Václav Havel's Disharmony and his Politics of a Cosmic Order

7. 9. 2009 / Michael Hauser

Georg Lukács once said that Marxism wasn't unique simply because it emphasised the role of economics. It was unique because it was capable of seeing all the fragments of social life as a single whole. If we look around using this approach, everything suddenly changes.

A Czech version of this article is HERE

Nothing runs along the accustomed lines. Imagining society as a house with many rooms, it used to be that while we were in one room, we forgot about all the others. When we were in the room called "spiritual mood", we ignored the fact that there is a room called "work", or "relationships", or "art". But now, all the rooms have been lit and opened up and we are able freely to walk between them.

Soon, we reach two large rooms we didn't know were connected. The first is the room of contemporary spirituality, a colourful and chaotic mixture of New Age and New Pagan myths and practices, a room full of searching for a cosmic order, harmony, the Godess Gaia, the menhirs in the forests, the wisdom of ancient civilisations, Yin and Yang, natural healing, magic and astrology.

Right next door, separated by a thick wall with a locked door, is the second room. Within it we discover something completely different: our real existence , which is disharmonious:. Here is job insecurity, economic pressures, the disappearance of free time, fear of the future, frustrating helplessness, broken interhuman relations. People look for their spiritual roots in the first room, while the dark matter of contemporary reality rules supreme in the second room. Most people do not like talking about the things from the second room even in front of their psychologists. They are afraid they would be given a stereotyped answer: "You have to try harder and if you are still afraid of losing your job, I will give you a prescription for stronger pills."

The spirit of the spiritless times

The first thing that occurs to us is that these two rooms are interconnected. Our desire to reach harmony is complemented by the disharmony of the real world. Could we live in today's world without the palliative of "spiritual harmonisation", which is supposed to protect us from the sharp edges of reality? The main spiritual movement of today, New-Age spirituality, has given people an alternative which can substitute both for blind consumerism as well as the Christian religion, which has become unconvincing for most people.

New Age spirituality offers us the deepest spiritual experience and self-knowledge. It offers us a connection to astral divinities, and links to profound, mystical esoteric matters, so that disharmony stops being a personal problem and becomes a trauma felt by "other people", by those who have not as yet embarked on their spiritual journey. New Age thinking connects with contemporary disharmony almost exactly in the same way in which Marx described the role of traditional religion: it is "the feeling for the world without feeling, it is the spirit of the spiritless times". If New Age spirituality was wiped out, it would re-appear within a few days or weeks because in today's disharmonious reality it functions as a palliative for the irritated nerves of contemporary human beings.

But there is something else. Does one room contain New Age thinking and various other spiritual remedies, while another room contains philosophy, science, rationality? When you open the door between these two rooms, you discover that things have moved from one room to the other. In the twentieth century, movements appeared in philosophy and in psychology which created the intellectual starting point for today's harmonising spirituality. New Age thinking is firmly rooted in those strands of philosophy and psychology which have been attempting to uncover the fundamental order of being and plumb the depths of the human soul. Let us think of late Heidegger and his attempts to uncover Being. Let us consider his four-way relationship (the Earth-Heaven, Gods-mortals) in which Man is supposed to fulfil the role of the Shepherd of Being. Let us think of Jung's uncovering of archetypes, the ancient experience of mankind which is said to have formed the deepest kernel of each human being, so that his individuality and freedom is little more than a ripple in the ocean of the collective unconsciousness.

Transcendence, or Extinction?

Václav Havel has shown more convincingly than anyone what a link between these scholarly disciplines and New Age thinking can look like. His Letters to Olga from the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s contains Havel's thoughts about the "absolute horizon of Being", about its "meaningful completeness" and about the "spirit of the order of Being". In Letters to Olga, Havel argued that our genuine "global responsibility" originates when we enter the "river" of all Being and live and act as its part. As is well known, Havel wrote Dopisy Olze in prison and maybe this is why he was then still adhering to the Enlightenment, the modernist concept of human dignity, identity and individuality. It is true that he was trying hard to marry Enlightenment concepts with ideas inspired by Heidegger. This bizarre combination -- a link between Heideggerianism and the Enlightenment with its universality of human rights -- came into being as a result of the pressure of the communist regime and its persecution of dissidents. As a result of this pressure, many dissidents identified themselves with Heidegger.

While in Havel's thinking from the times before the fall of communism in 1989 there was a continual tension between Heideggerianism and the Enlightenment, after 1989, Havel made a radical change in his thinking. He integrated human rights into the Order of Being and gave a justification for their existence using New Age thinking. Thus the tension in his philosophy disappeared. Havel discarded the ideas of the Enlightenment. At the beginning of the 1990s Havel began, without much ado, to speak in terms of standard New Age concepts. He argued that we live in an era of transition to a new age in which the rule of the contemporary paradigm will end. In his view, we should discover a deeper relationship with the world than modern science has created. We should get in touch with the deepest layers of reality and with a natural inner experience. The anthropic cosmological principle proved in his view that we were mysteriously connected with the whole universe. According to the Gaia hypothesis we were part of a gresater whole -- the Earth as a large living organism. When accepting the Jackson H. Ralston Prize in Stanford in 1994 Havel summed it all up like this: "We must renew our reverence for the immaterial order, which is not only above us, but also within us and amongst us."

Human rights and democracy were to be anchored in this "transcendental order". In the era of the Enlightenment and in the Modernist era, human rights and democracy were not anchored in such a profound way, hence they failed, argued Havel. "Transcendence, or Extinction" -- that is Havel's New-Age variation on the well-known statement by Heidegger: "Only God can save us".

Human rights and Double Standards

The anchoring of human rights in New Age philosophy lead to a remarkable conclusion in the thinking of the post-1989 Václav Havel. In this interpretation, human rights are not defined by international treaties. They have ontological roots and hence they stand above international law which is only based on temporal agreements. Thus the "humanitarian bombing" (Havel's expression) of Yugoslavia in the 1990s has an ontological justification. There are, of course, a number of paradoxes here: In giving human rights his own, ontological definition, Havel was forced to rid them of their universality. Thus, the same infringements of human rights acquired different meaning depending on which countries they occurred. In the case of Yugoslavia, Cuba, North Korea, China, they were indeed infringements of human rights. In the case of Saudi Arabia they were a part of the tradition of another culture which was fully justified to be "different". When the United States infringed human rights, it was a part of the defence of Western civilisation.

In this way Havel's concept of human rights seriously differs from how human rights are understood by Amnesty International, which criticises their infringements no matter where they occur, even in the United States.

Why can't Havel criticise the infringement of human rights in the United States? It is not human rights which are important for Havel, but the roots from which human rights have arisen: the Euro-Atlantic civilization. According to Havel, it is permissible to curtail human rights in the interests of preserving the existence of the Euro-Atlantic civilisation; in an extreme case (if totalitarianism threatens) human rights could be even completely abolished. In this concept of the West, Havel becomes a total opposite of Heidegger, who saw American civilisation just as distant from the Truth of Being as was the Soviet regime. It is a paradox that for Havel it becomes possible that human rights in their universal terms should be infringed for the protection of the source of these same human rights (their roots).

Necessity is a recognised freedom

Václav Havel's approach is an extreme, highly instructive example of what the New-Age desire for harmony and order can bring about. The anchoring of Man within the deeper order of things undermines the best legacy of the Enlightenment, i.e. the universality of human rights and Man as its bearer. Where is there space for genuine individual freedom and autonomy in all these harmonic Gaia systems and the profound cosmic order?

Freedom and autonomy are associated with fear in this interpretation. If someone acts truly independently and freely, not only as an element of the Deeper Order of Things, this is rejected as an arrogance which disrupts the Deeper Order of Things. The transgressor will be punished: personal, family and health problems will be visited upon him.

But it is impossible to reduce Man to his socio-economic situation, to his genetic encoding or to a Cosmic Order. There is always an intangible essence in Man, which cannot be pinpointed and placed within a predetermined framework. From the point of view of those who make Man subordinate to various Higher Orders, such freedom is undoubtedly tantamount to arrogance -- yet, isn't this hubris, this intangible essence of Man, the most important thing that we have ever discovered in Europe?

Philosophy and the natural sciences have always succumbed to the tendency to depict the world according to contemporary factors. As Descartes's great opponent Giambattista Vico says, the philosophical concepts which Plato and Aristotle used to explain the world come from the Athenian marketplace. Our images of the cosmos are based upon what people have experienced as natural. Surely only a lunatic could think that the Earth isn't at the centre of the universe or that the world isn't good and beautiful.

Except for a few honourable exceptions (the ancient materialists, Giordano Bruno, Pascal, Kant, Nietzsche) people haven't generally thought that the cosmos could be radically different from our own ideas and the desires that we project into it. The cosmos has been understood as a continuation of the "natural world", sometimes it was seen in the same colours, at other times in contrasting colours. But a cosmos constructed like this is simply human, too human.

Today, a radically different image of the cosmos can be seen in quantum physics, not in philosophy. As Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity says, light is both particle and wave, but not either particle or wave, but both particle and wave at the same time. It is possible to see the cosmos in both ways and impossible to decide which interpretation is correct. The contradiction is a part of the nature of reality, part and parcel of the thing itself. It is impossible, as Niels Bohr said, to "understand" quantum physics. In this cosmos, such things happen constantly that "normal common sense" cannot take in: matter disappears and re-appears, space and time bends, the visible universe is a mere complement to dark matter, gigantic stars shrink into miniscule objects with bizarre characteristics. The cosmos constantly disrupts what we understand as harmony. If hubris is understood as a derailment of the harmonic order, then nature itself is hubris.

What does this all mean for our situation today? If no deep, esoteric order of nature exists (if what exists are merely our own, historically conditioned projections of "order" into the natural world), then everything is turned upside down. It is impossible to base our existence on a fundament with which we get in harmony, thus ridding ourselves of all our problems. There is only one way out -- to accept our freedom as necessity. Spinoza said that freedom is a recognised necessity, but it is the other way about: necessity is a recognised freedom. We are forced to live in freedom. What matters is not the attempts to re-create a lost order. What matters is the difficult recognition that no God will save us. Salvation can come only from us if we carry out disharmonic acts.


Obsah vydání | Pátek 26.2. 2010