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Prizing Humanity

Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar received the 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity in a ceremony Dec. 10, 2008, at the Library of Congress. They are the sixth and seventh recipients since the Prize’s 2003 inception.

John W. Kluge Prize Medal Librarian of Congress James H. Billington congratulates Kluge Prize recipients Romila Thapar and Peter Brown. 2008

Endowed by Library of Congress benefactor John W. Kluge, the Kluge Prize is unique in that it rewards a very wide range of disciplines including history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics, as well as a great variety of cultural perspectives in the world. Each awardee will receive half of the $1 million prize.

Both Brown, 73, and Thapar, 77, brought dramatically new perspectives to understanding vast sweeps of geographical territory and a millennium or more of time in, respectively, Europe and the Middle East, and in the Indian subcontinent. Brown brought conceptual coherence to the field of late antiquity, looking anew at the end of the Roman Empire, the emergence of Christianity, and the rise of Islam within and beyond the Mediterranean world. Thapar created a new and more pluralistic view of Indian civilization, which had seemed more unitary and unchanging, by scrutinizing its evolution over two millennia and searching out its historical consciousness.

Commenting on Peter Brown, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said: "He is one of the most readable and literary historians of our time, having brought to life both a host of fascinating, little-known people from ordinary life during the first millennium of Christianity, as well as a monumental biography of the most prolific and famous St. Augustine."

One scholar reviewing nominations for the Kluge Prize wrote: "Peter Brown ranks with the greatest historians of the last three centuries." Another said: "There are few scholars in the world today who have changed their fields as much as Peter Brown has changed the study of what we used to call ancient and medieval history."

Remarking on Romila Thapar, Billington said: "She has used a wide variety of ancient sources and of languages, and introduced modern social science perspectives to help us better understand the richness and diversity of traditional Indian culture. And she, like Brown, has written a great biography of one of its giants, the Buddhist emperor Asoka."

Her prolific writings have set a new course for scholarship about the Indian subcontinent and for the writing of history textbooks in India. One scholarly reviewer said, "Thapar’s rigorous professional standards are cast against a background of her implicit appreciation of an India that accommodates civilizational diversity." Another said: "Thapar’s relentless striving for historical truth–independent of the superimposition of vacillating, fashionable theories of current sociopolitical conditions–is a landmark in the global writing of history."

For more information on the award winners and the Kluge prize, visit the John W. Kluge Center.

Past recipients have included historians John Hope Franklin and Yu Ying-shih. Both Franklin and Yu have been pioneers in bringing to light aspects of American and Chinese history that have been overlooked in the past. Franklin discussed his personal experiences and examined the successes and failures of race relations in America for a webcast at the Library of Congress.

Yu also presented a talk at the Library, in which he discussed the debate within the Chinese Communist Party on the roles that democracy, tradition, Confucianism and Maoism play in reinterpreting China's history, in light of the development of modern society and a burgeoning economy.

A. John W. Kluge Prize Medal. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.

B. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington congratulates Kluge Prize recipients Romila Thapar and Peter Brown. 2008. John Harrington Photography. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.