I finally found the time to read the whole transcript of the speech that Vaclav Havel, 1st President of the Czech Republic, gave to the US Congress on the 21st February 1990.
I came across this old speech a few days ago, in one of my periodic online explorations around the subject of consciousness. I have to admit I didn’t even know who Vaclav Havel was before finding this historical document (thanks Internet). The full address is quite long and a bit tedious unless you’re interested in the history of Europe after the fall of Berlin’s wall.
However, its last part is a gem of rare beauty. And after listening to it, I felt compelled to share it here.
Before that, allow me to share a funny and personal little story about synchronicity.
This morning I met with my best friend and his seven years old son at a bar. Considering the circumstances, we couldn’t avoid talking about the rules for this phase of the pandemic in Italy. Because some of the rules can be “relaxed” between members of the same family, I made a joked about marrying my friend so we would become part of the same family. And then I went on saying that we should marry all the people working at the bar, and also all the customers. Until we will become a single big family, including everyone, and we can be all together again without any distancing.
I was just joking obviously, but you can understand my surprise when I sat in my garden, and while going through the whole transcript I came across this title; “A Long Way From Family of Man“.
Without further ado, here’s the transcript of the speech. The highlights are mine.
“A Long Way From Family of Man” from Vaclav Havel’s address to the US Congress, 21st February 1990
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve only been president for two months, and I haven’t attended any schools for presidents. My only school was life itself.
Therefore, I don’t want to burden you any longer with my political thoughts, but instead I will move on to an area that is more familiar to me, to what I would call the philosophical aspect of these changes that still concern everyone, although they are taking place in our corner of the world.
As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy. You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: you have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years, and your journey toward the horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system.
Czechs and Slovaks, despite their humanistic traditions that go back to the first millennium, have approached democracy for a mere 20 years, between the two world wars, and now for the three and a half months since 17th November last year.
The advantage that you have over us is obvious at once.
The communist type of totalitarian system has left both our nations, Czechs and Slovaks, as it has all the nations of the Soviet Union and the other countries the Soviet Union subjugated in its time, a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline and, above all, enormous human humiliation. It has brought us horrors that fortunately you have not known.
It has given us something positive, a special capacity to look from time to time somewhat further than someone who has not undergone this bitter experience. A person who cannot move and lead a somewhat normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped that way.
What I’m trying to say is this: we must all learn many things from you, from how to educate our offspring, how to elect our representatives, all the way to how to organize our economic life so that it will lead to prosperity and not to poverty. But it doesn’t have to be merely assistance from the well-educated, powerful and wealthy to someone who has nothing and therefore has nothing to offer in return.
We, too, can offer something to you: our experience and the knowledge that has come from it.
This is a subject for books, many of which have already been written and many of which are yet to be written. I shall therefore limit myself to a single idea. The specific experience I’m talking about has given me one great certainty: consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.
For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.
Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed –be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization –will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitively won. We are, in fact, far from the final victory.
We are still a long way from that “family of man.” In fact, we seem to be receding from the ideal rather than growing closer to it. Interests of all kinds–personal, selfish, state, nation, group, and, if you like, company interests–still considerably outweigh genuinely common and global interests. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it and that therefore everything is permitted.
There are still many who say they are concerned not for themselves but for the cause, while they are demonstrably out for themselves and not for the cause at all. We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us and its environment. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic and cultural conflicts in the world. From time to time, we say that the anonymous mega-machinery we have created for ourselves no longer serves us but rather has enslaved us, yet we still fail to do anything about it.
In other words, we still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility.
Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success–responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.
The interpreter or mediator between us and this higher authority is what is traditionally referred to as human conscience.
If I subordinate my political behavior to this imperative, mediated to me by my conscience, I can’t go far wrong. If, on the contrary, I were not guided by this voice, not even 10 presidential schools with 2,000 of the best political scientists in the world could help me.
This is why I ultimately decided, after resisting for a long time, to accept the burden of political responsibility.
I am not the first, nor will I be the last, intellectual to do this. On the contrary, my feeling is that there will be more and more of them all the time. If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent.
It is easy to have independence in your program and then leave others to carry that program out. If everyone thought that way, pretty soon no one would be independent.
I think that you Americans should understand this way of thinking. Wasn’t it the best minds of your country, people you could call intellectuals, who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence, your bill of human rights and your Constitution and who, above all, took upon themselves practical responsibility for putting them into practice? The worker from Branik in Prague that your president referred to in his State of the Union message this year is far from being the only person in Czechoslovakia, let alone in the world, to be inspired by those great documents. They inspire us all; they inspire us despite the fact that they are over 200 years old. They inspire us to be citizens.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well.
I will end where I began: history has accelerated. I believe that once again it will be the human mind that will notice this acceleration, give it a name and transform those words into deeds.
You can read the entire transcript here, or if you prefer you can listen to the full speech here.