The University Record, September 11, 2000

Havel notes importance of commitment to truth, principles

Editor’s Note: The text of Václav Havel’s address is on the Web at

By Jane R. Elgass

A powerful reading of excerpts of letters from Czech President Václav Havel to his wife while he was imprisoned in the 1980s provided the audience at last week’s honorary degree ceremony and symposium with a glimpse of the reflections of the poet, playwright and statesman, and made clear some of the ideals he holds dear—truth and commitment.

The reading, given by theater and drama Prof. Glenda Dickerson as the final presentation in the symposium, was appreciated by Havel, who noted that he didn’t realize how suggestive the letters would appear 20 years later.

In his acceptance address to a crowded Hill Auditorium audience, Havel cited the discovery of alleged ancient manuscripts that “purported to attest the ancient roots of our nation’s culture, the wealth of its history and the greatness of its myth-making creativity.”

Philosophy Prof. Thomas Marsaryk, who later became the first Czechoslovak president (1918–35), declared the manuscripts were fake, resulting in a “Battle for the Manuscripts.”

“Masaryk, who was already engaged in politics at that time, would not yield,” Havel noted, “and did not succumb to the temptation to appear complaisant to the crowds. Undeterred by the risk of losing prestige, reputation and popularity, he stood by his conviction. He found it unacceptable, as a matter of principle, that awareness of national identity or the struggle for his people’s legitimate rights—first within the formation of the Austro-Hungarian state and later with the aim of restoring Czech statehood—should be based on a lie or fraud. To him,” Havel added, “the only valid and viable cornerstone for his nation’s new existence was truth.

“But what is truth?” Havel asked, noting that thanks to the information revolution, “pieces of information crisscross the globe every second at a frantic speed, spanning our planet with an all-embracing coat of communication.”

While there are advantages to this, Havel said that “it is of paramount importance to understand the fine difference between information and truth.”

“To put it briefly and simply,” Havel stated, “I believe that truth is also information but, at the same time, it is something greater. Truth—like any other information—is information which has been clearly proved, or affirmed, or verified within a certain system of coordinates or paradigms, or which is simply convincing. But it is more than that—it is information avouched by a human being with his or her whole existence, with his or her reputation and name, with his or her honor.

Members of the American Sokol Organization of Detroit attended the ceremony in ethnic dress. Pictured (from left) are Maryann Fiordelis, Carolyn Sabados, Jarmila Kalivoda and Joan Spiroff. Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services
“Masaryk’s unswerving adherence to truth—regardless of the cost—eventually bore historic fruit,” Havel said, but this was not a certainty. “Nevertheless, Masaryk’s attitude demonstrates that genuine commitment to truth means standing firm no matter whether it yields returns or not, whether it meets with universal recognition or universal condemnation, whether a fight for truth leads to success or to absolute scorn and to obscurity.

“Masaryk’s hope may have appeared foolish as well. But was it really? Is it foolish to let ourselves be guided by conscience, to insist on the truth even when it is out of favor and, thus, to affirm that truth is genuine truth, in the deepest sense? What is foolish, exactly?”

In opening the ceremony, President Lee C. Bollinger noted that the U-M has long had international connections and cited particularly Czech studies, which has a “rich cornucopia of courses and research.”

He used the occasion to announce the Václav Havel Fellows Program as a way of memorializing Havel. In any generation, Bollinger said, “a few individuals take hold of our imaginations. Havel embodies hope for the human spirit and our collective lives. As a public intellectual, he has been able to obliterate barriers of discipline and expertise.”

The Fellows Program will provide assistance for students of exceptional promise in three categories:

  • Václav Havel Fellowship in Czech Studies, for students from any U-M department who focus their graduate studies or dissertation research on the Czech Republic.

  • Václav Havel Fellowship for Students from the Czech Republic, for citizens of the Czech Republic admitted to U-M graduate programs.

  • Václav Havel Dissertation Award, to students to conduct research outside the United States and write a dissertation focusing on topics that reflect the life, work, intellectual contributions and spirit of Václav Havel.

    Music at the ceremony was performed by the James Dapogny Quartet, led by Dapogny, who is professor of music (music theory). Other members of the group were Paul Keller, bass, adjunct professor of music (jazz), Paul Finkbeiner (trumpet) and Pete Siers (drums). The group was pressed into extra duty when Havel’s flight from New York was delayed. The final piece the group performed was a jazz rendition of the national anthem of the Czech Republic, “Kde domov muj” (“Where Is My Home?”), recognizing Havel’s interest in jazz.

    Below is the text of the citation that accompanied Václav Havel’s honorary degree, read at the ceremony by Regent Rebecca McGowan.

    “A renowned playwright and president of the Czech Republic, you hold and provide enormous moral and spiritual influence. Through your carefully articulated philosophy, expressed in plays, letters, speeches and essays, you have transformed your nation and informed the world. Your critically acclaimed plays, rich in allegory and metaphor, have been performed throughout Europe and North America.

    “Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact members in 1968, your highly principled opposition to authoritarianism, including leadership of the human rights organization Charter 77, inspired people throughout Eastern Europe. When the communist regime began to crumble in 1989, you emerged as the obvious leader of the new Czechoslovakia.

    “Your election came to symbolize the democratic revolutions that swept the region. When it became clear that Slovakia and the Czech Republic would split, you resigned the presidency rather than preside over the dissolution. Since your 1993 election as president of the Czech Republic and reelection in 1998, you have promoted harmony and democratic processes in Eastern Europe.

    “The high regard in which you are held by the world community is reflected in the numerous awards you have received, including three Obie Awards for playwriting, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the Four Freedoms Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, UNESCO’s International Simón Bolívar Prize, the Indira Gandhi Prize and the J. William Fulbright Prize.

    “In recognition of your achievements as a writer, philosopher and statesman, and your principled political and moral leadership, the University of Michigan is proud to present to you the honorary degree Doctor of Laws.”