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The Roots of the 'Aspen Idea' and How To Live It Today

By Amiee White Beazley | May 24, 2018 | Culture

Can the Aspen Idea be bought and sold or does it reside within us?


Philosopher Albert Schweitzer with Margaret Hoffman in Pioneer Park during the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration that kicked off the Aspen Institute in 1949.

I turned the newspaper pages one by one. For a while, it seemed, every advertisement echoed the same indulgence. Sprawled across a beauty shot of properties in the West End, on Main Street or Red Mountain, oversize letters read: “Own Aspen.” And every time the words, boldfaced and centered, registered in my brain, I balked.

“The Aspen Idea can’t be a commodity when it is already free,” says Paul Andersen, writer, naturalist and a man regarded by many as Aspen’s last living philosopher, a student of the minds who helped found modern Aspen and the Aspen Idea—Goethe, Schweitzer, Adler, Paepcke.

Andersen explains that Aspen, and the Aspen Idea, was never intended to be something one could buy, but instead something one could only achieve over a lifetime. “The ideas of Aspen cannot be exchanged in dollars or property. It cannot be bought and sold—it is already inside of all.”

He directs me to a monument of Aspen that only a few know or remember. Hidden in a corner of Paepcke Park, shrouded by overgrown limbs of aged spruces is a bust of Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician and keynote speaker for the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration of 1949 that launched the Aspen Institute, his only visit to the United States.

“Looking with the eyes of the spirit upon nature, as it is within ourselves, we find that in us also there is matter and spirit,” Schweitzer said in his Aspen lecture. “We belong to the world of the spirit. We must let ourselves be guided by it. The spirit is light, which struggles with matter, which represents darkness. What happens in the world and within ourselves is the result of this encounter.”

The visit from Schweitzer and his interpretation of Goethe’s stance on nature, spirit and humanity, was at the time a representation of all that Aspen was intended to be—a utopia that put forth a utopian ideal. Yet today, Schweitzer’s likeness is hidden, his message lost in darkness, all but removed from the Aspen we know today.

Toward the end of her life, Elizabeth Paepcke, modern-day town founder, benefactor behind the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and wife of Walter, was heartbroken over the way Aspen seemed to be pulling away from its roots, and yet she was hopeful that the place where mind, body and spirit could coexist within all of its residents would live on. “Aspen,” she said, “can’t be swallowed by the avariciousness of those who don’t understand the reason for its existence.”

To all of us who have coveted Aspen, tried to “own Aspen,” to think for a moment she was ours—that we are not but stewards or mere passers through—I offer this to you: Instead of trying to own Aspen, buy into the value of the Aspen Idea. Buy into pushing your body to the tops of mountains; read, debate and wonder with your neighbors beneath a cloudless sky on a summer day; lie among grasshoppers in high grass and breathe deeply letting your spirit grow. Buy into a connection with something bigger than yourself, and instead of owning Aspen, let Aspen own you.


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