Hearth and Horizon: cultural identity in a globalised world.

This week’s Czech Books visits the home of the distinguished philosopher and author, Professor Erazim Kohák, to discuss his book, Hearth and Horizon. After exile from Czechoslovakia in 1948, Professor Kohák had a long academic career in the United States, and is Professor Emeritus at Boston University. He returned to his native land in 1990, and since then has continued to teach philosophy and write, is the recipient of the highest academic and cultural honours, and is one of those who could truly be called a public intellectual. Hearth and Horizon is his book about cultural identity in a globalised world and in particular asks the question - what does it mean to be Czech? I first asked Professor Kohák what the impetus for writing the book had been.

Erazim KohákErazim Kohák “Very personal indeed; I left my native country when I was not quite fifteen years old, not voluntarily, as a refugee. And I had to decide whether I wished to remain Czech, because when we came as farm labourers to America - there the pressure is very great to become assimilated, to become an American, or at least a Czech-American - at that point I decided I did not wish to be an American, I wished to be a Czech, but I did not know what that meant. So all my life I had to struggle with the question, what does it mean to be Czech? And the problem that you run into is that Czech history was broken at so many points; the discontinuity of Czech history makes it very difficult to define one Czech identity. Our Czech identity is very much a multifaceted one; being Czech is the task of welding together all of these very varied elements.”

The title Hearth and Horizon I think refers to two great influences on the formation of the Czech nation – the Enlightenment horizon and the Romantic hearth.

“I simply love titles which can be interpreted in so many different ways. Of course I thought nothing of the sort - what I wanted to express was the dichotomy of the global and the local. Because right now the world is becoming globalised; all our basic issues are global issues: ecology, economy and world diplomacy - war and peace. These are global issues, and yet while the future of humankind is global, the richness of being human is always local. A language which has no cultural basis, an Esperanto, or perhaps the English which is used as the language of communication in Brussels, which has no cultural depth – these are people who have learnt 3,000 English words, and approximately twenty basic rules, and they can communicate effectively - but the language carries no richness, the richness of culture. And so the challenge to me is always, how do you combine the global and local? But if I put that into a title I would be written off as a hopeless, unimaginative Brussels bureaucrat. And so instead of local and global I spoke of hearth and horizon.”

But you do refer specifically to the horizon of rationality, the desire for freedom, which was inspired by the Enlightenment, and the profound effect of Romanticism on the formation of the Czech nation.

“Yes, and here you have again the hearth and the horizon, the particular and the universal; Romanticism was very particular, the Enlightenment tried to be universal, and there you have again the polarity.”

Your book is written in a very beautiful and often poetic way. How great an influence has literature had on your life and on your writing?

“Very much so – I learned the world through literature. But, when I was first starting to learn English in a refugee camp there were no textbooks. The only books in English that we managed to scrape together – my father somehow managed to find a paperbound collected works of William Shakespeare, with some pages missing, but most of them were still there, then the camp administration provided us with a King James Bible, and some British trooper left behind The Book of Common Prayer. So in my first two years of learning English these were my only texts. And when I arrived on a farm in North America as a labourer, my fellow labourers, well, were a bit startled by the English I spoke because I spoke a fairly passable Elizabethan English.”

One of your chapters in the book, which gives a sweeping review of Czech history, it’s very valuable from this point of view, focuses on the first president of Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, who is a really iconic figure in the Czech Republic. If Masaryk came back today, how do you think he would feel about Czech politics and the progress of the European ideal?

“Masaryk’s feelings were always a mystery to me because he managed to keep them so well out of sight. So, how he would feel about Czech politics, my guess would be that he would be privately disgusted. But then it’s no worse than Czech politics in the days of Austro-Hungary. Czech democracy between 1860 and 1918 was very much like this. So he would not be surprised, he would probably say, we need to grow into being democrats. What would become of him? Well, George Bernard Shaw said that if there ever is a European union there is only one man who could be its president, and that’s Tomáš Masaryk.”

In the book you conclude with some comments on the Czech society that you found when you returned in 1990. One phrase you used about certain elements in Czech society was ‘profound shallowness’, even though you pit it against a knowledge that many people, many young people, are engaged in less selfish, less consumerist pursuits in civic organizations. So do you feel optimistic, do you feel there’s room for optimism in the way Czech society has developed since 1989?

“The problem here is that the past regimes have discredited any idealism because they appealed to it in the form of ideology. And, together with a total disgust with ideology, the Czechs have managed to flush away all ideals also. Therefore, it’s very difficult to speak with a straight face of ideals. So, instead we speak of the latest automobile. This is why I spoke of the society being shallow all the way down – profoundly shallow. But there is in this society also the centuries of tradition, ever since Jan Hus, and even before Hus, from the mid-fourteenth century, a moral earnestness, a quest for truth – and this does not mean putting our particular belief as the one thing to believe, but rather a certain quest for moral rightness, and I believe this will come out again. In this sense it was a profoundly religious nation, when religion was the idiom of the age, all through the Renaissance, then in a peculiar way even in the Baroque age. The church managed to discredit religion, just as the Party managed to discredit the idea of social justice, and what remains, Ecclesiastes tells us - to eat, drink, and usually throws in, enjoy the pleasures of your wife, and this is profoundly shallow.”

The idea of the Czech community – cultural community is the phrase you use rather than the idea of nation – do you think it’s possible for it again to have a more multicultural idea of itself. Because I think there is rather a lot of xenophobic or nationalistic feeling.

Jan Hus statue in PragueJan Hus statue in Prague “That, it seems to me, is the great temptation, the great danger, what we have to struggle with consciously and constantly. But our young people do not have a tendency towards that closedness. Those who are aware of the richness of our culture are also open to other cultures. They start out by learning German, but then they read Goethe; they out start learning English, and, just by the way, they start reading Shakespeare. And I wish they would start reading the Book of Common Prayer because some of the loveliest English is there. But, I believe that if we can foster our culture we will also be able to foster our openness, because xenophobia always comes from lack of self-confidence. If our young people are confident in their own culture, they do not have to be hostile to the culture of others. Because notice, the people who now use the slogan, “Nothing but Czech”, these are the neo-Nazis, are also people who cannot even speak Czech correctly, much less know something of the history of the culture.”

Your book ends with a discussion of the period we’re in now, when the ‘grand narratives’, as they’re called, have failed, and you discuss these and suggest a new paradigm could be of ecological responsibility. Can you say something more about what you mean by this?

“I should tell you that in Czech I rewrote the ending because I thought the ecological paradigm was not strong enough to carry all that I had wanted it to say. But what I wanted to point out is that the irresponsibility of the profound superficiality cannot deal with the basic problems of the time, which I believe to be the problems of - firstly, how can humankind, which is ever more numerous and ever more demanding survive in a finite space? Secondly, how can humankind survive, polarised between the rich, who are becoming absurdly rich, and the poor, who are becoming desperately poor? And the third question is – how can humankind survive when it has no way of solving its problems other than by fighting wars. And wars are ecologically absolutely insupportable.”

One short piece I’ll just quote now is about our contemporary society and this seems to tie into the idea you mention of the paradigm of ecological responsibility.

We resemble nothing as much as a crew in the gondola of a lighter-than-air balloon who rip strips of cloth from their balloon to line their gondola for greater comfort.

Erazim Kohák with his wife DorothyErazim Kohák with his wife Dorothy You start off in the introduction to this book, which you call an unconventional volume, with the questions - what does it mean to be Czech and, is there any point? With your experience since you’ve returned, and you have been here now for twenty years again, do you feel that have the answers to these questions?

“Yes, I believe I have the answers very clearly. What it means to be Czech is to participate in the cultural richness, both drawing on its past and adding to its future. One can be Czech simply as props on a stage, but if one truly wants to be a Czech it means to participate actively, both in drawing on the cultural heritage and contributing to it. Is there any point to it? Absolutely. The more global the world becomes, the more humankind is reduced to the lowest common denominator, to the universal - this is where consumerism comes in. Therefore, the more global the world becomes, and it is becoming more global, the more important it is to preserve the richness; a good metaphor is the richness of literature in a language or the richness of folksong. The point of being someone in particular is the richness of culture; the point of being universally human is that we would not end up fighting until we exterminate each other.”

Thank you very, very much.

“You are very, very welcome.”

I’ll be giving information on the website about how your book can be obtained, and I’ll also give some other links in English so people can find out more about your other books that have already been translated into English.


The best way to get Hearth and Horizon is via the kosmas.cz book distributor - they have a service in English and will be happy to distribute it to any address globally - contact: www.kosmas.cz/about.asp

Other books in English by Professor Kohák, which are available via Amazon.com, include:

The Embers and the Stars

The Green Halo:A Bird’s Eye View of Ecological Ethics

Jan Patočka: Philosophy and Selected Writings

More information about Professor Kohák, including a complete bibliography -