Andersen: ‘More Light! More Light!’
Those were the last, dying words of Goethe. He was seeking more light as he slipped into the dimming void, or he was witnessing a celestial brilliance during the transition of his soul into the hereafter, or he simply wanted his attendant to open the shutters in his dark room for one more glimpse of existence.
The great thinkers of every age have asked for more light to combat the darkness they see in humanity. Today the need is acute, a point Walter Isaacson made last month in an Aspen Times interview.
Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, which he calls “the best job in the world,” has called for an emboldened mission for the institute in the tumultuous wake of the Trump election.
Isaacson said the values of civil dialogue and enlightened leadership are needed more than ever as humanistic values are shaken to the core. Trump’s “travel ban,” the wall he proposes along the border with Mexico and other divisive bluster are slamming doors instead of fostering connections.
A closed door works both ways. It breaks connections from without and within. Ideas know no bounds, however, so Isaacson, rather than excoriating Trump’s bellicose global posturing, has taken the initiative of inviting him and his staff into the world of ideas that the institute has successfully cultivated since 1950.
“It makes our mission all the more important,” Isaacson wrote to his staff Nov. 9. “We need to lay the ground for a new generation that understands enduring values, respects all people and seeks to find solutions and new ideas to make all of our lives better in a changing world.”
The Aspen Institute shines the light of philosophy by drawing radiance from the great ideas of humanity. A seminar at the Meadows campus, at Wye, Maryland, or at dozens of locations around the world can illuminate lives with the remarkable brilliance of insight and introspection.
Shared dialogue is not about hammering out consensus on complex issues; it is about shared dialogue that synthesizes ideas into glimmers of understanding that can eventually lead to enlightened action.
“If everybody conducted totally civil, high-minded discussions on all issues based on shared values and there was no contention in this world,” Isaacson told The Aspen Times, “we could probably declare victory and close up shop, but the opposite now seems the case.”
Philosophical dialogue is the apogee of human achievement, the best and highest use of human faculties. Not only for societal progress, but for individual growth. The world of ideas should not be seen as a guarded bastion for elites, but as open ground for anyone willing to explore the gift of human intelligence and to grow from it.
The best governance comes through an informed population that selects qualified leaders and understands the policies those leaders form.
“Perverted forms of government will have unjust laws,” warned Aristotle in “Politics.” “A right election can only be made by those who have knowledge.”
Aristotle is fresh in my mind because his ideas are part of the Great Ideas seminar that started last week at the institute. So are the ideas of John Stuart Mill, who stated that representative government must not be compromised by the overbearing power of any one class, party or interest.
Mill suggested that voters should undergo a test to ensure they grasp the fundamentals required to vote wisely. Voters, he said, need “some knowledge of the conformation of the Earth, its natural and political divisions, the elements of general history, and of the history and institutions of their own country.”
Imagine testing today’s electorate given the acceptance of “alternative facts,” fake news and ecological indifference. The light of democracy has become dimmed and refracted by ignorance.
Goethe described to a friend that learning is a revelation: “A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age.” To many, we are entering such a dark age today, in need of the joyous light of wisdom.
“Mehr Licht!” (More light!) came the deathbed cry from an ennobled man who sought enlightenment before dying. Today, more light must shine upon a world where the darkest corners require the most illumination.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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