Vaclav Havel, Part IV: The Influence and Importance of Jan Patocka
posted by Mark Edwards
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.
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.