Culture, Travel & Sport

Ágnes Heller: The last maître à penser

Leaving a legacy, that’s what life should be about. Whether is a great achievement, recognised worldwide, or only the love of our family. The final purpose of every human being should be leaving something behind us, something which we could be remembered for.

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller, who died on July 19, left behind a great deal.

“What she is leaving to Hungarians, and not only to them, is a great example of how to accomplish the mission of an intellectual,” says János Kelemen, professor emeritus of the ELTE University in Budapest.

Mrs Heller survived the Holocaust, fled her country, taught in many universities abroad. And once back in Budapest, she became a fierce critic of current prime minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalist politics.

“As is well known, an authoritative regime has emerged in Hungary, oppressing democracy, impairing human rights and freedom of thought and research,” Mr Kelemen tells Emerging Europe, “and Ágnes Heller, one of the world’s leading philosophers, was its strong opponent. For many Hungarians, it was very important that she took advantage of the opportunities she had to criticise, with all of her intellectual authority, the illiberal regime. When the Central European University (CEU) was expelled from Budapest, when attacks were made against the integrity of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, of which she was an ordinary member, or on innumerable other occasions, many people took courage from her criticism of the political leadership.”

Mrs Heller was born into a Jewish family in 1929. She survived World War II, although she lost all of her family in the concentration camps. She graduated in philosophy in 1951 and she obtained a PhD in 1965.

“Her work embraces nearly all periods of the history of philosophy from Aristotle to contemporary authors, and almost all fields of philosophical thought from aesthetics and ethics to social and political philosophy,” continues Mr Kelemen. “Therefore, it would be difficult to pick out just some of her many books published throughout the world. However, it is perhaps her The Theory of Need in Marx which had the most effect on contemporary thought. But aside from individual works, the main thing is that she was the maître à penser of our epoch, perhaps one of the last maître à penser of all.”

Her work was not recognised for many years, and she couldn’t teach in Hungary due to her active role in defending the 1956 revolution. She spoke in support of revolutionaries in 1968, when she was among those who signed a petition against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. She left Hungary in 1977.

She lived and taught in Australia, then in New York and only came back to Budapest in 1989, after the fall of the communist regime.

But another regime was about to be born.

“Mr Orban calls Hungary an illiberal democracy,” she wrote in 2018. “In some ways, he’s telling the truth. But that means traditional checks and balances have eroded.”

“She had the energy for all things, and was interested in all phenomena of everyday life, and of culture from theatre and cinema, fine arts and classical music, and to the novelties of Hungarian and world literature,” Mr Kelemen says. “She was curious to know people, especially the young and the children. It can truly be said that she was a world-famous philosopher because, firstly, she was a born pedagogue. And her colourful personality was reflected in her style, conduct and way of dressing.”

Ágnes Heller died while going for a swim in Lake Balaton, at the age of 90. Even in death she appeared ageless, forever young.