A Further Perspective

Havel’s ‘Respect for Mystery’ versus the Techno-Gnostics

He understood the need to save "serious" thought from itself.

By 12.20.11

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Václav Havel's noble life showed how the disciplined practice of critical thinking and moral imagination in the arts and letters can translate directly into statesmanship of the highest order. His courageous and effective Velvet Revolution against one of the most brutal of the Soviet satellite regimes remains a model for nations still searching for safe passage from tyranny to freedom.

Havel lived for more than two decades after his role in dismantling the Iron Curtain. Most recently, this conscientious thinker was preoccupied with a disorder of the mind and soul as old as Descartes, vexing contemporary civilization no less today than it did during the Communist era. This is a mindset I call "techno-gnosticism," more or less the same ideology of scientism that Walker Percy and Neil Postman eloquently criticized. Among the consequences of this mindset are the global financial crisis and the collapse of post-Communist hopes for a "Europe whole and free" into the reality of a Europe fractured and bankrupt.

One of Havel's final testaments was his lecture at the Prague Forum in October 2010. He lamented "the swollen self-consciousness of this civilization, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we know everything and what we don't yet know we'll soon find out, because we know how to go about it. We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful."

With an intimation of immortality, Havel observed: "With the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness, there disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions."

Who can say God lacks a sense of humor? Not the honest searcher Havel, sometimes agnostic but always a friend to religious believers. He finds himself in the queue in the celestial waiting room on the same day as atheist gnostic know-it-all Kim Jong-Il. If St. Peter likes a good laugh, he will grant Christopher Hitchens credentials to report on the scene for media fleeter than Fleet Street's.

A keen interpreter of Havel's thought is the political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler. In his book Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought, Lawler defines modern thought as "the attempt to master or overcome nature through action directed by thought." Lawler agrees with the late Frederick Wilhelmsen's critique of the Cartesian "revolution against existence" wherein "the order of the real, of things in their very being, is dependent on thinking." Contrary to this, postmodern thought "rightly understood," says Lawler, "is human reflection on the failure of the modern project to eradicate human mystery and misery and to bring history to an end."

Deep in reflection in the city that gave us Kafka and the Golem, Havel said at the 2010 Prague Forum: "I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well."

Two decades ago, Neil Postman saw things going not well at all. In his book Technopoly he described the metastasis of technology's relationship to man from usefulness to power (technocracy), thence to a sort of totalitarian monopoly of the mind (technopoly).

Postman dissected scientism and technopoly into three ideological components. First is the idea that "the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior." Second is that "social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis." The final pillar of technopoly is that "faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality."

Sobering as Havel and Postman's warnings are, they are not the last words on the subject. Let's not lose heart. Respect for mystery appears sometimes when least expected, as in the case of a man sometimes put forward as a secular saint of scientism: Albert Einstein.

Russell Kirk liked to cite the book Illusions, in which André Maurois told of the visit of the poet Saint-John Perse to Einstein at Princeton. Both had won Nobel Prizes in the recent past.

"'How does a poet work?' Einstein inquired. 'How does the idea of a poem come to him? How does this idea grow?' Saint-John Perse described the vast part played by intuition and subconscious. Einstein seemed delighted: 'But it's the same thing for the man of science,' he said. 'The mechanics of discovery are neither logical nor intellectual. It is a sudden illumination, almost a rapture. Later, to be sure, intelligence analyzes and experiments confirm (or invalidate) the intuition. But initially there is a great forward leap of the imagination.'"

We who share Havel, Postman, and Lawler's concerns about our civilization can find encouragement in that Einstein, at least in this episode, did not contribute to "the modern project to eradicate human mystery."

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.