In This Review

Vaclav Havel: Civic Responsibility in the Postmodern Age
Vaclav Havel: Civic Responsibility in the Postmodern Age
By James F. Pontuso
Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, 192 pp

It is hard to imagine a contemporary political leader other than Vaclav Havel whom one would take seriously as a philosopher. (In the list of 14 "20th century political thinkers" in this book series, which includes Martin Buber, John Dewey, and Jurgen Habermas, he and Mohandas Gandhi are the only two.) In this intellectual biography, Havel emerges as a kind of matrioshka doll: a politician inside a dissident, inside a playwright, inside a philosopher. That makes the outer shell commanding, and Pontuso gives full vent to an exploration of the Czech leader's moral philosophy and philosophy of fundamental meaning, weaving throughout his debt to and dissent from Martin Heidegger. His sense of the good political society and askance view of materialism as its basis are not merely abstract notions but a divide with other major figures in the Czech transition, such as Vaclav Klaus. Try to imagine a biography that treats George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac, or Vladimir Putin in the same terms.