Ethical Perspectives

April 1999

On Human Rights: The Philosophical Background to Vaclav Havel's Thought

Guido Van Heeswijck

“It is certainly no accident that precisely here, in this region of continual threats to, and continual defence of one's own identity — whether personal, cultural or national identity — there is such a long tradition of the idea of truth, a truth for which one must pay, the truth as a moral value. One constantly runs up against this tradition, from Cyril and Methodius to Hus and Masaryk, Stefanik and Patocka”. This citation from a lecture entitled “Morality and Politics” provides a brief sketch of the background to the thought of the current Czech president, Vaclav Havel.

Though lacking any academic training in philosophy, Havel was strongly influenced by the ideas of the philosophy professor from Prague, and founder of Charta 77, Jan Patocka. Inspired by some of Patocka's last writings, in 1978 Havel wrote an essay on Charta 77 which was dedicated to Patocka. The title of this essay was taken from one of Patocka's central statements: Attempt to Live in the Truth. Patocka's influence is also clearly evident in `Letters to Olga', in his speeches as president and in his thinking on Europe.

Havel's thought, via the thought of Patocka, must be situated within a dual tradition. On the one hand it is rooted in Czech history. Patocka had already in his early writings thematized the ideas of Thomas Masaryk. The work of Masaryk, who became the first president of the new Czech republic after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, is characterized by an awareness of the crisis of (European) rationality, like in the later Husserl. On the other hand Havel's thought, again by way of Patocka, is rooted in a phenomenology that is primarily oriented toward Germany. Patocka is often regarded as the interpreter par excellence of the dialogue between Husserl and Heidegger.

This article is based on a speech given by President Havel during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, in Geneva, March 16, 1998.

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