Ladies and gentlemen,
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Erasmus Prize. And every year, the selection and presentation of the award has been a major event. So a half century is perhaps an opportune moment to stop and consider its history.
When establishing the Prize in 1958, my grandfather and his fellow founders had in mind the ideal of a new Europe and a new European citizenship. So the Erasmus Prize was intended to serve as public recognition of the winner’s services to a united Europe. The cultural equivalent of the Nobel Prize, you may say.
In the intervening fifty years, Europe has not stood still. The European Union has been established and has united more countries than people in 1958 could have imagined. And as Europe changed, the context and objectives of the Erasmus Prize changed with it.
The European nature of the Prize remains its foundation, but it is no longer awarded on purely political grounds. The focus has gradually shifted to cultural and academic achievements. The Erasmusian values of undogmatic, critical thought and tolerance have become steadily more important and now form the primary motivation behind the choice of laureate.
If we look at the list of more than seventy laureates selected over the last fifty years, we get a good picture of the impressive personalities that have helped shape European culture. Creative, learned and unconventional, they reflect the values that the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has championed for half a century. A vibrant and distinguished tradition has grown up with the Prize. It heightens both the standing and the influence of the work of those to whom it is awarded.
It is hard to escape the name of the Netherlands’ most famous scholar – certainly here in Rotterdam, where it is cherished and embraced. Foundations, European Exchange Programmes, universities, schools, bridges and streets all bear his name. What would Erasmus have thought about this? Well, we have a rough idea. He did not care for outward displays or spectacle. He did crown himself Roterodamus – ‘of Rotterdam’ – but eventually distanced himself from the city of his birth with the observation that a country’s pride in a son who has risen through his own achievements should never turn into vanity. ‘What is more foolish […] than to be carried on the people’s shoulders as in triumph, and have a brazen statue in the marketplace?’, he asked in The Praise of Folly. So it is ironic that Erasmus, of all people, is immortalised in bronze in the square outside! He also found fault with the quality of education and the atmosphere in ‘s Hertogenbosch, where he studied for a while at the Latin School.
Erasmus worked in many cities, including Basel, Brussels, London, Louvain and Freiburg. When he was offered citizenship of Zurich, he refused on the grounds that, while every city had its attractions, he wished to be a citizen of the world, who could feel at home anywhere or, better still, feel no attachments at all. His motto was ubi bene, ibi patria: ‘my homeland is where I am at ease.’ For Erasmus, that meant wherever his books were. He was a cosmopolitan. A citizen of the world of the sixteenth century. A world in which borders were more challenging than they are now. In which distances were greater. In which knowledge of the lives and history of others was more limited. It was a world without commercial jets and mobile phones. A world, in short, that is difficult to compare with today’s world. And yet, here we are, talking once again – or should I say still talking? – about cosmopolitanism and world citizenship.
This ‘new’ cosmopolitanism, as we might call it, finds expression in economic relations without barriers, in international trade, in frequent flyer miles, in joint cultural productions, and cultural institutions such as universities, orchestras and sports teams. It finds expression in the global focus on human rights as a set of common criteria for a decent society. Seen in this light, intercultural personal relations and identities become self-evident in the modern world.
Indeed, they do seem self-evident. But this ideal is not without problems. And by choosing ‘The New Cosmopolitan’ as its theme this year, the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation is highlighting the conflict that exists between the moral ideal of the borderless society, unencumbered by barriers of nationality, religion or ethnic origin, and the everyday, practical reality. For the reality is often marred by our harsh experience of borders and barriers, and by tensions and conflicts, caused by the unequal distribution of information, resources and wealth, and by opposing sociopolitical systems and traditions, and other explosive factors that prevent people from living together peacefully.
So world citizenship is no easy ideal. Rather, it signifies an attitude, a realisation that despite people’s differences, cultural and otherwise, the world cannot be managed in segments, with isolated parts taking slices of responsibility. Environmental pollution, crime, climate change and human rights are global issues, and so require an approach that transcends individual states and communities. But this universal sense of responsibility must be rooted in something. Otherwise a cosmopolitan outlook can too easily turn non-committal. A sense of having roots, of feeling at home somewhere in the world, need not conflict with the challenge of cosmopolitanism. On the contrary, our roots, in fertile soil, can provide a solid basis for a cosmopolitan outlook.
The 21st century demands a more cosmopolitan outlook on the part of Europe’s citizens than in the past. We need to broaden our horizons, not only out of economic necessity, but also because it enriches us culturally, as we can see in film, music, literature and food. Increasingly, we should define Europe’s motives for union in terms of our curiosity and need for contact with other cultures, not smugness, or fear of being left behind. Erasmusian values do not square with a fear of ‘the Other’, or with excessive nationalism or unilateralism. Erasmusian humanist values must be our guiding principles in the ongoing struggle for human dignity.
Ladies and gentlemen, these introductory thoughts are merely a prelude to describing this year’s Erasmus Prize winner. A man who, in his own distinctive way, personifies this ideal of world citizenship. He is an Anglo-Dutch intellectual whose columns and essays regularly appear in foreign publications such as The Guardian and the New York Review of Books. He is Ian Buruma.
Buruma studied Chinese in Leiden and film in Japan, and he has worked in Europe, East Asia and America. His themes include Japanese and Chinese society, film and literature, the legacy of war in Germany and Japan, the West’s image through the eyes of its enemies, and the relationship between East and West.
If we look at Buruma’s career over the last twenty-five years we see a Dutch student who, thanks to a fascination with Japanese culture, developed into the world’s leading essayist on East-West relations. Buruma has continually sought not only to be informative toward the West, but also to propagate the values of a humane society for the Far East. To that end he has always stressed the value of the public debate, of accepting responsibility and of the existence of democratic institutions. He continues to point out that while people are part of a culture, their culture must not impose a way of life upon them, either in the West or the East. This is what he stands for.
Buruma is masterful at communicating his fascinations without pretension or demanding more than a modest grounding in culture and sociopolitics from his readers. His erudition and experience are obvious, and he allows his readers to share in them. He also offers a meaningful and measured historical context, which sparks our curiosity and our desire to read on.
His arguments are characterised by a combination of qualities, such as critical scholarly analysis and moral engagement. Not least is his capacity to place an issue within a broad global context and thereby consider it from a greater remove. He writes in an unadorned, direct style, which sweeps the reader up in his argument, without transparent rhetoric or scholarly displays, just a light touch of irony. Quiet, critical and sharp: these are the hallmarks of his style.
Mr Buruma, we consider this combination of qualities so remarkable, and we consider your oeuvre and the values you promote so important, that we wish to show our appreciation by awarding you the Erasmus Prize. May I ask you now to come forward, so that I can present you with the insignia of the Prize.