Billionaire Philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen Talks Politics and "the Future Human"

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Berggruen Institute
Nicolas Berggruen and Martha Nussbaum.

The L.A.-based billionaire celebrated philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who received the Berggruen Prize, at a New York event that drew A-listers including Karlie Kloss, Wendi Murdoch and David Rockefeller.

Rock-star philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen stood before a diverse crowd of philosophers, artists and wealthy New York socialites on a Monday in early December at the New York Public Library holding a golden egg in a tiny egg crate. The egg was a gift from artist Urs Fischer to the Berggruen Institute, the vanguard L.A.-based think tank that Berggruen has created in order to foster new dialogues on philosophy, governance, art and culture. The event was held to present the third annual Berggruen Prize (including a $1 million check) to philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Attendees included Karlie Kloss, Princess Beatrice of York with Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, Rachel Bay Jones (Tony-winning actor from Dear Evan Hansen), Kerry Kennedy, architect Kulapat Yantrasast, Wendi Deng Murdoch, Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts, Howard, and Lili Buffett and Susan and David Rockefeller.

After introductions by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Berggruen, the 300-person crowd was entertained by Mozart and Dvorak arias sung by Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez and selected by Martinez in conjunction with the honoree, Nussbaum.

The intimate performance was followed by a conversation between Razia Iqbal of the BBC World Service and Nussbaum. The two discussed the role of philosophy in this tense political climate and the ways in which Nussbaum forged her "capabilities" approach to philosophical thought.

"The infantile experience of helplessness arises again many times in life," said Nussbaum, a University of Chicago professor and author. "This fear that is always simmering underneath rises up and you need to ask yourself why is this a time of particular fear? What are we afraid of?… What happens when people feel helpless is that they latch on to something that makes them feel very comfortable and then too often the fear can be projected outward onto some scapegoat." 

The importance of the arts was also a focus. "As either audience or performer, you learn in a kind of emotionally deep and rich reciprocal engagement with others that is non-hierarchical," Nussbaum said, adding that "artwork does cultivate your emotional knowledge, and it also helps you understand that you can engage with people on a plane that is not about yelling." 

The Berggruen Prize is just one of the L.A.-based billionaire's many initiatives to generate innovative ideas about society and governance — Berggruen is building a think tank in the Santa Monica Mountains and already has offices in downtown's iconic Bradbury Building. At the New York event, he spoke with THR about his own philosophy, mission and hopes for the impact of the Prize and his other plans.

We are experiencing an almost unprecedented challenge to democracy in this country at the moment. How can thinkers like Martha Nussbaum help people from diverse walks of life process this situation?

Any society, any political system, any culture comes from the concept of the world, from a vision of how society can function. And that comes from thinkers, from philosophers. So you ask about democracy — it was developed a bit more than 2,000 years ago and mostly by Greek philosophers. And we still live with a lot of the concepts of what they developed then. 

And exactly now that we are in a crisis, democracy — not just here, I would say every democracy all around the world — you need thinking that is long-term, very deep, outside of the box and probably not from political thinkers. They are — especially in democracies — trying to do their job but also trying to get elected as opposed to thinking about these structural changes that may be needed. So I would say now more than ever you need deep, fundamental and foundational thinking and philosophers probably have more to say about these things than most.

At a time when people from different socioeconomic backgrounds are being further divided by political rhetoric, there is perhaps a concern that we are separating into two cultures — do you see a role for the Institute to help temper this cultural divide?

Well, we are not a political institute so we are not active in daily political activities, but we care about exactly the questions you ask. Are we splitting up almost within one country? And again, it is not unique to America — it is happening in many, many other countries and democracies. That divide is coming from people who feel that they are part of the future and they understand or think they understand what has happened to the world and other people who feel that maybe they are not part of the future or that they are feeling lost and they would find a place that is simpler and secure.

We are at a moment where the world is asking, "Where are we going? Have we moved too fast? Can we digest what has happened?" I would say we are still analog creatures even though change is happening at a digital pace. So I think you have a not surprisingly reactive stance from an enormous part of the population. And what I think is needed is that the people who shape culture, which includes philosophers, need to come up with a way to communicate to people about a shared future. The idea of a shared future needs to be developed. Half the people feel that they are not part of the shared future. It may require new thinking — fresh thinking — a new vision of the future. 

And then how do you bring people in? That is another challenge. In the past, you used to have traditional media, political parties, that used to be the transmission belt between, say, leadership and citizens. And I think that is gone. And the challenge is not only how do you bring people into a future — into a horizon that may be shared and then how do you communicate to them? How do you frankly communicate not just to them but with them? And I think that is a real challenge.

Is there any way in which you see the Institute helping with that connecting voice that you speak of — to get those ideas out — to people that are ready for them and some who are not?

The most important part of our work is helping develop the ideas and helping develop the questions. The Institute has four big themes: rethinking democracy, rethinking capitalism, geopolitics (the world breaking up in essence), and then the future human in the age of AI and gene editing. All very big questions — very deep questions — they are all connected.

And we empower thinkers — we empower work that hopefully generates new ideas. And then our job is to take those ideas and publish them — disseminate them. We do this through the World Post — our publication that lives entirely on the Washington Post, a direct and daily communication. We also publish books with the UC press and we are about to launch something in between — in essence a journal.

So we will communicate, but let's be realistic: Whatever you communicate, you only reach so many people. The ideas in themselves, especially if they are ground-breaking, will take time before they become something that gets adopted. The biggest ideas that have changed our lives in some cases have taken generations, at times centuries. I'm not saying that's what we want, I'm just saying that is the reality. I think the world is moving much faster. But, like I said, we are still analog creatures — we still are biological — and we are not that fast. One of the reasons why the world is in the state it is in today is that things have moved so fast that we just can't cope — our biological and cultural DNA in each place around the world has a tough time coping.

So ideas can be developed — we can help publish these ideas and disseminate them before they get into the mainstream, before they get adopted. It may take some time — that is the truth. We may be in a period of time where people are searching for new ideas. Only new ideas may take a while.