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Michael Zichy & Jonas Lüscher on the death of Ágnes Heller
She was an exemplary exponent of a cultural elite

Agnes Heller
Agnes Heller | Photo: Robert Newald; © picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

Àgnes Heller the Hungarian philosopher and sociologist and a member of this transnational dialogue, died on 19th July 2019 at the age of 90. The moderators, Jonas Lüscher and Michael Zichy pay tribute to an exemplary voice of reason and a valiant crusader for the freedom of conscience and expression.

By Michael Zichy and Jonas Lüscher

“There is no democracy without a cultural elite, which is essentially different from the political or the business elite. By this I mean people who are respected and emulated for both their spiritual accomplishment and their social responsibility. [...] It is not the number of university degrees or mass publications that makes someone a member of a cultural elite, but spiritual accomplishment, the promotion of human dignity and understanding.” Ágnes Heller wrote these lines a few weeks ago in her contribution to our transnational discussion about the worldwide ascent of populism. Given her modesty, she would hardly have meant them to refer to herself. But now that she has left us, it is quite obvious that she herself, in her life and thought, was a shining example of that cultural elite that she considered vital for the very existence of democratic communities.

Tireless commitment to political discourse

Her undeniable intellectual acumen and the moving story of her life made her not only a major philosopher, but also an insightful witness and survivor of the horrors and upheavals of the 20th century, as recounted in a great many obituaries over the past few days. For us, however, it was always astonishing in our personal encounters how tirelessly she was, even in old age she actively participated in conferences and discussions and took up political causes.

Last summer, for example, when we were looking for prominent figures to endorse “#1EuropeForAll”, a call for a day of Europe-wide demonstrations against nationalism and for European solidarity, she was one of the first to sign. Quite tellingly, however, signing was not enough for her, so she got personally involved in bringing about a demonstration in Budapest. When requested to take part in the above-mentioned discussion of the rise of populism, Heller accepted without hesitation and, with almost youthful impatience, penned the very first contribution, displaying, as ever, an unflagging curiosity about her interlocutors, their arguments and experiences. In meetings and discussions with Ágnes Heller, her untiring commitment to human rights – to defending, first and foremost, her own freedom and that of others – left an indelible impression. But equally impressive was her keen desire to understand, to take the views and experiences of others seriously and subject them to incisive and rigorous analysis.

We will miss Ágnes Heller as a human being and as a thinker, as a contributor to public discourse and debate, a civil rights advocate and as an exemplary exponent of a cultural elite without which democracy is at risk, because, as Heller herself put it: “A stable democracy needs a cultural elite more than the political establishment because the latter is often more inclined to put emphasis only on quantity with little regard for quality. When ideals and role models are only measured by quantity, society degenerates, and demagogues or tyrants take control.”

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