Andersen: Checking in with Goethe and Schweitzer |

Andersen: Checking in with Goethe and Schweitzer

History reveals in a comforting way how human beings have endured upheavals throughout the ages and yet have striven toward human progress. Our collective forebears did the same soul searching many of us are doing today under the shifting winds of their times.

Through turmoil and uncertainty there runs a thread to the higher values, the moral and ethical underpinnings of civilized man. Holding to ideals is essential for moving through episodic transitions that seem to shake our world.

Aspen’s link to these enduring ideals is traced to Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose 200th birthday kicked off Aspen’s cultural renaissance in 1949. That’s when Dr. Albert Schweitzer, known for his reverence for all of life, described in his keynote speech a fundamental human conflict.

“The whole philosophy of Goethe consists in the observation of material and spiritual phenomena outside and within ourselves,” Schweitzer said through a translation by playwright Thornton Wilder. “The spirit is light, which struggles with matter, which represents darkness. What happens in the world and within ourselves is the result of this encounter.”

Schweitzer’s words, spoken in the original Aspen music tent, summoned man’s higher purpose. He didn’t mean attaining the material wealth that Aspen often broadcasts to the world today. He meant spiritual enrichment through good acts.

“Kindness is the supreme manifestation of the spirit in man,” Schweitzer said in Aspen. “The spirit does not let man simply assert and impose himself over other beings, but obliges him to have consideration for them.”

Schweitzer and Goethe introduced to Aspen a framework for transcendent cultural idealism. It is crucial, Schweitzer said, to engage and interact with each other through the best possible human traits:

“The two basic ideals of a profoundly human attitude are purity and kindness. Purity means that man frees himself from hypocrisy, from cunning, from falsehood, from anger and transforms himself into a simple and honest being.”

In the aftermath of a national election rife with hypocrisy, cunning and falsehood, it is no wonder that many are left jaded. We can all acknowledge shared concerns over social upheavals and the dubious state of the world, but to cast blame and contempt is not a prescription for healing unity. Schweitzer and Goethe advocated for a higher moral ground.

They said that kindness and purity, projected through a person’s being, are essential to creating a positive, almost tangible, feeling that radiates from one to another. It can be as impersonal as a smile or as engaging as an embrace, one heart touching another with care and understanding.

“The man who really finds himself,” Schweitzer claimed, “cannot do otherwise than let himself be guided by love, which is the divine element in him.”

Projecting love is a lofty ambition, and that’s only a first step toward Goethe’s prescription for human enrichment.

“The domain assigned to human reason is that of work and action,” Goethe urged. “The salvation of man is to devote himself to daily work, while combining with it meditation.”

We are all bound to a universal spirit, but it’s a personal decision whether and how to act in concert with that spirit. Though the pain, fear and suffering of the world may be crippling, only love combined with action, in Goethe’s words, can restore the enduring virtues that make us human.

“The need to serve dominates him,” Schweitzer said of Goethe at the close of his Aspen speech. “He avoids no duty that devolves or seems to devolve upon him. He has no tendency to escape any responsibilities. Always he commits himself to the very limit of his possibilities.

“Goethe gave sacrificially of his time and effort to serve those whom circumstances revealed to him as needing his brotherly love. And all these qualities are developed by a continuous effort to perfect himself such as is rarely seen in other personalities which are the object of public attention.”

Brotherly love may seem in short supply today, but Goethe and Schweitzer insisted that brotherly love is the only glue that can mend the human fabric. Today this glue needs to be applied by you and me — and especially by the rising personalities of public attention.

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

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