October 15, 2021

Interview with Nicolas Berggruen: Thought changes the world

Thinking about the future of human society has brought Nicolas, the financier at the top of the Wall Street pyramid, back to his childhood passion: philosophy. He draws inspiration from traditional Chinese culture and philosophy.

Nicolas Berggruen
Nicolas Berggruen


We are living in an era full of great changes. On the eve of the opening of the Basel Fair in Switzerland, on the way to the baur au lac hotel in Zurich and Nicolas Berggruen for lunch, what came to my mind was the changed world and the changed him since I knew him. I met him at the Venice Biennale in 2007, who seemed more introverted at that time. The big carnival of the art world that year and this year's quiet and local Basel Fair form a huge contrast, it is like a world away. Nicolas, the financier at the top of the Wall Street Pyramid, had already foreseen the various crises that mankind was about to face, and began to question and think about the future direction of himself and mankind. He realized that material matters did not mean much to him, and resolutely sold all the luxury cars and mansions, loaned the art collection he had accumulated over the years to the museum, leaving behind the only private jet that allowed him to travel the world, becoming a "homeless ", a billionaire who only needs a bed in a hotel. After the 2008 financial crisis, thinking about the future of human society brought him back to the passion of his youth: philosophy. He didn't change his original intention, but he returned to the self this time, not looking for inspiration from the French existentialists in the 20th century, but absorbing the essence from Confucius, Laozi and Buddha in the East. He studied and studied Chinese traditional culture and philosophy in earnest from Chinese scholars of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

In 2010, he joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett's "donation pledge" to solve some of the most pressing problems in society. In the same year, the shaky California government faced pressure from bankruptcy. To save California, Nicolas and Nathan Gardels (Nathan Gardels) gathered in California with a group of influential scholars, business and political leaders from all over the world to discuss the economic and political pressure caused by the global financial crisis. The Berggruen Institute, an independent non-profit, non-partisan thought and action library was born. It is dedicated to the development of basic ideas on how to reshape political and social institutions in the midst of great changes, and to find new opportunities and new driving forces for the development of human society.

In 2015, the Berggruen Institute established the Philosopher Award of US$1 million per year by the international jury to reward philosophers who have made great contributions to the promotion of ideas for shaping a better world. In the same year, the Institute established the "Borguri Scholars" project, which further extended the organization's work structure. The project aims to train and motivate researchers to innovate and respond to ideas and concepts that affect profound changes in mankind.

In order to deepen the understanding and trust between China and the West, on December 19, 2018, the China Center of the Berggruen Institute was inaugurated and established at Peking University.

In June 2011, I met Nicolas at the same place at the baur au lac hotel. But that time was an interview with his late father for Bazaar Art. Nicolas' father, Heinz Berggruen, is one of the most important collectors of Western art in the 20th century. During his lifetime, he donated most of his collections to top art museums in Europe and America, including Metropolis, Pompidou, etc. I asked him, "How did your father influence you? He used to be a reporter when he was young. Does your deep concern for the world come from him?". He pondered for a moment and said, "I'm not sure, because I have been concerned about the world since I was a child, and maybe from him subconsciously. But his focus, passion, values, and especially generosity obviously have a profound impact on me."

Curiosity made me ask him a simple but very representative question, "What do you look forward to most when you wake up every morning?"

He lowered his head slightly, looked at the water glass in front of him, and was silent for nearly a minute, as if he was tapping the potential and connecting the deepest part of his consciousness and subconsciousness. Then, with a gentle temperament, he responded with a softer, soothing but powerful tone than at the same time, clear and smooth sentences like a stream, and a natural rhythm to answer me in one breath, "The consciousness of being alive when waking up every morning. It carries the possibility of life creation. , Beauty and magic. Life is a beautiful journey. We landed in the world with cosmic consciousness, and then separated from it, and started the journey of life as human beings, like being thrown into the water trying to learn to swim...struggling in the water We will lose our connection with our self. Then we need to find a way back and reconnect with it..."

His words resonated deeply with me. I interrupted him and said, it reminded me of a paragraph he once wrote on his personal website, "You have your own self. You have to change for others. Now find yourself and become yourself again."

Like his father, Nicolas likes to write. He told me, "Writing is a filter, a container, expressing your experience and the world. It is a way to transform your inner world into sharing with yourself and the world."

He has a personal website that is updated from time to time and publishes fragments of his thoughts about life, art, science, culture and the world.

He loved philosophy since he was young and chose to go to business when he was young. I asked him how his experience in the mall shaped him. "Maybe I spent too long in the business class, but this experience in the real world is very helpful to my work in the Institute today, especially because my work that year allowed me to travel around the world and learn from the world. Different cultures." From his tone of voice, I feel strongly that he feels that he should leave Wall Street sooner. So I reminded him that he sold his successful hedge fund company in his early forties more than ten years ago. I asked, "What made you decide to sell all the things you once owned and become a homeless billionaire?"

Obviously he had already thought the matter of matter extremely transparently, without thinking, and quickly answered in an instant, "Material success is an illusion to some extent, because it is only a rather narrow measure of matter. Matter. Success on the Internet can be exciting, but at the same time you may become a slave to it. You will be possessed by your property, rather than you are their master. Many people lose their freedom and creativity as a result, and mistakenly believe that they have material It’s having power. The real power comes from your brain and heart."

I know that the novel "Siddhartha" by the writer Hermann Hesse had a profound influence on him. Siddhartha, based on Shakyamuni Buddha, is a wealthy Indian Brahmin. He abandoned the privilege and comfortable life, seeking wisdom and spiritual abundance.

I asked about the specific impact of this book on him. He was very excited to share his experience, "This book can be read in many different ways. Each reading can be a different story according to your life stage. I just reread it the fourth time. This time there are three experiences. First: Life is a journey composed of different chapters. It does not have a fixed way of dealing with the world and yourself. You can change, and there can be many different lives in your life. This is the wonderful thing about life. Second: Believe in your own life journey, discover and realize what life is by yourself. Life is an experience. Your own personal experience and learning is the most exciting part of life. Finally: relationships. Your interpersonal relationship with others is The most important thing in life. As a person, perhaps the true measure of who you are is your relationship with others."

I remembered that he once replied when someone asked him what kind of legend he wanted to leave, "I don’t think about the question of legend. I will think about what kind of memory you leave for people you know when you leave this world. I do Think that this is related to your apparent desire to be a positive contribution. You want your family and friends to remember you affectionately. In this sense, the most important legend lies in the people you touch. As far as life itself is concerned, we The beauty that we have is that we have choices, we have the potential to do things and engage in things that surpass ourselves. I think we have a responsibility to participate. I feel strongly that in the field of thought that I am passionate about, if I can contribute to something I should do new ideas and changes. If we advance ideas that are helpful to the world, I will be very happy."

This also reminds me of a post on his personal website, “Is life just for ourselves, is this very selfish? Or should we actively participate in society? If so, it’s not for the show, but has real meaning. In Become one with yourself and others in the relationship and interaction with others. Give yourself to the world. This kind of life experience and experience is of profound and lasting value."

It is the above inner reflection that drives him to connect with the outside world and find the most meaningful way for him to contribute. After leaving Wall Street, he obviously went through a process of profound thinking and exploration on the question of how to actively contribute to the world. I told him that I understood and agreed with the foothold he finally chose: everything comes from thought. Thoughts change the world. In order to build an equal, beautiful and harmonious society and world, we need to invest in ideas. Only in this way can we solve the problem from the root. He continued my words and said, "Yes, the Boguru Institute gives the world not only money, but also energy, focus, heart, thought, courage, vision and practical ability. They are more important than money. I hope they are Combining can make the Berggruen Institute a success."

Next, he specifically explained the foothold of his investment thinking, "If we invest in the future from the perspective of all mankind, then the future will be infinitely bright. Everything is part of a larger thing, and any system or organism is like this. You The whole must be understood first. The reality is that with the progress of mankind, the concept of the world or the world has been evolving as we interact with the world. This is why I am so interested in how ideas and philosophy affect economy, technology, and governance Reason. Technology, economy, and governance are tools. They are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to make human life better, which involves change. Life is a combination of existence and change. We need wisdom about the whole."

I interrupted him, "It is this overall wisdom that allows intercultural, interdisciplinary, and cross-political work methods to run through the work and projects of the Berggruen Institute?" The Institute has been building cross-cultural, interdisciplinary and cross-political boundaries. A dialogue platform to enhance humankind’s in-depth understanding of this era of change, promote academic and ideological innovation, help global institutions, policy makers and the public respond to the profound changes affecting mankind, and develop and promote long-term answers to the biggest challenges of the 21st century, mainly including Issues such as human transformation, global governance, earth ecology and economic system.

He nodded in agreement with me.

In order to promote the communication, understanding and integration of Chinese and Western cultures, he took the lead in taking positive actions. In 2012, by launching regional and global initiatives, he and Nathan Gaddles jointly published "Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and West" (Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East). East), the Chinese translation was published by Gezhi Publishing House and Shanghai People’s Publishing House in August 2013. The central thesis of this book is that populism and short-term thinking hinder the progress of Western democracies. Many Eastern autocratic countries, especially China, will benefit from strengthening their meritocracy systems that are typical of Western governments’ popular legitimacy. The book was originally published in English and was later translated into Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. The Financial Times named it one of the "Best Books of 2012". Over the years, he has been in Western business, politics, and academia strongly calling on the Western world to learn the importance and urgency of Chinese culture, history, and current situation.

He then explained in detail, “The Berggruen Institute believes in the importance of interdisciplinary. We are not helping scientists, philosophers, artists, or economists to deal with their work alone, but on the contrary. We help economists, artists, Philosophers work with scientists, technologists, and policy makers. By integrating all these different disciplines, you will learn more, have different perspectives, and hope that this will lead to healthier things. Through a cross-cultural approach By fusing Eastern and Western thinking, it will be more effective and healthier than pure Eastern or Western thinking."

"Are there challenges and conflicts in the cross-cultural and cross-political work of the Institute?" I asked this question.

"We are an independent non-profit organization. We are not an ideology. We are not arrogantly promoting a certain point of view. In fact, we adopt a humble attitude. It is suggested that these views may be worth testing. We respect local culture and institutions. We tell each other that we respect the way they do things, but maybe our ideas can help them improve."

"So how does the institute implement and test your investment-driven thinking?" I asked him.

"Exposing ideas and developing ideas is the beginning of testing. If you look at history, it takes a long time for the ideas of great thinkers to go from ideas to reality. We know that there may be a big gap between the development of ideas and the testing of their implementation. Delay. On the other hand, in the research institute, we are also able to set up tests. We are testing some ideas, such as the new ways of Western democracy and capitalism, and human changes under high technology. We don’t have answers, but we ask important questions. ."

"What positive impacts has the institute's work in the real world brought to the real world over the past 10 years?" When I asked this question, I knew that the institute had established the 21st Century Council, the European Council for the Future, and the California Long-term Thinking Committee at the beginning. And implement new ideas for effective governance. Through these projects, the Institute has worked closely with the German and French Ministers of Labor to formulate a youth employment plan for Europe; met with Chinese leaders, and successfully visited China with political and industry representatives from various countries to promote exchanges and dialogues between the East and the West. Deepen mutual understanding and trust; and passed the California SB 1253 Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, which strengthened the integrity of the state’s initiative process.

However, in his reply, he did not state these positively influential facts. Instead, he took it lightly and expressed his disappointment more. "In reality, our ideas have many positive results. But the fact is that after the research institute has passed. Ten years of hard work, the current state of the world is against us. We have been advocating and promoting the coexistence of different cultures, but the reality is the opposite. We have been reminding that technology is very powerful and requires philosophical wisdom. Guiding technology. The reality is that technology has become more powerful, while the wisdom and philosophy surrounding and guiding technology are becoming less and less. In terms of governance, we advocate not to politicize things, and to give different institutions more power and more Think of the social service-oriented way of looking at problems, not the way of political tools. In reality, the opposite is happening in governance. Everything we advocate and the solutions we try to find are currently being reversed in the real world. OK. We cannot fight against the world. We have no choice but to deal with these things, not only to find a way to deal with it, but also to adapt to it. But in the long run, I am quite optimistic, even though it is pessimistic in the short term. "

His very true and frank expression does not hide disappointment with reality, but his tone is more determined and optimistic, as well as the calmness and calmness of walking in ideals and reality.

I turned the topic to the Berggruen Philosopher Award.

I asked him why he established this award. He replied, "There is no Nobel Prize in philosophy. But if you think about what is important to us and the world. The most important thing is thought. It affects us more than anything else, good or bad. Right now The world is very lack of attention to philosophy. Philosophy is facing a crisis. The crisis of philosophy is also a crisis of our world. If we humans no longer pay attention to the most basic questions of life: who are we, where are we from, where will we go? We will Lost and perplexed. We must think about these eternal questions. The wisdom of the great thinkers 2500 years ago on these questions is still meaningful today. These questions are still basic questions that need to be answered and solved in our time. If we can’t To answer these questions well, we as individuals and humans will all struggle because of this."

"Do you think the world's pandemic for more than a year has made people think more about these issues?"

"Of course it will. But the reality is very disappointing. We are very successful in science and quickly invented vaccines. The economic and market functions are also healthy. But we as human beings are very failed. In international politics we do not cooperate with each other. Everyone Countries only look for opportunities for themselves and cause more divisions. This global health crisis is not handled as a health crisis, but as a struggle of political ideology. We have done in terms of human quality, wisdom, and cooperation. It’s terrible. Our survival as a human species is one aspect of competition, and cooperation is a more important aspect. But our cooperation has been weak for a long time. Because we have not cooperated, we have a longer and worse health crisis, and at the same time it is incredible To expand more various inequalities..." I can feel that although he tries to express his observations and opinions in a non-emotional rationality, he can feel the closeness in his accelerating tone. Distressed disappointment.

Perhaps because of this, Berggruen’s Philosopher Award this year was awarded to the Australian philosopher Peter Singer because his practical ethics provides a framework and positive impact for animal rights, effective altruism, and the eradication of global poverty.

How to change the inequality in the world has always been a problem that Nicolas is deeply concerned about and thinking about.

In 2013, his company invested in the East African Exchange, a privately funded East African regional agricultural commodity exchange. The exchange aims to improve the efficiency of the regional market and ensure that the income of farmers, especially small farmers, is increased. In addition, he cooperated with two other companies to set up the African Exchange Holdings Limited (AFEX) to develop a commodity exchange network, change trade dynamics, and ensure that the income of the rural poor is increased.

In 2019, he and Nathan Gadders published the book "Reshaping Democracy" co-authored. Governance in the era of globalization and digital capitalism proposes three new ideas: no participation of populism, universal basic capital and active nationalism.

The book proposes that the best way to deal with inequality is to "distribute justice in advance" instead of eliminating inequality by taxing wealth and redistributing it. The specific method is through universal basic capital and sovereign wealth funds. "Rather than waiting for the company to succeed and use taxes to share wealth, why not make everyone a successful stakeholder from the beginning? The specific operation can be: When an entrepreneur starts a new company, he only owns 70 % Or 80% of the shares, and the other 20-30% is contributed to a sovereign foundation belonging to the society, which is jointly owned by all citizens. Singapore already has a similar sovereign foundation. This concept can play a good role in China. Districts Blockchain technology makes operations feasible and transparent. China is the easiest place to implement this solution. This is actually a socialist idea, but it does not destroy the vitality of the economy."

Our topic turned to the importance of global governance. "Our current health crisis, global ecological issues, big data and technological impact issues all urgently require global cooperative governance. Otherwise, we will be in a world with too much risk. In some respects, it is already affecting the existence of our species. ."

He believes that China is vital to the function of global governance. In order to deepen the understanding and trust between China and the West, the Berggruen China Center came into being. The China Center was established in December 2018, focusing on human change and global governance from the perspective of China and the wisdom of the East. The China Center is a center for East-West research and dialogue, dedicated to cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary research on changes affecting humanity. The research topics of researchers and visiting scholars focus on cutting-edge technologies and society-especially artificial intelligence, microbiome and gene editing, as well as issues related to global governance and globalization.

Nicolas has been to China countless times. I asked him to share his impression of China as a person.

He said affectionately, "I have always been fascinated by Chinese culture, especially after I started to get along with Chinese scholars and philosophers in 2009. It is such a profound and grand culture. I try to understand Eastern philosophy in general, and China and China Ancient philosophy is the origin of many Eastern thoughts. My first visit to China was in 1988. I clearly see that China’s political and economic power is not only important but also very dynamic. I am fascinated by understanding Chinese thinking. I have always felt that From a knowledge point of view, it is fascinating to have a connection and touch point with China. For thousands of years, China has always had its own way of doing things and its own culture. You can see that in the past 30 years Here, the changes and progress that have taken place in China are extraordinary and completely unique. Looking to the future, I think the way China handles things will also be unique and will be less westernized than in the past 10-15 years."

I asked him about his different views on Chinese and Western collectivism and individualism, because he often called on Western societies to learn from Eastern collectivism in Western media.

His answer surprised me a bit, "Under the influence of Western philosophy, the West promotes individualism. China attaches great importance to the community and the whole. In the West, we will sacrifice the majority for the minority. In China, the minority obeys the majority. Both of these The way of thinking is almost the opposite. It is difficult to have a real understanding. But we need to understand. It should be a respect for both. They are both effective in themselves, because they have their own historical roots, culture, and philosophical validity. , Even if they may contradict each other. This is like the quantum view of the world. It is not so much that there is only one method and one truth, as it is that you can have multiple truths at the same time. It is difficult for Westerners to agree with such a view. For Easterners , Maybe it’s easier."

He hopes that the work done by the Berggruen China Center in China will build a bridge between the West and China. "We come to China to learn more about China, to learn Chinese thinking, its changes and development, from the perspective of truly respecting China. China. This is why in the China Center, most of our staff, experts and scholars are practitioners in China. Because we think the West needs to learn from China."

The book "Intelligence and Wisdom: Artificial Intelligence Meets Chinese Philosophers" edited and published by Song Bing, director of the China Center in 2020, aroused my great interest. Since the end of 2017, Song Bing has organized a series of dialogues and workshops between philosophers and artificial intelligence scientists at Peking University. On this basis, she has compiled this book. Philosophers and scientists such as Zhao Tingyang, Zhang Xianglong, He Huaihong, Pei Danning, Li Chenyang, etc. responded to the above questions based on their respective disciplinary backgrounds.

He and I had a very in-depth discussion on this book, which talked about the difference in attitudes towards artificial intelligence between China and the West. He said, “In the West, artificial intelligence is seen as its own independent thing, which can replace humans and create new species that will surpass humans, so there is fear. I learned from Chinese scholars that because of the Chinese Buddhist and Taoist outlook on life and The world view is not human-centric, so there is no fear of artificial intelligence." I curiously asked his views on artificial intelligence.

He believes, "Artificial intelligence is a form of consciousness. It is not created by us. Everything is created by the universe. Maybe we are enabling it. But it already exists before us. We are just the enabler. Artificial intelligence is just An extension of us. If we are healthy, then artificial intelligence will be healthy, not only the health of the body, but also the health of the spirit and soul. And vice versa. The soul of artificial intelligence is our own soul. Therefore, Cultivating our own soul is the most important. Today’s world technology enables us to transform ourselves as human beings. This is a very philosophical question-who do we want to be? What do we want our human beings to look like in the future? The relationship between artificial intelligence is optimistic."

No matter who we want to be, how to make our lives more meaningful is probably a question everyone thinks about. I asked him if he could give Chinese readers his advice on this?

He meditated for a long time and replied, "I actively participate in life in a conscious way. I am interested in both the inner spirituality and the outer world. Actively participate in the world with a sense of spiritual self-awareness. Only focus on the inner spiritual consciousness and not actively participate in it. The external world is limited. Only acting in the external world without the guidance of spiritual consciousness is also limited. The combination of the two is the most meaningful."

After spending several weeks thoroughly researching the Berggruen Institute website and Nicolas’ personal website, I clearly realized that his answer is exactly like this: the personal website that records his inner world and the research institute website that he actively participates in the world constitute him Life. They shape each other, flow freely, and blend in harmony.

His answer also made me understand the source of his overall wisdom. Having explored the relationship between science and spirituality for many years, I have always believed that the awakening of spiritual consciousness is the path to overall wisdom, just as the scientific conclusion of the famous quantum physics David Bohm,

"Deep down, human consciousness is one. This is a certainty; if we don't see this, it's because we turn a blind eye to it."

"Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one. This is a certainty; and if we don't see this, it's because we are blinding ourselves to it."

——David Bohm

After lunch, before we bid farewell, he took out a brown leather notebook from his pocket. He invited me to give his five-year-old children Olympia and Alexander a few words about wisdom in Chinese. He will give his children this wisdom quotation he collected from friends as a gift when they are 25 years old. I thought for a moment and wrote in Chinese and English, "Dear Olympia and Alexander, may you walk with love, beauty, truth and wisdom as one."

Before I left Nicolas, I asked him, "How did you change you after having a child?" He said that it was a big topic that took a lot of time. I think of the end of his favorite book "Siddhartha". When Siddhartha went through the whole cycle of life and became a father by himself, and his son left him to explore the outside world, he understood the meaning of father and father's love even more.

(This article only represents the author's own views. The editor's email address: haolin.liu@ftchinese.com)