'Philosopher king' Vaclav Havel voted among world's Top Five intellectuals

Vaclav Havel, photo: CTK

Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has been voted one of the world's Top Five public intellectuals. More than 20,000 voters from around the world took part in selecting the winners from a list of one hundred candidates, drawn up by the editors of the British magazine 'Prospect' and the US magazine 'Foreign Policy'. Brian Kenety has more.

The linguistics professor and outspoken critic of US foreign policy Noam Chomsky took the top honours in the readers' poll, with over 4800 people voting him the world's top public intellectual. Nearly 2500 cast their votes for Italian novelist and professor of semiotics Umberto Eco, who placed second. Fourth place - or the "potato prize" in Czech parlance --went to Vaclav Havel, who, with just shy of 2000 votes, nonetheless bested intellectual heavyweights like Salman Rushdie, Francis Fukuyama, and Timothy Garton Ash - not to mention Pope Benedict XVI.

David Goodhart is editor of the current affairs magazine Prospect.

"We actually did a British list last year to mark our one hundredth issue - it's just been our [the magazine's] tenth anniversary - and we thought, well, why not do the same thing again, but go global? So we drew up a huge long list of about five of six hundred people and then spent a few enjoyable boozy sessions whittling it all down. We're obviously not measuring intrinsic intellectual achievement here; once people have gotten beyond a certain threshold, then what one is really trying to measure is impact, and that's obviously inherently quite a subjective thing."

Vaclav Havel,  photo: CTK
Vaclav Havel, of course, came to prominence as a writer for his plays ridiculing the absurdities of life in an authoritarian system, and for his role in the dissident Charter 77 rights movement which led to his repeated imprisonment. A decade later, he emerged triumphant as leader of the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism, then served as his country's president for thirteen years. He remains active in pushing for human rights in countries like Burma, Cuba, and Belarus.

Prospect magazine editor David Goodhart says it is Vaclav Havel's image as "philosopher king" that probably most appealed to readers.

"A lot of the people in the Top Ten or Top Five, even, are sort of iconic figures. Vaclav Havel is the artist turned politician, who represents, perhaps, in a way, every intellectual's fantasy of becoming leader of their country and a great figure on the world stage."