Andersen: Earning profit for the soul
When visitors come for a look around Aspen, I introduce them to Albert Schweitzer. His bronze bust — a personal shrine — is on the southeast corner of Paepcke Park among an array of white marble blocks.
Schweitzer is an important reminder of the high ideals that once defined Aspen. That was in 1949, when the town embarked on a cultural renaissance by conjuring the spirit of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose role in Aspen was mythic.
Schweitzer and Goethe stood for a rare nobility of spirit. The founders of the Aspen Institute recognized this nobility as a necessary ingredient to the enlightened leadership it strives to foster today.
Goethe and Schweitzer were troubled by the failing of the human spirit during their times. They were surrounded by war, disease and deprivation, and they labored to better the condition of humanity through the advance of humanism, a social movement on which the Aspen Institute was originally founded.
Schweitzer lamented that man had become “the superman with the superhuman power” who “has not risen to the level of superhuman reason. … He becomes more and more a poor man, and it must shake up our conscience that we become all the more inhuman the more we grow into supermen.”
Erich Fromm, in “To Have or To Be,” harks to Schweitzer and Goethe as he describes the failure of the “great promise” of man, whose happiness is equated with “having” rather than with “being.”
The biblical notion of “profit for the soul,” wrote Fromm, was reduced by modern man into financial profit. Fromm draws a heavy line between spiritual and material man, as did Schweitzer, who described the “imminent crisis of Western culture” as the “process of cultural self-destruction” resulting from apathy and thoughtlessness.
“Reverence for life” was Schweitzer’s key philosophy, something Fromm says is lacking in contemporary Western culture where the values of “having” outweigh those of “being.” This nuance in personality differentiates between a “society centered around persons and one centered around things.”
Fast forward to a recent Time magazine featuring a photo of Jack Ma, founder of global online shopping giant Alibaba, ringing the Wall Street gong. Ma’s image tells a thousand words about our cultural fixation on heroes defined by extreme wealth and financial power.
Several pages later, a Time economist called attention to the failed economic recovery of the poor and middle class as compared to the rich. It’s the same old saw of influence at the highest levels of society protecting those who “have” the most.
A week later, the same columnist decried federal regulators for going soft on the big banks. “The feds’ financial cops slip on their velvet gloves to deal with Goldman Sachs” because they “fear alienating the powerful financiers on whom they depend for information or future jobs,” the columnist wrote.
It’s business as usual for those who “have,” for whom greed is supreme as a cultural norm. Take a look at Aspen as an expression of this norm and it’s clear that “being” is subsumed by trophy homes and extreme expressions of conspicuous consumption.
“Greed for money, fame and power has become the dominant theme of life,” Fromm writes. “Man cannot understand the spirit of a society that is not centered in property and greed.”
The Time economist wrote that she is bothered by banks propping up themselves and each other with their own debt. “Are financial institutions doing things that provide a clear, measurable benefit to the real economy?” she asks. “Sadly, the answer is often ‘no.’”
The deeper question is whether the economy provides real benefits to humanity. Is Jack Ma banging the Wall Street gong serving anything of real value for people or is it all about things?
“The attitude inherent in consumerism is that of swallowing the whole world,” Fromm writes. “The consumer is the eternal suckling crying for the bottle.”
The “haves” trump the “beings” at every turn.
High values occasionally rise above the base, material world, as they did in Aspen half a century ago. They are inspiring, but ephemeral. When was the last time you sought out Albert Schweitzer to ask about investment strategies that profit the soul?
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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