Rob Riemen is the Founder, President, and CEO of the Nexus Institute, a leading international center for intellectual reflection to inspire the Western cultural and philosophical debate. Mr. Riemen is also the editor of the essay journal "Nexus."
In 2004, the Nexus Institute initiated the cultural philosophical debate on European identity during the Dutch presidency of the European Union. Riemen collaborated with the Austrian EU presidency on the conference "The Sound of Europe" in January 2006. Mr. Riemen has lectured widely, including in the United States. His book current book is The Nobility of Spirit. Three Essays on a Forgotten Idea."
Question: What’s the connection between freedom, truth and democracy?
Rob Riemen: If freedom is only reduced to, “I must be able to wear my guns,” and dah, dah, dah, then you don’t understand what freedom is. Then you . . . then you never read Spinoza and some other great minds who explained that the essence of freedom is that if we want to become truly free human beings, that means that we can get rid of stupidity, prejudices, hatred, also of fear. And that we can acquire a certain truth. And that exactly in this freedom we will find the secret of our own human dignity. Again, if we do not know what the true meaning of the word “freedom” is; if we do not know what the true meaning of the word “democracy” is, you are lost. If I may go back to my great fellow Dutchman, Spinoza, who lived in the 16th century; who escaped from a kind of fundamentalist background because “he wanted to live in truth”. And as I said, he wanted to find out . . . He realized there was so much . . . He grew up in a business family, and he realized so many things are absolutely trivial; not really worthwhile. So what to do with how to find the real things. So he started to think about it and he discovered that, yes, there must be something like truth and wisdom, and he wanted to devote his life to it. And he also realized that with this quintessential connection between freedom, truth, human dignity – which you can define as, a friend of mine once said, our homecoming to our better self – we are . . . We all have a double major. We are human beings, so yes we have these animal-like instincts, like Freud wrote about with such aggression that instinct. But also we can know about what truth is, and what beauty is, and what peace is, and what harmony is, and so on and so forth. So if we want to acquire those values and become an incarnation or an embodiment of what we should be, that’s the true human dignity. That is what George Steiner said, “Our home coming to our better self.” And then Spinoza realizes that you can only do this in the setting of democracy. That is to say we need political freedom. We need a situation where there is a plurality, because even if there is an absolute truth, nobody can claim it. I mean that’s the whole thing with fundamentalists. Every fundamentalist – whether it’s a secular, or religious Islamic, Jewish, Christian, whatever – claims for himself and the rest of the world, “I know what truth is.” The interesting thing is that something can only be absolute when it’s transcendental; when it’s beyond time. Being that the case, no human being can claim, “This is . . .” You know, “I am in the possession of it.” Spinoza realized this, so Spinoza realized okay we cannot . . . We should never give up the idea that there is truth, and that there is an absolute truth. But there are many ways to approach it, which means there has to be a plurality; and this can only be the case if we live in a true democracy. Now, but it’s true democracy – and this is already a thing the Greeks discovered – you can only have it when you’re dealing with educated, more or less rational thinking, independent human beings, which is a whole series of words for one simple thing – true, liberal education. Without true liberal education, you can never, ever have a true democracy. Because without it, this is Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, _____ you will get the mass democracy. And the mass democracy is a society deprived of spiritual failures. And it’s open space for Mr. Limbaugh . . . or Rush Limbaugh, or all the Democrats and populists. This Mr. Dobb at CNN, I mean dangerous, dangerous people. We have seen it in Europe all too well. Mr. Goebbels knows everything about propaganda, and it worked. Propaganda always works. In our society, we have deprived people from the rational factor to be educated, to think for themselves, and . . . and . . . and to be related to certain spiritual failures. So a mass society, we know from European history, is to first step to a totalitarian society. And again, Plato already knew that the democracy has a nice capacity to commit suicide. In Europe it happened twice, and there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will not happen a third time. There’s also no guarantee whatsoever that it cannot happen in America. Of course it can happen here as well.
Recorded on: 10/3/07