Living in truth

“A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe”, wrote Václav Havel in The Power of the Powerless, “the spectre of what in the West is called ‘dissent'”. The dissident playwright’s revision of the first line of The Communist Manifesto was more than playful criticism; it gave expression to a philosophy of history that Havel hoped might supplant that of Marx and Engels, and even save the world from self-destruction. The author of this philosophy, well known in France and central Europe, but less familiar to anglophone readers, was the Czech phenomenologist Jan Patočka.

Patočka (1907-77) was a student of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and a “partner” with Hannah Arendt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others in the enterprise of probing our subjective relationships to worldly phenomena. Appointed a professor at Charles University in 1936, he was able to teach formally for only a few years before and after the Second World War, and following the Prague Spring. He was never imprisoned, but the Nazis pressed him into manual labor and the communists restricted him to marginal academic positions. He was nonetheless famous for his informal teaching and for the many writings in which he struggled with the question of how to live in history.

It is tempting to explain Patočka’s importance instrumentally, tracing a causal trajectory from his underground seminars in Prague in the 1970s to the demise of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989. This interpretation highlights Patočka’s influence on Havel and the dissident association they named after the year of its founding, Charter 77. Havel dedicated The Power of the Powerless to Patočka’s memory in 1978, and there is the essay that inspired the founders of the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980. The revolutionary associations in which millions of Czechoslovak citizens participated in 1989-90 were directly modelled on Charter 77. Seen this way, Patočka’s idea of ​​“the solidarity of the shaken” gave Solidarity and Czechoslovakia’s own Velvet Revolution a blueprint for non-violent revolution.

The books reviewed here do not dispute this interpretation, but their authors and editors insist that the value of Patočka’s philosophy of history transcends its impact on history. For Patočka, Socratic questioning – and not class conflict or revolution – is history’s locomotive. Dissidence inevitably results from such questioning, and in Confronting Totalitarian Minds: Jan Patočka on politics and dissidence, Aspen E. Brinton explains how it gives life meaning in otherwise hopeless situations. Two collections of Patočka’s writings, meanwhile, can be read as manuals for dissident practice. Living in Problematicity shows how he analysed historical events philosophically, from the interwar crisis of democracy to the normalization that followed the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Care for the Soul: The selected writings of Jan Patočka presents essays on subjects ranging from history and philosophy to education and literature that together address the question of how to live meaningfully with others in historical time.

History, for Patočka, is “the shaken certitude of pre-given meaning”. Brinton invokes Plato’s cave allegory to explain. The prisoner questions whether shadows on the cave wall comprise the full extent of reality; questioning enables him to leave the cave, but a sense of responsibility ultimately compels him back to help liberate those who remain. If he succeeds, the community of questioners may constitute a police, a space where the soul – that element of a human being not exhausted by the mere maintenance of life – can be cultivated. Patočka contrasts the history that results from questioning with a “prehistory” in which unquestioned myth provided ready-made meaning.

This history is driven (albeit to no certain endpoint) by those who practise “philosophy” in Patočka’s universally accessible sense – who “care for their souls” through the Socratic questioning of pre-given meaning. Care for the soul entails “living in truth” – a phrase that Havel made famous in The Power of the Powerless – though it does not presuppose any absolute truth. Patočka explicitly rejects Plato’s belief that we can achieve absolute truth, calling instead for “negative Platonism”. A more straightforward way of expressing the idea of ​​”living in truth” might be “living in problematicity”: searching for a truth that can never be absolutely known. The problematicity of meaning is truthful in and of itself, and those who care for their souls accept their responsibility for whatever meaning they embrace in a world of uncertainty.

One of the most arresting pieces in Care for the Soul, edited by Ivan Chvatík and Erin Plunkett, and translated by Alex Zucker with Andrea Rehberg and David Charlston, is “Limping Pilgrim Josef Čapek”, a reflection on the life and death of the titular Czech painter. As Plunkett explains in her insightful introduction, the essay presents authentic human life as a pilgrimage to an unknown place in which we limp between two impulses, “that which would bind us to the earth and the familiar, and that which leads us to strike out again and again into the unfamiliar”. Patočka offers another view of these impulses in “Life in Balance, Life in Amplitude”, which Eric Manton includes in Living in Problematicity. The former is a life of pragmatism, governed by the everyday; the latter is transcendence of the everyday. Through the questioning that is care for the soul, we can rise above the everyday – mere historicity – and find our meaning in history.

The police, once founded, never returns to a state of prehistory, but its citizens can revert to myth and a craving for the certain meanings that myth provides. Thus it is that, though leaving the cave made it possible to found the policethe police nonetheless executed Socrates. As Manton stresses in his conclusion, “philosophy challenges the ideologies’ myths and dispels the illusions that society is led and comforted by”. The fate of Socrates threatens all “dissidents”. Yet some witnesses may be “shaken” by violent attempts to preserve pre-given meaning. If they establish a community with each other, this “solidarity of the shaken” can become a force in history, pushing humanity towards a police where Socrates can live.

It was this solidarity that Patočka hoped to nurture in joining Havel as one of Charter 77’s first spokesmen. Charter signatories expressed their sense of “co-responsibility” and sought “to conduct a constructive dialogue” by drawing attention to the state’s violation of its own laws, in hopes of fostering a “humane society”. The cave-dwellers reacted predictably and, though persecution in most cases stopped short of murder, Patočka, who had bronchitis when called for questioning in March 1977, died of complications ten days later.

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 again exemplified the solidarity of the shaken – this time uniting millions of citizens shaken by violence against students calling for freedom in Prague. Yet even though the revolution created a police Where Socrates was far less likely to be killed, it was not a happily-ever-after story. As Havel had emphasized in The Power of the Powerless, techniques of manipulation in the West were “infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in post-totalitarian societies”, and with the revolution Czechoslovakia rejoined the mainstream of what Patočka called “technological civilization”. Though made possible by Socratic questioning, this civilization places itself entirely in the service of the everyday, neglecting questions of human meaning. By reducing human beings to their roles, it forces them to live in falsehood. Mobilizing ever more force, it threatens humanity itself with destruction, whether through nuclear catastrophe or environmental degradation.

Confronting Totalitarian Minds Address those shaken by systemic violence in today’s world, whatever form it may take. Brinton clearly explains key themes of Patočka’s philosophy before comparing his thought with that of other dissidents: Havel, the anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, student and anti-atomic of the 1960s, and environmental environment today. The comparisons are remarkably instructive. Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity”, for example, resembles Patočka’s “negative Platonism” in its insistence on the inaccessibility of absolute truth, suggesting that similar approaches to living in problematicity can proceed from both Christian and secular starting points. Gandhi’s life history shows “the general applicability of Patočka’s philosophy to all who turn to dissident politics as a way to move through life”, helping to overcome an unnecessary Eurocentrism in Patočka’s oeuvre. Perhaps most importantly, Brinton stresses that dissidents must be ever open to questioning, rejecting absolutes, lest they suffer the consequences of hubris or, worse, their efforts result in new systems of oppression. The dissident path is by nature uncertain, but that is exactly what makes it the only path along which history can continue.

James Krapfl is an associate professor of European history at McGill University. He is the author of Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, culture, and community in Czechoslovakia, 1989–19922013

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