Listen to this article
Atop the ramparts of the old fortress city of Aigues-Mortes, gazing in the direction of the Mediterranean, Nicolas Berggruen is contemplating the Crusades.
Aigues-Mortes, 17 miles from Montpellier in southern France, is from where the sainted Louis IX twice set sail with the aim of capturing Jerusalem and glorifying Christianity in the 13th century. Berggruen, the French-born German-American dual citizen who for a decade was known as “the homeless billionaire”, drifted into town last month to walk its impressive walls, to see the sturdy towers that protect its perimeter and to soak up its history.
Berggruen’s contemplation is not so much of the dates and the deeds of the crusaders, he recalls in conversation later, but of the ideas that motivated them, habits of mind that are at once alien to us in the modern world and yet can appear to have echoes in modern conflicts.
Ideas, it is clear to him, have the power to move kings, the power to raise armies and to shape history. Ideas are going to be Berggruen’s next big investment.
The son of Heinz Berggruen, an art collector who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and befriended Pablo Picasso in Paris after the second world war, Nicolas Berggruen parlayed his father’s fortune into a much larger one, now estimated at about $1.5bn, through financing leveraged buyouts, property development and stock investing across the world.
His new Institute of Philosophy and Culture is launching with some ambitious talk: it wants to be “midwife” to new conceptual frameworks that can rank alongside the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Marxism or the Washington Consensus. Berggruen is planning a “secular monastery” for debate and contemplation alongside a Nobel-sized prize for new ideas. Rock star philosophers Bernard-Henri Lévy and Slavoj Zizek already command huge audiences, and fees, so can one man’s millions make a difference?
“One potential advantage of private wealth is that it can take on things that are not immediately measurable,” Berggruen says. “If you are a charitable organisation or government organisation or a business you have to deliver reasonably tangible results for your constituency and on a relatively short-term horizon. We can take the risk of investment in something that is valuable — and the world of ideas is a world that’s risky.”
Berggruen earned the “homeless billionaire” moniker in 2000 when, at the age of 39, he sold his properties in New York and Florida and decided to live only in five-star hotels, zipping between them on his Gulfstream jet. As such, he has been tagged as a personification of the rootless global elite, with a playboy lifestyle to match, thanks to his regular appearance at lavish parties and (until recently) his own annual bash in Los Angeles for the Oscars.
Except that, last year, he purchased apartments in Los Angeles and New York — “comfortable places, with nice views” — so it is time for the press to come up with a new nickname. This is assuming he sticks with his purchases, about which he does not seem enthusiastic. In fact, he sounds positively exasperated.
“If you have a place, you have to think about what it looks like. If you want to wash up you have to have a towel. You have to think about all types of physical things. Lights, for example. If you care about aesthetics you can’t help yourself but spend time on it. I’ve found it very time consuming. The question is, is it a good use of time? Hotels are still the best formula if you can afford it because you don’t have to worry about your physical needs as much.”
We are having our conversation about the Crusades, about ideas, about settling down, over a ropey FaceTime connection where his backdrop today is the generic wood panelling of a hotel suite in Los Angeles. It will be many months before his West Hollywood apartment is ready. This is the first time he has used FaceTime and he is doing so on his phone. He asks if he can put it down, rather than having to hold it, but I tell him this would rather defeat the purpose. None the less, I am staring at his hotel ceiling when I ask him about the “homeless billionaire” nickname, so I can only hear his face screwing up with displeasure.
“I’m very happy to lose that moniker by spending time a little bit more rooted, even though I still don’t feel very rooted. I find so many places interesting and therefore I am less attached to one place. The instinct to want to have a nest is quite healthy and normal. There must be something unhealthy about me, but there we are.”
The other question is, of all the cities in all the world, why did he pick those two to put down his experimental roots? Is he playing local property markets?
“No, personal preference. New York is one of the world’s great metropolises. LA is a city in the making; it doesn’t have an urban centre the way most cities do, so it allows a physical and mental space that is very unique. California is a place of invention, it is Pacific-facing, which I like, while New York is Atlantic-facing, Old World, and Europe-facing. I find America so willing to experiment and allow ideas. You have a sense of freedom and a sense of a future that is unique and that is very energising.”
It is tempting to think of Berggruen’s progression from rootless playboy as a kind of reverse mid-life crisis. Where other men reach for adolescent toys and inappropriate flings, Berggruen rekindled a much more serious teenage passion, one for political debate and philosophy.
He recalled his young left-wingery in a Lunch with the FT a few years ago, telling us he “wouldn’t learn a word of English [at school] because that’s the language of imperialism” — his family’s first language is German — and claiming to have been expelled from a Swiss boarding school for sedition.
Now, he calls his investing career “a long detour” from that passion for philosophy. Reignited with discussion sessions and salon-style evenings with University of California professors, the passion turned, amid the panic of the financial crisis, into the idea for the Berggruen Institute on Governance. Its founding principle is that governmental institutions are not fit for purpose in the globalised 21st century and it has been pressing for stronger powers for the G20, greater European integration and reform of California’s broken budget system. Berggruen has peopled his institute with statesmen, economists and business leaders ranging from Tony Blair and Joseph Stiglitz to Elon Musk.
The Institute of Philosophy and Culture, meanwhile, has advisory and academic boards totalling 60 thinkers, including Francis Fukuyama, the political scientist, Wang Hui, an intellectual historian of Tsinghua University, Beijing, and Timothy Garton Ash, the historian.
“I am not going to be apologetic about it, there is a selfish element here,” Berggruen says. “The ancient Greeks felt that enquiry is incredibly exciting and I think so, too. One of the amazing things that makes us humans is that we can think and speculate and invent and imagine, and what greater intellectual pleasure than being able to think about these things and have access to unbelievable minds, creative minds, minds that transform who we are?”
Whereas Berggruen’s governance institute styled itself cutely as a “think and action tank”, the philosophy institute can be called a think-tank unselfconsciously. It has set deeper questions, from the contradictions between harmony and freedom to the nature of mankind’s relationship with technology, with the particular hope of sparking new ideas by joining the philosophical traditions of east and west — a passion of Berggruen’s and the inspiration for a book he co-wrote in 2013 called Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.
The aim is to go far beyond personal indulgence and to have real impact in the world of ideas. The $1m Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Prize for a living thinker whose ideas have deeply influenced our world is meant to rank alongside the most famous prizes for science and the arts. The institute will organise symposiums, promote books, produce documentaries and run a public competition celebrating new philosophical thinking. It has signed up seven elite universities, including Stanford in the US, Cambridge in the UK and Peking University in China, to a fellowship programme.
But perhaps the most intriguing piece of its work, plans for which are still only on the drawing board, is the creation of a secular monastery, “an updated version of an old idea” common in western and eastern cultures. Berggruen says up to 50 thinkers could live for weeks, months or even years at a stretch in what will be “a physical place, but also a mental place, where we give the body and the soul some freedom to explore and invent and communicate”.
He goes on: “Today there are lots of ideas generated everywhere and published everywhere. Short-term conversations, they are many. Ideological conversations, they are many. But is there a longer term, thoughtful review of these ideas? If you step back a little bit from the daily pressure of winning arguments that is the place where we can maybe be helpful.”
After wrapping up our video call, I realise that I have learned very little about Berggruen’s own personal philosophy. He has given no impression that he believes his wealth has accorded his views any additional profundity. The only clue was in his recollection of that day in Aigues-Mortes last month.
“Monotheist religions are very interested in conquering other hearts and souls,” he had said. “Louis was a king who became very religious. He was incredibly dedicated and I was thinking, ‘How different is that from what we did in Iraq and what is happening in the Middle East today?’ It really isn’t very different.”
I follow up later in a phone call: does he believe in God? He pauses, as if to decide if the question is too personal.
“I am not religious is the bottom line,” he says eventually. “Religion as a dogma can be dangerous. It can inspire, yes, but it enslaves the mind at worst.”
But on God? Another pause. “I wish I could be convinced, but I can’t be.” I suggest, maybe it is a challenge that the philosophers he is gathering together will take up? “Well, I guess we are open to ideas.”