July 10, 2005
Nothing like the Ideas Festival has happened at the Aspen Institute since 1949. That was the beginning of Aspen’s cultural renaissance when the “living saint,” Albert Schweitzer, blessed this town with his beatitude.The Goethe Bicentennial brought a momentous three weeks of music, seminars and lectures to a near ghost town with dirt streets and tumbled-down buildings. Those were the days of Aspen’s humility, when owning real estate was more of a liability than an asset.The Bicentennial strove to reintroduce the world to humanism in the horrific wake of World War II. It was a healing tonic that produced the foundation of Aspen’s foremost institutions, including the Aspen Institute.At the opening of the Ideas Festival last Tuesday, Walter Isaacson, president of the Institute, described the Festival as a melding of “intelligence and common sense.” Following Hillary Clinton’s speech, five days and 75 idea sessions later, Isaacson concluded, “Ideas must be met with values.”With those words, Isaacson reconfirmed the Institute’s original mission of “enlightened leadership,” which began 55 years ago and has cultivated world leaders ever since.The Institute’s real beginnings go back more than 2,000 years, to explorations by ancient philosophers in the complexities of the human being. These philosophical roots, describing the good life and the good society, remain part of the Institute’s curriculum.Bridging contemporary life with philosophy, the Ideas Festival illuminated human complexities with the light of reason. It focused on current events, science, music and philosophy with moral magnification.Sir Anthony Kenny, a renowned philosopher, translated the Ideas Festival into Aristotelian terms, saying it provided an activity of the intellectual, theoretical and practical parts of the soul.The human mind, explained Kenny, is best defined by a language capable of sharing universal ideas. As waves of language flooded the event, participants were buoyed by a rising tide of universality. In the end, we felt like companions on a transcendent journey that can never end.If there was dissatisfaction, it came from frustration at the inability to partake in all the discussions, from environment to economics, from China to globalization, from literature to education.Even the brightest, most well-informed generalists were humbled in the presence of experts whose learned focus on their fields was sometimes overwhelming. Beyond the sheer gravitas of their ideas, the esteem of the presenters added weight and authority to opinions voiced openly, freely and sometimes hotly.Adding a vital leavening to the event were the participants themselves. Authors, artists, teachers, historians, newscasters, philosophers, politicians, elected representatives … all convened in a spirit of shared discourse and discovery.”This is what Aspen is all about,” said one participant, exhausted by thought, inspired by meaning, but still eager to engage. “This would make the founders of the Institute proud.””Ideas are like manure,” quipped Rev. Peter Gomes, a teacher of divinity at Harvard, “they’re only of value when they’re spread around.”And so, after six days of continuous thought, he called on participants to become evangelists, sharing the vitality, purpose and values digested from a rich menu of ideas.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.