August 12, 2003

-A Sense of the Transcendent: This article was first given as a talk to the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia, March 29, 1995 (Vaclav Havel, Fall 1997, CrossCurrents)

The main question is this: where should we look for sources of a shared minimum that could serve as a framework for the tolerant coexistence of different cultures within a single civilization? It is not enough to take the set of imperatives, principles, or rules produced by the Euro-American world and mechanically declare them binding for all. If anyone is to apply these principles, identify with them, and follow them, those principles will have to appeal to something that has been present in him or her before, to some of his or her inherent qualities. Different cultures or spheres of civilization can share only what they perceive as genuine common ground, not something that some simply offer to or even force upon others. The rules of human coexistence on this Earth can work only if they grow out of the deepest experience of everyone, not just some. They have to be formulated so as to be in harmony with what all of us — as human beings, not as members of a particular group — have learned, experienced, and endured.

No unbiased person will have any trouble knowing where to look. If we examine the oldest moral canons, the commandments that prescribe human conduct and the rules of human coexistence, we find numerous essential similarities among them. It is often surprising to discover that virtually identical moral norms arise in different places and different times, largely independently of one other. Another important thing is that the moral foundations upon which different civilizations or cultures were built always had transcendental or metaphysical roots. It is scarcely possible to find a culture that does not derive from the conviction that a higher, mysterious order of the world exists beyond our reach, a higher intention that is the source of all things, a higher memory recording everything, a higher authority to which we are all accountable in one way or another. That order has had a thousand faces. Human history has known a vast array of gods and deities, religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals, and liturgies. Nevertheless, since time immemorial, the key to the existence of the human race, of nature, and of the universe, as well as the key to what is required of human responsibility, has always been found in what transcends humanity, in what stands above it. Humanity must respect that if the world is to survive, To this day, the point of departure has been present in all our archetypal notions and in our long-lost knowledge, despite the obvious estrangement from these values that modern civilization has brought with it. Yet, even as our respect for the mysteries of the world dwindles, we can see for ourselves again and again that such a lack of respect leads to ruin. All this clearly suggests where we should look for what united us: in an awareness of the transcendent.

I have no specific advice on how to revive this awareness which was once common to the whole human race, on how to retrieve it from the depths to which it has sunk, or how to do this in a way that is both appropriate for this era and at the same time universal, acceptable to all. Yet, when thinking about it, no matter where or in what context, I always — without intending to — come to the conclusion that this is precisely where we should begin the search for the means of coexistence on this planet, and for the salvation of the human race from the many dangers to its existence that civilization generates. We should seek new ways to restore the feeling for what transcends humanity, for what gives meaning to the world surrounding it, as well as to human life itself.

Dostoevsky wrote that if there were no God everything would be permitted. To put it simply, it seems to me that our present civilization, having lost the awareness that the world has a spirit, believes that anything is permitted. The only spirit that we recognize is our own.

However different the paths followed by different civilizations, we can find the same basic message at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history: people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should not harm their fellow humans.

To my mind, reflecting on this message is the only way out of the crisis the world finds itself in today.

As George Orwell once said: "We have now sunk to a depth at which re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men."


    -ESSAY: Interpreting Vaclav Havel (Walter H. Capps, Fall 1997, CrossCurrents)

    -ESSAY: From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of V?clav Havel: The man who inspired the Velvet Revolution. (Iva K. Naffziger, Winter 2003, Hoover Digest)

    -REVIEW: of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane (Justin Gilstrap, Dartmouth Contemporary)