Andersen: Humanism, nature and Ideas

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Scene: An Aspen Ideas Festival session ends, and attendees stream out into a flawless Colorado scene encompassed by snow-flecked mountains, quaking aspens and deep-blue sky.

Most people whip out cellphones and tablets with fast-draw acumen practiced in the knee-jerk Pavlovian hunger for electronic connections. They shade the sun and squint at screens, blocking out the distant rim of peaks surrounding the verdant Aspen Meadows campus.

Heads down, they punch out texts or press phones to ears, summoning missives from a thousand miles away or perhaps as close as Paepcke Auditorium.

How different is Ideas Fest from its genesis, the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation of 1949, the momentous event that was seminal to the Aspen Institute? While Ideas Fest embraces high-tech communications, people at the Goethe event had no one to talk to but one another — in real time and space.

Ideas Fest buzzes with technology. The Goethe event sought an antidote to it. Its designers recognized that technology had four years earlier obliterated two cities in Japan, killed millions in a world war and threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. The Goethe event called for spirit, not smartphones.

It was on this same Aspen campus that Albert Schweitzer delivered a lecture on the challenge of finding and exploring the spirit of Goethe in the modern age. Schweitzer personified humility, both in his service to the sick and dying of Africa and within his persona. He was celebrated in Aspen, but he eschewed celebrity.

“Pride of spirit or mind is the essence of sin and a symptom of human fallibility,” Schweitzer said. “Man does not gain, but loses, by exalting his own powers of body or mind, for only by submitting himself to grace can man be redeemed for his weaknesses, only in grace is there a new strength which enters the will.”

Schweitzer brought humanism to Aspen as an ethical challenge to the rising military-industrial complex.

“A man is ethical,” Schweitzer intoned, “only when life is sacred to him — the life of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow men.”

Nature teaches that ethic, which is one reason the Goethe Convocation was held far from the madding crowds of urban America. Aspen was beyond the distractions of modern communications and busy urban landscapes, a place where nature held sway as an immersive experience.

“Here on all sides we are reminded of Goethe,” Thornton Wilder said in the billowing Eero Saarinen tent. “Here are the mountain peaks of the Prometheus and roadside flowers; here are torrent and stream; here visible to us, as they could not be above a lighted city, are the great stretches of sky and the lapse of the constellations. Here, with particular advantage, we may strive to follow him, trying to grasp his doctrine of the unity of all living things and the unitedness of all created things — where life and death and art and nature and the crystal in the mountain and the aspen tree, and Mozart’s C-major symphony — all proceed from the shaping force at the heart of the universe.”

“I felt elated like a boy coming to your miraculous place and could not get enough of roaming about,” Walter Gropius remarked, reflecting on a hike to Buckskin Pass at 13,000 feet. “I had a curious experience facing these great American scenes. First it makes one very humble standing on Buckskin Pass and looking from the mighty horizon to the flowers at one’s feet; then these beautiful sensations transform into an incessant stimulus of which I hope to make good use.”

The Goethe event was staged in Aspen in part to reveal to participants the beauty and force of nature. Aspen’s proximity to nature sets it worlds apart from an urban conference center. Still, nature is but a backdrop for most visitors.

One Ideas Fest participant told me she struggled when entering a building for a session when the mountains were so alluring.

“I’m only here for a short time, and it’s hard for me not to be in these mountains,” she said.

It’s time to revisit Goethe by curtailing the devices and opening the doors and windows. How different would that be?

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at


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