“It is of great importance that the main thing—the everyday, thankless, and never-ending struggle of human beings to live more freely, truthfully, and in quiet dignity—never impose any limits on itself, never be halfhearted, inconsistent, never trap itself in political tactics, speculating on the outcome of its actions or entertaining fantasies about the future.”Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless
In the last 20 years, truth has taken quite a beating. It has been relativized, manipulated, and redefined so often that it has lost any meaning at all. Things like gender, sexual orientation, and the definition of life itself have fallen prey to the lies of individual autonomy and social revolution. The space between truth and opinion seems to shrink with every headline and tweet. In America specifically, education, institutions, and even journalists have become venues for this reconstruction of objective truth and morality. However, the manipulation of truth is not unique to our current social and national climate. History is full of those who gave their life’s work to fighting the lies and injustice of their time. One such man is Vaclav Havel.
Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) was a Czechoslavakian playwright who helped to bring about the liberation of former Czechoslovakia from communist control and served as both the final President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. Havel’s most widely read essay, The Power of the Powerless, is an analysis of the communist regime ruling his country (who he refers to as the “post-totalitarian” regime) and a suggestion on how to break free from their grasp. In his essay, he identifies the “open manipulation of society” as the primary goal of the regime as it sought to maintain complete power over its subjects. Because the goal of the regime was built on manipulation, Havel theorized that the only way to fight back was by developing what he calls a “parallel structure.” This parallel structure is a secondary culture, where life is built on the truth. This secondary culture is created by a community that commits to living an independent life, where education, art, and community exist under the umbrella of the truth and stand in open opposition to the lies of the regime. Though this work focuses specifically on the unique position his nation was in, there is much in this essay that could easily be applied to the modern culture of the West.
In former Czechoslovakia, lies had become a fundamental part of the fabric of reality. They were pervasive, like a cancer slowly taking over the body of its victim. These lies became so entangled with normal life that a top-down approach to reform became impossible. Thus, the question for Havel became “how can truth prevail when every aspect of social, political, and ideological reality is infused with manipulation?” His solution was found in those individuals not yet lost to the deception. Havel was convinced that when broad, divisive change is impossible, it takes individuals willing to stand in opposition to the prevailing lies to enact real, substantial change. According to Havel, this can be best achieved via two corresponding means.
First, there must be those who are willing to stand up and point out the inconsistencies, the illogical conclusions, and the pervasive lies of the culture. Havel points to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great author and activist who helped to unveil the horrors of the Soviet Union, identifying that Solzhenitsyn’s political influence was rooted not in his individual political power, but in “the experience of those millions of Gulag victims which he simply amplified and communicated to millions of other people of good will.”1 Change can be wrought, at least initially, by identifying the lie for what it is.
Second, there must be a communal shift towards a “Parallel Structure;” a social style aimed at living squarely in the truth, in direct contrast to the lies of the culture. Havel identifies things like education, the arts, and general communal cohesion as ways to stimulate and form a new culture. This new culture, by actively living out the truth, puts words and ideas into motion, actualizing the broad change necessary for combating a culture of lies.
As those committed to classical Christian education, these paths flow naturally from our educational model. Classical Christian schools provide communities built around the idea of promoting and expounding the truth. The study of the liberal arts and Great Books cultivates wisdom and virtue in students by providing them with the tools needed to discern the truth and live in the light. The combination of wisdom and virtue with sharp reasoning skills allows students to both identify the truth and to place it in the context of the world around them. We are developing people who can both live the right way and think the right way. Though they are students now, the day will come when their generation will be at the forefront of cultural movement, and they will be tasked with the battle for truth.
Vaclav Havel, towards the end of his essay, weighs two possibilities for the future of his nation. They would either be overcome by the post-totalitarian system, which would eventually lead them into some type of Orwellian dystopia where everything is manipulation of the truth and morality no longer exists, or the independent life of those engaged in the parallel structure of truth would slowly grow in strength until the truth snuffed out the lies of those with power.2 This is a similar fight that we face now, though we are blessed with the knowledge that, ultimately, evil will not prevail. We are able to fight with courage and joy knowing that what we fight for is right, and regardless of the current outcome, truth will reign supreme for eternity when the Lord returns. We must embrace the seemingly mundane and often thankless job of education, knowing that it is of enormous consequence. The struggle for truth will go on. It is the job of those that know it and understand its importance to do everything they can to prepare those that come after them.
1 Havel, Vaclav. Open Letters: Selected Writings. Vintage Books, 1992. “The Power of the Powerless,” 171.
2 Ibid. “The Power of the Powerless,” 204.