Opinion

Emanuel Derman

Havel on the need for the transcendent

By Emanuel Derman
January 29, 2012

Something about naive liberal humanitarianism often bugs and irritates me more than correspondingly naive reactionary beliefs, and I (probably wrongly) end up judging more severely than I should otherwise good people who espouse it naively.

Paul Berman, in his  rambling but very interesting post about the late Vaclav Havel, captures Havel’s description of what that something is. I quote Berman and Berman’s quotes of Havel. All italics are mine.

(Berman:) The Western-style democracies boasted of rule of law, human rights, democratic elections, market economies, and so on. Havel reminded everyone that these institutions, for all their charms, are “technical instruments,” useful only for achieving other purposes; and it was still necessary to acknowledge and refine and choose among the other purposes. In his estimation, an acknowledgment of other purposes required a notion of the transcendent.

He was happy to speak about what he called “the basic values of the West,” meaning a democratic market society with human rights. He looked on the “rapid dissemination” of the Western values as “the only salvation of the world today”—the best guarantee of “human freedom, justice, and prosperity.” Only, he could understand why, in different parts of the world, the spreading of these particular Western values might arouse skepticism and hostility:

(Havel:) The main source of objections would seem to be what many cultural societies see as the inevitable product or by-product of these values: moral relativism, materialism, the denial of any kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal, a profound crisis of authority and the resulting general decay of order, a frenzied consumerism, a lack of solidarity, a selfish cult of material success, the absence of faith in a higher order of things or simply in eternity, an expansionist mentality that holds in contempt everything that in any way resists the dreary standardization and rationalism of technical civilization.

(Berman:) He blamed the democratic world for what he called “its limited ability to address humanity in a genuinely universal way.”

Havel: As a consequence, democracy is seen less and less as an open system that is best able to respond to people’s basic needs; as a set of possibilities that must be continually rediscovered, redefined, and brought into being. Instead democracy is seen as something given, finished, and complete as is, something that can be exported like cars or television sets, something that the more enlightened purchase and the less enlightened do not.

In other words, it seems to me that the mistake lies not only with the backward consumers of exported democratic values, but in the very form or understanding of those values at present, and in the climate of the civilization with which they are directly connected, or seem to be connected in the eyes of a large part of the world. And that means of course that the mistake also lies in the way those values are exported, which often betrays an attitude of superiority and contempt for all those who hesitate to accept the offered goods automatically.

 

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