Linda Kinstler in 1843 Magazine:
The idea for the Aspen Institute first emerged after the second world war. In 1949 Walter Paepcke, a Chicago businessman, planned a bicentennial celebration of the life of Goethe. Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, chose Aspen because it was both beautiful and easily accessible from either coast. The couple felt there was an “urgent need” to understand Goethe’s thought: the world, still recovering from the war, had been cleft in half by the ideological battle between communism and capitalism. The Paepckes saw Goethe as a prime advocate of the underlying unity of mankind. He also worried about the corrosive effects of rapidly proliferating wealth. The Paepckes imagined that Aspen could become an “American Athens”, educating an upper-crust elite hungry for spiritual sustenance in the newly ascendant nation. Such work was vital “if the people of America and other nations are to strengthen their will for decency, ethical conduct and morality in a modern world”. Herbert Hoover, the former president, was named honorary chairman; Thomas Mann joined the board of directors.
In 1950 the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies was founded as a place of moral instruction for the “power elite”. The Paepckes didn’t want their creation to be merely a think-tank dedicated to policymakers. Nor were they interested in emulating business schools. They wanted to shape leaders, not merely improve managers. Back then, Aspen’s version of inclusivity meant inviting the men in suits. The new curriculum was modelled on what was known as the “Fat Man’s Great Books Class”, which Mortimer Adler, a philosopher who co-founded the Aspen Institute, had run in wartime Chicago exclusively for executives. The idea was that if thinkers and businessmen were forced into the same room they’d be cured of their mutual suspicion and “join together to supplant the vulgarity and aimlessness of American life”. Through encounters with the classics, executives would learn to restrain the worst excesses of capitalism and politicians would be able to draw on the wisdom of the ages as they reached their decisions. The “Aspen method” was born.