The Truth of the World

Published April 1, 1994

During the hardest days of the anti-Communist human-rights resistance, a lot of thought was given to the relationship between truth and freedom, between truth and democracy. And in those dark days, Havel argues, the leaders of the human-rights resistance learned that “the only genuine values are those for which one is capable, if necessary, of sacrificing something.” What we take for granted as the core values of Western civilization—what we often perceive as givens—Havel and other leaders of the resistance perceive as moral accomplishments: “… [Democracy, respect for human rights and for the order of nature, the freedom of the individual and the inviolability of his property, the feeling of co-responsibility for the world, which means that if freedom is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere—all of these things [are] values with moral, and therefore metaphysical, underpinnings.”

And because these attributes of what we regard as a civilized life can never be merely assumed, they cannot be treated simply as data about The Way Things Are. Rather, they constitute a horizon of civilized social life toward which democracies old and new must always strive. The West may have temporarily forgotten it, but those who paid the steepest price for their resistance to Communism learned something of great importance: for “without intending to, the communists taught us to understand the truth of the world not as mere information about it, but as an attitude, a commitment, a moral imperative.”

All this gave the new democracies, or at least some people in the new democracies, a rather distinctive “take” on politics. Because politics, viewed through the prism of the anti-Communist human-rights resistance and its experience, meant sacrifice— at least if it was to be decent politics. On the other hand, and looking westward, Havel sees “the pragmatism of politicians who want to win the next election [and] for whom the highest authority is therefore the will and the mood of a rather spoiled consumer society.” That supine angle of vision makes it impossible for Western political leaders “to be aware of the moral, metaphysical, and tragic dimensions of their own program.”

The short-term result of this has been, in Havel’s judgment, a form of political myopia that assumes that, since the Cold War is over, the headaches caused by the Cold War are also over. But as Havel insists, “the headaches are never over.” In fact, “if the West has indeed won the Cold War, then today it faces perhaps an even more difficult task: winning the peace as well.” And if the West abjures leadership in winning the peace, will that not indicate that Western man has lost sight of the moral foundations of the democratic experiment, has “pushed aside” any sense of “respect for the metaphysical horizons of his being” lest they interfere with his own consumerist pleasures?

Havel insists he is not expecting the West to “solve all the problems of the ‘postcommunist world.'” Primary responsibility for the future of the countries of central and eastern Europe rests with those countries themselves. But the West should not look on from the sidelines “as though it were a mere visitor at a zoo or an audience at a horror movie, on edge to know how it will turn out.” Rather, the reticent West should understand the future of east central Europe as “at the very least… something that intrinsically concerns [the West], and that somehow decides its own fate, that demands its own active involvement and challenges it to make sacrifices in the interests of a bearable future for us all.”

In sum, and according to Havel, “the fate of the so-called West is today being decided in the so-called East.” And if the West does not rouse itself to join with the new democracies in formulating policies capable of securing the victory that was won in the Cold War, then the West, having failed to “find a key” to the situation of east central Europe, “will ultimately lose the key to itself.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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