Quotations by Havel, Vaclav


A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes a danger to its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. The suppression of public opinion, the abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise opens the way for the state power to arm itself in any way it sees fit …. A state that does not hesitate to lie to its own people will not hesitate to lie to other states.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
“An Anatomy of Reticence,” Living in Truth (1986)
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Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
“New Year’s Address to the Nation” (1 Jan 1990)
Added on 29-Aug-16 | Last updated 29-Aug-16
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You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
“The Power of the Powerless,” Living in Truth (1986)
Added on 21-Dec-11 | Last updated 21-Dec-11
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Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity ….

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
(Attributed)

Quoted in Amnesty International, "From Prisoner to President – A Tribute" (essay) (Oct 2003)
Added on 27-Apr-09 | Last updated 27-Apr-09
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The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
(Attributed)

Quoted in Amnesty International, "From Prisoner to President – A Tribute" (Oct 2003).
Added on 31-Mar-11 | Last updated 31-Mar-11
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Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 2 “Writing for the Stage” (1986) [tr. P. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 4-May-09 | Last updated 4-May-09
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The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 2 “Writing for the Stage” (1986) [tr. P. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 11-May-09 | Last updated 11-May-09
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The truth is not simply what you think it is; it is also the circumstances in which it is said, and to whom, why, and how it is said.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 2 “Writing for the Stage” (1986) [tr. P. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 7-Apr-11 | Last updated 7-Apr-11
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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.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 5 “The Politics of Hope” (1986) [tr. P. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 1-Feb-04
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The deeper the experience of an absence of meaning — in other words, of absurdity — the more energetically meaning is sought.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 5 “The Politics of Hope” (1986) [tr. P. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 1-Jun-09 | Last updated 1-Jun-09
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There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 5 “The Politics of Hope” (1986) [tr. P. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 15-Jun-09 | Last updated 15-Jun-09
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There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Disturbing the Peace, ch. 5 (1986) [tr. Wilson (1990)]
Added on 31-May-11 | Last updated 31-May-11
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Of course, in politics, just as anywhere else in life, it is impossible and it would not be sensible always to say everything bluntly. Yet that does not mean one has to lie. What is needed here are tact, instinct and good taste.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
International Herald Tribune (29 Oct 1991)
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What is needed in politics is not the ability to lie but rather the sensibility to know when, where, how and to whom to say things.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
International Herald Tribune (29 Oct 1991)
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The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Letters to Olga (1988)
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Without commonly shared and widely entrenched moral values and obligations, neither the law, nor democratic government, nor even the market economy, will function properly.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Summer Meditations, “Politics, Morality, and Civility” (tr. Paul Wilson) (1991)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 1-Feb-04
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The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Address upon receiving the Open Society Prize, Central European University (24 Jun 1999)

Full text.

Alt. trans.: "The only things that I am able to recommend at this moment are: a sense of humour; an ability to see the ridiculous and the absurd dimensions of things; an ability to laugh about others as well as about ourselves; a sense of irony; and, of everything that invites parody in this world. In other words: rising above things, or looking at them from a distance; sensibility to the hidden presence of all the more dangerous types of conceit in others, as well as in ourselves; good cheer; an unostentatious certainty of the meaning of things; gratitude for the gift of life and courage to assume responsibility for it; and, a vigilant mind."

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Those who have not lost the ability to recognize that which is laughable in themselves, or their own nothingness, are not arrogant, nor are they enemies of an Open Society. Its enemy is a person with a fiercely serious countenance and burning eyes.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Address, Open Society Prize, Central European University (24 Jun 1999)

Full text.
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It is not true that people of high principles are ill-suited for politics. High principles have only to be accompanied by patience, consideration, a sense of measure and understanding for others. It is not true that only coldhearted, cynical, arrogant, haughty or brawling persons succeed in politics. Such people are naturally attracted by politics. In the end, however, politeness and good manners weigh more.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
In International Herald Tribune (29 Oct 1991)
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The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Interview, International Herald Tribune (21 Feb 1990)
Added on 19-Mar-09 | Last updated 19-Mar-09
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Despite all the political misery I am confronted with every day, it still is my profound conviction that the very essence of politics is not dirty; dirt is brought in only by wicked people. I admit that this is an area of human activity where the temptation to advance through unfair actions may be stronger than elsewhere, and which thus makes higher demands on human integrity. But it is not true at all that a politician cannot do without lying or intriguing. That is sheer nonsense, often spread by those who want to discourage people from taking an interest in public affairs.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Interview, International Herald Tribune (29 Oct 1991)
Added on 23-Mar-09 | Last updated 23-Mar-09
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Self-confidence is not pride. Just the contrary: only a person or a nation that is self-confident, in the best sense of the word, is capable of listening to others, accepting them as equals, forgiving its enemies and regretting its own guilt.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
New Year’s Address to the Nation, Prague (1 Jan 1990)
Added on 22-Jun-09 | Last updated 22-Jun-09
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My dear fellow citizens,
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
New Year’s Address to the Nation, Prague (1 Jan 1990)
Added on 21-Apr-11 | Last updated 21-Apr-11
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It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
New Year’s Address to the Nation, Prague (1 Jan 1990)
Added on 5-May-11 | Last updated 5-May-11
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We have discovered that what a year ago seemed to be a neglected house is essentially a ruin. This is not a pleasant fact, and it is not surprising that all of us are rather annoyed and disappointed about it.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
New Year’s Address to the Nation, Prague (1 Jan 1991)
Added on 12-May-11 | Last updated 12-May-11
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If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
Speech, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (23 Mar 1990)
Added on 26-Dec-11 | Last updated 26-Dec-11
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