Reading Vaclav Havel

By Troy Headrick

I’m currently reading Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” a wonderful treatise on human nature, unfreedom, power, culture, and mass psychology.  Though he writes about what he calls “post-totalitarianism,” a dictatorial system that held sway across Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, I am persuaded that some of Havel’s thinking seems applicable to America and other “free” countries.   

While reading the essay, I ran across a sentence that troubled me because it seemed to hit close to home.  The passage I’m referring to goes like this:  “[In unfree states, people] are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way.”  In other words, we can only be made to live a lie if we have in us the capacity to live lives of dishonesty.  I don’t think Havel is talking about the simple act of telling untruths—sometimes euphemistically called “fibs.”  I think he’s discussing something much deeper, something that cuts to the core of how we interact with others and with ourselves, with the sort of values we profess to live in accordance with. 

All this makes me wonder if Havel’s argument can be applied to “free” Americans and those who live in other “advanced” and “democratic” places.  Are we really as free as we think we are?  Is it possible that we, too, live according to generally accepted lies or myths because there is something inside of us that finds these lies appealing or nurturing?  Do they make us feel good about ourselves?  Do they help us fit in?  Do they do our thinking for us? 

Havel repeatedly argues that ideology and dogma were the culprits.  Once a certain “truth” seeps into the collective psyche, a kind of inertia take hold and it becomes a premise upon which arguments are built. 

For example, in societies governed by consumerism, we come to see success as measured by the acquisition of material wealth and things.  To spend is to be.  To have is be worthy of having.  But isn’t such a belief rooted in the kind of ideology and dogma that Havel analyzed in unfree places? 

Once the lie takes hold, we act in ways that strengthen it.  (Havel points out that ideology and dogma actually shape reality rather than being shaped by it.)  In my previous example, we have erected our entire economic system around dogma and myth, around the lie we have gotten comfortable with.  (Economists have long harped on how the “health” and “success” of the American economy rest on “consumer behavior”—the mass acquisition of things.)  I’m reminded of the old saying, “Business is the business of America.”  (Note:  I’ve just checked this and discovered that the real quote, though very similar (and attributed to Calvin Coolidge), goes like this:  “The chief business of the American people is business.”)

All this makes me wonder, what other lies have we told ourselves so often that they’ve become truths?  What other things do we believe in that oppress us? 

Havel’s piece is interesting and can be found in many libraries and bookstores.  I highly recommend that others read it because it is a wonderful treatise on mass psychology. 

I look forward to hearing what you have to say about his argument and the way I’ve borrowed it.  Thanks so much for reading!


Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here and his business page can be found here.

27 thoughts on “Reading Vaclav Havel

  1. I agree.
    I would say that certain ‘lies’ are needed for us to work as larger communities rather than ending up breaking into smaller factions of people all fighting for their own needs rather than a general goodness, but at the same time, blindly following the status quo also leads to harming many people.

    For instance, we need to believe in the power of law to maintain order but we also need to make sure those powers are used wisely ( not misused, corrupted or turned evil ). We need to trust those in power to know what they’re doing as we can’t know all the details of our country’s workings and still make a living, however we can’t let that lead us into a form of apathy where we take no interest beyond the slogans and pointed fingers of politics.

    I know this sounds like sitting on the fence but life isn’t an easy black or white ( to my mind ), it’s a fine shade of grey. A lot of things work well when in balance, kept an eye on and with an understanding of their purpose and limits, but they quickly become dangerous or damaging if we forget what they’re about or don’t balance them.

    1. Good morning. I think your post sounds perfectly reasonable. I’m enjoying reading Havel a lot but I think he is a bit naive to claim that some systems are more truthful than other systems. Actually, in Havel, I find a lot of what I found when I lived in Poland not long after the fall of the Soviet Union–a kind of idealization of the West, especially seeing America in ideal terms. When I was living in that part of the world, many saw America as some of supernatural force for good. I also noticed that Eastern Europeans had a kind of complex–they lacked self-confidence and saw others–in Western Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand–as being superior in many ways. Things have likely changed some in recent years as Poland has become more internationally intergrated. I find recent political developments there disheartening though. Thanks for the wonderful comment.

  2. I think living “free” is a lie, but it’s one we have to live with if we want to have a society. For many reasons, people cannot just do what they want, yet we call this country “free”. Should a business be able to buy the land next to my house and build a skyscraper in the middle of nowhere? There are building codes that guide this. We have to ask permission to build on land we own and submit plans and have them approved. This goes on everywhere in this country – we are not truly “free” as most people would like to think. We accept rules and laws to create a society.

    1. I totally agree. I think Havel, though his analysis is very interesting, is a product of his time. He was living in a period when folks behind the “Iron Curtain”–what a metaphor!–idealized the West. I haven’t finished his essay yet. I’ve been reading the introductory pages where he talks about lies and dishonesty. I’m just moving into a section where he talks about truth and truth-telling. I’m curious to see what he has to say. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Havel was a true believer in freedom. It is tragic that the Slovaks and Czechs couldn’t find in in themselves to coexist. But that is what happens when uniformity is valued over diversity. When “we” is artificially broken into us and them. A classic example of the destructive nature of “identity politics.”

    As least the breakup was peaceful. In the world today, breaking up a country is usually only done thru civil war.

    The Robbers cave experiment showed how easy it is to break people into violently opposing groups over truly trivial things. And then how to diffuse the violence by changing to common goals instead of mutually exclusive goals. If you were seeking power, emphasizing divisions and focusing on antagomism would be your stock in trade.

    It is ironic. Only about a third of the Czechs and slightly over a third of Slovaks favored dissolution. Havel resigned in protest. But it is a classic example of how the more extreme elements tend to have their way over a less involved but much larger majority.

    Today the internet, whose businesses intentionally facilitate filter bubbles, encourages us v. them thinking. America is in its own Robber’s Cave Experiment, only without an overseer to calm things down when it gets out of hand.

    1. Hey, Fred! Is there anything you don’t have in depth knowledge about? It seems you know a lot about everything! As someone who has long had a soft spot in my heart for Eastern Europe–I lived in Poland for years and have traveled extensively in that part of the continent–I fear what’s happening in places like Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia (among others). What do you make of the lurch to the reactionary right in that part of the world?When I left Poland, I wouldn’t have ever thought it possible that the Poles would have allowed themselves to be sucked into any sort of political movement with authoritarian overtones, mostly because they’d had horrific experiences under the Nazis and then when they were behind the “Iron Curtain.” And, yet, we see the terrible crackdown on the LGBTQ movement. In Poland’s case, it’s the collaboration between the righties and the Catholic Church. I’m so surprised that Orban got his tenctacles into Hungary because Hungary–at least when i was there–was an amazingly open and progressive place. Anyway, I’d like to hear your take on Europe, in general, and it Eastern Europe, in particular.

  4. The term, lie, is subject to definition. We accept that proclaiming the world to be flat is a lie, but to what extent do we accept that “free market” or “ religion” might also be lies. In fact, in any group of people, there have to be some mutually accepted norms of behavior for the group to prosper, and force is inadequate to make that happen. Social scientists called those “ shared myths” but if we want to be harsh they could be deemed as lies.

  5. Fascinating Troy. I’ve often felt many of the things that society teaches us has messed us up. Certain ideas of what it means to be a man for example that are accepted as gospel among the youth. Our desire to fit in is heavily ingrained and so we follow the herd/what our parents taught us. You tend not to question these things when you’re younger – I wonder if that has more to do with survival then anything else? But as you grow older and release that these lies/beliefs/stereotypes don’t fit your reality – esp when regarding the self. I think this can cause us a lot of issues. When you get the great job, the beautiful wife, lots of material wealth that we’ve worked so hard for but still can’t find that lasting happiness and peace you expected to gain. I strongly believe we’ve been sold many a dummy by society. Thanks for sharing Troy. I’ll put this one on my reading list

    1. The really interesting part of Havel’s analysis is the power that ideology and dogma have over us, how they can actually shape the way we see reality as opposed to being shaped by it. I guess this means we are hardwired to be somewhat suseptible to delusion where mob thinking can rule. I’m about to move into a section of the book where Havel discusses truth and truth-telling, so I’m interested to see where he’s going. As usual, thanks for your insights.

  6. I believe that what was said can definitely extended to the areas you had in mind.

    A lie is a comfort because unlike a truth, it can be anything we wish. The trade off is that a lie is weak, exactly because it wants to be anything it wishes, against a truth that doesn’t bend to it.

    I also think it’s worth distinguishing between lies, uncertainties, and mistakes. Sometimes we believe something and get it wrong out of ignorance. That’s a mistake. Sometimes we believe in something and it doesn’t turn out the way it should have, despite it being a truth. That’s an uncertainty. A lie is something deliberate against clarity.

    1. I really like the interesting distinction you make between lies, uncertainty, and mistakes. You’ve given me something to think about today! And for that, I’m truly grateful. Take care.

  7. ‘Havel points out that ideology and dogma actually shape reality rather than being shaped by it.’

    That’s how we’ve become such a pathological death cult; some people can’t even imagine shutting this whole thing down for a few weeks to prevent the spread of Covid and mass death. It’s literally beyond the collective imagination.

    1. Like you, I’m shocked by what has happened to so many Americans over the last four years. Their attachment to a demogogue and lies are literally killing us. It is commonly believed that human beings are most deeply motivated by self-preservation, but I see many racing toward the edge of the cliff with no intention of stopping (or even slowing down) as they make their approach. Thanks for the comment.

  8. I would argue that ideology is shaped entirely by the environment. Everything evolves and that evolution is shaped by the external environment. The modalities that meet people’s perceived needs prosper while those that are disconcerting do not.

    In this case of social institutions the “environment” is the instinctual behavior we developed over the millions of years of prehuman history. Once humans evolved to the point where knowledge could accumulate, this continual accumulation of knowledge and technology would be punctuated by the occasional plague or game changing inventions such as the printing press.

    In the natural, world the equivalent is the slow change of climate punctuated by catastrophes such as the creation of an oxygen rich atmosphere or the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs or the beginning/end of an ice age. What catastrophes do is allow for sudden and rapid evolution to fit into now empty niches.

    Without environmental change the culture simply never changes. Social structures evolve into the equivalent of a climax community. In human terms, catastrophe allows new social arrangement to quickly develop that older arrangements could not evolve into. Those pesky rodents hiding in the foliage can now spring forth and become the rulers of the earth.

    No ideology or economic system meets everyone’s needs. To the extent that early industrial capitalism did not meet people’s needs, it left an opening for another ideology to develop. The most important of those so far turned out to be communism. Had communism not succumbed to the individual lust for power, who knows how far it would have developed? Yet that individual lust for power is part of our paleolithic heritage. It is unavoidable as heat in the summer. It can’t be fought.

    Capitalism ultimately overwhelmed communism for a number of reasons I’m not getting into here.. But both concepts have continued to evolve, driven by the technological change that created them. What we see in the world today as capitalism and communism have evolved to keep up with a changing reality and are not at all what they once were.

    I think the digital age may be bringing along the next catastrophe. The small creatures may yet have a chance to take over the world if the larger cultural creatures die off. But i can’t be sure because it will probably take long than my lifespan for it to fully mature. OTOH, climate change might be the next big event. Again, will be beyond my lifespan for it to have full impact. The survivors will be whatever ideas are most advantageous in the new reality.

    1. I know my comment doesn’t very directly address the points you’ve made in your comment, but I’ve long wished that national borders no longer existed. The border is the most man-made and artificial of constructs, and yet look at the ugly role borders have played in world history. A line drawn on a map is almost entirely arbitrary, and yet we build military machines to guard those imaginary lines. I always loved the the concept of the European Union because it was an attempt, at least on one continent, to get beyond nationalistic thinking. It was a noble attempt to create a “common good.” The more we can move beyond atomistic thinking and become holistic in our approach, the greater the chance we have to survive and thrive. We also need to understand individual self-interest is inextricably connected to the common good. Abraham Maslow said that those who reach the pinnacle of self-actualization do so by subordinating their narrow self-interest to a greater good. We see these in zero-sum terms. Either the individual interest prevails or the societal interest does. This is the worst sort of binary thinking. Your thoughts?

      1. I think that people are inherently lazy. People for whom thinking is not an enjoyable passtime would like someone else to to all their thinking for them. People for whom thinking is enjoyable are happy to do this. People who exude confidence and offer simplstic solutions for complex issues becoome opinion leaders.

        Zero sum is built into us. Paleolithic thinking. Thinking based on an environment of extreme scarcity. We are affluent beyond anyone’s wildest dreams even a century ago but… I got mine- sucks to be you. Zero sum still rules.

        It doesn’t help that our *practical* standard of living as been dropping for 40 years. Our children will not be better off than their parents. Young parents today are worse off than their parents. That ramps up the psychology of scarcity.

        Tribal behavior is burned into our genes. We will divide into us and them at the slightest provocation. People who are confident and have easy binary answers to complex issues see an opportunity to assume power by dividing instead of unifying. They know that most people prefer to have someone else think for them and exude the feeling of crisis which shuts off analog thinking even more.

        Binary thinking shows up as yes/no, good/evil, us/them. Reluctance to think independently sets in, even among natural thinkers, because of social pressure.

        The filter bubbles encouraged by the internet only accelerates the process.

        Unless Biden decides to become the next Lincoln and successfully appeals to our “better angels,” I am not optimistic for unity in the US in the near future.

  9. In political philosophy we often look at beliefs and ideologies and try to find the ‘truth’. We also look at ‘freedom’ and whether it means ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’. In other words, do we live in an idealized way in which we are free from harm, or in a way in which we are free to do whatever it is we want regardless of others. The point I’m making here is that we are all ‘unfree’ in whichever type of society we live in and how true we believe our freedom to be. I don’t believe it’s a question of lies as much as beliefs – one accepts ‘lies’ if you believe it is the truth. Sorry this sounds complicated I haven’t had my Political Theorist cap on for quite a while. I found this piece extremely thought provoking. I think I will read Havel now. Thank you!

      1. Cool! I have a BA in political science and then went for the MA in political theory. I did just about all of the degree and then switched to the MA in English. I’m “all but the dissertation” in English. Even when I started studying literature and rhetoric, I still often focused on reading novels that were very political. I guess my interest is right where sociology, philosophy, psychology, literature, and political science all come together. Nice to meet you!

      2. And you too. I’m interested to know why you switched subjects so late on when you were almost there. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to do an English degree, I’m just curious. My reading tends to take me on the political road, but I am also a huge reader of literature. I’ve rekindled my reading of and about Hannah Arendt lately. She is/was someone who has always fascinated me. It’s good to meet someone I can chat to about these things, there aren’t that many political theorists around. Where are you doing your degree?

      3. In the graduate department I was in, they took the “science” part of political science very seriously, probably because I was at a large, renowned research university. They asked me to take some statistics courses because I hadn’t had that sort of thing as an undergrad. I didn’t do very well and sort of got turned off by the heavy emphasis on being able to conduct quantitative research. I really wanted to work with ideas and suddenly they were trying to turn me into a math person. And I can’t do math.

      4. Thanks. Do you blog? If so, why not put a link to your site here so we can check it out. I attended Texas A & M University for graduate school. It was one of those mammoth state schools. (I think they have something like 65K students now.) Beleive it or not, the school of liberal arts is the largest academic branch on campus and the political science and English departments were (and probably are) world-class. At the time I enrolled, they had a really strong guy in theory who actually called me up and talked with me and promised a full academic ride by giving me a research/teaching assistantship. I liked that they took the time to get to know me in a very real way and so I decided to attend there even though I had other possibilities. How about you?

  10. We are psychologically conditioned through media and literature all the time, there’s no escape! Don’t you feel we’re constantly spied on or as if we’re under some sort secret surveillance, someone’s always watching if we fit or not.

  11. I often find myself acknowledging the lies that fear and doubt sow in my mind, but not being able to go further than that and disprove them to myself. Lies like “I’m not good enough to write stories people would like to read”, or I can’t make music that people might actually want to listen to”. But, the truth is it’s about hard work, wherever we find ourselves.

    I wonder if we were able to more easily know the things that give us life and joy, if we might be less inclined towards dishonesty to ourselves?

    It has taken me ten years of searching to figure out that I want to write stories and create music with the majority of my time. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and see where I get. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what was drawing me in, or encouraging me onwards.

    Thank you, Troy, for this invitation to take a journey of introspection.

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