By once more taking nourishment
from their life-giving spiritual roots,
East and West can open an era of mutual inspiration.
The precondition is readiness to step beyond
dead habits and deadly prejudice.
VÁCLAV HAVEL is president of the Czech Republic. This article was first given as a
talk to the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia, March 29, 1995. and is included
in a new collection of his essays, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in
Practice (New York: Knopf, 1997). An internationally celebrated playwright, he is also
the author of Letters to Olga, Disturbing the Peace, Summer Meditations, and Open
Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990.}
For virtually my whole life, with the exception of a brief period in the late 60s, I
was barred from leaving my country. As the long decades went by, I got so used to this
absurd situation that I simply assumed I would never get to see any other parts of the
world. Needless to say, visiting a continent as distant as Australia was, I thought,
absolutely impossible. In my mind, Australia was one of the those fabulous worlds beyond
reach, worlds one cannot enter, just as one cannot land on a far-away star, or step into
A few years ago, everything changed. The world opened up to us all, and I -- as head of
State -- began to travel all over the globe. The most important thing I learned from this
sweeping change was how small our planet really is, and how much closer together places
are than I once believed. For this reason, I found it all the more astonishing that the
people living on this small planet are incapable of living together, that they constantly
wage countless wars and have innumerable conflicts. Sometimes it took only a few minutes
to fly over a territory that has been the object of strife for centuries. Though on my
official trips I travel by ordinary plane and not by spacecraft, I still feel I am
beginning to understand the experience of astronauts to whom all earthly conflicts, when
they look at our planet from outer space, appear to be only trifles, petty, and
In the light of this awareness, I would like to share with you certain thoughts that
come into my mind when I wonder why people behave so badly, and where to look for the hope
that they might behave better in the future.
For thousands of years human lived and evolved in different parts of the earth in
fairly autonomous entities. Cultures and whole civilizations appeared and disappeared,
cultures that -- seen from a modern perspective -- remained largely confined within their
own territories, isolated from one another. If they knew about each other at all, their
contacts were minimal. In those times, few if any events in the human world could have had
a substantial and immediate impact on the world as a whole.
Nowadays, things are very different. Within a fairly brief period of time -- no more
than a fraction of human history -- a global civilization has come into being and spread
around the whole planet, linking the different parts of it together, absorbing cultures or
spheres of civilization which had so long developed as autonomous units, and forcing them
to adjust. A great many of the conflicts or problems in our world today, it seems to me,
can be attributed to this new reality. They can be explained as struggles of different
cultural identities, not against this global civilization but within themselves, for the
survival and enhancement of what they are and the ways in which they differ from each
other -- struggles for what they appear to be losing. Some say we are living at a time in
which every valley wants to be independent. Sometimes this really seems to be the case.
This desire for independence is an understandable reaction to the pressure to integrate
and unify exerted by our civilization. Cultural entities shaped by thousands of years of
history are resisting this, for fear that within a few years they might dissolve in some
global cultural neutrality. If we mix all the colors together, we get gray. Cultures of
different colors are apparently wrestling with the danger of turning gray in the melting
pot of a single civilization.
How can we overcome this contradiction? Where can we turn for hope?
The solution certainly does not lie in putting our faith in the essentially atheistic
technological civilization of today. We should not rely on the assumption that this
civilization, supposedly more progressive than all the multifarious cultures and
civilizations of the past, is more worthy than they are, or that it is justifiable to
suppress and annihilate traditions in its name because they are believed to slow the
victorious progress of history. Humanity includes its own past; fighting with the past
would mean declaring war on humanity itself. On the other hand, rejecting the present
civilization, abandoning all the good things it has brought and attempting to return to
some bygone tribal life, is not a solution either.
The only wise course is the most demanding one: we must start systematically to
transform our civilization into a truly multicultural civilization, one that will allow
everyone to be themselves while denying no one the opportunities it offers, one that
strives for the tolerant coexistence of different cultural identities, one that clearly
articulates the things that unite us and can develop into a set of shared values and
standards enabling us to lead a creative life together. I am happy to be able to reiterate
this profound conviction here in Australia -- a country that could serve many others as an
example of a working multicultural democracy that is trying to follow a course offering a
way out of the maze of pitfalls in which humankind currently finds itself lost.
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 of 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. Of course, such a reflection must be free of prejudice and it must
be critical, no matter who may turn out to be a target of that criticism.
Let me offer a specific illustration of this general idea.
The Euro-American world of modern times has developed a fairly consistent system of
values for human coexistence, which is now accepted as a basis of international
coexistence as well. These values include the concept of human rights and the liberties
growing out of respect for the individual human being and his or her dignity. They also
include democracy, which rests on separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial
powers, on political pluralism and free elections. And they include respect for private
ownership of property and the rules of the market economy. I unreservedly subscribe to
this system of values and so does the Czech Republic.
And yet, from different parts of the world, including the Pacific region, we hear
voices calling these values into question, arguing that they are the creation of a single
culture and cannot simply be transformed into other cultures. Naturally, such voices point
out all the faults to be found in the West in order to make their case that these values
are faulty or inadequate. One typical argument is that Western democracy is marked by a
profound crisis of authority, and that without respect for authority as a means of
ensuring law and order society is bound to fall apart.
The odd thing is, those who say this are right and wrong at the same time.
They are certainly right in saying that the Western world is suffering from a crisis of
authority. As someone who is a fairly recent arrival in the world of high politics, and
who has suddenly seen it from the inside, I have time and again experienced the odd fact
that the public, other politicians, and the media as well, are far more interested in
casting doubt on the authority of a politician that they are in whether it is desirable
that he or she should wield authority in the first place. This is not something I mind
personally -- for one thing, nobody can have as many doubts about myself as I can. But I
am concerned about this phenomenon as a political reality. If politicians have no
authority at all, the state and its various constituent parts cannot have any authority
either. This, in turn, has an adverse effect on society.
But is this crisis of authority a product of democracy? And if so, does it not follow
that an authoritarian regime, a dictatorship or a totalitarian system, would be preferable
That is certainly not the case.
The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general
crisis of spirituality in the world at present. Humankind, having lots its respect for a
higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well. Consequently,
people also lose respect for their fellow humans and eventually even for themselves. This
loss of a transcendent perspective, to which everything on this Earth relates, inevitably
leads to a collapse of earthly value systems as well. Humanity has lost what I once
privately described as the absolute horizon; and as a result, everything in life has
become relative. All sense of responsibility disintegrates, including responsibility for
the human community and its authorities. This is a philosophical, not a political problem.
However, even a decaying or diminishing democratic authority is a thousand times better
than the thoroughly artificial authority of a dictator imposed through violence or
Democracy is an open system, and thus it is capable of improvement. Among other things,
freedom provides room for responsibility. If that room is not sufficiently used, the fault
does not lie with democracy, but it does present democracy today with a challenge.
Dictatorship leaves no room for responsibility, and thus it can generate no genuine
authority. Instead, it fills all the available space with the pseudo-authority of a
Potential dictators are well aware of the crisis of authority in democracy. The less
that atheistic people today heed the challenge that democracy presents, the less they
succeed in filling the room it offers by taking genuine and unquestioned responsibility,
the faster a dictator, posing as the bearer of universal responsibility, will proceed to
occupy that room until finally he will occupy it entirely. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao were
typical examples of this species. Filling all the available room with a completely false
authority, they closed it off, destroyed it, and eventually destroyed democracy itself. We
all know where this leads: to hecatombs of the dead, the tortured, and the humiliated. In
a word, while democracy paves the way for the creation of real authority, an authoritarian
regime blocks that path with a terrible barrier, with the caricature of authority.
The chances for a successful existential revolution -- as I once metaphorically
described the awakening of a deeper human responsibility -- are far better under freedom
and democracy than under a dictatorship, where the only room offered to anyone who wishes
to take responsibility is a prison cell.
The Western world cannot be faulted for sticking to democracy. Though democracy may
surely take different forms, it is, today, the only way open to us all. What the West can
be faulted for is its failure to understand and safeguard properly this fantastic
accomplishment. Paralyzed by a general moral crisis, it has been unable to make use of all
the opportunities offered by this great invention, and give a meaningful content to the
space democracy has opened up. It is because of these deficiencies that unstable
personalities have, again and again, managed to devastate democracy and unleash a variety
of global horrors.
What conclusion should we draw from this? That there is no reason to fear democracy, or
to perceive it as a system that destroys authority and tears everything apart. Another
option is available to those who wish to prevent this destruction: they can take democracy
as a challenge to demonstrate responsibility and to introduce -- or rather restore -- the
spirit and substance democracy once had when it first came into being. This is a
superhuman task; yet in the open system which is democracy, it can be accomplished.
In cultures where the roots of democracy are still shallow, or where democracy as not
taken root at all so far, and where a free individual means virtually nothing while the
leader is omnipotent, leaders often appeal to the centuries-old traditions of authority in
their sphere, and seek to give legitimacy to their dictatorial rule by claiming to
continue these traditions.
Again, they are both right and wrong. They are wrong in that what they present as the
continuity of ancient traditions is in fact their negation. Though recalling the natural
authority that leaders may possess in their cultural systems, they replace it with an
unnatural authority. Instead of an authority emanating from charisma -- authority as an
innerly perceived and widely accepted higher vocation, authority marked by a high degree
of responsibility to its self-imposed task -- they establish the utterly secularized
authority of the whip.
To put it in simplified terms, if the East can borrow democracy and its inherent values
from the West as a space in which a reawakening sense of the transcendent can restore
authority, the West can learn from the East what true authority is, what it grows from,
and how it conducts itself. It can then be spread throughout the zone of human freedom
which it has created. I think in this context of Confucius, who so ably described what it
means to wield genuine authority. His standards have very little in common with those who
rule today by the whip. For Confucius, authority -- whether for the father of a family or
the ruler of a state -- is a metaphysically anchored gift whose strength derives from
heightened responsibility, not from the might of the instruments of power that the ruler
may wield. Moreover, a charisma is lost when a person betrays it.
Though many see them as opposites, both East and West are in a sense enmeshed in the
same problem: both are betraying their own deepest spiritual roots. If they were to look
back and draw from the roots more of their life-giving sap, each might not only do better
for itself, but they might immediately begin to understand each other better than they
This small example of what the West can give the East, and vice versa, may perhaps
illustrate that a search for common principles and objectives can be useful for everyone,
and that it may be pursued without anyone losing identity in the process. It also shows
that such a search is unimaginable if we do not make contact with the original,
long-forgotten transcendental roots of our cultures. In the moral world of antiquity, of
Judaism, and of Christianity, without which the West would hardly have come to modern
democracy, we can find more points of agreement with Confucius than we would think, and
more than is realized by those who invoke the Confucian tradition to condemn Western
I realize that this is an oversimplified attempt to condense, in a few pages, some of
my thoughts about the present-day world. I see the only chance for today's civilization in
a clear awareness of its multicultural character, in a radical enhancement of its inner
spirit, and in an effort to find the shared spiritual roots of all cultures -- for they
are what unites all people. It is on this basis that we should articulate anew the
standards and practices that will enable us to open up an entirely new era of mutual
inspiration. The preconditions for this are genuine openness, the will to understand each
other, and the ability to step beyond the confines of our own habits and prejudices.
Identity is not a prison; it is an appeal for dialogue with others.
I invite you all most cordially to visit the Czech Republic, a small country situated
in the very center of Europe. It is my hope that you will not have to go through any
battlefields on the way, and that you will feel what I feel whenever I travel: that our
planet is small, and a rather nice place to live, and that it would be the greatest
absurdity of all if those destined to live together on it were to fail to do so, despite
the fact that love for one's fellow humans is the central commandment of all our
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