Václav Havel

Václav Havel

Václav Havel on hope and power

The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something that is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now.

I leave it to those more qualified to decide what can be expected “from above”—that is, from what is happening in the sphere of power. I have never fixed my hopes there; I’ve always been more interested in what was happening “below,” in what could be expected from “below,” what could be won there, and what defended. All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over. One can always find in the behavior of power a reflection of what is going on “below.” No one can govern in a vacuum. The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: Everyone has a small part of himself in both.
Václav Havel in Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Hvížďala, (Knopf, 1990), p. 181. Originally published 1986. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson. Also available in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear by Paul Rogat Loeb, (Basic Books, 2004), p. 82.

Google Book Viewer

"The kind of hope I often think about"

20th anniversary celebration of the felling of the Berlin wall