Vaclav Havel’s writings are essentialist in nature, criticizing not strictly communism or its refusal to acknowledge certain human rights, but the fact that it ignored what Havel believed to be man’s future in the political realm, a future that involved “a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos.” He has been consistently of the opinion that the twentieth century represents a “transitional period,” marking man’s migration from internalized and nation-specific governments to a sort of global community comprised of organizations such as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the European Union. He sees these transnational alliances as the easiest and most gradual way to erode catastrophic distinctions between peoples, distinctions that lead to wars and oppression. He has also been a somewhat ambivalent existentialist, criticizing modern political theoreticians for thinking that “operating from theory is essentially smarter than operating from a knowledge of life.”

Havel believed that the problems of government resulted primarily from mankind’s inability to perceive itself as a connected whole; he viewed it as a lack of perspective and awareness: “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 respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Beingand the…the miracle of our own existence.”

Some scholars have complained that this highly spiritual position is, of course, no less dogmatic than that system which it opposed, but it is a great deal more conducive to individual autonomy (which was, in some ways, the distinction between communist intellectuals and dissenters; since any opposition movement must offer an alternative, critiques of the regimes had to construct moral and political systems no less arbitrary but rather less invasive). When the government responded to his activities by noting that they failed to resonate with the Czechoslovakian public, he responded with his essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he argued that fear of difficulties precluded most of the populous from speaking their opinions. He also advanced the idea that man, when faced with the choice of a comfortably oppressive situation and a combative struggle, will choose the former rather than “live in truth.” He was neither contemptuous of nor condescending to the common man; rather, he said, they could not be expected to do anything else. To some extent, he even valued the complacency of the average man, for he considered it an extension of his tranquility and acceptance, traits which hearkened back to a pre-modern era of greater personal understanding: “They commoners, peasants have not grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience, the world which has its morning and its evening, its down (the earth) and its up (the heavens), where the sun rises daily in the east, traverses the sky and sets in the west, and where concepts like ‘at home’ and ‘in foreign parts,’ good and evil, beauty and ugliness, near and far, duty and rights, still mean something living and definite.”

Here, Havel was subtly criticizing the counterproductive legacy of philosophy, a legacy that has reduced modern culture to “a godless age in which power endowed with a higher meaning has been replaced with a vacuous power of tradition and legal and bureaucratic norms, that is, by human institutions.” His conclusion suggests a regression to the certainty of past times, to the immediacy of our forbears’ existences: “Man, deprived of all means and all weapons in his effort to achieve freedom and order, has no hope other than the one provided by his inner space.” And again, another appeal to the past: “Today… 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.” Over the years of his writing, he refined what was once a vague and confused sensation that modern constructions were not adequately advanced to support truly fair governments into a developed philosophy that he called “The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World” in a speech he delivered in 1994. Though his presentation and rhetoric evolved, the content of his message –that man must move past his current state of shortsighted selfishness to truly guarantee respect for human rights- remained consistent.

Note: it being a good thing to integrate one’s write-ups, I thought I’d mention that Havel’s sensation that understanding more about the universe seems to abstract man from the immediacy of his life is quite similar to Walker Percy’s aversion to “scientism.”

Blair, Erica. “Doing Without Utopias: An Interview with Václav Havel. The Times Literary Supplement (January 1987) p. 81.

Capps, Walter. “Interpreting Václav Havel.” Cross Currents Online.

Václav Havel. The Power of the Powerless. ed. John Keane. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1985.

Václav Havel. "Politics and Conscience." Open Letters: Selected Writings, selected and ed. Paul Wilson. New York: Random House, 1985.

Conference on “Intellectuals as Leaders” sponsored by Partisan Review in the 1992 with Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky. From Partisan Review v. 59 (Fall 1992) p.666-752.

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