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Vaclav Havel, Living Within the Truth

I wanted to add my thoughts to what Jonathan wrote in his tribute to Vaclav Havel.

Havel belongs in the rank of the great dissidents of the 20th century. Yet unlike others (e.g., Andrei Sakharov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn), Havel became the political leader of his nation. Few people who have a hand in bringing down a monstrous regime then help to rebuild their society from the ashes. This gave Havel a rare, even unique, perspective.

In his 1992 book, Summer Meditations, Havel wrote about the tension. “Clearly, a dissident intellectual who philosophizes in his study about the fate and future of the world has different opportunities, a different position, a different kind of freedom, than a politician who moves among the complicated social realities of a particular time and place,” he said. Politicians are constantly coming up against “the intractable and contradictory interests that inhabit that time and space.” Havel went on to write this:

The sine qua non of a politician is not the ability to lie; he need only be sensitive and know when, what, to whom, and how to say what he has to say. It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others. It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics; such people, it is true, are drawn to politics, but, in the end, decorum and good taste will always count for more. My experience and observations confirm that politics as the practice of morality is possible. I do not deny, however, that it is not always easy to go that route, nor have I ever claimed that it was.

The role of the dissident intellectual and the president of a sovereign nation are profoundly different — yet Havel considered both to be, at their core, moral undertakings. By his own admission, Havel the politician became aware of how immensely difficult it is to be guided in practice by the principles and ideals in which he believed. “Clouds have filled the sky,” he admitted, “clarity and general harmony have disappeared.” And yet he would emphasize, again and again, the moral origin of all genuine politics.

Havel’s greatest essay may have been “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, in which he wrote about the shattering effect totalitarianism had on human dignity. It required people to “live within the lie,” Havel said. The great playwright asked us to imagine that one day a greengrocer stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support.

“In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie,” Havel wrote. “He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.” [italics in original]

A brave and brilliant man, Vaclav Havel lived within the truth far better than most of us ever will.

Requiescat in pace.

 



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