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A walk in Prague: Contemplating West’s achievement

It was good to visit Prague once again. Known as the “City of a Hundred Spires,” it truly is a marvelous place. Positioned in the center of Europe on the banks of the meandering Vltava, it has been long acknowledged to be among the most beautiful on the continent. This surely means something, for Europe is home to many stunning cities: Rome, Florence, Athens, Paris, Vienna, Cologne, Venice, Bern. The list goes on…

In almost all of these great cities you can still locate their ancient heart – usually a square – where in times past the elders would come together to confer on the affairs of their community. It was also a point where the people would gather to take part in their civic life. Prague’s ancient heart is called the Old Town Square. This stately plaza – in which the mixture of architectural styles bears witness to the wealth of its history – is presided over by the Old Town Hall, a medieval structure built out of large limestone blocks. An imposing watchtower was completed above it in 1364. Standing at nearly seventy meters tall, its peak was the highest point in the city through the medieval age. Crowned with a steeple roof flanked by four turrets, the whole structure is exquisitely balanced. Constructed without the aid of motors or electric tools in an era when most people did not expect to live past the age of forty, the edifice is a testimony to the indomitability of the human soul. By creating something so robust and charming, its builders clearly wanted to leave behind something that would transcend the ephemerality of their personal existence. In this they surely have succeeded. The balance and dignity of their creation take breath away even centuries after the hands of those who built it had turned to dust. But even though the builders are long gone, they still speak to us through the stone testaments they left behind. Contemplating their handiwork, one cannot but stand in awe of the people whose skill and determination brought an edifice of such grandeur into being.

Incorporated into the south side of the Old City Hall is another triumph of the human spirit: the magnificent Prague Astronomical Clock. The Orloj, as it is also often called, was mounted more than 600 years ago. It has the distinction of being the third oldest clock of its kind built in Europe and the oldest one that is still in service. A marvel of human ingenuousness, it displays, among other things, four different times simultaneously: Central European, Old Bohemian, Babylonian and Celestial.

During the summer the stone pavement under the Clock is normally taken by throngs of tourists who gaze up dumbstruck with wonder. This year, however, the square is much quieter, because of the restrictions imposed on international travel by the coronavirus. But no worldly event or happening can stop time’s inexorable flow, which the Orloj keeps tracking ceaselessly. As the legendary Czech singer Karel Gott once sang: “Time’s flight is frenzied. I cannot catch it nor can you.” A long-time resident of Prague, the singer must have looked many times at the Great Clock as did so many generations of residents before him. Time caught up with Karel Gott last year, as it will with each one of us one day. Of this the Orloj reminds us twenty-four times a day. At the top of every hour, the south side wall of the Old Townhall becomes the host to an extraordinary kinetic spectacle. A skeleton that stands on the Clock’s right side pulls a string which sounds a bell. The blue star-covered shutters on the two windows above move sideways, and we see a procession of the twelve apostles – the faithful disciples of Jesus of Nazareth – making their solemn round. Each hour the ancient mechanism unfailingly performs this deeply symbolic pageant. Time and death, ephemerality and transcendence, fragility and resilience, limitation and hope all come into play on the thick walls of that grand old structure. There the complex machinery momentously reenacts the drama of the human condition with a pathos that touches the soul in a way that is difficult to put into words.

About two hundred and fifty meters north of the Clock, on a boulevard called Pařížská Ulice, is an emporium of Patek Philippe. Patek Philippe, a Swiss watch-making company founded in 1832, has its manufacturing facilities in the Vallée de Joux along France’s eastern border. Renowned for its beautifully designed timepieces of high complexity, some of Patek’s models consist of more than 1,300 individual components. Amazingly, Patek’s skilled watchmakers are able assemble all those parts into miniature machines that fit in a case that is only some four centimeters across and one and a half centimeters thick. These little wonders can simultaneously display seconds, minutes, hours, days of week, date, moon phases, power reserve and a second time zone among other functions. In addition, some models also double up as highly accurate chronographs. Marvels of design, engineering and technology, they bear testimony to their makers’ tremendous ingenuity, skill and patience. So great is their technical virtuosity that they make it possible for a person to wear what is in essence a miniature Orloj on one’s wrist. These timepieces, however, are not only phenomenal mechanical contraptions, they are also objects of great beauty that testify to the refinement and taste of their creators. A Patek timepiece is always as much a mechanical wonder as it is an object of art.

The Prague Astronomical Clock and the Patek Philippe store are less than three hundred steps from each other. Both of them were brought into existence by the same impulse: The need of a forward-looking, goal-oriented civilization to keep track of time. And they both met that need with great ingenuity and style. But even though the two are very close in terms of physical distance, it took a journey of more than half a millennium to get from one to the other. Patek came out with its ultra-complicated series called the Grandmaster Chime in 2014. Its unveiling took place six centuries after the Orloj’s inaugural peal announced to the world that its minute hand had completed its first revolution. In that long expanse of time, Western civilization led the world on a path of progress in nearly every area of human endeavor: technology, science, art, commerce, philosophy, politics.
This progress was made possible largely because a historically strange idea gradually took root in the West. The idea was that human beings – regardless of their social status or accident of birth – are of equal intrinsic worth and deserve the same rights and considerations. Ours was the first civilization to believe in this revolutionary notion. The idea grew haltingly at first, and it took centuries to implement it fully. But eventually the West managed – after a long struggle – to devise a system of institutions and laws that translated this ideal into practical reality. For the West’s humanness and boldness to acknowledge the dignity of the ordinary man, “ordinary” men enriched our civilization beyond measure. As the domain of personal autonomy and freedom gradually expanded, gifted individuals could increasingly realize their inborn talents and their subsequent accomplishments advanced the cause of mankind in nearly every sphere of human existence. Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Faraday, Francisco Goya, Immanuel Kant, Johann Sebastian Bach, Rembrandt, Ludwig van Beethoven as well as many other outstanding human beings were not born into high status or great privilege. Had they been born into a different civilizational stream, it is quite likely most of them would not have had the necessary space and freedom to develop their talents in the way they did. And the world would be much poorer for it.

One of the great steps forward in man’s march toward freedom was taken by the bearers of the Western Tradition who sailed from Europe to the New World. There, after breaking away from their transatlantic overlords, American colonists for the first time in history set out to build a society that was consciously based on the recognition that all men are created equal. It took nearly two hundred years to translate this ideal fully into reality, but it was accomplished at last. Because of its willingness to self-correct and pay whatever price it took to set things right, America blossomed in the second half of the 20th century into the freest, most prosperous and technologically advanced society in history. It also led the world in the struggle against the forces of totalitarian darkness which sought to sacrifice the autonomy of the individual on the altar of collectivist utopia.

Prague’s Old Town Hall and the Astronomical Clock, America’s Declaration of Independence and its Constitution, and a Patek Philippe’s Grandmaster Chime are some examples of great Western achievement. They are products of a civilization humane enough to acknowledge the dignity of all and wise enough to allow room for inquiry and the questioning of dogma. It is because of these qualities that its outstanding individuals could think of the rights of man, investigate the movement of stars and the flow of time, construct engines and space rockets, and create artefacts of great beauty and sophistication. Ours is not a perfect civilization, but none ever was. Everything considered, however, ours is unquestionably a magnificent one. We should draw upon its centuries of wisdom and be grateful for what our ancestors achieved as they struggled – often in very difficult circumstances – against the limits of nature and the human condition. Their stupendous achievements are laid out for all of us to see and make use of. The Sistine Chapel, The Rembrandts, the Goyas, the van Goghs, the great astronomical clocks on the walls of old European townhalls, the plays of Shakespeare, the magnificent cathedrals and so much more can all be enjoyed and admired at little or no cost. And even though most of us may not be able to afford a Patek Philippe, just contemplating its sheer elegance and finesse is a reward enough in itself. Knowing that somewhere in a Swiss valley there quietly work master watchmakers who possess the skill and taste to create objects of this kind cannot but fill one’s heart with satisfaction and pride in the Tradition that has made this possible.

If you walk from Prague’s Old Town Square eastward down a street called Celetná and then make a sharp right turn, you will soon happen upon the Estates Theatre. Built in the late part of the 18th century, it is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful historical theatre buildings in Europe. But apart from being a jewel of neo-classical architecture, the theater also has the distinction of hosting one of the great cultural events in history. On a late autumn day, October 29, 1787, a thirty-one-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made his way into the building to conduct the premiere of his newly completed operatic score which he called Don Giovanni. It was here 233 years ago that the world first heard his haunting masterpiece, one of the high points of humanity’s cultural history. The sounds teased out by Mozart’s baton from the symphony orchestra – which is another great western invention – kept the audience spellbound throughout. The premiere turned out to be a great success. Observed one music critic: “Connoisseurs and musicians say that Prague has never heard the like.” And how could they? Mozart’s Don Giovanni is unlike any other piece of music ever written. From the overture’s thundering D minor cadence through the great Leporello aria to the chilling finale, this operatic masterpiece is a supreme achievement of human creativity. Like the medieval builders of the Old Town Hall Tower, the vivacious Austrian, too, created his time-transcending marvel in the face of mortality and limitation. Barely four years after that triumphant Prague premiere, the broken body of that stupendous genius was buried anonymously in a common grave on the outskirts of Vienna. He was just thirty-five years old.

The Old Town Square, the Great Astronomical Clock, the Patek Phillipe display and the Estates Theater are all in their own way symbolic of human progress which has been led by the West for the better part of the last one thousand years. Within a short walking distance of one another, these are just four of a number of priceless treasures that can be found within less than two square miles of this beautiful European city. We could go on and speak of its other jewels such the Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Powder Gate, Malá Strana and the Golden Lane. Each of them has its own fascinating story engendered by the vibrancy of the great civilization which gave them birth. Perhaps we will speak of them one day too, but what has been said so far is sufficient for what we are trying to put across.

Walking among these marvels one cannot but feel immense love, gratitude and appreciation for the civilization that enabled flawed human beings to create artefacts of such splendor and beauty. At the same time, there is a creeping feeling of nostalgia. One fears we may be living in the twilight of the Great Western Tradition. In the United States and across Europe its values and spirit have come under an attack it may not be able withstand, mainly due to the listlessness and apathy of its heirs. But whatever the future may hold, those who still care should try their best to stand for what is right, good and precious, because to allow it to be slandered, pulled down and burnt would be a great loss indeed.

Original: Vasko Kohlmayer