Living in Truth

It is perhaps unsurprising that Chinese liberals today find such resonance in the writings of Eastern European thinkers such as Vaclav Havel, Jan Patoçka, and Adam Michnik. Like the European dissidents of the 1970s, Chinese intellectuals today must write in a post-ideological society still dressed in the ill-fitting layers of a dead ideology. And thus, like the European dissidents, Chinese intellectuals are forced to confront the question of authenticity.

I was intrigued (and surprised) by this article when I found it in the back pages of Caijing magazine — one of modern China’s most liberal publications — in mid-August. Surprised because so much of what this article discusses — censorship, limitations on freedom, the essential hypocrisy of an emperor’s-no-clothes goverment — are unspeakable topics in modern China. Yet there it was, accessible in print in one of China’s most influential magazines, and — even without recourse to “wall-hopping” software — online. As such, I felt that non-Chinese speaking readers might benefit from an English translation. (N.B. — found myself stymied by a few of the transliterated names of Eastern European philosophers. Any feedback is welcome. The original text can be found here.)

Living in Truth

By Jing Kaixuan; Published 8/16/2011 in Caijing

Samizdat publishing was a phenomenon of the Soviet Union (and Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe) that took aim at the State’s censorship apparatus. Among all the Eastern European countries, it was in Czechoslovakia that samizdat most flourished. Two Czech writers, Ivan Klima and Ludvik Vaculik, have described in interviews and other recollections samizdat’s genesis. These are writers whose minds have experienced the dreams of utopia and their destruction, who have experienced the transformation of traditional European culture since the 19th century, who know that when a society becomes oppressed it is the intellectual who is compelled to assume the burden of society’s conscience.

These writers explore from a moral perspective the theoretical composition of a totalitarian regime, and the shape of human nature and action under such a regime. Just as Husserl, speaking in Prague in the 1930s, said: “Europe’s future can only move towards two extremes. It must either sink into barbarity and hate, or it must be reborn in the philosophical spirit.” Seeped in this philosophical tradition, these later Czech intellectuals were more inclined towards Arendt than Hayek, more towards existentialism than liberalism.

Compared to the critiques of totalitarianism by Western scholars — emphasizing democracy and the rule of law — the post-totalitarian critiques by samizdat intellectuals place a greater emphasis on the persistence of freedom, and how through philosophy, ethics, and literature one can explore the significance of authenticity. The post-totalitarian regime does not only corrode the living standard of its subject, but also suppresses his souls; it compels him — through political pressure — to trade in his conscience and responsibility for material well-being; it forces each person to make the end goals of the system his own raison d’être. But the ends of the system and the ends of human life will always be at variance. The essence of a human life is personal and diverse, while the essence of the system is conformity and obedience. As a result, a subject of such a system is condemned to an inauthentic life.

Havel’s famous “greengrocer” metaphor illustrates this point. The greengrocer places in his shop window a sign that reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer does not care about the content of the slogan; but he understands that in order to survive he must act as if he does. To hang the poster — to obey — is mindless, irrelevant, preserving of his dignity. However, what the greengrocer is really doing is using the façade of ideology to cower from his fear of losing his job. He is living in a lie. And this indifference towards morality forms the bulwark of the post-totalitarian regime. To combat this indifference, Czech intellectuals championed one principle above all: living in authenticity.

In this sense, “authenticity” carries a higher level of philosophical meaning, namely, refusing the loss of values and meaning. As Charter 77 spokesperson Jan Patoçka noted, the crisis of modernity is a crisis of meaning. To face this crisis, Czech intellectuals examined once again the roots and goals of freedom, even reaching back to the 15th-century’s protestant reformation, or what samizdat philosopher Erazim Kohák called ”Middle Age realism.” This brand of realism is oriented towards a non-Cartesian world, one that preserves the Middle Age worldview, that sees the universe as a harmonious whole, that accepts that values and meaning are facts, not suppositions.

Which is precisely the view of samizdat phenomenology, as epitomized in the person of Jan Patoçka. Patoçka was a student of both Husserl and Heidegger; his “being-in-the-world” approaches the views of Laozi’s natural philosophy, yet at the same time he insists on the primacy of values, that morality is not a socially constructed more but rather a basic human characteristic. His position on universal human rights derives from this transcendental stance: “I firmly believe that the state and society must recognize the existence of certain things that supersede them, things that even — in their view — limit them, but that are so holy as to not be transgressed.” For Patoçka, freedom, conscience, and responsibility are absolutely transcendental values, so essential to human life as to justify sacrifice.

Patoçka’s philosophical works were banned in Czechoslovakia, and he was forced to rely on translation to make a living. But Patoçka persisted in writing, and delivered secret lectures to young philosophy students from his home. When Charter 77 was circulated, Patoçka was among its 70 oldest proponents. On March 13, 1977, after enduring a 10-hour-long interrogation, Patoçka suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died, his last action a manifestation of his most dearly held principles: “A moral system does not exist in order to help society function, but rather so that man can become man. It is not man who defines a moral order according to the arbitrary nature of his needs, wishes, predilections, and desires, but on the contrary, it is morality which defines man.”

Czech intellectuals dissented from the theory of utilitarianism, returning instead to the pursuit of moral origins. This contrasts fully with the pragmatism of contemporary politics. The aim of the Charter 77 intellectuals was to promote basic individual human rights and to preserve the moral element in private and political life. Theirs was an “anti-political” politics, formed from the bedrock of moral conscience and accepting that freedom is every person’s naturally endowed right. In other words, the self-sacrifice of samizdat writers stemmed from responsibility, a responsibility that transcended the bounds of any government.

This belief in freedom’s fundamental value certainly did not represent a return to religion, but rather made freedom the foundation of its own belief system. The samizdat intellectuals opposed the idea that freedom could stem from the grace of the state, viewing it instead as an internal force that emerged from responsibility and moral courage.

Hungarian scholar XXX once termed the philosophy of Eastern European intellectuals “secular spiritualism”, noting that their pursuit of morality did not lack its own grounding in reality. In the face of modern authoritarianism, these intellectuals were able to validate what Havel termed “the power of the powerless.”

 Thanks to Xiaoxia and Dong for helping me crack Chinese translations of Eastern European philosopher names!

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