Vaclav Havel, Part IV: The Influence and Importance of Jan Patocka

Three members of the Charter 77 group were identified in its first declaration as its spokespeople: Jiri Hajek, a former member of Alexander Dubcek’s ill-fated reformist regime; Jan Patocka, a retired sometime professor of philosophy; and Vaclav Havel.  Today I want to write a little bit about the importance of Jan Patocka to the Charter movement generally, and specifically as an influence on Vaclav Havel.

"there are things for which it is worthwhile to suffer"

Jan Patocka was the first casualty of the Charter 77 movement. He died following a brutal marathon interrogation in March 1977, two months after he was first arrested.

Because Patocka was killed at a time when many of his works were still banned from publication, his importance as a philosopher – quite apart from his work with Charter 77 – was not as widely known as it might have been. Fortunately, his students collected and preserved much of his work. He is now recognized as a major figure among European philosophers of the 20th century. The vast majority of his work was entirely apolitical; or rather, was political only in the sense that individual responsibility for moral behavior is eventually, inevitably political.

Patocka was a student of Edmund Husserl’s in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1930s, as the Nazis came to power.  He returned to Czechoslovakia and became a professor of philosophy at Charles University in Prague.  In 1939, following the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, all Czech universities were closed and Patocka could no longer teach.  In 1945, after the German defeat, he taught again at Charles University — but only until 1948, when communist totalitarians seized power.  He was banned from teaching again until 1968.  In 1968, during Prague Spring, he resumed his professorship — until, four years later during ‘normalization’ under the hard line regime that was installed following the collapse of Prague Spring, he was retired.  From 1939 until his death in 1977, Patocka had been allowed to work as a professor of philosophy for a total of 7 years.

Vaclav Havel had hoped to study philosophy, but was not allowed to because of his family’s class background. However, Patocka befriended Havel, and Patocka’s influence on Havel’s thinking was profound. I am going to try to describe that influence, but I must say two things first: (1) I am only giving you my impression; as far as I know, no one else thinks Patocka influenced Havel in the manner I’m about to describe; and (2) I am not a philosopher, so I want to tread humbly here and defer in any instance of disagreement to the brilliant and prolific Patrick O’Donnell, who has been commenting on these posts and also writing about Havel on his own blog, Ratio Juris.  Patrick, please correct me wherever you think I go wrong.

I think Patocka’s influence on Havel had its roots in Patocka’s life’s work as a philosopher: the attempt to bridge the gap between the idea of an objective and subjective human reality, or rather to develop a new understanding of human reality that could encompass both an objective and subjective basis.  What I mean by that clumsy attempt is this: in the absence of an objective moral order (traditionally supplied by religion), man had only his subjective desires to fulfill, without measuring them against any moral standard. He was, perhaps, his own God, but if so, his moral standards were entirely subjective and perhaps arbitrary. On the other hand, if there is an objective moral order that exists outside the existence of man, then man is not entirely free; there is some other thing that transcends human existence by which the worth of human existence is measured.

Even in the absence of religious belief, the existence of that objective moral standard seemed true to Patocka – and frankly, I suspect it seems true to many of us. How, then, to describe a reality that rejects the false comfort of religious dogma and embraces the idea of the human as subject, and yet also identify some transcendent, objective moral standard by which we can measure human conduct? How to encompass both objective and subjective reality, which would seem to be incompatible, into a single idea? I think that was the question with which Patocka wrestled.

Havel, I believe, applied Patocka’s attempt to reconcile the apparently contradictory beliefs in objective and subjective human reality to his analysis of the post-totalitarian system. For Havel’s critical insight was that each individual was both object and subject within a post-totalitarian system: each person who functioned within that system was both its victim and its embodiment. In a totalitarian system, according to Havel, there was clear delineation between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers acted according to their subjective will and the ruled were the objects of that will. But in a post-totalitarian system, each person who obeyed the system enforced the system on everyone else, until the system became mutually and automatically reinforcing. As Havel said in The Power of the Powerless, “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” In that way, individuals are both the object that the system acts upon, and the subject whose will either perpetuates or destroys the system. The very title The Power of the Powerless suggests that individuals within the post-totalitarian system are both objects and subjects.

Havel argued that as subjects rather than merely objects, individuals had the power but also responsibility of freedom. And, as Patocka argued, the free choices individuals made according to their subjective will should be measured against an objective moral standard.

I think what excited Patocka about the Helsinki Accords – he called them a new hope for mankind — was that they attempted to define that objective moral standard, by naming those things so fundamental to a fulfilling human existence that they must be recognized as rights inherent in being.  In some ways, human rights provided the frame he had been searching for – the idea of human rights could perhaps encompass both an objective moral standard and the free will of the human subject. It seems to me that even the term ‘human rights’ denotes both a subjective and objective element. In some ways, then, by embracing respect for human rights as the objective measure of moral good in a political system, and recognizing that each individual had the power and responsibility to create such a system, Charter 77 really did represent for Patocka the culmination of his life’s work.

Three days before he was arrested, Patocka wrote a short document called The Obligation to Resist Injustice, which attempted to explain both the motives of the Charter members, and his own motives in joining them. “The idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even societies as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of . . . something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable.”

In his last writing, Patocka celebrated Charter 77 for introducing “a new orientation to basic human rights, to the moral dimension of political and private life.”    He also recognized the risks involved in embracing that orientation but said, “there are things for which it is worthwhile to suffer.” Just five days after this document was clandestinely distributed in Czechoslovakia, Patocka was interrogated to death by the secret police.

I like to think — and I fervently, fervently hope — Patocka was right.

I highly recommend Erazim Kohak’s Jan Patocka: Philosophy and Selected Writings for an excellent philosophical biography of Patocka and collection of his works.  The quotes above are taken from that work.

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14 Responses

  1. Mark,

    I was hoping to comment on your prior post first but changed my mind, having been so moved and inspired by this one! We’re deeply indebted to you for this marvelous series of reflections covering related and unfairly neglected subject matter. I merely want to reiterate and add to what you write here.

    Patočka did indeed serve as Havel’s philosophical guru or teacher (I think the former term better captures the nature of that influence), albeit in an informal manner. And the phenomenology and existentialist ideas of Patočka became, generally, in Paul Wilson’s words (writing in the 1980s), “a symptomatic, or typical feature of the independent intellectual landscape in Central Europe….” In this instance, existentialism and phenomenology (by way more of Heidegger than Husserl) is centrally concerned with what we loosely or vaguely but unavoidably christen as “the search for meaning,” but especially in a social setting wherein it is believed that a scientific worldview or ideology of some sort has been elevated to a cultural pride of place in a way that displaces or neglects human subjectivity (as implied perhaps in the expression, ‘scientific determinism’). Here we might recall, with John Cottingham, that for

    “a fair part of the twentieth century it was common in much of the anglophone world to dismiss many of the traditional grand questions of philosophy as pseudo-questions. People who felt perplexed by the ancient puzzle of the meaning of life were firmly reminded that meaning was a notion properly confined to the arena of language: words or sentences or propositions could be said to have meaning, but not objects or events in the world, like the lives of trees, or lobsters, or humans. So the very idea that philosophy would inquire into the meaning of life was taken as a sign of conceptual confusion.”[1]

    The socio-historical circumstances that account for the dismissal of many of the traditional “grand questions” in philosophy in East-Central Europe were not, however and in the main, due to the baneful influence of a kind of analytic philosophy that was more ideology than method for a time in the twentieth-century Anglophone world (a time when we can speak fairly of significant ‘methodological’ and other debilitating differences between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy).[2] Rather, in this instance it had more to do with the ideological dominance of a crude Marxist-Leninist ideology propagated by the ruling regimes of Part-State Socialism that included an equally crude scientistic ethos (one in which the ‘humanist Marx’ all but vanishes). Moreover, and with important exceptions, in contemporary philosophy and in large measure owing to naturalism or physicalism (metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, moral, psychological, etc.), the impact of modern science (and by extension, bewitchment by technology) has often, by design and default, resulted in a kind of scientism in the sense that professional philosophy is thought best confined to serving solely as an underlaborer of the natural (and social) sciences (the social sciences here conceived as grounded in or utterly dependent on natural science), with the former privileged for its provision of the only true or valid (or most important) forms of knowledge (as opposed, say, to being simply one of several—and no less significant for all that—kinds of ‘knowing’). Perhaps the most honest if not frightening expression of this scientism was crystallized in Patricia Churchland’s book, Neurophilosophy (1986): “In the idealized long run, the completed science is a true description of reality: there is no other Truth and no other Reality.” While Party-State ideologues lacked the philosophical sophistication of a Churchland, their Marxism likewise aspired to the pretentious heights common to what we might place under the rubric of “scientism,” albeit in a social and cultural climate in which alternative ideologies and worldviews were conspicuous by their absence, hence the liberating qualities of Patočka’s courageous rendering of phenomenological and existentialist ideas:

    “Havel recalls that in the 1960s, Patočka [‘whose life was a living parable of thought in action’] would come to the Theatre on the Balustrade and hold informal discussions with actors and writers on phenomenology, existentialism and other philosophical questions. ‘These unofficial seminars,’ Havel says, ‘took us into the world of philosophizing in the true, original sense of the word: not the boredom of the classroom, but rather the vital search for the meaning of things and the illumination of one’s self, of one’s situation in the world.’ [….] As Charter spokesmen, Havel and Patočka had both been summoned to Ruzyně prison for interrogation, and during the noon break they sat in the prisoner’s waiting room, discussing philosophy. ‘At any moment,’ Havel recalls, ‘they could have come for us, but that didn’t bother Professor Patočka: in an impromptu seminar on the history of the idea of human immortality and human responsibility, he weighed his words as carefully as if we had all the time in the world ahead of us.’” [I can’t help but recall the portrait of Socrates in the Crito]

    [1] Please see: John Cottingham, On the Meaning of Life (New York: Routledge, 2003).
    [2] Please see the discussion in Avrum Stroll’s Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

  2. erratum: “Party-State Socialism”

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    I want to add my thanks for this series of posts. I had just started reading Havel’s plays about a week before his death, while preparing to teach a seminar on the theory and practice of protest, starting in April. These posts have been really helpful background.

    The Power of the Powerless also has some incisive comments on legalism — I hope you’ll eventually comment on these. Apropos of which, I wonder if the natural law/higher deontology issues you mention in the context of Patočka might be connected to the rejection of positivism by Gustav Radbruch and his student Robert Alexy, both of whom are better-known in Central Europe than in the Anglophone world (though I admit they’re known to me, too, barely more than in name only). I’m not sure whether they stood/stand for the proposition that there’s a duty to disobey an unjust law, or simply that there isn’t any duty to obey one, but even if they didn’t directly influence Patočka it seems like there’s a strong parallelism in their conclusions.

    I’m also struggling with trying to suggest to my future students (Japanese undergrads) just where might be the source of “people power.” If you accept the notion that there isn’t a duty to obey (human lawgivers’) law, then what gives people power its moral cachet? Why is it something different from a raw power contest? No doubt there have been whole libraries of books of which I’m ignorant written on this topic, but most that I’ve seen fall back on Christian religion, John Locke, or both. None of these seem an adequate explanation in the Asian context, and Locke’s connotation of liberal individualism especially seems not the best foundation for collective action. One straw I’m clutching at recently is that the justification for people power might be located in a right conjugate to the responsibilities inherent in the Golden Rule. Some form of the GR exists in a broad spectrum of Western, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. I realize this is very vague, but if it’s not entirely incoherent then I’d appreciate hearing whether you, Patrick and other readers find this plausible.

    Lastly: I’ve been reading The Power of the Powerless during a visit to Singapore, from where I’m writing now. This is a country where, in 2011, the ruling party was handed its biggest setback in the half-century since independence: they won only 81 out of 87 seats in parliament. Where the “counterculture” newspaper is owned by the leading newspaper, which is tightly controlled by the government. And where, as a well-connected friend told me the other day, opposition MPs develop the habit of holding all private conversations in rooms with TVs blaring loudly. Since my immediate surroundings make even me feel a bit cautious, I’ll simply say that despite the end of the Cold War, Havel’s essay is not at all obsolete — and least of all his observation in section II that the regime he describes “is simply another form of the consumer and industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual and psychological consequences” (cf. Orchard Road).

  4. A.J.,

    I’ve found helpful the non-standard or alternative treatments of power explored in Raghavan Iyer’s examination of Gandhi’s thoughts on same in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, second ed., 1983 [first edition, 1973, Oxford University Press]) and Todd May’s The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

    Less philosophically explicit with regard to the conceptualization of power, but quite suggestive, are two books by Michael Taylor: Anarchy and Cooperation (1976), and Community, Anarchy and Liberty (1982).

    Far less philosophical or theoretical but still worthy of attention are several of the works of Gene Sharp on the (strategic) politics of nonviolent action and “social power.”

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Gene Sharp is of course in my syllabus, esp. for the “practice” part. As for whether there is a duty to obey the law, and why we think democracy is a good thing, I suppose I’m thinking more of, e.g., the processes of democracy and regime change in Athens (in the time of Cleisthenes), peaceful revolutions like those in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and even Tunisia; maybe it’s ignorance on my part, but the word “anarchy” seems a bit extreme for my purposes. Japan is a country that isn’t convinced even that “democracy” suits it (having been imposed by the foreign occupier, as many people will tell you). Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy, especially in its final pages has a lot that’s helpful, e.g., that democracy isn’t a form of government, but rather the power of people to withdraw their consent from the oligarchy who governs — do the works you mention address the question of what justifies this power, and why we think of the use of it as the exercise of a right? That’s the issue I’m trying to get a handle on, in a culturally universal sort of way.

  6. The titles I cited were about discussions (more or less) of “people power.” As for withdrawal of (putative) consent and so forth, I would look to traditional works in the history of Liberal political philosophy. Rights to revolt and revolution are of course constitutional and extra-constitutional and I suppose one could derive same from some human rights instruments as well (regarding ‘self-determination,’ etc.). That’s the extent of my knowledge on the topic! Incidentally, I think democracy IS a form of governance and government….

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Patrick.

    BTW, in my #3 above, I should clarify that of the two legal philosophers I mentioned it would more likely be Radbruch (1878-1949) whom Patočka might have been aware of. Alexy (born 1945) probably was too young (and, unless he was more of a prodigy than Wikipedia mentions, was Radbruch’s student only in a figurative sense).

  8. Mark Edwards says:

    Hi Patrick and A.J.,

    I’m not to be more responsive to your responses, but I’m in grading hell at the moment. I promise a more thoughtful reply eventually, but for now I’ve got to get this stack of exam down as the deadline looms.

  9. Mark Edwards says:

    oops, that should “sorry not to be” and “exams.” You can tell I’m distracted.

  10. Roger Lipsey says:

    Would one of you be kind enough to send me the title/author of the book in which VH published a two- or three-page memoir about Patočka? Thank you!

    Roger Lipsey

  11. Roger,

    I’m not sure, but it might be in this book which, it seems, is not available in English: Havel, Václav. O lidskou identitu (on or for Human Identity). London: Rozmluvy, 1984. Paul Wilson quotes from it in the introduction to Havel’s Letters to Olga as a piece titled “The Last Conversation” (1977…and presumably in reference to Patočka), and it’s from pp. 152-55.

  12. Roger, I did some searching and it seems it is available in English: H. Gordon Skilling, Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981): 242-244.

  13. Mark A. Edwards says:

    So nice to see this thread suddenly come back to life! I wish Havel was more on our minds.