Acceptance speech (English)

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

In the roll call of outstanding individuals who have been awarded this prize, Karl Jaspers has pride of place. In 1946, Jaspers appealed to the conscience of his German fellow citizens with his stirring work on “The Question of German Guilt.” His liberal cast of mind oriented to reason and communication fit with that of the thinker who lent his name to this prize. In calling the prize after Erasmus, its sponsors wanted to give it a twofold orientation: The linkage with the ideas of Erasmus was intended to foster European unification in a spirit of humanistic erudition and culture. I would like to say something about each of these aspects – on the topic of Europe and the future of democracy in Europe, of course, but also on a form of humanism that is not exhausted in a vague spirit of toleration.

Erasmus argued for positions that remain contested to the present day. I refer to one of his most celebrated works, De libero arbitrio, in which he famously defended freedom of the will against Luther’s doctrine of predestination. In a certain sense, this conflict within theology recurs in a secularized guise today. As you will recall, Luther followed Augustine in teaching that God has made his judgment from the beginning of time on the salvation or damnation of each individual believer. By invoking the Last Judgment, Erasmus argued against Luther: “[A]re we compelled to be present at the Judgment Seat if nothing has happened through our own will, but all things have been done in us by sheer necessity?” (On the Freedom of the Will in Rupp and Watson (eds.), Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 87).

Luther relied essentially on two arguments. First, he appealed to St. Paul in asserting that the sinful nature of human beings is so profoundly corrupt that our will can accomplish nothing on its own without the grace of an omnipotent God. The other argument was a moral one and can be explained within the historical context of the worldly Roman church of his time. Only if our salvation is predetermined in a way that is inscrutable to us, Luther argued, can the believer’s motives for leading a life pleasing to God remain untarnished by the egocentric intention of promoting his own happiness. In fact, the moral meaning of God’s commandments is upheld only if these are followed for their own sake.

Erasmus shared this criticism of justification by works alone. But, in contrast to Luther, he considered every independently thinking person to be able with the help of God to accept the strictly binding nature of moral imperatives on the basis of rational insight alone. Kant would take up this idea two-and-a-half centuries later and sharpen it into the concept of autonomy: Those individuals are free, he argued, who bind their free choice to general laws that they have given themselves for good reasons – namely, based on insight into what is equally good for all. They cannot in this way earn their happiness but can only show themselves to be worthy of happiness.

Today, this controversy between Erasmus and Luther is being repeated in an ironic way. On Erasmus’s side are those philosophers who insist that the individual can choose autonomously between right and wrong on the basis of good reasons. On the other side are neurologists who declare freedom of will to be an illusion because they consider the strict causal connection between neural states according to natural laws to be an equivalent of Luther’s determinism regarding salvation. And, as if anticipating Erasmus’s objection as to why we, as supposedly unfree persons, should still appear before a judge, they push for a reform of criminal law. This example, ladies and gentlemen, demonstrates that humanism remains a vital, combative position.

The other intention for conferring the prize is especially controversial, namely, European unification in the spirit of humanism. This problem had not yet arisen in Erasmus’s time. In spite of the contemporary discovery of America, Europe still represented the world and the Latin-speaking world of scholars knew no boundaries. Although the Roman Catholic ecumene was about to break down, the religious split did not yet amount to a disintegration into nations that demarcated themselves from each other as such. Only much later, after the introduction of compulsory schooling and in the light of their respective national histories, cultures, and languages, did the populations have to acquire an awareness of national belonging, so that they could be drafted and mobilized against each other en masse. Today the end of this nationalism which was interwoven with colonial imperialism lies over a half-century behind us. But we still feel the effects of the stubbornness of national boundaries. The toll barriers disappeared with the Schengen Agreement but they are now being reerected in people’s heads.

The globalization of the economy and society has once again led to reactions of mutual seclusion. There are two specific reasons for this. Under conditions of growing social inequality, our nations are undergoing a painful transformation into postcolonial immigrant societies. As a result of the influx of labor and poverty immigrants and refugees, our comparatively homogeneous majority cultures are facing the challenge of integrating foreign subcultures with different religious forms of life into society. That is the first challenge. The second is posed by the erosion of national democracies. The citizens sense this and are responding by retreating behind their national fences.

Because the political scopes for action of governments are shrinking in an increasingly integrated world society, nation states are being forced to engage in ever closer cooperation within a rapidly growing network of international organizations. As a result, the horizontal interdependencies between governments are simultaneously becoming denser. Thus, based on international treaties, more and more resolutions are being taken that citizens can no longer influence through the democratic means available to them. Public opinion- and will-formation functions for the present only within national borders. But since we are neither able nor wish to reverse the process of globalization, the progressive drying-up of democracy can be halted only by extending the paths of legitimation beyond national boundaries.

The European Union has taken the lead in pursuing such a transnationalization of democracy, something which has been a source of pride for us up to now. But Europe has remained stuck in midstream. The euro zone countries in particular are suffering as a result, because the single currency is in many respects incompatible with the sovereignty of the member states. While the peoples are drifting apart under the pressure of the crisis and are stigmatizing each other within their respective national public arenas, the technocratic interdependence between the governments is marching onwards behind closed doors. And the citizens are paying an increasingly high price for this in the currency of their democratic disempowerment. We can break out of this vicious circle only if the nations open themselves up to one another and stop balking at the prospect of a closer Political Union. What project could be more worthy of the legacy of Erasmus than an energetic attempt to restore the impaired mutual confidence between the European North and the European South?