Academic journal article Theory in Action

A Magnificent Gift: Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel on Dissident Sacrifice

Academic journal article Theory in Action

A Magnificent Gift: Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel on Dissident Sacrifice

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In considering the meaning of a dissident sacrifice, there is a tendency to associate the meaning of the act with how the public receives the sacrifice. For example, the self-immolation of an individual, if it incites a riot, is remembered and praised; if it receives no public attention, then those who hear of it may say 'what a waste'. How a public perceives a sacrifice is largely a matter of accident, there is no formula for inciting a revolution through a martyrdom, hence one might want to claim that the meaning of a dissident sacrifice is reliant on contingency. The tragic statistics on the website for the International Campaign for Tibet, where the names of over 140 individuals who have self-immolated as an act of resistance is testament to the contingency of the reception.2 This is clearly not very helpful for understanding the political significance of a sacrifice and so the concept opens for analysis. This paper attempts to explore the meaning of dissident sacrifice by unpacking the moral and political significance in two differing accounts of sacrifice - that of Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. Essentially this paper asks whether only certain kinds of people can be meaningful sacrifices, and if there are on what grounds do we expect them to make a sacrifice?

Aristotle's thoughts on magnificence are a worthwhile consideration to begin this exploration, as he argues that a person of high social standing and wealth has more to give than one who does not.3 Hence magnificence can only be expected by one who has a great deal to give. Transposing the argument to dissent we can ask, can one give more in dissent than another, due to their position or standing? To continue with the simile, the magnificent man is like an artist who acts in a way that is most fitting, that is they consider how the production of the most beauty can be achieved for the community rather than considering the cost of the production.4 The magnificent man spends large sums fittingly and liberally. For Aristotle the poor man cannot be magnificent because the poor man has no means with which to spend large sums.5 Interestingly, for Aristotle, the poor man who tries to act magnificently is a fool because he is acting beyond what can be expected of him.6 In the dissident sacrifice the expenditure is with one's life. The dissident offers a gift of death to the community by placing themselves at risk through their actions. A dissident sacrifice is an attempt at bringing beauty or goodness to the community through an act of civil disobedience. This beauty is to come through spending one's life fittingly. Hence the question, are all sacrifices equal? Also the additional question arises, can dissidence only be expected of certain people (from certain social positions), and if so are people who try to be dissidents who don't have the high positions from which to give a sacrifice being silly - would they be better off not making a sacrifice?

These questions can be well posed through a thought experiment. A person, living in totalitarian conditions with no public profile and relatively few friends, all of whom are also without public profile, writes a letter to the government outlining the problems that she has with the system. She is being existentially honest with herself in writing the letter, in that she is expressing sincere doubts about the lack of justice in the state. She sends copies of her letter to her friends and the foreign news. Not having a network of dissidents to distribute material through, many copies of her letter are intercepted by the censors and do not reach their intended audience. Her friends that do get the letter, immediately burn it sensing the potential danger in being associated with it. The woman is promptly removed from her home, placed in jail, and is disappeared.

In comparison, a film director living under the same totalitarian state makes a short film outlining the horrors of the system in which he (and the woman) live. …

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