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Andersen: Savoring Aspen’s principles

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Aspen Institute philosopher Mortimer Adler once famously opined that Aspen is caught in a contest between two competing triads: the Machiavellian triad of money, fame and power; and the Platonic triad of the good, the true and the beautiful.

Last week, around a breakfast table at Cafe Bernard in Basalt, four of us touched on this dichotomy. The conversation began with a book project and expanded into the values and ideals that spurred Aspen’s renaissance in 1949 with the Goethe Bicentennial. We agreed that advocates for the Platonic ideal always will be needed to bolster Aspen’s delicate foundation against erosion by waves of the Machiavellian.

This came just a few days after Food & Wine, the penultimate Aspen summer kickoff that attracts swelling ranks of devotees who revel in gustatory pleasures.

“What would Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke have thought of Food & Wine?” I asked my confrerees. The question was rhetorical. From what I’ve learned about the founders of the Aspen Kulturstaat, I think they would have found it distasteful.

While food and wine are important to my life, and many are the chefs and vintners who practice their skills as art forms, I avoid the crowds shouldering into banquet tents clamoring for the next savory delight.

For me, matters of the palate pale before the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. It’s a telling sign that while Aspen Institute seminars that foment high-minded civic engagement are sometimes pressed to fill seats, Food & Wine is spilling over into every vacant lot in town.

A friend in the media, whose decades-long observances of Aspen I value, put it like this: “I looked at some of the participants who, like sports addicts, seem to have no other outside concerns and live serenely in the bubble of their team standings and most recent best chef or the opening of the newest, hippest restaurant.

“There were the young, tan and long of leg, teetering after the noon grand tasting, their stiletto heels plunging into the soft grass of Wagner Park, making navigation perilous. Then again, there were a few enlightened chefs doing good locovore stuff and one, a lady from San Francisco, who was into traveling the world and eating street food and bringing back the recipes.”

In a world where hunger and obesity are segregated by arbitrary boundaries, where China colonizes Africa to feed its billion, where Republicans eradicate food stamps while corporations enjoy untold profits, Food & Wine puffs up like a bubble about to burst.

At Bernard’s, making value judgments while enjoying sumptuous food, the irony of my own inconsistencies was unavoidable. It is far more convenient to criticize a public spectacle than a private privilege. Still, I could not help comparing the Aspen of the Paepckes’ vision with the Aspen of today ­— and coming up short on gravitas.

Two days later, The New York Times published a telling article: “Humanities Committee Sounds Alarm.” This alarm warns exactly of the issue that motivated the Paepckes to launch Aspen as what Adler dubbed the “Athens of the West.”

“A new national corps of ‘master teachers’ trained in the humanities and social sciences and increased support for research in ‘endangered’ liberal arts subjects are among the recommendations of a major report to be delivered on Capitol Hill,” the Times stated.

“The report comes amid concern about low humanities enrollments and worries that the Obama administration’s emphasis on science education risks diminishing a huge source of the nation’s intellectual strength.”

The Aspen Institute for the Humanities — its original name — was created in 1950 to reinforce the values of humanism by stemming the tide of specialization and materialism. The Paepckes made Aspen a front line against the deterioration of America’s intellectual strength through a traditional pursuit of wisdom and enlightened leadership a la Adler and the great books of Western civilization.

For many today, Aspen is a stage for materialism, a venue for corporeal delights, with much of it underwritten by fortunes made in specialization. Adjourning our breakfast meeting, my friends and I agreed that there’s work to be done if Aspen’s principles are to remain as savory as Food & Wine.

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


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