No more Albert Schweitzers?!
August 18, 2002
In Aspen, if you want to grasp the “Aspen Idea,” here’s what you do: go for a hike, attend a concert, read a good book and discuss ideas without having an ax to grind. Such was the prescription offered by James Sloan Allen, author and humanist scholar, during a recent talk at Paepcke Auditorium.
By hiking, reading, listening to music and having a civil discussion – presto! you’ve embraced the philosophical underpinnings of humanism. Can it be so simple? I used to think so, but not anymore, especially when Allen drew a blank when asked who in the world today best represents humanism in the way Albert Schweitzer did when he came to Aspen in 1949.
“You mean beyond this room?” quipped Allen, implying that he may be the avatar of contemporary humanism. When pressed to name names, Allen balked. “There are no Albert Schweitzers in the world today,” he finally confessed with a shrug. “The world has changed.”
It was a sad night in Aspen when the author who so adroitly described the birth of the “Aspen Idea” in his book “The Romance of Commerce and Culture” acknowledged that the humanistic vision that inspired Aspen’s renaissance is passe.
Perhaps a respondent to The Aspen Times “Vox Populi” three weeks ago had it right when he answered the question: Is the Aspen Idea alive today? “Yeah,” he said, “but it’s on life support.”
Has the Machiavellian triad of money, fame and power triumphed over the Platonic triad of the good, the true and the beautiful in Aspen? Take a look around. Aspen is not exactly a monastery full of ascetics dedicating themselves to voluntary simplicity.
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Few of us can say honestly that we pursue humanism as Allen defined it: “a life well-lived for the benefit of mankind.” The culmination of all our hiking, concert going, reading and discussing has little bearing on poverty, hunger, war, disease and the environment.
We do what feels good and assume it enriches our souls. We strive to elevate ourselves beyond plebeian concerns and define a greater good. Unfortunately, we don’t get much beyond there because most of the time we can’t even agree on what that greater good is.
Allen is right. The world has changed in a way that obscures the existence of thinkers and philosophers who are able to advance humanism as a philosophy. Instead of high-minded citizens seeking the holistic body/mind/spirit path toward humanistic virtues, we bow to a value system that rewards blatant material self-interest.
There is so much static from fatuous popular culture that the Albert Schweitzers of today are either drowned out by the noise or derided as irrational idealists. If you’re not rich, famous and powerful, then you don’t fit the archetype of the American success story.
So, where do we look for exemplars of high ideals? Surely, Dick Cheney is not a scion of unification in anything but oil mergers. And wouldn’t it be a shock if George II suddenly revealed an agenda for humanism that somehow fit with his plotting against Iraq.
Given perpetual ethics violations in government, business and religion, value-based living is out of vogue. Living the good life for the benefit of humanity is certainly not a widespread motivation for American corporations or their CEOs, no matter how many fidelity oaths they take.
Rather than humanism, today’s world defines tribalism where narrow interests promote war, greed and barbarity. Humanism is just as tenuous today as it was at the advent of the Cold War when Albert Schweitzer advocated the unity of all life.
Taking a hike, attending a concert, reading a book, having a nice civil discussion; the “Aspen Idea” is a pleasant and cultivated ideal, but it sounds frivolous. Surely, virtue has a more stringent requirement, at least the kind of virtue that can change the world.