(Bloomberg) -- Henry Kravis attended a billionaire’s supper club of big ideas Thursday night.
It wasn’t in Davos or Miami where Art Basel parties were raging, though many invitees (Li Yifei, chairwoman of the Man Group in China; Susan and David Rockefeller; Fred Iseman) would have followed their host, Nicolas Berggruen, just about anywhere.
The place he chose to present the inaugural Berggruen Prize to philosopher Charles Taylor was the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the New York Public Library, an august, stylish emblem of democracy. The prize is a project of the Berggruen Institute, which the businessman founded 6 years ago.
With velvet curtains on the walls and seared tuna and pan-roasted chicken on the menu, it was a fine setting to admire a deep thinker and his particular thoughts on how liberal western democracies work and the threats posed to them.
Taylor’s thinking on “multiculturalism when cultures are fighting each other” is especially timely, said Berggruen of the professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal who shaped debates on immigration as a founder of the New Democratic Party in Canada. “The unusual combination is that he believes in multiculturalism but he also believes in the cultures themselves.”
On stage, Fareed Zakaria explored the topic with Taylor. “The great trick of keeping this going is constantly recreating the national identity to include other people,” Taylor said. “America has had tremendous historic success.”
Zakaria also asked Taylor about voters for Donald Trump. “This particular toxic mix was only some of the possible ways they could have been mobilized,” Taylor said. “They voted for Trump in the end, but if you had another idea which would have reached their actual needs, it could have moved in the other direction.”
Taylor lamented how Trump energized his voters. “Could it not be something more decent than finding scapegoats, expelling people?” he asked. His answer: yes, but, “If you just preach it as a general principal it’s not necessarily going to get” traction.
Perhaps Taylor will have a hand in shaping what does inspire in the future. On this evening, the gesture of awarding him $1 million suggested philosophers’ value to society.
“You have to bring some money into the game,” so talented people don’t all flock to Goldman Sachs, said Garry Kasparov. “We have to bring back respect to ideas.”
Berggruen said philosophers are absolutely critical to the success of Wall Street. “If the world is in good shape, all your traders are going to have something to do,” he said. “If the world is in bad shape, they’re in trouble.”
Perhaps to encourage the business-heavy crowd to do some substantive reading, the tables were decorated with books by philosophers. Kravis sat on a leather sofa near a copy of the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, a women’s rights advocate.
Jeff Koons said he reads the works of John Dewey, while Craig Hatkoff enthused about Seneca, Schopenhauer and Adam Smith.
“I don’t read cover to cover,” Hatkoff said. “I open a book and find an extract, a memorable quote.” He then paraphrased one he likes: “A common man neither has the time or faculty to study, so make it simple.”