Aspen Seminar participants in the 1950s costumed in Greek chitons to perform Antigone. University of Chicago professor Mortimer Adler is seated in center foreground. (Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Elevated discourse

How the University of Chicago, the great books craze, and a love of Goethe helped create the Aspen Institute. 

Seven people—more than a third of the participants in the Aspen Seminar—don’t want to go on the afternoon’s planned activity: “guided hike (all ability levels).”

It’s 8:30 on a Monday in August, another flawlessly beautiful morning in Aspen; the sun is so intense, it almost sparkles. Because of the altitude, 7,907  feet, summer temperatures rarely climb beyond the comfortable 70s. The scenery, celebrated by artists from Ansel Adams to John Denver, requires no further description.

Todd Breyfogle, AM’07, PhD’08, director of seminars and a native of Colorado—who’s wearing jeans and gray Teva sandals—reframes the terms of the discussion: “It’s a walk,” he says. “It’s a downhill walk.”

“Does this make us the laziest group ever?” asks Ladonna, a prominent radio journalist. (At the Aspen Institute’s request, names have been changed to protect the participants’ confidentiality.)

“Yes,” Breyfogle says. “You’re going to go down in Aspen Institute history as the laziest group ever.” The laziest group laughs. Two of its members give in to the pressure and agree to go.

The Aspen Seminar, designed for business executives and other leaders, bills itself as a “moderated, text-based Socratic dialogue on the concept of a good and just society.” The following day’s afternoon outing is a tour of Snowmass Monastery. The monks of Snowmass, Breyfogle explains, who live “in an intentional community, to which they commit for life, are one version of a good society.” It’s a silent order, he continues, where all decisions are made by consensus. (“Then how do they get consensus?” John, a director at a charitable foundation, quips. “Maybe that’s how they do it.”)

Today is the third day of the weeklong seminar, held many times throughout the year in Aspen as well as at the institute’s Wye River campus in Queenstown, Maryland. The 20 participants—among them two executives from a Japanese electronics company, a bank CEO, the chancellor of a Puerto Rican university, an honorable lady justice from Kenya, and a retired judge from South Carolina—have been in Aspen since Saturday afternoon. On Sunday they were up at 8:30 a.m. discussing Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, followed by Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Later that day they had rehearsals for their own amateur performance of Antigone—a tradition dating back more than 60 years, to the earliest days of the seminar—followed by an Aspen Music Festival concert.

With the logistics of the hike and the monastery tour clarified, moderator Carol Gluck turns to the first reading of the morning, Aristotle’s Politics. A history professor at Columbia University, Gluck has served as a moderator at Aspen for 14 years. Columbia has a great books requirement, but “because I’m an Asianist, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach that”; at Aspen she can. The seminar, she says, provides a chance “to step back and think about your values. Hobbes thinks, to oversimplify, that human nature is not inherently good, while Mencius thinks just the opposite. Do you act differently in your company or your family if you begin with the premise that human nature is naturally good?”

Aspen sessions have two moderators, but they don’t comoderate so much as take turns; while Gluck leads the discussion—“What is natural for Aristotle? What was natural for Hobbes? Why does the state exist?”—the other moderator, Roger Widmann of investment banking firm Cutwater Associates, listens.

The week’s activities include easy hikes, elegant dinners, and cocktail receptions, but the discussions are at its core. The readings, photocopied into an old-school reading packet, include excerpts from Mencius, Charles Darwin, Plato, John Locke, and Karl Marx, as well as less predictable choices: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose.” (Seminar participants are encouraged to do the readings in advance; usually they comply, says Breyfogle, but not always.)

During the discussion, the behavior of the participants is a professor’s dream. Everyone in the room—average age perhaps 45—appears intensely engaged. They look down at the packet, across at the moderator, or stare at nothing, lost in thought. The hexagonal seminar room has small windows near the ceiling; you can’t see any distracting passersby, just deep blue sky and Aspen trees trembling in the breeze.

Some ugliness comes through in Aristotle, though, who makes a number of unpleasant assertions about the position of women and slaves in society. “He’s not a feel-good kind of guy,” Gluck notes.

“Does he think the master-slave relationship is natural?” asks Patricia, founder of a nonprofit that helps minority students pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“Only when it is by heritage,” says Javier, CEO of a Brazilian restaurant chain. “You’re a slave by nature.”

Jim, a direct marketing executive, reads from the text: “‘From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.’ He does no work here. He just sort of states it, in the way that he states that women are inferior to men.”

“We need to ask whether hierarchy is natural,” moderator Gluck says. “And if we don’t think it’s natural, what do we think it is?”

“Here’s Aristotle saying hierarchy is natural in order for him to be contemplative, and here we all are, sitting around being contemplative,” Betsy, founder of a digital education nonprofit, points out. Jason, CEO of an organization that supports charter schools (whom Gluck affectionately calls “the cynic in chief” at one point) laughs wickedly. “What natural state do we think the world should be in that we have the ability to sit around like this?” Betsy continues. “Because most people don’t.”

“Absolutely,” says Gluck. “What would Aristotle say about Aspen? Ask that question.”

“I think he would say it’s natural,” says Betsy, “because we’re here.”

“I think you need to define what you mean by natural,” says Nathan, a fellow at a think tank. “It could be natural, but not be justified.”

The joke in Colorado is that Aspen is the town where the billionaires drove out the millionaires. With a population under 7,000, Aspen has some of the most expensive real estate in the United States; according to real estate website Zillow, the median listing price for a single-family home is above $2 million. The 99 percent (possibly even some of the 1 percent) can’t afford to live there; many of the workers who make Aspen function ride the bus up Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs and other down-valley towns.

In 1892, the height of the silver boom, Aspen’s population was 12,000. The prosperous town was the first in Colorado to install electric street lights. But after the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893 (so the government was no longer required to buy a set amount of silver every month), Aspen’s economy was ruined.

The town had shrunk to 1,000 mostly impoverished residents by 1938. That’s when Chicago socialite Elizabeth Paepcke, EX’22—wife of Walter Paepcke, University of Chicago trustee and chairman of the Container Corporation of America; daughter of Romance languages professor William Nitze; and sister of Paul Nitze, who became secretary of the Navy—“discovered” Aspen.

As the origin story goes, the pipes had frozen and burst at the Paepcke ranch near Larkspur, Colorado, in 1938. To divert her houseguests’ attention, Elizabeth suggested a skiing expedition to Aspen, about 150 miles away. There was no ski lift, just a tow; but she fell in love with the decrepit former mining town.

Elizabeth returned to Aspen at the end of World War II, bringing her husband. As Sidney Hyman, AB’36, AM’38, writes in The Aspen Idea (University of Oklahoma Press, 1975), “When Walter Paepcke saw Aspen for the first time on Memorial Day, 1945, the only mortal visible out-of-doors was a drunk, and he was half-dead.” The Paepckes stayed at the formerly grand Hotel Jerome, where the house drink, four parts bourbon and one part milk, was known as “crud.” (Aspen crud— served hot in winter, with ice cream in summer—remains the signature drink at the Jerome, now a four-star hotel.)

Walter too saw the charm of Aspen and impulsively bought his wife a Victorian house as a birthday present. Then he bought another house, and another, and leased the Hotel Jerome. Over the next few years he established two companies, the Aspen Skiing Corporation and the Aspen Company, to run the hotel and purchase other investment properties.

Meanwhile—in what would seem an entirely unrelated development—the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was mulling over the possibility of a festival celebrating Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The idea for the festival, marking the bicentennial of the writer’s birth, came from Guiseppe Antonio Borgese, professor emeritus of Italian literature and the son-in-law of Thomas Mann. It was 1948, just three years after the end of World War II, and the intention was to help bring Germany back into the world intellectual community.

Hutchins approached Paepcke about supporting the festival. Both men loved Goethe. Hutchins had taken a copy of Faust with him to Italy during World War I, memorizing long passages while on guard duty; Paepcke too could recite entire sections. Paepcke agreed to help—as long as the festival included music and was held in Aspen. The festival site should be Aspen Meadows, Paepcke suggested, a flat tract of land where Aspen’s silver barons once gambled on horse races, and which he now owned.

Finding donors was difficult at first, since “99 percent of the American population never heard of Goethe,” as Hutchins put it. But the festival’s success was assured once Albert Schweitzer, the famous theologian and medical missionary in Africa, agreed to give the keynote speech. Schweitzer was engaged for two lectures—the 1949 convocation speech at the University and another talk in Aspen, which he naively assumed was a suburb of Chicago. Only after Schweitzer arrived in the United States did he discover that Aspen was a further two days’ journey by train.

The festival lasted for three weeks and was attended by more than 2,000 people from all over the world. On that same patch of flat land, the Aspen Institute stands today.

After the seminar participants enjoy a quick breakfast buffet (along with the standard bagels, granola, coffee cake, and fruit, there’s a mini egg-white frittata with roasted Provençal vegetables), Widmann takes over. This is Widmann’s 19th year of moderating; he commands the room like a tenured professor, though he has never taught anywhere but here. Of the Declaration of Independence, he asks, “What kind of a document is this?”

The answers come quickly: “Game changing.”




“A living document.”


“Disobedient,” says Ruth, the Kenyan lady justice.

“Disobedient,” Widmann says. “Good one. What else?”



“Declaration,” says Crystal, managing director of an urban education nonprofit.

“Declaration!” Widmann crows. “Thank you very much. Right out of the text, isn’t it? It is, legally speaking, in the form of a bill of particulars—I’ve got a complaint, and here are the particulars of my complaint. But it is, first and foremost, a declaration. A philosophical statement. A mission statement, in corporate speak. A PR statement.”

Widmann and his wife, Judy, first came to Aspen in 1988, when he was head of investment banking at Chemical Bank and the seminar was two weeks long (“No one has that kind of time anymore,” he notes). At the end of each Aspen Seminar, participants are asked who in their group would make a good moderator; his group chose him. Judy, sitting quietly with the other auditors in the outer ring of chairs, always attends: “She’s my extra eyes and ears,” he says. (Auditors, who include spouses, guests, and Aspen Institute staff, are expected to listen without contributing.)

Widmann leads the group through a line-by-line parsing of the Declaration. It’s a surprisingly compelling exercise, to examine a document that generations of grade school children memorize unthinkingly.

At one point, the discussion slides into current events as Matt, a senior progam officer at a foundation, and Nathan, the think tank fellow, spar over whether the United States was true to its democratic principles when setting policy toward Egypt.

The dispute grows more heated; Matt and Nathan interrupt and talk over each other. (This is against the rules at Aspen; at another point in the discussion, Widmann reminds the group firmly, “We have to have one person speaking at a time. Let’s be careful.”)

Widmann finally breaks in, talking over them both: “I think you’re actually in violent agreement.” With that, any acrimony diffuses easily into laughter.

The Goethe Festival had been intended as a one-off. But Paepcke was intrigued by the prospect of creating an institution “something like a university,” without the bureaucratic aspects: degrees, exams, tenured faculty. He called it the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.

At the time, the nation was consumed by a great books craze. As well as the famous seminar that Hutchins and Mortimer Adler cotaught for College students (nicknamed “the Great Men’s Fat Book Class”), there was an evening course popular with UChicago trustees, businessmen, and their wives (nicknamed, in honor of its students, “the Fat Men’s Great Books Class,” or simply “the Fat Man’s Seminar”). Both Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke had taken it.

In Paepcke’s vision, the Executive Seminar at Aspen would be a version of the Fat Man’s Seminar, held over 12 intensive days, with a collection of readings, compiled by Adler, dealing with ideas such as equality, liberty, justice, and property. Paepcke hoped the seminar would improve American society by fostering humanistic thought among important decision makers; at the same time, he saw it as an intellectual weapon in the Cold War.

The first Executive Seminar was held in the summer of 1951, with a schedule much less grueling than today’s. Rather than a solid four hours of Socratic-style discussion, mornings back then began with an hour and a half of reading, followed by two hours of discussion, then lunch.

In the afternoon, wrote a (London) Times reporter who attended the seminar in the 1950s, executives “do a daily stint of exercises … topped off by a game of volley ball and a sauna bath.” Four afternoons a week, wrote the editor of the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal, there were “excellent concerts in a music tent designed by Eero Saarinen.” The afternoons without concerts often featured cocktail parties, “with everybody warning everybody else about the effect of alcohol at such an altitude.” In the evenings, there might be a lecture, more music, or a movie.

Newspaper accounts of the discussions show how much has been preserved: the hexagonal room, the two moderators, the Socratic method, the back row of silent auditors (usually wives) who occasionally struggle to maintain their silence. One wife, the Courier-Journal editor wrote, “built up such a head of steam that she uttered a loud cry of disagreement … then blushed so furiously that everybody knew where the outburst came from.”

By the end of the seminar, reporter after reporter noted over the decades, the participants’ closely held opinions had begun to shift. “The hard-nosed soft-drink executive had decided maybe women needed an Equal Rights Amendment after all,” a Newsweek reporter wrote in 1980. “The law-loving district judge from Tennessee wondered aloud whether he had been too busy meting out justice to reflect on the merits of the justice system.” Newsweek noted one dissenting opinion, from Vernon Jordan, then National Urban League president, who said of one discussion: “It’s like the Powder River. About a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Paepcke never entirely abandoned his idea of founding a university; in 1955, a front-page Rocky Mountain News story declared, “New university slated at Aspen.” The four-year liberal arts college would open by 1958 or 1959, the article claimed, and “will definitely not have a football team.” Even after Paepcke’s death in 1960, these suggestions continued. In the early 1960s, UChicago’s board considered a proposal to make the institute a Western branch; a postdoctoral academy was also suggested. But nothing ever came of either idea.

Perhaps because of its odd, fluid identity from its very inception, the Aspen Institute has shifted shapes, missions, and locations over the years. The Aspen Music Festival used to be part of it, but in 1955, after a disagreement with Paepcke, it became independent. Despite the name, the Aspen Institute is no longer headquartered in Aspen; the 2012 annual report describes it as “an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC,” though further down, notes it’s “based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.” There are also partner Aspen Institutes in Germany, France, Japan, Italy, India, Romania, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

The institute runs 31 policy programs on a range of social issues, including the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program, Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, Aspen Strategy Group, Center for Native American Youth, Congressional Program (“in which more than 30 percent of the current Congress has participated,” the annual report notes), Education and Society Program, Program on the World Economy, and Sports and Society Program. The participants in Aspen Institute programs are like a catalog of the rich, famous, and/or powerful: “Deepak Chopra Unveils New Consciousness Initiative at Vanguard Event” was one headline on the website earlier this year; “President Bill Clinton and Kobe Bryant on the Importance of Growing Up with Sports” was another.

The Aspen Institute’s “signature public offering,” according to the annual report, is the Aspen Ideas Festival, first held in 2005 in conjunction with the Atlantic magazine. Other public programs include the Aspen Institute Arts Program, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, the Aspen Security Forum, and ten or so more.

But the institute’s flagship program remains the homely, rather old-fashioned Executive Seminar—now called the Aspen Seminar to show its pride of place. Over the decades the political subtext of the seminar has evolved. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the curriculum’s Cold War mentality was abandoned in favor of a more explicit focus on leadership.

The weeklong seminar costs $9,450, not including airfare. To some corporations, this is a worthwhile investment in their executives’ professional development. Twenty years ago corporations often did their own ethics training, says Breyfogle, but the trend has shifted since the scandals at Enron and Arthur Andersen, to name the most notorious.

“One of the dangers of in-house ethics training is the organizational culture becomes very insular, and when it becomes insular, you don’t ask yourself difficult questions,” he says. At Aspen, these difficult questions are unavoidable.

At the same time, says Breyfogle, “the economic and political crisis has really underscored the centrality of values. It’s put philosophy back on the map.” To choose between lower taxes and universal health care, for example, or lower profits and layoffs, is “a values decision.”

Not all Aspen Seminar participants come from corporations with generous professional development budgets. Some participants—in finance particularly—take vacation and pay out of pocket. Still others receive scholarships. The Aspen Institute has “a very elite, and sometimes elitist, persona,” but surprisingly, it’s not that difficult to get in, says Breyfogle: “We’re selective, but there’s a lot of self-selection among our applicant pool. If you’re self-reflective—or crazy—enough to pay to spend a week reading the great books, then the Aspen Seminar would be a good fit for you.”

Breyfogle never met Mortimer Adler, whose influence on the seminar still looms so large; he died in 2001 at age 98. Adler, who served as a seminar moderator for nearly 50 years, was legendary for the intellectual rigor of his sessions, as well as his confrontational style. He reputedly reduced more than one hardened executive to tears.

Breyfogle—a graduate of the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, Rhodes scholar, and former University of Denver professor, who trains moderators and comoderates several of the eight executive programs typically offered—has often been compared to Adler. He’s not sure he enjoys the comparison: “I’ve certainly never made anyone cry.”

Aspen Seminar moderators have a secret tradition: soon after they meet the participants, they try to guess who will be chosen by the group to play Antigone. “We’re usually right,” says Gluck. Past Antigones have included Queen Noor of Jordan and Madeleine Albright, both Aspen trustees.

Participants are given a great deal of latitude in their interpretation of Sophocles’s play, written circa 441 BCE. One group did it with sock puppets, says Gluck. “I’ve seen it a thousand ways, but I’ve never seen it done badly.”

During this session, three different participants have been chosen to play Antigone. There are also three actors playing the roles of Antigone’s uncle Creon and (an unorthodox addition to the cast) Martin Luther King Jr. Titled A Tweet to Antigone, the play is a mash-up with King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The performance is held in a white geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The actors tie on white tablecloths to serve as chitons like the ancient Greeks wore; the director, the Kenyan lady justice, also wears one, though she isn’t performing. The bars of King’s jail are suggested by black umbrellas stuck into Styrofoam blocks (umbrellas, free for the borrowing, are ubiquitous in Aspen Institute buildings, since light showers blow through with little warning).

“Now let’s have a drink,” Simon, the retired judge, says in his lovely Southern-patrician accent, once the brief, goofy show is over.

But this is no light celebratory chitchat. The moderators, talking together for the first time, want to discuss the meaning of the play: “What would Machiavelli say about Tiresias?” Gluck asks, and later, “Is Antigone a leader?” At times during the seminar there is eating and drinking; there is hiking and joking; there is writing and performing; but always, always there is talking.


In Their Own Words: Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke and the Birth of the Aspen Institute, a film by Greg Poschman.