Words on Words

Václav Havel received the Friedenpreis des Deutschen Buchandels, the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association, on October 15, 1989. He wrote the following as his acceptance speech.

The prize which it is my honor to receive today is called a peace prize and has been awarded to me by booksellers, in other words, people whose business is the dissemination of words. It is therefore appropriate, perhaps, that I should reflect here today on the mysterious link between words and peace, and in general on the mysterious power of words in human history.

In the beginning was the Word; so it states on the first page of one of the most important books known to us. What is meant in that book is that the Word of God is the source of all creation. But surely the same could be said, figuratively speaking, of every human action? And indeed, words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life-form we call Man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die—and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?

If the Word of God is the source of God’s entire creation then that part of God’s creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God’s miracles—the miracle of human speech. And if this miracle is the key to the history of mankind, then it is also the key to the history of society. Indeed it might well be the former just because it is the latter. For the fact is that if they were not a means of communication between two or more human “I”s, then words would probably not exist at all.

All these things have been known to us—or people have at least suspected them—since time immemorial. There has never been a time when a sense of the importance of words was not present in human consciousness.

But that is not all: thanks to the miracle of speech, we know probably better than the other animals that we actually know very little, in other words we are conscious of the existence of mystery. Confronted by mystery—and at the same time aware of the virtually constitutive power of words for us—we have tried incessantly to address that which is concealed by mystery, and influence it with our words. As believers, we pray to God, as magicians we summon up or ward off spirits, using words to intervene in natural or human events. As subjects of modern civilization—whether believers or not—we use words to construct scientific theories and political ideologies with which to tackle or redirect the mysterious course of history—successfully or otherwise.

In other words, whether we are aware of it or not, and…

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