Put 10 Nobel laureates, five former heads of state, and a galaxy of moral authorities in picturesque Prague Castle for four days, and what do you get?
For starters, plenty of talk about topics not often found in daily headlines: the "health of civilization" ... a "crisis of values" ... a "common moral minimum."
Such phrases kept popping up at this gathering of "globerati," held earlier this month and hosted by Czech philosopher-president Vaclav Havel. The conference was charged by Mr. Havel to study the need for a "change in the sphere of human conscience."
These particular globerati, a name given to global thinkers and doers who often meet to tackle The Big Picture, included such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Helmut Schmidt, and Frederik de Klerk. The meeting's sponsor, Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation, wanted something different from previous international conferences about world-sized problems.
Such gatherings are hardly new. They emerged in the period after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, two 20th-century events that raised fundamental questions about humanity's future. Since the 1970s, a small industry of elite globerati have jet-setted from capital to capital dispensing all manner of advice and wisdom, usually with little result but plenty of paper.
Lately, the end of the cold war and concern about international institutions like the United Nations have forced a retrenchment from Big Picture talk about worldly solutions for such persistent problems as environmental decay and nuclear proliferation. Rather, the globerati have turned to otherworldly discussions about hard-nosed moral and ethical imperatives, or what many call transcendence.
In Prague, inside the ornate frescoed palace rooms overlooking this popular Central European capital from a high promontory, the informal council of elders were asked to find "reasons why humankind does nothing to avert the threats about which it knows so much," as President Havel put it.
In this skeptical age, the group did not think it was worthwhile to issue an action memo or written recommendations. Ideology is seen as no longer a driving historical force since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And democracy alone is unable to provide vision. So, many in Prague sought to find a hidden spring of transcendent values that people, governments, and religions can be held responsible for.
"There is a building mantra of 'responsibility' among elder statesmen," says Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, based in Los Angeles. "What's different about Prague is that these people are not just thinkers - they've done something. They've been in prison. They've been on the front line. They want to know if a common moral consensus is possible."
Not that the participants expected their views to be taken seriously in centers of power. Indeed, tensions existed between what were considered "realistic" and "naive" views in the group. Polish historian and Solidarity activist Bronislaw Geremek, and Timothy Garton Ash, chronicler of the Czechoslovak "Velvet Revolution," argued that the worth of such meetings was to leaven thought in larger cultural circles. The Helsinki human rights accords of the late 1970s, it was pointed out, were regarded at the time as irrelevant - but they shaped a discourse on freedom that helped topple the Soviet bloc.
"A lot of the changes for the better have come about through the so-called naive people, not by bureaucrats and state leaders," Jose Ramos-Horta, 1996 co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on East Timor, told the Monitor.
"If I were to listen to all the advice on 'realism,' I would have surrendered long ago on East Timor. Nelson Mandela would still be rotting in jail, and we wouldn't be meeting here in Prague Castle with Vaclav Havel the dissident playwright. The place would still be occupied by the Politburo."
Underneath the discussion was a wrestling with how to articulate a "common moral and spiritual minimum" of shared values. Moreover, the power to assert these values, or to discover meaning in them, it was stated repeatedly, came from nonmaterial sources.
Some called this moral courage. Some, spirit. Others referred to jin, the Japanese idea of a love of harmony.
Raimon Panniker, author of "The Silence of God," noted that the world where St. Paul found his strength was "not the world of the future, but the world of the invisible."
Since the end of World War II, humankind had already established a significant "common minimum," through progress in accepting individual human rights, many argued, even if every government doesn't always practice them.
Debate also was hot on the question of whether all traditions and ideas deserved equal regard - with some asserting that spiritual values were often used as a mask to dominate or subjugate. A number of Asian countries were criticized for unjust policies toward women and minorities under the rationale of "Asian values."
The promise in Europe of a civil society after the fall of communism ended up instead with some 100,000 dead in the Balkans, said Mr. Ash, adding, "Instead of maximum dreams, we should pursue a shared minimum for individual conduct."
Bishop Carlos Filipe Belo, East Timor Catholic bishop:
We aren't dealing with the crisis of this or that value, as in previous historical dramas. Here, the crisis is the tendency to deny the very importance of values themselves.
The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader:
If we develop a good heart, then whether the field of our occupation is science, agriculture, or politics, since the motivation is so very important, the result will be more beneficial. With proper motivation, these activities can help humanity; without it, they go the other way. This is why the compassionate thought is so very important for humankind. Although it is difficult to bring about the inner change that gives rise to it, it is absolutely worthwhile to try.
Vaclev Havel, Czech president:
Could not the crisis of responsibility and accountability for the world as a whole and for its future be but the logical consequence of ... a conception which does not question the meaning of existence and renounces any kind of metaphysics or any kind of its own metaphysical roots?
Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author:
If the fall the Berlin Wall is to escape trivialization, [it must stand] as a permanent rebuke of closure and exclusion, a repudiation of mental shackles, and an affirmation of the virtues that stamp the human mind: a hunger for knowledge, for experimentation and discovery, and a refusal to accept orthodoxies as unassailable....
Frederik de Klerk, former South African president:
Ideas are the most powerful force for change, in a good or destructive direction. Yet the way things happen is by power, structures of authority enforced by governments of elected people and ratified by financial centers. I want responsibility, yes. But I also want duty and obligation, finally, which have more legal significance than responsibility.... I'm bothered by the silent plea among some here for an overarching global authority. What's to stop an abuse of power at that level?