Vaclav Havel and the Religious Attitude

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - DECEMBER 21:  A coupl...

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Replying to my first post on the subject, friend of the blog Dara Lind suggested to me that Vaclav Havel’s political ideas were a good match for what I argued the modern left lacks. His essay “Politics and Conscience” certainly includes some concepts that are very close to what I called worship and the religious attitude. It’s hard to talk about things like “worship” divorced from a specific theological or metaphysical context, but Havel does a good job of grounding them in personal experience. To whit:

As a boy, I lived for some time in the country and I clearly remember an experience from those days: I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens. I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it. Still that “soiling of the heavens” offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans are guilty of something, that they destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished. To be sure, my revulsion was largely aesthetic; I knew nothing then of the noxious emissions which would one day devastate our forests, exterminate game, and endanger the health of people.

[...]

To me, personally, the smokestack soiling the heavens is not just a regrettable lapse of a technology that failed to include “the ecological factor” in its calculation, one which can be easily corrected with the appropriate filter. To me it is more, the symbol of an age which seeks to transcend the boundaries of the natural world and its norms and to make it into a merely private concern, a matter of subjective preference and private feeling, of the illusions, prejudices, and whims of a “mere” individual. It is a symbol of an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experienceincluding the experience of mystery and of the absoluteand displaces the personally experienced absolute as the measure of the world with a new, man-made absolute, devoid of mystery, free of the “whims” of subjectivity and, as such, impersonal and inhuman. It is the absolute of so-called objectivity: the objective, rational cognition of the scientific model of the world.

What he’s arguing here has a certain family resemblance to the concept of worship, but his argument is also very much rooted in its time, the last days of the Soviet Empire. For our purposes, what’s even more interesting is how this translates into a political theory:

I favor “antipolitical politics,” that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and setving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in dailv life. Still, I know no better alternative.

I’m not a huge fan of the “anti-political” construction, which seems a little misleading. But this is surely on the right track, grounded as it is in a moral sense that we have allowed, sadly, to atrophy.

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