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Václav Havel (5 October 1936 – 18 December 2011) was a Czech writer and dramatist famous for his work in the Theatre of the Absurd, who became a politician and served as the last President of Czechoslovakia, and the first President of the Czech Republic.
- Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.
- Letter to the downthrown Czechoslovak Communist Party chairman Alexander Dubček (August 1969), as translated in Disturbing the Peace (1986), Ch. 5 : The Politics of Hope, p. 115
- Life cannot be destroyed for good, neither … can history be brought entirely to a halt. A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the lid will no longer hold and will start to crack. This is the moment when something once more begins visibly to happen, something truly new and unique … something truly historical, in the sense that history again demands to be heard.
- Open letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák, Communist President (8 April 1975)
- Just as the constant increase of entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy.
- Letter to Husák
- If every day a man takes orders in silence from an incompetent superior, if every day he solemnly performs ritual acts which he privately finds ridiculous, if he unhesitatingly gives answers to questionnaires which are contrary to his real opinions and is prepared to deny his own self in public, if he sees no difficulty in feigning sympathy or even affection where, in fact, he feels only indifference or aversion, it still does not mean that he has entirely lost the use of one of the basic human senses, namely, the sense of humiliation.
- Letter to Husák
- True enough, the country is calm. Calm as a morgue or a grave, would you not say?
- Letter to Husák
- The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.
- Letters to Olga (1988), p. 237
- There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than unwarranted trust in them. Besides, to distrust words, and indict them for the horrors that might slumber unobtrusively within them — isn't this, after all, the true vocation of the intellectual?
- Speech of October 1989, accepting a peace prize; quoted in The Independent, London (9 December 1989)
- I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
- Speech of October 1989, accepting a peace prize
- The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.
- International Herald Tribune (21 February 1990)
- People have passed through a very dark tunnel at the end of which there was a light of freedom. Unexpectedly they passed through the prison gates and found themselves in a square. They are now free and they don't know where to go.
- Address at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; quoted in The Independent, London (22 March 1990)
- If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President.
- Address to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London quoted in The Independent, London (24 March 1990)
- It's not hard to stand behind one's successes. But to accept responsibility for one's failures... that is devishly hard! But only thence does the road lead... to a radically new insight into the mysterious gravity of my existence as an uncertain enterprise and to its transcendental meaning.
- Man is in fact nailed down — like Christ on the Cross — to a grid of paradoxes . . . he balances between the torment of not knowing his mission and the joy of carrying it out, between nothingness and meaningfulness. And like Christ, he is in fact victorious by virtue of his defeats.
- As quoted in "Václav Havel: Heir to a Spiritual Legacy" by Richard L. Stanger in Christian Century (11 April 1990)
- We are finding out that what looked like a neglected house a year ago is in fact a ruin.
- Statement about the conditions in Czechoslovakia and other previously Soviet Bloc countries. Daily Telegraph London (3 January 1991)
- Despite all the political misery I am confronted with every day, it still is my profound conviction that the very essence of politics is not dirty; dirt is brought in only by wicked people. I admit that this is an area of human activity where the temptation to advance through unfair actions may be stronger than elsewhere, and which thus makes higher demands on human integrity. But it is not true at all that a politician cannot do without lying or intriguing. That is sheer nonsense, often spread by those who want to discourage people from taking an interest in public affairs.
Of course, in politics, just as anywhere else in life, it is impossible and it would not be sensible always to say everything bluntly. Yet that does not mean one has to lie. What is needed here are tact, instinct and good taste.
- International Herald Tribune (29 October 1991)
- When a man has his heart in the right place and good taste, he can not only do well in politics but is even predetermined for it. If someone is modest and does not yearn for power, he is certainly not ill-equipped to engage in politics; on the contrary, he belongs there. What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.
- International Herald Tribune (29 October 1991)
- Variant translation: If your heart is in the right place and you have good taste, not only will you pass muster in politics, you are destined for it. If you are modest and do not lust after power, not only are you suited to politics, you absolutely belong there.
- It is not true that people of high principles are ill-suited for politics. High principles have only to be accompanied by patience, consideration, a sense of measure and understanding for others. It is not true that only coldhearted, cynical, arrogant, haughty or brawling persons succeed in politics. Such people are naturally attracted by politics. In the end, however, politeness and good manners weigh more.
- International Herald Tribune (29 October 1991)
- Let us admit that most of us writers feel an essential aversion to politics. By taking such a position, however, we accept the perverted principle of specialization, according to which some are paid to write about the horrors of the world and human responsibility and others to deal with those horrors and bear the human responsibility for them.
- The history of the human race has generated several papers articulating basic moral imperatives, or fundamental principles, of human coexistence that — maybe in association with concurring historical events — substantially influenced the fate of humanity on this planet. Among these historic documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted fifty years ago today — holds a very special, indeed, unique position. It is the first code of ethical conduct that was not a product of one culture, or one sphere of civilization only, but a universal creation, shaped and subscribed to by representatives of all humankind. Since its very inception, the Declaration has thus represented a planetary, or global commitment, a global intention, a global guideline. For this reason alone, this exceptional document — conceived as a result of a profound human self-reflection in the wake of the horrors of World War II, and retaining its relevance ever since — deserves to be remembered today.
- Speech on the 50th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Prague Castle (10 December 1998)
- I believe that during the intervention of NATO in Kosovo there is an element nobody can question: the air attacks, the bombs, are not caused by a material interest. Their character is exclusively humanitarian: What is at stake here are the principles, human rights which have priority above state sovereignty. This makes it legitimate to attack the Yugoslav Federation, although without the United Nations mandate.
- Interview for the French newspaper Le Monde (29 April 1999); this statement is considered the source of the term w:Humanitarian bombing", frequently used about the Kosovo War.
- There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit.
- Address upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by Central European University (24 June 1999)
- Variant translation: There are no exact directions. There are probably no directions at all. The only things that I am able to recommend at this moment are: a sense of humour; an ability to see the ridiculous and the absurd dimensions of things; an ability to laugh about others as well as about ourselves; a sense of irony; and, of everything that invites parody in this world. In other words: rising above things, or looking at them from a distance; sensibility to the hidden presence of all the more dangerous types of conceit in others, as well as in ourselves; good cheer; an unostentatious certainty of the meaning of things; gratitude for the gift of life and courage to assume responsibility for it; and, a vigilant mind.
Those who have not lost the ability to recognize that which is laughable in themselves, or their own nothingness, are not arrogant, nor are they enemies of an Open Society. Its enemy is a person with a fiercely serious countenance and burning eyes.
- Seemingly endless negotiations finally led to the division of Czechoslovakia. It had one great advantage: it proceeded calmly, without violence, major conflicts, or significant unsolved issues. This unusually positive split brought us worldwide respect. But it also had one disadvantage: a matter of such importance as the division of a country into two new ones was not decided by the citizens in a referendum, as would be appropriate in a democratic society. Rather, it was mostly treated as a technical matter, almost as if it were an accounting operation. Perhaps for this reason, the end of Czechoslovakia was accompanied by an unpleasant aftertaste and awkward feelings. No significant part of the citizenry protested the division then, but no significant part celebrated it either. It was as if there was nothing to say, as if the public had more or less breathed a sigh of relief at the endless, traumatizing bargaining finally being behind us.
All that is now long-gone — is history — and after all this time, I can not help but feel that no matter how queerly it happened then, it is a good thing that it happened. Evidently, most peoples must taste full statehood for at least a while in order to learn to cooperate with others. Czechs and Slovaks may be closer today than ever before. There is no animosity, and they are united in their goals: to fully participate in the European and global integration processes and, in their own interest, to gradually forsake some of their countries' sovereignty in favor of increasing influence in the life of communities vastly larger and more powerful than countries are. We live in an interconnected world, and we — Czechs and Slovaks — walk hand in hand in it. And that, of course, is what is most important.
- New Year's Address on Czech Radio & Television (1 January 2003)
- The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle.
- Quoted in Amnesty International's essay "From Prisoner to President – A Tribute"
- Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity. . .
- Quoted in Amnesty International's essay "From Prisoner to President – A Tribute"
- Those that say that individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.
- Vaclav Havel’s human rights legacy an inspiration Amnesty International (21 December 2011)]
Disturbing the Peace (1986)
- Disturbing the Peace : A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala; English translation by Paul Wilson (1990)
- When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience, when he tries to speak the truth, when he tries to behave like a citizen, even in conditions where citizenship is degraded, it won't necessarily lead anywhere, but it might. There's one thing, however, that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating that such behavior will lead somewhere.
- Introduction, p. xvi
- As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.
- Ch. 1 : Growing Up "Outside", p. 11
- If the world is to change for the better it must start with a change in human consciousness, in the very humanness of modern man.
- Ch. 1 : Growing Up "Outside", p. 11
- It's not true that you should first think up an idea for a better world and only then "put it into practice," but, rather, through the fact of your existence in the world, you create the idea or manifest it — create it, as it were, from the "material of the world," articulate it in the "language of the world."
- Ch. 1 : Growing Up "Outside", p. 12
- The most important thing is that man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures, and not that man be made to measure for those structures. The most important thing is not to lose sight of personal relationships — i.e., the relationships between man and his co-workers, between subordinates and their superiors, between man and his work, between this work and its consequences."
- Ch. 1 : Growing Up "Outside", p. 13
- A genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in "systems" cannot happen without a significant shift in human consciousness.
- Ch. 1 : Growing Up "Outside", p. 17
- Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.
- Ch. 2 : Writing for the Stage
- I think theatre should always be somewhat suspect.
- Ch. 2 : Writing for the Stage
- Modern man must descend the spiral of his own absurdity to the lowest point; only then can he look beyond it. It is obviously impossible to get around it, jump over it, or simply avoid it.
- Ch. 2 : Writing for the Stage
- The role of the writer is not simply to arrange Being according to his own lights; he must also serve as a medium to Being and remain open to its often unfathomable dictates. This is the only way the work can transcend its creator and radiate its meaning further than the author himself can see or perceive.
- Ch. 2 : Writing for the Stage
- The truth is not simply what you think it is; it is also the circumstances in which it is said, and to whom, why, and how it is said.
- Ch. 2 : Writing for the Stage, p. 67
- The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.
- Ch. 2 : Writing for the Stage, p. 72
- None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events.
- Ch. 3 : Facing the Establishment
- We introduced a new model of behavior: don't get involved in diffuse general ideological polemics with the center, to whom numerous concrete causes are always being sacrificed; fight "only" for those concrete causes, and be prepared to fight for them unswervingly, to the end. In other words, don't get mixed up in backroom wheeling and dealing, but play an open game.
- Ch. 3 : Facing the Establishment, p. 83
- The attempt to devote oneself to literature alone is a most deceptive thing, and … often, paradoxically, it is literature that suffers for it.
- Ch. 3 : Facing the Establishment
- Twenty or thirty years ago, in the army, we had a lot of obscure adventures, and years later we tell them at parties, and suddenly we realize that those two very difficult years of our lives have become lumped together into a few episodes that have lodged in our memory in a standardized form, and are always told in a standardized way, in the same words. But in fact that lump of memories has nothing whatsoever to do with our experience of those two years in the army and what it has made of us.
- Ch. 4 : Public Enemy
- Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
- Ch. 5 : The Politics of Hope
- Variant translation or similar statement: Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.
- Every concession gives rise to further concessions, we cannot back down, because behind us there is only an abyss, we must keep our promises and demand that they be kept.
- Ch. 5 : The Politics of Hope, p. 110
- Sober perseverance is more effective than enthusiastic emotions, which are all too capable of being transferred, with little difficulty, to something different each day.
- Ch. 5 : The Politics of Hope, p. 111
- A human action becomes genuinely important when it springs from the soil of a clearsighted awareness of the temporality and the ephemerality of everything human. It is only this awareness that can breathe any greatness into an action.
- Ch. 5 : The Politics of Hope, p. 113
- Without the constantly living and articulated experience of absurdity, there would be no reason to attempt to do something meaningful. And on the contrary, how can one experience one's own absurdity if one is not constantly seeking meaning?
- Ch. 5 : The Politics of Hope, p. 114
- Drama assumes an order. If only so that it might have — by disrupting that order — a way of surprising.
- Ch. 5
- Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren't in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.
- Ch. 5
- The cliché organizes life; it expropriates people's identity; it becomes ruler, defense lawyer, judge, and the law.
- Ch. 5
- The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning — in other words, of absurdity — the more energetically meaning is sought.
- Ch. 5
- The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.
- Ch. 5
- There's always something suspicious about an intellectual on the winning side.
- Ch. 5
Living in Truth (1986)
- There is only one Art, whose sole criterion is the power, the authenticity, the revelatory insight, the courage and suggestiveness with which it seeks its truth. … Thus, from the standpoint of the work and its worth it is irrelevant to which political ideas the artist as a citizen claims allegiance, which ideas he would like to serve with his work or whether he holds any such ideas at all.
- "Six Asides About Culture"
An Anatomy of Reticence
- Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.
- A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes a danger to its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. The suppression of public opinion, the abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise opens the way for the state power to arm itself in any way it sees fit.... A state that does not hesitate to lie to its own people will not hesitate to lie to other states.
- The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin — and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.
The Power of the Powerless
- Human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary masterplan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people's own failure as individuals.
- People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.
- You do not become a "dissident" just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.
- There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight.
- The law is only one of several imperfect and more or less external ways of defending what is better in life against what is worse. By itself, the law can never create anything better... Establishing respect for the law does not automatically ensure a better life for that, after all, is a job for people and not for laws and institutions.
New Year's Address to the Nation (1990)
- Prague (1 January 1990)
- My dear fellow citizens,
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.
- Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers' state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available.
- The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.
- The previous regime — armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology — reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone.
- We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extents — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.
- Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.
- The recent period — and in particular the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution — has shown the enormous human, moral and spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is unwise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a decent and peaceful way.
- Those who rebelled against totalitarian rule and those who simply managed to remain themselves and think freely, were all persecuted. We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedom in one way or another.
- Self-confidence is not pride. Just the contrary: only a person or a nation that is self-confident, in the best sense of the word, is capable of listening to others, accepting them as equals, forgiving its enemies and regretting its own guilt.
- Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific contribution to international politics.
- Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community.
- My honorable task is to strengthen the authority of our country in the world. I would be glad if other states respected us for showing understanding, tolerance and love for peace. I would be happy if Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama of Tibet could visit our country before the elections, if only for a day. I would be happy if our friendly relations with all nations were strengthened. I would be happy if we succeeded before the elections in establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican and Israel.
- You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems — human, economic, ecological, social, or political.
- People, your government has returned to you!
New Year's Address to the Nation (1991)
- Prague (1 January 1991)
- There used to be a time when this country's president could have delivered the same New Year's Address he had given a year before, and nobody would have noticed.
Fortunately, that time has passed.
- It has become clear that the legacy of the past decades we have to cope with is even worse than we anticipated or could anticipate in the joyful atmosphere of those first weeks of freedom. New problems are emerging day by day, and we can see how interconnected they are, how long it takes to solve them, and how difficult it is to establish priorities.
- We have discovered that what a year ago seemed to be a neglected house is essentially a ruin.
This is not a pleasant fact, and it is not surprising that all of us are rather annoyed and disappointed about it.
- A year ago, we all were united in the joy over having broken free of totalitarianism. Today we all are made somewhat nervous by the burden of freedom. Our society is still in a state of shock. This shock could have been expected, but none of us expected it to be so profound. The old system collapsed, and a new one so far has not been built. Our social life is marked by a subliminal uncertainty over what kind of system we are going to build, how to build it, and whether we are able to build it at all.
- I think that it is my duty today to remind you as well of the good things that have happened, accomplishments that a year ago we could scarcely have imagined.
- Full freedom of speech and expression prevails in our country, and freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed.
- I know we have still done very little, and that the main tasks still lie ahead of us. I would say that we have just completed a year of preparation in which the conditions for a new environment have been created.
- I appeal to all pupils, students and young people, asking you to focus on the horizons that are opening up for you, and which you could only dream of a year ago. Our future will depend on your desire for education and moral values as well as on your entrepreneurial spirit.
- I also appeal to those who have already done most of their work for society. I hope that the changes you awaited or worked for for so long will bring joy and satisfaction into your lives. We need your experience, your wisdom and your love.
The Onassis Prize For Man and Mankind (1993)
- Athens (24 May 1993)
- Many people hardly ever see a politician as a person anymore. Instead, a politician is a shadow they watch on television, not knowing whether he is speaking impromptu or reading a text written for him by anonymous advisers or experts from a screen hidden behind the cameras. Citizens no longer perceive their politician as a living human being, for they never have and will never see him that way. They see only his image, created for them by TV, radio and newspaper commentators.
- It also happens, rather often, that politicians do not actually talk to each other but only to one another's shadows as they appear in the media.
- I have had direct experience of this myself. Often, what the press wrote, or did not write, about a remark I made somewhere proved to be of a far greater consequence than the remark itself. Democratic choice in such cases ceases to be a choice between alternatives people are familiar with, and have personally tried, and becomes a choice between alternatives offered by those who run the media.
- An ordinary human being, with a personal conscience, personally answering for something to somebody and personally and directly taking responsibility, seems to be receding farther and farther from the realm of politics. Politicians seem to turn into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major civilizational automatism which has gotten out of control and for which nobody is responsible.
- Today's world, as we all know, is faced with multiple threats. From whichever angle I look at this menace, I always come to the conclusion that salvation can only come through a profound awakening of man to his own personal responsibility, which is at the same time a global responsibility. Thus, the only way to save our world, as I see it, lies in a democracy that recalls its ancient Greek roots: democracy based on an integral human personality personally answering for the fate of the community.
The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World (1994)
- Liberty Medal acceptance speech at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (4 July 1994) - (text only link)
- I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going thorough a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.
- Periods of history when values undergo a fundamental shift are certainly not unprecedented. This happened in the Hellenistic period, when from the ruins of the classical world the Middle Ages were gradually born. It happened during the Renaissance, which opened the way to the modern era. The distinguishing features of such transitional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures and a plurality or parallelism of intellectual and spiritual worlds. These are periods when all consistent value systems collapse, when cultures distant in time and space are discovered or rediscovered. They are periods when there is a tendency to quote, to imitate, and to amplify, rather than to state with authority or integrate. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements.
- An amalgamation of cultures is taking place. I see it as proof that something is happening, something is being born, that we are in a phase when one age is succeeding another, when everything is possible. Yes, everything is possible, because our civilization does not have its own unified style, its own spirit, its own aesthetic.
- This is related to the crisis, or to the transformation, of science as the basis of the modern conception of the world.
The dizzying development of this science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and its complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization in the history of the human race that spans the entire globe and firmly binds together all human societies, submitting them to a common global destiny.
- The relationship to the world that the modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.
- Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.
- There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.
- Our civilization has essentially globalized only the surfaces of our lives. But our inner self continues to have a life of its own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human Being, the more deeply it would seem that people, behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe. Because of this, individual cultures, increasingly lumped together by contemporary civilization, are realizing with new urgency their own inner autonomy and the inner differences of others.
- Cultural conflicts are increasing and are understandably more dangerous today than at any other time in history. The end of the era of rationalism has been catastrophic. Armed with the same supermodern weapons, often from the same suppliers, and followed by television cameras, the members of various tribal cults are at war with one another.
- It is clearly necessary to invent organizational structures appropriate to the present multicultural age. But such efforts are doomed to failure if they do not grow out of something deeper, out of generally held values.
- I am referring to respect for the unique human being and his or her liberties and inalienable rights and to the principle that all power derives from the people. I am, in short, referring to the fundamental ideas of modern democracy.
What I am about to say may sound provocative, but I feel more and more strongly that even these ideas are not enough, that we must go farther and deeper.
- Modern anthropocentrism inevitably meant that He who allegedly endowed man with his inalienable rights began to disappear from the world: He was so far beyond the grasp of modern science that he was gradually pushed into a sphere of privacy of sorts, if not directly into a sphere of private fancy — that is, to a place where public obligations no longer apply. The existence of a higher authority than man himself simply began to get in the way of human aspirations.
- The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order. Yet, I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far. If it is to be more than just a slogan mocked by half the world, it cannot be expressed in the language of a departing era, and it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith in a purely scientific relationship to the world.
- I think the Anthropic Cosmological Principle brings to us an idea perhaps as old as humanity itself: that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tiny particle whirling in the endless depth of the universe. Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.
- Until recently, it might have seemed that we were an unhappy bit of mildew on a heavenly body whirling in space among many that have no mildew on them at all. this was something that classical science could explain. Yet, the moment it begins to appear that we are deeply connected to the entire universe, science reaches the outer limits of its powers. Because it is founded on the search for universal laws, it cannot deal with singularity, that is, with uniqueness. The universe is a unique event and a unique story, and so far we are the unique point of that story. But unique events and stories are the domain of poetry, not science. With the formulation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, science has found itself on the border between formula and story, between science and myth. In that, however, science has paradoxically returned, in a roundabout way, to man, and offers him — in new clothing — his lost integrity. It does so by anchoring him once more in the cosmos.
- What makes the Anthropic Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis so inspiring? One simple thing: Both remind us, in modern language, of what we have long suspected, of what we have long projected into our forgotten myths and perhaps what has always lain dormant within us as archetypes. That is, the awareness of our being anchored in the earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme. This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. All cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man's understanding of himself, of his place in the world, and ultimately of the world as such.
- A modern philosopher once said: "Only a God can save us now."
Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. 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. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.
- It logically follows that, in today's multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies — it must be rooted in self-transcendence:
- Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe.
- Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.
- Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.
- The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.
Farewell Address (2003)
- Czech Radio & Television (2 February 2003)
- In late 1989, the profound transformation that took place in this country brought me here to Prague Castle. It all happened so suddenly that I did not even have time to properly consider whether or not I was up to the task, and I was sincerely of the opinion that I would just take it on for a few months until the first free elections.
Clearly, things turned out quite differently: I have now been here for more than thirteen years, if we discount the short break in the latter half of 1992.
- One has to greatly admire the patience with which our society has come to terms with all the challenges of these dramatic times, the extent of which few of us could have anticipated in those heady, revolutionary days.
- Today I would like to thank from my heart all those of you who have trusted me, sympathized with me or in any way supported me. Without your understanding and goodwill I would not have been able to stay in office for even a few moments. I appreciate your support all the more for the fact that I did not try at all costs to obtain it. I frequently even took what was clearly a minority position and so reaped more opposition than recognition. Sometimes I may have been mistaken in this but I would like to assure you of one thing: I have always tried to abide by the dictates of the authority under which I took my oath of office — the dictates of the best of my awareness and conscience.
- My dear friends, I bid you farewell as your President. I remain with you as your fellow citizen!
Quotes about Havel
- Alphabetized by author
- Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the most consistent and compelling — endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us.
- Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- He was a true European and has been a champion of democracy and liberty throughout his life … He was also a source of great inspiration to all those who fight for freedom and democracy around the world. The man has died but the legacy of his poems, plays and above all his ideas and personal example will remain alive for many generations to come.
- Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved way for a Europe whole and free.
- Carl Bildt, Swedish Foreign Minister, in a Twitter post, quoted in "Vaclav Havel, Czech leader and playwright, dies at 75" at BBC News (18 December 2011)
- Barbara and I join in mourning the death of Vaclav Havel, a gentle soul whose fierce devotion to the rights of man helped his countrymen cast aside the chains of tyranny and claim their rightful place among the free nations of world. … His personal courage throughout that twilight struggle inspired millions around the world, including those of us who worked with him during a historic period of transformation for Europe.
- Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- The most subversive act of the playwright from Prague was telling the truth about tyranny. And when that truth finally triumphed, the people elected this dignified, charming, humble, determined man to lead their country. Unintimidated by threats, unchanged by political power, Vaclav Havel suffered much in the cause of freedom and became one of its greatest heroes.
- Former US President George W. Bush, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- Vaclav Havel is the figure that represents the Velvet Revolution and the reunification of Europe. He will be sorely missed.
- Jerzy Buzek, president of European parliament, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- No one of my generation will ever forget those powerful scenes from Wenceslas Square two decades ago. Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny. And he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent. Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt. Today his voice has fallen silent. But his example and the cause to which he devoted his life will live on.
- British Prime Minister David Cameron, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- I know of no one writing about politics today whose work is more inspirational. A brilliant intellectual, playwright and essayist, he believes with passion that essayists, poets, dramatists, artists, musicians, and philosophers carry responsibility for the well-being of the societies in which they live. In describing the role of politics in the world today, he exhibits a keen grasp of prevailing global dynamics. He knows from conviction and experience why a politics that is not attached to an anchored spirituality carries no lasting promise. When addressing religion, he affirms what believers wish to avow without falling into debilitating dogmatic or parochial traps. In assessing the present conditions of the world, he warns against utilitarian, pragmatic techno-culture. He respects the innate human aspiration to become rooted in that which most profoundly binds us to the core of being.
- Mr. Havel’s plays... went “the deepest into the hypocrisy and pomposity of the Communist regime” and in doing so “crossed the world of just theater and became a symbol of free thinking.”
- His dedication to freedom and democracy is as unforgotten as his great humanity … We Germans also have much to thank him for.
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- Havel was a brave and powerful voice against totalitarianism and an inspiration for dissidents everywhere struggling for freedom.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- Having encountered many setbacks, Havel lived with a spirit of hope, which he defined as “the ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon. He played a seminal role in the Velvet Revolution that won his people their freedom and inspired generations to reach for self-determination and dignity in all parts of the world.
- We have always played an important role. According to the leader of the student revolt in Bratislava, it was Radio Free Europe which lit the fuse. We have always had close contact with Havel, Carnogursky and Dienstbeir, who today are members of the new government, but who for years worked for us as independent correspondents.
- Pavel Pechacek, head of the Czech section of the CIA-financed Radio Free Europe, in Harpal Brar's Trotskyism or Leninism?, pp. 54
- He will be remembered as a hero to the people of the Czech Republic and to lovers of freedom around the world.
- Nancy Reagan, widow of ex-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- With the death of Vaclav Havel, the Czech republic has lost one of its great patriots, France has lost a friend, and Europe has lost one of its wise men.
- French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- A great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy has died … His outstanding voice of wisdom will be missed in Europe, which is going through a serious crisis. I am praying for the peace of his soul.
- Former President of Poland, Lech Walesa, as quoted in "Quotes on the death of Vaclav Havel" in The Guardian (18 December 2011)
- Havel … invokes … "higher law" when he claims that "human rights, human freedoms . . . and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world …while the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God." He seems to be saying that NATO forces were allowed to violate international law because they acted as direct instruments of the "higher law" of God — a clear-cut case of religious fundamentalism.
- Profile at Radio Prague
- Profile at the Havel Festival
- Profile at the U.S. Medal of Freedom
- Profile at Kirjasto (Pegasos)
- Hero file at More or Less
- Ambassador of Conscience at Amnesty International
- The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World (4 July 1994)
- "Havel, his memories and the world" - International Herald Tribune (21 October 2004)
- Interview - transcript at PBS
- "Velvet President" in Reason (May 2003)
- "Václav Havel: Heir to a Spiritual Legacy" by Richard L. Stanger