Paul Andersen: Hutchins and the Aspen prophesy

The X Games are trivial and yet they occupy the media and dominate popular interests as if they mean something more than an absurd spectacle. This is not just Paul Andersen’s opinion; it is noted posthumously by one of the primary architects of the Aspen Idea – Robert Maynard Hutchins.

Hutchins would have scorned the hype surrounding the X Games as a sign of a failing culture. He would have shaken his head at the notion that mere entertainment, and something shamelessly commercial, could so thoroughly captivate Aspen.

Here, in the “Athens of the West,” ideas should hold center stage. That was Hutchins’ projection for the “Salzburg of the Rockies.” When Hutchins, the chancellor of the University of Chicago, addressed the Goethe Bicentennial in Aspen in 1949, the atmosphere was charged with loftier things than the two-cycle smoke from airborne snowmobiles.

Hutchins believed that the only thing worth idolizing was the advancement of the global human community, not the antics of celebrity snowboarders or inverted motorcyclists. Hutchins felt that heedless entertainment was simply an indolent waste of time, which was to him a mortal sin.

Here’s why: In 1949, the world was a dark place. The Cold War was heating up between Russia and the United States. The ideological battle between communism and capitalism threatened not only to spur World War III, but to annihilate life on Earth.

World War II had ended four years before the Goethe Bicentennial, which was an auspicious event that strove to celebrate a more positive icon of Germany than the one Hitler had promoted. The Goethe convocation in Aspen was an effort to heal the world of its war wounds.

A dark cloud growing on Hutchins’ horizon was the inertia of industrialization and mechanization. According to Hutchins, mankind was falling under the thrall of materialism and specialization. Man’s ken regarding the world around him was shrinking into the dangerously narrow confines of polarized thought.

“The individual caught in the economic machine, without control over his own destiny, without the satisfaction of being able to identify the product of his own labor, and without the opportunity of making the most of his individual self could not be said … to be leading a human life.”

Hutchins spoke these words in Aspen’s first music tent in 1949. He delivered a paean to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German philosopher of the 18th century whose wisdom was extolled in Aspen at the birth of its cultural renaissance. Hutchins hoped this renaissance would spread far beyond Aspen and infuse the world with renewed faith in humanity.

“The tradition [of Goethe],” said Hutchins, “is a tradition of effort. This effort is directed to the realization of the maximum possibilities of mankind.”

Hutchins called for the selfless striving of the individual for the betterment of the whole. “As the individual makes his best contribution to the community by the fullest development of his highest powers, so each country makes the best contribution to the world by the fullest development of its highest powers.”

Rather than a Darwinian struggle for supremacy, the individual and the state must resist the temptations of power and the concurrent identification with dogma. “The conflict of ideologies,” said Hutchins, “is an evanescent aspect of an immature stage of civilization. Goethe was repelled by the rising nationalism of his day, and nothing could have been more repulsive to him than the tribal self-adoration current since.”

Hutchins advocated freedom, but only as it applied to Goethe’s concept of universal freedom. “Freedom for Goethe was self-mastery,” said Hutchins, “and the object of organized society was freedom. Goethe refers to freedom as the moral freedom of being willing to subordinate one’s individuality. He points out that whatever liberates our spirit without giving us mastery over ourselves is destructive.”

Hutchins cherished “a faith in life, a faith in humanity, a faith that there is a moral world order. Goethe,” he said, “never tired of attacking skepticism, which he called the ailment, the insanity of our age … To Goethe, faith was a positive, dynamic, creative force.”

Education, said Hutchins, should be the primary task of society. It is our duty, he said, to combat ignorance and the banalities of popular culture promoted by blatant commercial self-interests, which feed on a growing sense of boredom with increasingly spectacular displays of vulgarity.

“The leisure that we now enjoy is in a sense the greatest achievement of the human race. From the time of Adam, our ancestors struggled to give us this heritage … and all the work mankind has put forth through countless ages to ease the path of generations yet unborn – all this work has ended up in what? Coney Island.”

[Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.]