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Paul Andersen: Beautiful minds

In 1949, thousands gathered in Aspen to explore ideas and celebrate culture during the landmark Goethe Bicentennial.

They came after World War II had shaken civilization to its core. They sought hope and wisdom as the Cold War threatened the very existence of humanity.

Beautiful minds convened in Aspen to celebrate human potentialities and to nurture human excellence. They came here with the hopes that other beautiful minds would follow their example and contribute to the ascendancy of man.



Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Jose Ortega y Gassett, Thornton Wilder, Albert Schweitzer ” their names have become synonymous with Aspen’s cultural renaissance.

Hutchins, one of the primary architects of the Goethe Bicentennial and The Aspen Institute, advanced what he and Adler called “The Great Conversation.”




“The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue,” suggested Hutchins, a former chancellor of the University of Chicago. “The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.”

The vehicle for this vaunted exchange was the Great Books of Western Civilization, a 54-volume set published in 1951 by Encyclopedia Britannica. At The Aspen Institute, the Great Books remain as the underpinning of the Executive Seminar, a renowned forum that relies on the Socratic dialogue, or informed discussion, as a means of reaching personal truths.

The Great Books do not dictate right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, they offer divergent viewpoints. The idea is not necessarily to arrive at consensus, but to share disagreements respectfully and constructively.

From Homer to Freud, the Great Books establish a context through which Western man has defined himself for 2,500 years. “These books have endured,” wrote Hutchins, “because men in every era have been lifted beyond themselves by the inspiration of their example.”

The Great Books and The Great Conversation transcend material pursuits. They point out the limits to specialization. They strive through a liberal arts education to create informed public inquiry.

Without such an education, warned Hutchins, American citizens face grave risks: “Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed.”

As if auguring the future, Hutchins cautioned: “A country that is powerful, inexperienced, and uneducated can be a great danger to world peace … We can easily blunder into war.”

It is no coincidence that the Founding Fathers studied readings within the Great Books ” Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Ptolemy, Thomas Aquinas … They formed their vision for American democracy from their own Great.

Compulsory, universal education in the U.S. was originally prescribed as a means of imbuing citizens with the intellectual power to vote. Education would arm citizens against propaganda and cause them to appreciate freedom and protect liberty.

“The death of democracy,” wrote Hutchins, “is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”

Understanding our “common humanity,” urged Hutchins, is critical to our future. “The world,” he prophesied, “is going to be unified, by conquest or consent.”

Paul Andersen recommends beautifying your mind through The Aspen Institute’s Great Books and Great Decisions programs. His column appears on Mondays.


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