Political dissidence as care for the soul: reflections on Jan Patočka

In the experience and activity of political dissidence, care for the soul realized itself through denying the falsehoods imposed by the authorities and exalting truth above any imposed scheme.

Martina Agogliati
26 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague, Jan.,1968.

Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague, Jan.,1968. Wikicommons/ CIA. Some rights reserved.The 1960s represented a watershed moment in Jan Patočka’s life and work. From 1968 (the year of the Prague spring) onward, his philosophy takes on a practical as well as theoretical purpose. His philosophical research aims at the understanding of the human condition through a historical analysis, which is not addressed from a chronological point of view but from rather an anthropological one: history is the history of the human. In fact, we can understand the human condition only through the knowledge of history and its mistakes. The aim of a study of history was not simply then to reveal the events of the past and their logic, but to make humans conscious of their role in the world, in order to try and improve it.

Now, following Patočka’s example, we begin our historical analysis from one of the seminal events in modern history: the Industrial Revolution. Thanks to men like Copernicus and, later, Newton and Galileo, there was in the sixteenth century a bringing into question of the previously dominant theory and the development of scientific method in a form that we would recognise today. Human civilisations, empowered by this new knowledge, take on the task of dominating nature and its processes at an unprecedented pace and scale. As a result, science and technological development play an increasingly central role in the development of European civilisation, reaching a sort of frenzied pace of development during the nineteenth and twentieth enturies kicked off by the industrial revolution.

In science, European civilization had--Patočka thought--unveiled its essence. The problematic aspect for Patočka was not scientific progress itself but the fact that this type of empirical knowledge, obtainable only from data analysis, was invading more and more of human life, trying to creep into the spiritual component of human life and implement a correlative absolute rationalization of the surrounding world.

To avoid the full colonisation of human life and the world by instrumental technological reasoning – taking for granted that this is indeed something to be avoided – Patočka proposed a form of ethical action, care for the soul. Care for the soul is a possibility that opens up to the individual a path which allows him to overcome this stalemate between technological rationality and the spiritual dimensions of human life through philosophical praxis.

Philosophical praxis

Patočka’s aim was a contemporary reinterpretation of the Socratic lesson. Care for the self is, according to the philosopher, the root of Wwestern metaphysics and consequently the proper fate of European rationality. This manifests itself primarily in philosophical practice, with its ability to be open to dissent and, therefore, to oppose political power, and to escape social subjugation. In the experience and activity of political dissidence, care for the soul realized itself through basically denying the falsehoods imposed by the authorities and exalting truth above any imposed scheme. In fact, the care for the soul consists in the ability to think independently, with the denial of old schemes, now empty, and to go in search of a new absolute sense that would restore meaning and hope to the lives of men. Its centrepiece is the question: what sense? what purpose?

It is a path completely exposed to the negative that sees the emptying of meaning of life itself since overcoming this hazard is the only way to show the possibility of dwelling in truth as the essence of life. The absolute sense that results can be reached only through an attitude of detachment, through the problematization of all ready-made responses, thanks to discipline and abnegation. This exercise, apparently unproductive as it is so difficult to do, has not only an ethical and moral meaning, but also practical and political.

Intelligence is always closely linked to a moral attitude, to a choice between what is right and what is wrong. Being authentic or not, and therefore being spiritual, depends on this choice. What distinguishes the intellectual in the real sense of the word is the ability for independent thought. This implies a continuous renewal of the objective and subjective point of view, in order to find the suitable means in view of determined and acceptable ends.

By contrast, the modern model of the intellectual is the scientist, and the intelligencia today is a technical intelligence. The intellectual crisis rooted in this situation is due to this focus exclusively given to the material sphere and its means, neglecting any spiritual aspect that had previously marked the intellectual. Thus, intellectuals have undermined their autonomy by renouncing their own means of self-determination.

During the second half of the twentieth century we have witnessed the destruction of the Stalinist system; the end of the Vietnam War, in which student protests played a role in the United States, and, in Czechoslovakia, the internal reform of Novotný’s regime. All these involved the clash with writers and intellectuals. 1968 was also the year of the student riots and their questioning, through the opposition of both academic and corporate apparatuses. It became increasingly clear that the role of intellectuals was changing: they had taken on a different weight and role in society and in the ruling class.

Intellectuals were no longer in a condition of impotence, but the intellectual could now play a prominent role in political life, contributing to the creation of new moral content and giving society and politics a new direction. Intellectuals could make themselves concretely available to society only if they were aware of their own strength, without giving in to apathy, without losing the ability to debate or "the taste to ask questions”. It’s for this reason that Patočka never wanted to leave his city: only in Prague he could have put into practice his teachings, also inspiring the opposition to ‘the Party’.

In this situation the intellectual acquires an essential role. Opposition becomes a hallmark of the intellectual. In fact, in a highly politicized context dominated by socialist propaganda, a paper, philosophical or political, could represent a threat to the dominant regime, and these were often banned by the censorship apparatuses of the ruling party. For this reason, clandestine literature became the primary form of communication for the dissident intellectual.

This phenomenon, that initially arose spontaneously, slowly assumed more organized form. It is important to emphasize that, in a situation of total lack of freedom, it arose as a free activity, completely devoid of any economic interest and social recognition, but only due to the sense of individual responsibility, to an ethical commitment.

Samizdat, which literally means “self-published”, is one of the most symptomatic examples. Samizdat publishing allowed for the spread of clandestine writings banned for being in some way hostile to the Soviet regime. This form of intellectual dissidence was the dominant current of Czech literature of the twenty-year period from the Seventies to the Eighties and became an example of how philosophy can actualize itself and succeed, through the influence of the individual on the individual, in creating a movement able to produce political change.

Political involvement became the natural development of Patočka's philosophy. Thanks to his personal commitment, as spokesman for Charter 77, Patočka became the example of a thinker who is able to make praxis emerge from the scope of the theory. Patočka’s intention was to become the reference point of the initiative and the Charta itself is the result of an afterthought, prompted in the Chartists, by Patočka's reasoning.

The element common to the members of the Charter 77 movement is the belief that political action, to be effective, must be the consequence of an ethics. Czechoslovakia, since the late 1940s, was part of the Soviet bloc, as a conglomeration of nations controlled by a superpower that imposed common policies, subordinating the interests of individual states to its own. These type of dictatorships, as defined by Havel, were post-totalitarian dictatorships. They found their historical roots in the socialist movement of the nineteenth century, and were bound by a strong secular ideology through the mechanism of a direct and indirect manipulation of people. The only way to really oppose this form of political power, was to interfere with the very personal and individualised series of actions and daily gestures that ensured the operation of the regime as often repeated acts.

Dissent had to seek to deconstruct the myth of passive obedience and depersonalization by reclaiming the possibility of independent intellectual activity, and indeed care for the soul. Those who performed "dissident" actions freed themselves from the oppressive repetitions of everyday life under “normalisation”, but in doing so they did not flee to an otherworldy realm of ideas, but rather became witnesses and stimulants for the concrete.

What the philosopher claims, these were not heroic acts, but actions made up of singular gestures that, precisely thanks to their avowedly unpolitical nature, become that grain of sand that could obstruct the inner workings of the regime.


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