Twenty years ago the remarkable Czech poet and playwright, Vaclav Havel, came to the world's attention as a leader of the Czech resistance to Soviet totalitarianism. Subsequently, the poet became a president, the first president of the Czech Republic.
This month Havel addressed the opening ceremony of Forum 2000, a conference on architecture and urbanism, with an extended lament on the heedlessness of modern life.
“Our cities,” Havel said as he began his remarks, “are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding landscape with its nature, traditional pathways, avenues of trees, villages, mills, and meandering streams, and build in their place some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript, disrupts the network of natural human communities and under the banner of international uniformity it attacks all individuality, identity, or heterogeneity.”
Havel asserts that we are not only living in the first truly global civilization but “also the first atheistic civilization,” “a civilization that has lost its connection with the infinite and the eternal.” In his protest against both globalism and atheism, Havel sounds very much like another artist, the American writer and farmer, Wendell Berry.
What Havel means by “atheism” is noteworthy and, in the American context, unusual. He doesn’t define it in relation to creed or church, but as a kind of self-confident heedlessness that neglects relationships and limits. “The most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilization is its pride," he said. "The pride of someone 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 of profit.”
With no notion of the infinite, humanity has, as Havel sees it, lost a proper sense of its own finitude.
“I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, 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.”
“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 horizon of our actions.”
In America we have become accustomed to the debates of believers and the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al.) as something both creedal and political. The New Atheists believe that religion is the problem and banishing religion will automatically lead to a new enlightenment.
For Havel, the atheism that worries him is less confessional (“Do you believe in God?”) than functional (“Are you aware of your own finitude?”). It manifests itself as a loss of wonder and mystery, and of a sense of limits and restraint. “Wonder and an awareness that things are not self-evident are, I believe, the only way out of the dangerous world of a civilization of pride.”
Havel included in his remarks to the architects and urban planners reflections on the present economic crisis. He describes it as, “a very edifying signal to the contemporary world.”
“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," Havel said. "Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on 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 firm or community.
“And all of sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who — having the most 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 they were taken by surprise.
“I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realize what this signal is telling us. In fact it is nothing extraordinary, noting that a perceptive person did not know long ago. It is a warning against the disproportionate self-assurance and pride of modern civilization.”
Havel regards the current economic crisis, “as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility.” Much the same might be said of his own recent speech to Forum 2000, that it is a small, but important, call to humility.
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