Conscience, decency, morality. Over the past decade, politics and social life in the U.S. have grown deeply detached from these values, just as different factions continue to self-divide and become incongruous with each other. It could be argued the two were never married to begin with, but I think many would agree there was a time, not too far back, that ethics and morality were at least paid lip service. It’s 2020 now, and reading Václav Havel’s Open Letters, one feels a sense of loss and even personal failure, being reminded of better things by someone who lived in an even more oppressive atmosphere. It is not all gloom, though. Havel’s encouragement to follow your conscience could be the wake-up call we need.
Spiritual and Moral Crisis
The essays, interviews, and letters which precede Havel’s 4-year prison term (1979–1983) are quite focused in nature and analytical in tone. This whole earlier section (the book is arranged in chronological order) takes some thinking as well as reading and centers specifically around certain people, events, and documents. That said, in spite of my only cursory knowledge of the history, I found it easy enough to understand what was being discussed.
I did wonder if Gustave Husák—general secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia 1969–1987 and later president—actually read “Dear Dr. Husák,” a strong but diplomatically worded critque addressed to him in April 1975. It is a lengthy letter, but Havel’s brilliance shows in his arguments. He underlines the pervasive fears in society, such as those afraid to speak out in case they will lose their career. He appeals to the secretary’s communist background by pointing out that political propaganda, and stifling of real social engagement, causes citizens to turn inward and focus instead on consumerism. He explains the “spiritual and moral crisis in society,” pleading that the censorship of literature is contributing to this crisis, in ways that can hardly be foreseen.
Husák did not respond to the letter personally. The rejection of Havel’s case for free speech was emblematic of things to come, as he persevered with his illicit writing and the communist government grew less and less tolerant of what he had to say.
“Reports on My House Arrest” chronicles a few days-in-the-life of Havel as he was being watched at his house in early 1979. He was not allowed to even go grocery shopping without police accompanying him, and he suffered systematic vandalism of his vehicle and property on more than one occasion, even while the authorities pretended ignorance. Through his accounts, you feel immediately the mindlessness of the persecution, in which the police try to make his life (and those of his neighbors) as miserable as possible. Havel writes matter-of-factly, mentioning his depression and physical ailments only in passing. “Again…I know there are hundreds of people who are infinitely worse off than I am,” he concludes.
“…the chaotic world of modern civilization”
After Havel was released from prison, he wrote some incredibly brilliant essays, some of which make up the second half of Open Letters.
“Politics and Conscience” (1984) crowns the whole as a discourse on political philosophy, civic duty, and the folly of the socialist-capitalist dichotomy. He makes points on the following (and more):
- Politics and social life ought not to be removed from “the natural world”—that is, the breadth and depth of our “lived experience.” This spans a panorama of practical topics, from the justice system to environmentalism.
- “Man in the age of science” has become arrogant. Science itself is not at fault, but rather man’s substituting personal responsibility with the idea of playing God.
- The issue facing us is not socialism vs. capitalism. Instead of battling ideology with ideology, we should prioritize morality and (again) personal responsbility. To this end, Havel points out we are all capable of evil “which dwells everywhere,” regardless of the political system of the state.
Is Conscience Compatible with Politics?
Another of my favorite essays is one called “Thinking About František K.” In this piece, Havel takes on a dilemma very real to me—in his words:
Is it possible in today’s complex world for people who are guided by their consciences or the basic ethical categories of the everyday world to take an active part in politics?
František Kriegel was a politician who, according to Havel, had moral values and was worthy of respect, but who also lived life identifying as a socialist and even communist. “Kriegel sincerely believed that it was possible, from the inside, to breathe more humanity into an inhuman system.” As Havel writes, Kriegel himself was persecuted by his own group identity.
What I appreciated about this essay was that, instead of answering the question point-blank, Havel weighs both sides of the problem and suggests, instead, that we show some empathy for František K. Perhaps for some people, joining a particular group is the only outlet for their ideals and even for their act of conscience. Havel seems to view this option with doubt (and for good reason), but he does not condemn, striving instead to understand why František K. made the choices that he did.
There is no easy, generalized answer to this question, but it’s a necessary question for a democratic, multi-party system (or frankly any system). Do you dare complain if you don’t vote or get involved? On the other hand…do you vote against your heart if the only viable options are two bad options?
I don’t recall that the word “faith” is ever used in this book, but it seems to me Havel is suggesting, over and over again, that you need to trust in your conscience and living “within the truth.” Also, the world is so much more complex than the bipolar picture being highlighted all around us, and we need to be careful not to fall into that kind of thinking ourselves. Taking personal responsibility, viewing people as human beings first and identities second, and following your conscience—what more can you do for the integrity of your country?
As he demonstrated in his own life, Havel knew well that living within the truth comes at a cost. Most of us are not prepared to take on that burden. Reading books like this, though, I am encouraged that out of a bad situation good things can later come and also that there are people who have gone before me who understand these inner conflicts.