Religious ideas are usually said to be an argument against what is called “relativism,” or the idea that nothing in particular should be regarded as absolutely important. In one respect, though, the ideas that Havel liked to entertain did promote a kind of relativism, and this was in regard to his own life. If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk. Havel seems to have understood pretty clearly that his own life was not the greatest of all possible values. In 1983, when they carried him off in handcuffs to the prison hospital because he had refused to request a pardon—at that particular moment his lungs had trouble breathing but his brain seems to have had no trouble recognizing that his own continued place on earth was not his highest goal. If he had come to a different recognition, would the rest of his life have spoken to us as eloquently as it does? He was one of the greatest and most heroic figures of modern times, or maybe of all time, but he was a great and heroic figure because his own thinking gave him the courage to risk not being anything at all.

The conclusion of Paul Berman’s long, brilliant essay on Václav Havel in The New Republic — full text available only to subscribers, alas. This is the kind of thing TNR does best; I wish it did more along these lines.