The power of living in truth

December 20, 2011

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The views expressed are his own.

The world’s greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership. With a commitment to truth – scientific, ethical, and personal – a society can overcome the many crises of poverty, disease, hunger, and instability that confront us. Yet power abhors truth, and battles it relentlessly. So let us pause to express gratitude to Václav Havel, who died this month, for enabling a generation to gain the chance to live in truth.

Havel was a pivotal leader of the revolutionary movements that culminated in freedom in Eastern Europe and the end, 20 years ago this month, of the Soviet Union. Havel’s plays, essays, and letters described the moral struggle of living honestly under Eastern Europe’s Communist dictatorships. He risked everything to live in truth, as he called it – honest to himself and heroically honest to the authoritarian power that repressed his society and crushed the freedoms of hundreds of millions.

He paid dearly for this choice, spending several years in prison and many more under surveillance, harassment, and censorship of his writings. Yet the glow of truth spread. Havel gave hope, courage, and even fearlessness to a generation of his compatriots. When the web of lies collapsed in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks poured into the streets to proclaim their freedom  – and to sweep the banished and jailed playwright into Prague Castle as Czechoslovakia’s newly elected president.

I personally witnessed the power of living in truth in that year, when the leadership of Poland’s Solidarity movement asked me to help Poland with its transition to democracy and a market economy – part of what the Poles called their “return to Europe.” I met and was profoundly inspired by many in the region who, like Havel, lived in truth: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, Gregorsz Lindenberg, Jan Smolar, Irena Grosfeld, and, of course, Lech Walesa. These brave men and women, and those like Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Leszek Balcerowicz, who led Poland during its first steps in freedom, succeeded through their combination of courage, intellect, and integrity.

The power of truth-telling that year created a dazzling sense of possibility, for it proved the undoing of one of history’s most recalcitrant hegemonies: Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Michnik, like Havel, radiated the joy of fearless truth. I asked him in July 1989, as Poland’s communist regime was already unraveling, when freedom would reach Prague. He replied, “By the end of the year.”

“How do you know?” I asked. “I was just with Havel in the mountains last week,” he said. “Have no fear. Freedom is on the way.”  His forecast was correct, of course, with a month to spare.

Just as lies and corruption are contagious, so, too, moral truth and bravery spreads from one champion to another. Havel and Michnik could succeed in part because of the miracle of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who emerged from a poisoned system, yet who valued truth above force. And Gorbachev could triumph in part because of the sheer power of honesty of his countryman, Andrei Sakharov, the great and fearless nuclear physicist who also risked all to speak truth in the very heart of the Soviet empire – and who paid for it with years of internal exile.

These pillars of moral leadership typically drew upon still other examples, including that of Mahatma Gandhi, who called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. They all believed that truth, both scientific and moral, could ultimately prevail against any phalanx of lies and power. Many died in the service of that belief; all of us alive today reap the benefits of their faith in the power of truth in action.

Havel’s life is a reminder of the miracles that such a credo can bring about; yet it is also a reminder of the more somber fact that truth’s victories are never definitive. Each generation must adapt its moral foundations to the ever-changing conditions of politics, culture, society, and technology.

Havel’s death comes at a time of massive demonstrations in Russia to protest ballot fraud; violence in Egypt as democratic activists battle the deeply entrenched military; an uprising in rural China against corrupt local officials; and police in body armor violently dismantling the Occupy protest sites in American cities. Power and truth remain locked in combat around the world.

Much of today’s struggle – everywhere – pits truth against greed. Even if our challenges are different from those faced by Havel, the importance of living in truth has not changed.

Today’s reality is of a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth, at the expense of the poor and the natural environment. As those in power destroy the environment, launch wars on false pretexts, foment social unrest, and ignore the plight of the poor, they seem unaware that they and their children will also pay a heavy price.

Moral leaders nowadays should build on the foundations laid by Havel. Many people, of course, now despair about the possibilities for constructive change. Yet the battles that we face – against powerful corporate lobbies, relentless public-relations spin, and our governments’ incessant lies – are a shadow of what Havel, Michnik, Sakharov, and others faced when taking on brutal Soviet-backed regimes.

In contrast to these titans of dissent, we are empowered with the instruments of social media to spread the word, overcome isolation, and mobilize millions in support of reform and renewal. Many of us enjoy minimum protections of speech and assembly, though these are inevitably hard won, imperfect, and fragile. Yet, of the profoundest importance and benefit, we are also blessed with the enduring inspiration of Havel’s life in truth.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

PHOTO: A woman walks past a mural of late former Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague December 20, 2011. REUTERS/David W Cerny


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

There is nothing unique in that “Today’s reality is of a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth…”. It has always been so, and likely always will be.

It is NOT just “the wealthy” that degrade the “natural environment, but ALL humanity…all seven billion of us. Wealth and power no longer accrue so much from exploitation of the “poor” as in supplying the means by which the “natural resources” of our Earth are utilized such that seven billion people can survive at various levels of increasing comfort.

Wars are fought by the poor against the poor frequently in third world countries for land, water, food and even survival. Are these “launched on false pretexts? Probably.

The “poor” of all societies seem not to comprehend simple math. It is somehow unclear to them that when there is already insufficient water, food, land or jobs that
more unproductive mouths from breeding whenever and wherever possible make for ever greater poverty and misery. This is NOT the fault of more modern societies.

The tone of this author is one in which the normal desire for the “good life” of the average literate American is considered “greedy”. While it is certainly true that the Earth will no and can not support seven billion humans in such a life style, it is also true that all seven billion (and rising) WANT to achieve a “better life”. How much is “too much”?

At some point a choice must be made by some consensus. Is the goal of “man” to cover every open space on this Earth with humans and, in the process, turn our big blue marble into a big brown marble devoid of all human life? Or should man live a good and rewarding existence in more limited numbers?

I fail to see any meaningful answers from this author for any of our “problems” of today. If the “wealth” of the planet were distributed absolutely equally among all seven billion of us, the immediate result would be universal poverty and likely increasing starvation and plagues. Continuing to live in denial is not a plan for a sustainable future.

When the “plight of the poor” is the natural and predictable result of bad choices made again and again over decades it is increasingly difficult to blame those better off who have made good choices of those available to them and thus improved their own “lot in life”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Excellent response to this article posted by “OneOfTheSheep”. Touché professor Sachs.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

To quote: “Today’s reality is of a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth, at the expense of the poor and the natural environment. As those in power destroy the environment, launch wars on false pretexts, foment social unrest, and ignore the plight of the poor, they seem unaware that they and their children will also pay a heavy price.”

You’ll need to do better here with this blanket statement. You are stating that those who have worked their ass’ off, never taken no for an answer, persevered thru discrimiation just b/c of gender, saved every penney, did without for 35 yrs, and turned around to discover they might have some bucks put away and oh do have some power now b/c of their personal sacrifices are corrupted, environmental poluting, pilagers of the poor, on and on.

How lazy of an author are you? Where are your facts and examples of your thoughts and points? When you can’t come up with them, you are only proving your inabilities on the world stage(Reuters) to write the truth!

Posted by ConcernedTexan | Report as abusive

Isaiah 13:12
Amos 8:11-12

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

The level of corruption in American government and business continues to astonish. Could this be why Americans are so disgusted with Congress and with Wall Street?

Posted by lhathaway | Report as abusive


Your references have no expiration date, so let me get this straight…

You advocate that humans, having passed seven billion and still accelerating, should sit back, take a deep breath, close our eyes, cross our fingers and hope for the best indefinitely?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

It is the same story around all developing nations. educated Illiterate politicians do not want to unlearn to keep pace with the changing circumstances blinded by Money power as well Muscle power available freely at hand for a Few Chips. Morality and Mahatma Gandhi they believe are restricted to Books. Alas they are quiet Wrong because Truth shall prevail.

Posted by satsangi | Report as abusive

“Truth is the light which Justice looks upon”…

Posted by marusik | Report as abusive

The question is: As a genera rule, would you prefer to be treated honestly, & be afforded dignity: or be treated dishonestly, while being distracted with frivolity & flattery?

Posted by Melos_416BC | Report as abusive


Jeffrey D. Sachs:
> “The world’s greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership.”

Isaiah 13:12—[in the context of a chapter relating both to the corruption of moral standards in the ancient and modern world, as well as the physical destruction wrought by/upon ancient Babylon]—
“I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.”

The golden wedge of Ophir refers to a rich gold-producing region of India. In the context of the chapter, “man” refers to the worth of a “man of virtue”, or, the value of moral leadership and example (traditionally manly attributes). [If you take the scripture literally, Forbes might be able to find a man whose “personal net worth” is greater than the “golden wedge of Ophir” – a phenomenon unique to our times. Let’s consider the scripture to be figurative in relation to our time, and specific in relation to the ancient world…]

In terms of the specific destruction of decadent Babylon, this was a great prophecy by Isaiah that must have seemed unlikely in his time. To us, it’s obvious what has physically happened to the ancient city of Babylon and its political kingdom (the Medes destroyed Babylon, and their kingdom and alliance with Persia effectively replaced the ancient kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon). Nobody lives in Babylon or under its old political influence any more. Over the last ten or twenty years, thieves and smugglers of ancient artefacts have been almost the only people visiting those places.

Similarly, we can see the moral destruction that is happening in slow motion today (at least, in many parts of the world), at the same time as we are witnessing the ongoing reversal of the conditions explained in Amos 8:11-12…

Amos 8:11-12—
11 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord:
12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.

For a thousand years or more, there was a famine for the common people in hearing the word of the Lord in their own native language. Only comparatively recently has this famine started to be reversed with a flood of cheap scriptures in various languages, mostly with fairly good-quality translations.

Reliable moral instruction is now available to us, if only we know where to look. But ironically, in a world which is in some ways less dangerous for the honest; the hazards of dishonesty are less obvious to us, elective dishonesty becomes more pervasive, and honest & moral leadership becomes an even more valuable commodity to those who truly seek it…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

The power of ideas is the greatest power known in human society. Those with ideas know this.

Posted by zhmileskendig | Report as abusive

Why should anyone bother to learn the simple math as OOTS complains or take heart the scriptures of Amos and Isaiah if all it will mean to them ultimately is facing the wrath of some divine killing fields?

Perhaps Anthony and Cleopatra – in their final days had the better idea?

I’ve never really had a problem hearing the so-called word of God. What has been a problem has been deciding which piety club actually knew what was up and why? They don’t ever seem to agree on much of anything, even within the major branches of Christianity, let alone among the world’s faiths, that it ever seemed to help much in day-to-day existence.

What exactly is the exact definition of the phrase – “to know more than one should’? As I recall – even at nearly 60 years ago – my first day of school was screaming trauma. I didn’t have the foggiest idea at 4 years old what my parents were doing with me the first day of kindergarten.

The Gods him-selves don’t seem to have a good take on matters either.

I think somehow – that any divine spirit worth a candle and a prayer is above mega-hissy fits.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

There exists a moral imperative in the hearts of all men. Some choose to ignore it. But it continues to operate, nonetheless and without exception.

Posted by thirddan | Report as abusive

Each of us at some point choose, consciously or subconsciously, whether we believe our individual existence to be finite or infinite. The choice of some is to make a “safe bet on their hope that (1) a supreme being exists that is benevolent, and (2) that being can and will grant eternal sentient existence to all who dutifully apply. In truth, this is NOT a “safe bet” because if the expectation is flawed in the slightest the “difference” that life might have otherwise made is forever lost.

If our “life resources” are limited to some unique but indefinite span here on Earth, our time and money are limited. Our possibilities are defined by our sense of urgency and ability to adopt goals, set priorities and achieve.

Those unable to find their own “meaning” and motivation, do as countless others have done over time. They follow those whose “destination” seems most attractive. It is always easier to follow because those who follow never have to make further decisions or clear the unbroken path.

Their peril is that the “destination” most attractive is seldom, if ever, the most logical, the most fulfilling or the most beneficial to mankind. If one’s individual “significance” in the unfolding tapestry of the universe is merely the contribution of a single sperm or egg, how are you different than the dog, the cat, the cow or the snake?

Those who believe in an eternal existence “operate” with so little urgency as to have changed almost nothing in over two thousand years. Their existence is but a minor role in a cosmic soap opera. Man is no more noble, no more honorable, and no more able or inclined to co-exist with one another on this planet for all of their number, effort and wealth thus employed.

Those of us who believe man may have a physical destiny “out there” in space, the “final frontier” must choose what part we will play in that. The really BIG question is whether we will be the “good guys” or the “bad guys”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OOTS – In your desert orchard are you keeping a space ship for the final leap? Kepler-22b is 600 light years away and may be too massive to support human beings unless they become creatures with very strong legs and chest muscles like steel.

I knew you didn’t have any viable “truths” up your sleeve and your comment proves it. I called you Hilter in an earlier post and all I can see in your comments since, is proof that your despise most of humanity that is far less invested in private real estate that you are. But you also cling to the notion that those who got it by fair means or foul have some undefined right, to have it?

You poor fool – you have substituted life on a planet or even on the oceans, for the dubious promise of “cans in space”?

All I can see is that when one gets old and weak – the only hope you can rationally claim is a grave. In that regard mankind is more wretched than animals that don’t have to worry about what lies ahead. That may be the true meaning of the story of Adam and Eve?

The Genesis story is only saying that man was “God” all along and “God” tried to hide from himself in them. But unfortunately, he remains more wretched than his pets. They never bother inventing Gods at all. Unfortunately man may be the insane animal and might not be permitted to despoil space, if there is something out there that can care at all or knows we exist? I don’t quite believe that but could not claim that the faiths of the world were much of an example and the governments certainly aren’t.

Faith and doubt can squeeze one flatter than Kepler’s gravity I suspect? But the “truth” remains a matter of equivocal facts of endlessly debatable solidity and utility.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive


I agree no ship exists yet to get man beyond the solar system. But once man yearned for, yet could not explore the skies. Man must crawl before he walks. Every day you and I do things that to our grandparents and even parents were absolutely impossible. Our reach should always exceed our grasp.

We live a life of comfort unimaginable for generations who lived before WW II. There IS a chicken in every pot and a car, sometimes two, in every garage. I fail to see what 4,000 sq. ft. McMansions add to the “quality of life”, and many, like you are vocally discontented. Maybe you’re just too self-centered?

You denial that truth exists or is important. Your loss, not mine. What you call me or think of me is irrelevant. I don’t despise humanity; quite the contrary. I do what I can that it fulfill it’s potential. I still dream and look forward to each day. You don’t. Who, here, is the fool? Maybe you’re just too self-centered?

You deride as unacceptable life in “cans in space”. Instead I see such as “artificial environments” we can design as we wish. A luxury liner on the ocean and the airliner in the sky are “artificial environments. So, too, would be cities beneath the sea. Those who can comprehend the reality of today and the potential of tomorrow are unaffected by the limits you live with.

I shall not “claim a grave”. A scattering of ashes according to my wishes is all I shall ask. Is a man that worries “…about what lies ahead…” any happier or better equipped for it? My pets are not “wretched”. They live a life most can only dream of, without discomfort, want or need.

It may well be that man is fatally flawed and the universe would be better without us. I hope not, and that decision is not mine to make or worry about. When I look in the mirror, I am content with what I see.

So long as man’s “prime directive” is mindless reproduction without function or purpose it is almost certain another would-be Caesar, Ghengis Khan or Alexander the Great seeking personal omnipotence or deification would see all life destroyed rather than submit to their own genuine insignificance. To such extent as my musings may delay or defeat such an end, I deem them worth the effort.

Faith can be a foundation if based on truth. Truth can be a foundation alone. You have no truth, no faith, no hope and no future. Now THAT is a miserable existence.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

This conversation from your end is becoming chameleon like. Your are double talking yourself and you don’t notice. I could almost claim my special attention to your comments has made a believer out of you. But I have no creed. You don’t either. You are like those who love to love to love or rather believe to believe to believe.
Modern media can spit that stuff out without thinking haven’t you noticed? In fact it works best if you don’t think about it.

You wouldn’t know the truth if it came up and wrapped itself around one of your fruit trees (in a desert?) and bit you on you rear end.

I’m still a liberal and likely to remain one. I just have a hard time sometime remembering why. I’m getting old too.

Space is impractical but ocean life is more within reach. That way guys like you, who won’t be around that much longer either, won’t be able to complain that all the disinvested are encroaching on your green acres. Life gives too much money to all the wrong people, I’m convinced of that.

The rest of your diatribe is still some nice sounding blather. Hitler had a sense of humor and a sense of destiny, gave great “sermon” and was considered an expert on history. But all the while the death camps were busy making life easy for his “chosen people”.

Any intelligent life out there would probably quarantine the human race as too domineering, too greedy and all together not the right stuff for the rest of the galaxy.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

What they are far more likely to do – if they reflect your usual statements – is to consider us not worth the enormous resources we aren’t fit to consume. They could do a whole lot better. That’s your usual line.

They might have to defeat us? They might even see us as just another source of nutrition or very cheap and disposable labor. Maybe they would only want a specimen of two for the collection. When they wanted more they could grow a few?

These comments are still my hobby. There is very little point in trying to express a philosophy of life here – that belongs on the “Faith World” section. People are whatever they can be, because, I find, that whatever I am doing, thinking or feeling at the moment tends to have all sorts of reasons for being exactly what I am supposed to be thinking feeling or doing. Or else it wasn’t and I was confused? I’m getting old now and when my mind turns to mush like my mother did from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, I’m not going to remember the meaning of the words “faith, hope, charity, patience, fortitude, courage, or any other virtues you care to name.

No one cares what a piece of flesh turning to stone feels or thinks anyway. And there isn’t much that patient can do to explain herself. Society isn’t going to want to and I don’t think I am going to want to linger that long either.

Truth and definitions of truth are luxury items and are far more comfortable to hold if all sorts of basic needs are met first. The religions of the world start with the alimentary tract and if that isn’t met first, the rest of the needs are beside the point. You don;t really want to meet those needs you want them to disappear from “your” view, “your” neighborhood and “your” planet.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

One other thing. Mr. Sachs is taking a comfy no cost stand. He was the darling of the neocons as I recall in the early 80’s. I don’t know what truth he holds today?

None of the old “truths” seem to work now. Truth is far more subject to fashion swings than clothing styles actually. I’ve heard so many I don’t bother no with them now.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive