Andersen: Why the Aspen Institute was born

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The erosion of civil dialogue in the U.S. that today hampers American values and leadership hark to the founding of the Aspen Institute, 68 years ago.

Ayn Rand in “Atlas Shrugged” asks, “Who is John Galt?” Today, we should ask: “Who was Wolfgang Goethe? Who was Albert Schweitzer? Who was Walter Paepcke?”

These men would decry how Donald Trump has reneged on the promise of American global leadership, defined by Time magazine founder Henry Luce in 1941 as “The American Century.” Time reported from Davos that Trump “has renounced the global architecture that the U.S. designed, championed and dominated for generations.”

The Aspen Institute’s mission of cultivating enlightened leadership is more pressing than ever because we now live in the “Un-Enlightenment,” where global well-being is no longer an American imperative, where nuclear war looms, where corporate and banking profits drive national interests, where Congress is fractured by conflict, where the trivialities of social media eclipse deeper values.

The Aspen Institute was founded in 1950 to imprint “humanism” on the upheavals of World War II, nuclear proliferation, and the myopia of the corporate bottom line. It asked more of humanity than science, technology and economics could promise.

Humanism, wrote James Sloane Allen in “The Romance of Commerce and Culture,” a seminal history of the Institute, “stressed the stringent application of reason to questions of principle and value.” Humanistic studies “meant an analytical way of thinking sharpened by repudiation of the moral relativism associated with empirical science.”

Simply stated, humanism champions the universal moral and ethical principles of a just society. The Institute’s executive seminar exposed participants to enduring values that were thought to make one a better person, as the chairman of Montgomery Ward described decades ago: “Aspen represents an outstandingly worthwhile project for the betterment of America. Men who experience this program cannot help but be both better businessmen and better citizens.”

Women, long before #MeToo or women’s lib, were left out, but the Institute was still progressive in what journalist Norman Cousins called “an end to the Babbitt period of American culture” and a “shift to brain power from money power.”

Under Trump, we’re back to money power, which Mortimer Adler, the Institute’s founding philosopher, equated with Machiavellian influence, as opposed to the Platonic triad of the good, the true and the beautiful, for which Aspen strove.

Adler opined that science and technology must be balanced with values: “Science does not and cannot appoint the goals men should seek; science does not and cannot direct us in the good life or to a good society; science does not and cannot determine which among competing values are true and which false. Only the fundamental truths can give human life direction and create a society to be served by science rather than ruled by it.”

Science rules today with technological task masters that demand our attention, focus it for us, and prompt our responses. Contemporary life impels us to view the world through windshields, screens and the printed page, buffered from the natural world at huge environmental cost.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who set the bar high in Aspen at the Goethe convocation of 1949, urged contemplative reflection over technological intrusions: “Elemental thinking starts from fundamental questions about the relationship of man to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good.”

Science and technology, he agreed with Adler, can interfere with these essentials.

“The machine age created living conditions that made it difficult for civilization to progress,” Schweitzer said. “And because men had no ethical concept of the world, civilization declined.”

Robert Maynard Hutchins, a thought architect of the Institute, advocated revolution: “Since the mechanical means of escaping from boredom that we have already employed have induced a universal passivity, we may be said to be sinking into a coma from which even the most fantastic mechanical means, like television, can no longer arouse us. The only way out of the dreadful dilemma with which our rapidly expanding knowledge has presented us is a moral, intellectual and spiritual revolution.”

That revolution requires the renewing of humanistic vows, starting with the Aspen Institute.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at