08 February 2012

What is 'Living in Truth?'

Paul Berman just published an interesting essay on Vaclav Havel in The New Republic, though you'll have to take my word for it since the article is available online to subscribers only. The late Czech author and politician is one of the great heroes of the Fall of the Soviet Empire and a role model for resistance to repressive regimes. Havel practiced what he called "living in truth," which meant, in Berman's terms, "simply to stop pretending to believe" in the lies that sustain a regime's legitimacy. He had an odd notion that rock music spoke a form of truth and defended it against censorship on the assumption, writes Berman, that "truth-speaking on any topic whatsoever was sooner or later going to lead to truth-speaking on political themes." I'm not sure about this -- it sounds like the so-far refuted rationalization that free markets must lead to free societies. More interesting and provocative than this was Havel's claim, as described by Berman, that "Truth-telling ... required a belief in something that seemed to you preferable to material things -- a more that was better than a car, therefore something for which you might willingly sacrifice your chance of getting a car." Havel and Berman's implication is that materialism reduces people to a sort of selfishness because it leaves them without any idea or ideal worth sacrificing for. Since Communists were reputedly the arch-materialists of history, "living in truth" in opposition to a Communist regime seemed to require affirming some transcendent value, though not necessarily a faith in God. As Berman emphasizes, "Your own personal dignity was something to consider. But you needed to be able to explain, at least to yourself, what was so great about your own dignity." This was important because dignity became more valuable than life itself, potentially at least, for any dissident against a Bolshevik regime. Havel was imprisoned frequently and sometimes denied medical care for refusing to kowtow; his "living in truth" had a price he was apparently prepared to pay, but it isn't clear from Berman's account whether Havel was conventionally religious. He sometimes spoke of inventing a new, syncretic religion as a necessity to compensate for the inescapable limitations of rationality, on an assumption that no one who claimed to be rational (i.e. Bolsheviks) really was. the idea implies that Havel thought belief in transcendence useful rather than believing in it "religiously" himself. What is it useful for? To facilitate sacrifice, apparently. Berman writes: "If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk." In Berman's account, Havel's "own continued place on earth was not his highest goal." The question for us is twofold. Can we formulate a concept of transcendence that isn't supernatural yet has the same motivating effect Havel apparently desired? Second, is materialism as hopelessly selfish and implicitly cowardly as Havel and Berman imply? From their own vantage, materialists exemplify "living in truth," but is it a truth that can set anyone free if it can't inspire people to risk their lives? I suspect that materialism here is being identified too closely with a certain complacency cultivated by "totalitarian" societies, and that materialism understood in a progressive context still has considerable motivational potential. After all, the one thing obviously greater than the individual man is humanity itself, while a commitment to the greatest good for the greatest number could oblige conscientious people to both risk and sacrifice for the proper cause. If you take Lenin and his awful legacy out of the equation, the real question may be whether Havel had any real cause for disagreement with materialists at all.

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