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Vaclav Havel: Authentic Humanist and Cultural Hero for our Times 1/3
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-12-19 21:59:49
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Václav Havel’s humanistic philosophy is a powerfully heroic voice of the post-cold War political landscape, advocating that Europe recover its own soul; urging a global revolution in human consciousness; reconnecting the story of man to a transcendent principle within the cosmos; nothing less than the voice of Hope.

"Kafka’s hero is, above all a hero for our time, 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. 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". Ivan Klima (in The Spirit of Prague)

With the possible exception of Franz Kafka, I know of no modern Czech writer whose political philosophy, within the Western Humanistic tradition, is more inspirational than Václav Havel’s. To my mind the best way to imagine him, is as one of Kafka’s “heroes for our time,” a powerful voice calling us back home to our humanity and urging that Europe know its cultural soul.

This is not to make Havel an esoteric thinker coming out of some Olympian cloud. He is to the contrary, the last arrival of a long line of Czech visionaries and political philosophers who were formed within the crucible of the Cold War. Particularly important as Havel’s predecessor, greatly influencing his thinking is Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), a brilliant philosopher, member for 15 years of the Austrian-Hungarian Parliament, and champion of an independent Czechoslovakia who in 1919 became president of the first Czechoslovakian Republic, just as Havel became president of the post-cold war Czech Republic.

Masaryk was in turn greatly influenced by Franz Bernano while studying in Vienna. Like Bernano, he was alarmed by the fact that within Western civilization, increased scientific sophistication did not result in any discernible moral progress. He also discerned that modern reason had become detached from the world of good and evil had regressed to a Protagorean clever sophistry detached from the ethical. Later on, Masaryk developed a friendship with Edmund Husserl.

It was he who conveys to Husserl a sense of the spiritual crisis of modern Europe. Husserl eventually publishes his famous The Crisis of European Science (1936) where he affirms that in the Western World theoretical knowledge has somehow lost contact with living human experience, and that the morally ordered world of our pre-reflective lived experience is the life-world of humankind. All these ideas are perceivable in Havel’s own thinking.

Another strong influence on Havel’s thinking is the philosopher Jan Patocka (1907-1977) who had studied with Husserl and then taught Havel. He was instrumental in publishing Charter 77, the statement of resistance to Soviet occupation and communist ideology for which both Patocka and Havel were jailed by the Communist authorities. It was Patocka who had brought Husserl to Prague as a guest lecturer when Husserl was expelled by the Nazis from Freiburg University. In any case Patocka grouped his writings in a book titled Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. There, we find ample evidence that the subject which most captivated him was that of the human struggle.

In the last essay of this book titled Wars of the 20th century and the 20th century as War Patocka writes a brilliant commentary on fragment 26 of Heraclitus, and interprets his polemos as “struggle, fight, war,” a kind of adversarial relationship with reality, a struggle against the world which ontologically can be compared to realities such as love, compassion, happiness, justice. In fact, for Patocka, polemos, had priority over the other realities. Thus Patocha corrects Husserl’s assumption of an underlying harmony within reality.

These “heretical essays” became a sort of manifesto to rally the Czech citizenry against the Soviet forces of occupation. Those essays insisted that when the ontological supports of hope fail, then personal responsibility must be evoked, in order to establish a community of solidarity. Out of this solidarity arises what Patocka calls “the power of the powerless.”

The legal basis of this solidarity was the 1977 Helsinki Agreement on human rights which affirms that human beings are obliged to discover and protect a valid moral foundation, and one ought not to expect that it be provided by the state or social forces alone. As Patocka himself explains: “There must be a self-evident, non-circumstantial ethic, and unconditional morality. A moral system does not exist to help society function but simply so that man can be human… it is morality which defines man.” This concept of human rights is redolent of the concept of “inalienable rights” which accrue to being human and no state can give or take away, as proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence.

Be that as it may, what Masaryk, Patocka and Havel have in common is a recognition that as a result of a disharmony which began with Cartesian rationalism, European life and thought were in profound crisis. This of course echoed Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences where the problems of modern philosophy are traced back to Descartes, the beginning of a crisis of self-alienation; something also noticed by Vico but alas ignored some two hundred years before in his New Science (1730).

Husserl insists that this profound alienation and dysfunction could not be resolved unless normative status was attributed to Lebenswelt (life-world), the basis of ethical autonomy. Mechanistic science had unfortunately substituted the old awareness that human life belongs to an ordered moral universe. This idea is especially evident in Masaryk’s Suicide as a Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization. Nineteenth-century science has, in fact, usurped the authority previously accorded to faith and reason. Masaryk is convinced that it is crucial that humans return to a world of primary experience in order to be reconnected to a vital sense of good and evil. This is also the vital concern of Dostoyevsky’s existential novels.

PART TWO (Coming soon)

(Coming soon)

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Thanos2007-09-03 19:03:22
Václav Havel has been a great friend to Greece and Greeks and he has often visited Greece, in one of these visits early 90s I had the honor to meet him and I have to admit that i was really impressed with his very alive spirit.

Emanuel Paparella2007-09-03 20:46:48
Indeed, I still remember the speech he gave to a full session of the American Congress in the mid 90s. From its repercussions, I suspect that most of it went right over the head of the presiding politicians. He did get a standing ovation however; so he is and remains a much admired "philosopher-king" who never forgot the humanity he shares with the rest of us.

Jack2007-09-04 03:03:45
Great job Mr. Paparella...I agree. How can society be civil without a moral compass? Having a moral conscience confirms our humanity. The abscense of it, only inhumanity.

Metis2011-12-20 02:22:22
Do you mean BRENTANO? Who is Franz Bernano?

The view that war/conflict/polemos takes precedence over harmony as foundation of political life is the materialist one systematized by the likes of Hobbes and Carl Schmitt.

How is political materialism (idealism on a materialist basis) compatible with the Declaration?

Gerard Farley2011-12-21 06:15:12
Could it be that it's a typo, and that you are referring to Franz Bretano, whose ideas on"intentionality" influenced Husserl's thought on the same subject?

Emanuel Paparella2011-12-21 15:16:05
Indeed Gerard, thanks for the correction. I suppose typos are inevitable, I have seen them in prestigious academic journals; albeit, I try to keep in mind the dictum of another former philosophy professor of mine (Dr. Joe Carpino) at St. Francis College who used to quip: "one cannot be excused and admired at the same time."

As it is, it is neither Bernano nor Bretano but Brentano whom you correctly identify as Husserl's predecessor on the concept of intentionality.

Emanuel Paparella2011-12-21 15:25:06
Indeed Gerard,thanks for the correction. It is a typo, albeit it reminds me of a quip by a former professor of philosophy of mine at St. Francis College (Dr. Joe Carpino): "one cannot be excused and admired at the same time." I meant Brentano whom you identify as the one who influenced Husserl on the concept of intentionality.

P.S. I am re-writing this comment since the previous one seems to have failed.

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