Paul Andersen: Utopia lost in Plato’s Republic of Aspen

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The Aspen experience of today pales by comparison to a vision from 70 years ago when Chicago industrialist and enlightenment thinker Walter Paepcke hoped to create a model of Plato’s Republic. This idealized state would be formed with benign guidance from an enlightened patriarch and a coterie of the equally enlightened.

Residency in the Republic of Aspen would be determined by one’s suitability to birthing a utopia. The guardians of the Republic would be philosophers committed to achieving excellence in themselves and the state.

The Republic of Aspen would convene thinkers, writers and artists manifesting the Aspen Idea through the triumph of the Platonic over the Machiavellian. “The Aspen Experience,” wrote Mortimer Adler, philosopher emeritus of the Aspen Institute, uniquely demonstrated “that in the scale of values the Platonic triad of the true, the good and the beautiful takes precedence over the Machiavellian triad of money, fame and power.”

History has proven otherwise, as money, fame and power are dominant here. “States,” Plato surmised, “are made out of the human natures that are in them.” Plato also had warned that utopian panaceas are impractical, that paradise will be compromised by human appetites for greed and luxury.

Plato knew that men are not content with lives of simplicity because men are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive and jealous. He observed that men often want things that belong to other men, setting the stage for conflict and war.

(This was pretty much a “guy thing” because in Plato’s Greece women were not accorded equal status with men. Even in the 1950s, when the Republic of Aspen was being considered, gender equality was a mere whisper.)

Paepcke & Co. sought to create in Aspen a cultural overlay on the old silver mining town that could reinstate Platonic and Aristotelian ideals. Aspen, the city on the hill, would promote the good life as modeled by moral virtue, wisdom and right action.

“We become just by doing just acts,” wrote Aristotle, “temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” Our actions must “proceed from a firm and unchanging character.”

The good life in Aspen would achieve this upstanding character based on a foundation of ethics and the noble attributes necessary for happiness, as Aristotle elucidated: “The proper function of man consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.” Happiness is a life guided by such intelligence.

Spirited engagement on social reform and individual awakening is how the Institute’s Executive Seminar was laid out in a 1950s promotion: “… for American business leaders to lift their sights above the possessions which possess them, to confront their own nature as human beings, to regain control over their own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting and hence more self-fulfilling, … a unique opportunity to look with fresh eyes at the routine of one’s life … to gain a certain critical distance from which to get into better focus the dynamics of the society of which he is a part.”

Aspen’s cultural foundation was to be anchored, not upon greed and luxury, but on the unrelenting pursuit of moral and ethical principles as keystones to enlightened leadership and participatory citizenship. How could Aspen go wrong championing noble thoughts and righteous actions as advanced by the scions of moral philosophy?

But the heights are beyond reach when standing on the ground. Aspen aspirants to Paepcke’s vision today must stand on the shoulders of Goethe and Schweitzer. They must embrace the ethereal realm of spirit by humbly respecting all of life and selflessly advancing humanism. All else is trivial.

Robert Maynard Hutchins said as much in Aspen in July 1949, and it holds true today: “Certainly the most unexpected characteristic of our time is the universal trivialization of life. Trivialization results from purposelessness, from the sense that nothing is important, from lack of faith. It manifests itself in triviality of what we read, listen to, and look at, in the triviality of the things we get excited about, in the numerous and expensive ways we have of amusing ourselves.”

Aspen retains cultural vestiges of Paepcke’s dream, but Machiavelli is clearly in charge. It was a nice dream while it lasted.

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