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Nexus Lecture President Macron

August 29th, 2023 by

Exactly 75 years after the Congress of Europe took place in The Hague – where Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Raymond Aron, Bertrand Russell, a young François Mitterrand, and other politicians and intellectuals sowed the seeds of what would become the European Union – and exactly 20 years after George Steiner’s famous Nexus Lecture The Idea of Europe, President Emmanuel Macron unfolded his ideas about the future of Europe in his Nexus Lecture. More information and the recordings can be found here.


July 17th, 2015 by

The gift of ‘Athens’, the gift of Greek culture and Socrates in particular, is called paideia. Unfortunately, the English translation, ‘liberal education’, does not come close to what Socrates had in mind.


Paideia is the call to become man, to become who we should be, through education by culture. Culture, to Socrates, is not an anthropological concept (descriptive), but a normative instrument. We, human beings, are born with the same instincts as animals, we are equipped with many selfish desires, we can be overpowered by all kinds of moods – yet, through paideia, we can create a world in which there is truth and wisdom, where people are ‘bound together by fellowship and friendship, and order, temperance and justice’.


It is here, in Athens, that the idea of humanism was born. Not as the idea that the individual is all-important, but as the idea of man! The dignity of man, that is what humanity should cultivate, and can cultivate, through the formation of the human spirit, through the formation of the human character.


It is in acknowledging the difference between who we are and who we should be that we discover the need for ethics, for an ethos, for the character we need to have to become what we should be. This realization of ethics, the formation of our true character as an expression of our dignity, in one word: this paideia – is not a simple set of principles, but it is a way of life, and a lifelong effort.


To place man and not the gods at the center of our reflection, to ask questions and think instead of obeying myths and gods –  that is what Socrates did when he started to ask that one crucial question: ‘So what is the human being?’ The answer he finds is: ‘The human soul’ – that which distinguishes us from all other creatures. If we want to do ourselves justice, the most important thing to do is: to care for our souls. As Socrates explains at the end of the trial in which he was sentenced to death:


‘If all of you, gentlemen of the jury, now tell me: “Socrates, we shall acquit you, but only on one condition, that you give up spending your time on this quest for truth and stop philosophizing”, I will reply, gentlemen, that as long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practicing philosophy and will keep on asking you: are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?’


Our true happiness depends on the state of our souls, and that in its turn is the result of our paideia and capacity of doing justice.


If caring for the soul is what is most essential, then what is caring for the soul? How can we care for the soul?


Fundamental to Socrates’ idea of paideia is his argument that our soul is immortal. Immortal because it is the source of life, and therefore demands to be nourished and cared for in the best possible way. The best is that which is true, because what is deprived of truth cannot remain and will perish. There is a longing in every human soul to live in truth – which means that our soul takes part in only that which has real value, and that we practice those virtues that are necessary in order to live such a life. The values and virtues that are truthful and so care for our soul are called arête – excellent. Paideia is an education in all that is excellent. Excellent are all those values and virtues that have a life-giving quality. To be just, justice, is the ultimate value; because man never lives alone but is always part of a society, and it is only through justice that there can be harmony in a society, that a society can be able to flourish. The highest form of harmony, the most just life or way of living together, is friendship. And there is no friendship without true love – that is: love for the other human soul, not the body. Paideia means also an education in bravery, because we need to be brave to live according to the highest values, to be able to ignore ‘what the people may think’, and only be obedient to the truth. Paideia is always also an education in piety, as we have to respect and live in harmony with our cosmos.


More than anyone else Socrates was aware of the gap between our reality (our lives governed by urges, desires, emotions, fears, ignorance) and the true image of man. Brilliantly, he realized and declared:


‘Look, I am as ignorant as you are about what is good and what is true wisdom! I do not claim to know about these things. But because of that, I will search for it and my life will be a quest. I am not wise, but I am a philo-sophos, I am a lover of wisdom. And I urge you, my fellow citizens of this cosmos, to live this way, too.’


Recommended dialogues by Plato

Alcibiades, Apology, Gorgias, Phaedrus.


July 17th, 2015 by

The story of the movie Agora by Alejandro Amenabar is based on real events that took place in the 4th century in Alexandria – at that time, with its Library and Platonic School and large Jewish intellectual community, the cultural capital of Europe. Yet it was a time of great political and social turmoil. The Roman Empire was in decline, and a new sect of people who called themselves ‘Christians’ became more and more prominent and was no longer willing to accept the laws and the polytheism of the Romans. In fact, they are becoming so powerful that the Roman elite, fearing the mob and already losing its power, almost entirely converts to this new religion, which means that they have to obey the leaders of this church, the bishops.


In this historical setting we meet a historical figure: a young, beautiful and brilliant woman called Hypathia. She is a philosopher, a mathematician, an astronomer and a teacher at the Platonic Academy, where the future leaders of the Roman Empire are educated. Hypathia lives the life of the mind and her greatest love is a love of truth. That is why she is all that she is, and it is because of this love of truth, combined with a profound intelligence and a truly independent mind, that she, centuries before Galileo, comes to the conclusion that not the earth but the sun is at the center of our universe. And as a teacher, as a philosopher in the platonic tradition, the main lesson she teaches her students is to have faith in the human capacity to know the truth about the good life, the right way to live.


Obviously, with this attitude, teaching and challenging the world view of this new church, she is a threat to its authority. When she is questioned about what she believes in, she answers inappropriately: ‘I believe in philosophy!’ Everybody laughs and the bishop knows enough: she is beautiful, intelligent, independent, in short: she is a witch and she must die! Hypathia is caught by a group of monks who strip her naked and brutally kill her, after they have set the ancient Library on fire with its thousands of scrolls of ancient wisdom. Blinded by their religious fever, they allow nothing to exist that is not part of their religion.


Those who have watched the movie Agora will wonder if it is really necessary to ask whether ethics without religion is possible, when the answer is so obvious. Would it not make more sense to ask the opposite question: how ethical are those who are religious? Even more so since the movie is such a strong reminder of a history of crusades, colonialism, pogroms, religious wars, inquisition, anti-Semitism and its horrors in the 20th century.


This question, too, should be addressed, but as we do not want to make the same mistake as those blinded by their religion, if we want to honor the human capacity to think, we are not allowed not to ask questions and just follow the stream of our emotions or convictions. We have to ask and to know: why? And: what does it mean?


What does Hypathia mean when she says: ‘I believe in philosophy’?

Why are we in search of ethics?

What is the difference between ethics of philosophy and ethics of faith?

What is the meaning of ‘a good life’?

How do we know what is good?

Is the good life we are looking for universal, or do we have to accept that ethics is pluriform? If so: can we, should we, still be judgmental of others, or should we accept the differences between us and them?

What did Hypathia learn from Socrates and Plato, and what is it that she must have transmitted to her pupils that was so dangerous to the Christian bishop that he wanted to kill her?


Our concern is whether, in a secular world, there can be an ethics for unbelievers, urging them to become the human beings they should be. And indeed in Socrates, the stoics and Spinoza we have found such an ethics that is equally admirable, and for which both Socrates and Hypathia of Alexandria sacrificed their lives.



Plato, Phaedrus, 4th century BC.

Plato, Socrates’ Defence, 4th century BC.

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, 1677.