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Andersen: Recalling Goethean values

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

At last week’s Ideas Festival, the president of Harvard might have been addressing the Aspen Goethe Bicentennial in 1949. Drew Gilpin Faust urged that the humanities must regain academic credence if we are to have the wisdom to manage our technologies with moral clarity.

This was the same message delivered in Aspen at the time of its cultural renaissance, over a half-century ago, when the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies came into being.

In 1949, the world was in shock over the technological destruction of Western Europe and the methodical, industrial genocide of European Jewry. The foundational ethics and morality of Western civilization had failed to prevent millions of violent deaths. The Goethe Bicentennial was an effort to heal a broken world through humanistic principles.

It was Goethe who, in his day (1749 to 1832), had witnessed the advent of science as a detriment to poetry. It was Bicentennial keynote speaker Albert Schweitzer who recognized that the rise of industrial materialism was eroding the ennobling of the human spirit. It was University of Chicago Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins who warned of trivialization in words he spoke here in July 1949:

“Certainly the most unexpected characteristic of our time is the universal trivialization of life. Our rapidly expanding knowledge should have given us a sense of triumph, of achievement. The spread of the arts should have ennobled mankind, for they invoke the exercise of the highest powers that mankind has. Trivialization results from purposelessness, from the sense that nothing is important, from lack of faith. It manifests itself in triviality of what we read, listen to and look at, in the triviality of the things we get excited about, in the numerous and expensive ways we have of amusing ourselves. … Our rapidly expanding knowledge has provided us with time, and it has turned out to be time to waste.”

Today’s preoccupation with social media would have mortified the founders of the Institute. They would have been awed by the technology but appalled at the often trivial content and constant, plugged-in distractions. The Goethe event was held in Aspen as a reprieve from media distractions, which are now almost impossible to escape.

The Ideas Fest is celebrated for stimulating audiences with current ideas, trends and high-profile personalities. The gorilla in the room this year was the hushed undercurrent of incredulity over sponsorship by Monsanto, which the environmental cognoscenti saw as an apostasy for the Institute.

This issue might have become an engaging topic during Ideas if organizers would have dared open a dialogue about a chief sponsor. After all, spirited engagement on social reform and individual awakening is what the original Executive Seminar was all about, at least according to a 1950s Institute promotion:

“… for American business leaders to lift their sights above the possessions which possess them, to confront their own nature as human beings, to regain control over their own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting and hence more self-fulfilling. … a unique opportunity to look with fresh eyes at the routine of one’s life … to gain a certain critical distance from which to get into better focus the dynamics of the society of which he is a part …”

A recurrent theme, both then and now, is specialization, something Institute founders saw as a limitation to the advancement of humanism. Robert Maynard Hutchins, a scion of the time and one of Walter Paepcke’s intimates, put it this way:

“Is there any reason why the specialist should be an uneducated man, ignorant of everything except what his specialty requires, a stupid dolt as a citizen and a man, worse, in fact, than an illiterate peasant, because of his pride in his specialty?”

From the collected 17 original lectures delivered at the 1949 Goethe Convocation, Dutch religion philosopher Gerardus van der Leeuw said, “Goethe can save us from specialism, that awful curse of our days, and teach us that all things hang together, that science can never confine itself to the domain which belongs to the schoolmaster; that art, religion and science are different, but not apart; and that perfect knowledge and technique of the specialist cannot prevent him from being a subhuman ass.”

If evidence of the above quote is necessary, consider characterizations of Steve Jobs, whose chief biographer, Walter Isaacson, is president of the Institute. Specialism may be the same curse now as it was in 1949.

Today, science and technology are widely regarded as the cure-alls for the very ills science and technology have propagated. At an Ideas Fest discussion, “Should We Design Our Babies?”, the specter emerged of future GMO children engineered as “boutique babies.”

Since the Institute was founded on the holistic notion of body, mind and spirit, I raised the question: Where does the soul fit into this science? The pregnant pause, if you will, that followed indicated that, while science pushes the envelope on creation forces, the human spirit remains uncharted territory.

The Goethe Bicentennial Foundation stated in 1949: “Things seem to be bigger; they do not seem to be better. We are at last face to face with the fact that our difficulty is a difficulty of the human spirit. … We are gathered here to search out in ourselves the depths of the spirit. … We call this spirit universal man, transcending the partial, the provincial, the passing. … The great society will not become the human community until it finds the common spirit that is man.”

In an early mission statement, the Aspen Institute challenged participants: “We must discover the moral and spiritual truths which will enable men to control science and all its machinery.”

This is the role of the humanities, the aggregate of philosophy, art, literature and nature. This remains the challenge in Aspen today where the following quote from Goethe echoes clearly from 65 years ago.

“Since we came together so miraculously, let us not lead a trivial life.”

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


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