It is not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, or new institutions. We must understand differently and more perfectly the true purpose of our existence on this earth.
- Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, is one of the twentieth century's most admirable figures. Originally a playwright and actor, his courageous stance against the repressive communist regime that ruled his country made him one of the world's best-known dissidents; his unlikely election as president, after the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989, was a highlight of the relatively bloodless collapse of that regime.
In addition to his fictional writings, Havel - influenced by existentialism - has long made philosophical observations about the human condition. In 1978 he wrote an essay called "The Power of the Powerless," in which he argued that the prime cause of the growing discontent throughout the world was a loss of transcendent concerns. Humans, he argued, were too preoccupied with self-fulfillment, rather than with larger issues.
Now, as a distinguished world statesman (albeit one who remains friends with the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed), Havel continues to offer pronouncements on grand themes. He recently hosted a gathering of world intellectuals in Prague, where he delivered a provocative talk entitled "Faith in the World," in which he reflected upon the current global situation. He began by listing the host of threats looming above the head of humankind: overpopulation; the widening gap between the world's rich and poor; the growing tensions between different cultures and nationalities; the increasing ecological crisis; the continuing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the rise of social problems based on the destruction of human communities.
It is rare for a political leader to be so forthright, and Havel must be commended for his courage in asking us all to face such unpleasant realities. As a politician who witnessed the rather turbulent breakup of his old country of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he has himself faced irrational nationalism and learned the art of compromise. He is a rare combination of idealist and realist.
Yet Havel goes further in his analysis of the current scene and attributes many of these worldwide problems to a loss of metaphysical certitude. Human beings are not attempting to address these difficult issues, he feels, primarily because they have become alienated from what he calls "the sphere of the spirit." We are, Havel asserts, living in the first atheistic civilization in the history of humankind. He writes:
Could the fact that humanity thinks only within the limits of what lies in its field of vision and is incapable of remembering also what lies beyond, whether in the temporal or spatial sense, not be the result of a loss of metaphysical certitude? Could not the whole nature of the current civilization, with its shortsightedness, with its proud emphasis on the human individual as the crown of all creation - and its master - and with its boundless trust in humanity's ability to embrace the Universe by rational cognition, could it not all be only the …