“Responsibility to the Order of Being”

by Mark Gordon

Vaclav Havel died yesterday. Poet, playwright, political dissident and prisoner, non-violent revolutionay, president of his beloved Czechoslovakia and later, the Czech Republic. His motto was ”truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” His constant concern, both as a playwright and as a politician, was the connection betwen morality and responsibility. As he said in a speech to the US Congress: “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.”

Havel did not profess any specific religious creed, but his life and work were nevertheless infused with a deeply religious sensibility, and he feared the loss of transcendence, a detachment from “responsibility to the order of Being,” as the greatest danger facing mankind today:

We are living in the first truly global civilisation. That means that whatever comes into existence on its soil can very quickly and easily span the whole world.

But we are also living in the first atheistic civilization, in other words, a civilization that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important.

However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilization is its pride. The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit …

… Wonder and an awareness that things are not self-evident are, I believe, the only way out of the dangerous world of a civilisation of pride.

Can anything be absolutely self-evident?

Wonder at the non-self-evidence of everything that creates our world is, after all, the first impulse to the question: what purpose does it all have? Why does it all exist? Why does anything exist at all? We don’t know and we will never find it out. It is quite possible that everything is here in order for us to have something to wonder at. And that we are here simply so that there is someone to wonder. But what is the point of having someone wonder at something? And what alternative is there to being? After all if there were nothing, there would also be no one to observe it. And if there were no one to observe it, then the big question is whether non-being would be at all possible …

… In all events, I am certain that our civilisation is heading for catastrophe unless present-day humankind comes to its senses. And it can only come to its senses if it grapples with its short-sightedness, its stupid conviction of its omniscience and its swollen pride, which have been so deeply anchored in its thinking and actions.