Adler Is Dead
June 28, 2001 3:15 p.m.
ortimer Adler left school at 15 to work as a secretary to the editor of the New York Sun. Two years later he read Plato, and resolved to become a philosopher.
That kind of thing doesn't happen very often; on the other hand phenomena like Mortimer Adler don't happen very often. There was nothing in the world he did not think about and seek to memorialize in his own writings. He teamed up with Robert Hutchins, who was president of the University of Chicago, and took on the creation of a library of great books. For the very idea of this there were those who scorned him, but on trivial grounds, when you come down to it. There was a seminar in Washington in 1990 at which a dozen resplendent scholars were assembled to give their opinions of a second version of the Great Books. Several had been added (Twain, Balzac), one or two dropped (Fielding, Sterne). Gertrude Himmelfarb wanted to know why there wasn't a book in the collection by Burke. Dr. Adler answered that Burke hadn't ever written a book. That sounded tricky, but it wasn't, really: A formalistic point can have formal standing, and Adler was insisting that the Great Books had to be books in the first instance, and even a collection of Burke's speeches didn't make a book out of them. And the sniping went on.
What Adler did, with his staff and his coadjutor Hutchins, was to reprint 443 Great Books in a 54-volume set. But hold on a minute, that wasn't all. He contributed what he called a "syntopicon." This took a 100-odd "great ideas" and set out to identify the treatment of them in the Great Books.
The ideas (alphabetically, angel was the first, world the last) were treated, or not treated, by Homer, the first Great Book, on over to Freud, the latest Great Book. The syntopicon introduced each idea with a 10,000-word essay, followed by an outline of topics. Under angels: "1. Inferior deities or demi-gods in polytheistic religion," ending with, "8. Criticism and satire with respect to the belief in angels and demons;" followed by 17 pages giving the volume, and where in it the subtopics appeared.
A mind-numbing enterprise insufficiently celebrated for its scope, ambition, and utility. But Adler suffered from the constancy of his belief that philosophy oughtn't to appeal only to the specialists. Adler wanted more people, at age 17, to experience Plato, and he didn't trivialize Plato but tried in a scholarly way with unscholarly enthusiasm to sing out the joys of following Plato around.
WFB: You begin by reaching a very interesting conclusion [in your book, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan], which I would like to hear you dilate on, namely that it doesn't really matter whether there was a prime mover [i.e., a force that created the first earthly thing].
Adler would go on in that way, talking as offhandedly as if conversing with a neighbor in a bus seat, passing the time of day. He did a new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was the dogged philosopher if ever there was one, an exuberant practitioner of philosophy, ambitious proponent of the extraordinary proposition that human beings need to think even as they need bread and water, and that philosophy is the great granary of mankind.
It is curious that the large obituary in the New York Times, by William Grimes, neglected to mention that Mortimer Adler, doctor of psychology and law and philosophy, found himself in later years believing in the premises of Christianity and, toward the end, in the mandate of the Roman Catholic Church. Religious belief is unfashionable in metropolitan intellectual circles, but on that subject, Mortimer Adler could have written 20 books, and in fact did.