Andersen: Who should replace Walter II?
“I don’t play golf.”
Walter Isaacson made that clear in his first public address in Aspen when he was named president of the Aspen Institute in 2004.
Here was a sober, studied, accomplished, demanding thinker who would not squander his time modeling plaid pants on the links. Here was a thought leader who put his intellect before his handicap.
But Walter also wouldn’t be seen shouldering skis in the gondola maze on a power day or mountain biking the Sunnyside or standing atop Buckskin Pass in wildflower glory. Walter would be at work.
When Walter took the Institute’s helm, I wrote a column comparing him with Walter I, the Institute’s founder, Walter Paepcke. Both Walters put the mind ahead of the body in a manner that Robert Maynard Hutchins put best: “I get my exercise being pall-bearer for my athletic friends.”
For the past 14 years the Institute has focused on expanding the minds of nascent world leaders who feel the ethereal glow of “enlightened leadership.”
“Man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension,” Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked. Walter II has stretched the Institute to a new dimension with a rich endowment and global beneficence.
When I moved to Aspen from Crested Butte in 1984 as an Aspen Times reporter, my first beat was the Aspen Institute. Nobody else wanted it, so they gave it to the new guy. What a gift!
David McLaughlin, then president, saw me as a willing intermediary between town and gown, where a rift had formed in the late ’60s during a combative relationship between Aspen and ARCO chief R.O. Anderson, the autocratic successor of Walter I.
David invited me to attend a seminar on corporate ethics at the Institute’s Eastern Shore campus at Wye, Maryland. That seminar stretched my mind and imbued me with a strict and idealistic ethical grounding that’s reflected in most of my Aspen Times columns.
“A man is ethical,” Albert Schweitzer wrote, “only when life is sacred to him — the life of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow men.” This maxim has guided my life and my work for over 30 years.
Through the Institute I discovered that a good life is the sum of many parts, including moral virtue, the pursuit of wisdom and right action.
“We become just by doing just acts,” wrote Aristotle, “temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Our actions must “proceed from a firm and unchanging character.”
The pursuit of wisdom must translate to actions that reflect our deepest values. “The proper function of man,” Aristotle said, “consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.” Happiness is a life guided by such intelligence.
That challenge was identified during the 1949 Goethe bicentennial: “We are at last face to face with the fact that our difficulty is a difficulty of the human 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. We are gathered here to search out in ourselves the depths of the spirit.”
Universal spirit was seen as a balance against materialistic modernity: “We must discover the moral and spiritual truths which will enable men to control science and all its machinery.” A universal spirit must inform national interests, community values and individual pursuits.
In a perfect world, Walter Isaacson’s replacement will further these truths with body, mind and spirit. The new president will summon the moral authority of Schweitzer and impress moral virtues on the Institute’s world community. The new president will define the Institute by their personal virtues, just as Pope Francis has done with the Catholic Church.
The new president should go beyond executive management skills, beyond a moneyed reputation, beyond a lofty resume, beyond prestigious degrees. The new president should be a philosopher and moralist who aspires to spiritual transcendence, a person you would want to meet atop Buckskin Pass who can quote Goethe: “Since we came together so miraculously, let us not lead a trivial life.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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