Vaclav Havel is dead
His Grace was fortunate enough to meet this great man in 1990. We talked of much, but the enduring impression has been of the man’s faith and his politico-philosophical conviction. There was an excellent article a year ago in The Catholic Herald on Mr Havel’s address to a conference in Prague entitled ‘The world we want to live in’. It dealt with ‘different spheres from politics, economics, sociology and political philosophy to aesthetics and religion’.
At the opening of the conference Mr Havel, an acclaimed playwright and essayist, gave a speech in which he deplored the global society, describing it as the 'first atheistic civilisation'. This society, he said, preferred short term profit over long term profit, but its most dangerous aspect was its pride.
He described the pride as: 'The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit.' Mr Havel continued:
I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don’t yet know we’ll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit, anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations.The former president described the current financial and economic crisis as a very edifying sign to the contemporary world and a call to humilty:
But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions.
We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.
Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.This call to humility, he said, was: 'A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well.' He continued:
And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth – were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.
I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us.
In fact it is nothing extraordinary, nothing that a perceptive person did not know long ago. It is a warning against the disproportionate self-assurance and pride of modern civilisation. Human behaviour is not totally explicable as many inventors of economic theories and concepts believe; and the behaviour of firms or institutions or entire communities is even less so.
Wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world is, after all, the first impulse to the question: what purpose does it all have? Why does it all exist? Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out. It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at. And that we are here simply so that there is someone to wonder. But what is the point of having someone wonder at something? And what alternative is there to being? After all if there were nothing, there would also be no one to observe it. And if there were no one to observe it, then the big question is whether non-being would be at all possible.Amen and amen.
Perhaps someone, just a few hundred light years away from our planet, is looking at us through a perfect telescope. What do they see? They see the Thirty Years War. For that reason alone it holds true that everything is here all the time, that nothing that has happened can unhappen, and that with our every word or movement we are making the cosmos different – forever – from what it was before.
In all events, I am certain that our civilisation is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.
There have been throughout millennia numerous religious movements which prophesy the imminent destruction of the present order and the establishment of a new one, usually reversing the relative status of the oppressed and the oppressor. Vaclav Havel lived through such an oppression: he saw in a revolution and arose to lead his people to a promised land. He was a political visionary, a symbol of all that is finest in the human spirit, and we mourn his passing. God rest his soul.