Vaclav Havel's Dissident Criticism


The most powerful, courageous, penetrating, and eloquent dissident opponents of Communist tyranny were Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Czech philosopher-playright-president Vaclav Havel (1936-December 18, 2011).

We forget that their criticism was directed, in a friendly way, toward the West, too.  Here's a penetrating excerpt from Havel's 1984 speech "Politics and Conscience":

Vaclav Havel

Or the question about socialism and capitalism! I have to admit that it gives me a sense of emerging from the depths of the last century. It seems to me that these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories have long since been beside the point. The question is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all: whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human "I," responsible for ourselves because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything, of his banal, prosperous private life-that "rule of everydayness," as Jan PatoĨka used to say-for the sake of that which gives life meaning. It really is not all that important whether, by accident of domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power. 

And here's some basic analysis:

  1. Surrendering to the rule of everydayness means giving into the impersonal forces that surround you – public opinion, fashion, ideology, technology.

  2. Everydayness is what characterizes the banal, prosperous private live that's not constituted by the courageous sacrifice that makes possible the assumption of personal responsibility.

  3. Everydayness is characteristic of the "I" without any real content, and so without the capacity to speak with meaning about the dignified purposes of human life.

  4. Courage is required for every dimension of genuine human autonomy and dignity.

  5. But courage is especially required for genuinely truthful human thought.  And moral courage – the willingness to risk everything in the service of personal responsibility – is indispensable for intellectual courage.

  6. Without courage, Havel elsewhere writes, "nothing is worth anything."  Whenever a human being identifies morality with expediency or what's required to sustain his decent, prosperous private life, he always, "in the depths of his spirit...feels that nothing matters."

  7. So what the Czech and Slovak dissidents had to offer the "free world," what the world not dominated by Communist ideology used to call itself, is, in Havel's words, "the idea that a price must be paid for truth, the idea of truth as a moral value."  The dissidents risked everything for the truth against the impersonal lie of ideology.

  8. So the dissidents – such as Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and Patocka, had, as Havel said, "a relatively higher degree of inner emancipation" that human beings ordinarily experience – certainly more than we Americans – with doubtlessly a few exceptions – do these days.

  9. As Solzhenitsyn and Havel both reminded us Americans, beings who are too attached to their material well-being can't even defend their bodies, much less their souls.

    In President Havel's address to Congress in 1990, he concluded by giving an American example of the inner emancipation required to assume truthful human responsibility.  Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence concerning the foundation of government in consent "were a simple and important act of the human spirit.

  10. Those words were an act, because they were the foundation for the Americans' courageous dissident resistance in 1776 and, in the best cases, even today.

  11. As Havel says: "What gave meaning to the act...was the fact that the author backed it up with his life.  It was not just his words, but his deeds as well."

  12. Here's something else Havel says the Czechs and Slovak dissidents knew:  "the inability to risk...even life itself to save what gives it meaning and a human dimension leads not only to the loss of meaning but the loss of life as well."

  13. As Solzhenitsyn and Havel both reminded us Americans, beings who are too attached to their material well-being can't even defend their bodies, much less their souls.

  14. By the "natural world," Havel means the community constituted by our common awareness we can't help but have that causes us to transcend the domain of interests – our awareness of the more-than-biological significance of what we think and do.  It is our common awareness of the irreducible phenomenon of conscience – or conscientious responsibility.  It is that common awareness that is the foundation of a real polis constituted by proud, responsible, active citizens.

  15. Part of that natural awareness is that that we surrender our freedom when we mistake ourselves for God, when we believe that the power of science is simply for the satisfaction of our unlimited and undirected desires.

  16. So we act irresponsibility when we claim to be guided to the Marxian utopian vision of "heaven on earth."  That world, Havel explains, would be without evil and suffering.  It would be a world without criminals.  But it would also be a world without dignified "I's and personal responsibility.  Marxism, transhumanism and so forth are impossible and uncourageous dreams.

  17. Responsibility, Havel told Congress, is finally to "the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be judged."

  18. We really can't help but know, Havel explains elsewhere, that "we touch eternity in a strange way," and that "the world is more than a cluster of improbable accidents."




Peter Augustine Lawler. "Vaclav Havel's Dissident Criticism." from big think (December 19, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Peter Augustine Lawler.

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Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Governmentat Berry College. He teaches courses in political philosophy and American politics. He is executive editor of the quarterly journal, Perspectives on Political Science and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association.

He has written or edited fifteen books. His newest book is Modern and American Dignity for which he was named a Georgia Author of the Year. Among his books are Postmodernism Rightly Understood, Aliens in America, Stuck with Virtue, and Homeless and at Home in America. His American Political Rhetoric (edited with Robert Schaefer, sixth edition) is used in introductory American government courses at a sizeable number of colleges and universities. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize for Scholarly Excellence in promoting human dignity to a broad audience.

Lawler writes broadly from within a Catholic intellectual tradition that emphasizes the importance of limits on unfettered personal autonomy in shaping well-lived lives, as well as the centrality of the love of truth in making sense of the human experience. By no means dogmatic in matters of religion, Lawler does argue that our human moral anthropology suggests the possibility of God's existence and love. His influences include both Catholics (Augustine, Thomas, Pascal, Tocqueville, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy) as well as non-Catholic thinkers (especially Leo Strauss).

Copyright © 2011 Peter Augustine Lawler

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