of these deficiencies that unstable personalities 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 destroys authority and tears everything apart. Another option is available to those who wish to prevent this destruction: they can take democracy as a challenge to demonstrate responsibility and to introduce -- or rather restore -- the spirit and substance democracy once had when it first came into being. This is a superhuman task; yet in the open system which is democracy, it can be accomplished.

In cultures where the roots of democracy are still shallow, or where democracy as not taken root at all so far, and where a free individual means virtually nothing while the leader is omnipotent, leaders often appeal to the centuries-old traditions of authority in their sphere, and seek to give legitimacy to 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 innerly perceived and widely accepted higher vocation, authority marked by a high degree of responsibility to its self-imposed task -- they establish the utterly secularized authority of the whip.

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 transcendent can restore authority, 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 ably described what it means to wield genuine authority. His standards have very little in common with those who rule today by the whip. For Confucius, authority -- whether for the father of a family or the ruler of a state -- is a metaphysically anchored gift whose strength derives from heightened responsibility, not from the might of the instruments of power that the ruler may wield. Moreover, a charisma is lost when a person betrays it.

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 the roots more of their life-giving sap, each might not only do better for itself, but they might immediately begin to understand each other better than they do 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 losing identity in the process. It also shows that such a search is unimaginable if we do not make contact with the original, long-forgotten transcendental roots of our cultures. In the moral world of antiquity, of Judaism, and of 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 realize that this is an oversimplified attempt to condense, in a few pages, 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 an 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 open up an entirely new era of mutual inspiration. The preconditions for this are genuine openness, the will to understand each other, 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 visit the Czech Republic, a small country situated in the very center of Europe. It is my hope that you will not have to go 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, despite the fact that love for one's fellow humans is the central commandment of all our contending cultures.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.

Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1997, Vol. 47 Issue 3.


←  Go back                                                  Next page