Many years ago Mortimer Adler took me to lunch at Antoine’s in New Orleans and introduced me to patates soufflées. The occasion was the publication of my first novel, and we were attending the annual convention of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, an organization of which Adler was a member and with which he had a long and cordial relationship. Talking philosophy in a posh restaurant was something common for Adler, though many of his neopuritanical critics treated it as sufficient cause to dismiss him as a poseur. I only felt like a rustic nephew being treated by a rich and cosmopolitan uncle.
Time dubbed Adler a Peeping Thomist. The editors were fascinated by a man whose philosophical career flourished outside the usual academic setting. It wasn’t that Adler eschewed the university. It was the other way round. His sojourns on campus were relatively brief and always stormy. Recent years have seen a proliferation of dictionaries and companions to philosophy featuring brief articles on the problems and personnel of the discipline. Do not waste your time looking for Adler in such volumes. In the annals of official academic philosophy, Adler doesn’t exist. But perhaps this is not surprising. Throughout his long life, he was an unmuted rebuke to the educational establishment.
“Reading the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill at the age of fifteen while in the editorial office of the old New York Sun led me to the discovery of Socrates; and this, in turn, formed my early resolution to try to become a philosopher.” Thus begins the first volume of Adler’s autobiography. He was born in New York in 1902 of Jewish parents, apparently nonobservant, and educated in city schools, notably De Witt Clinton High School, “one of Manhattan’s liberal arts secondary schools.” It was at De Witt Clinton that he was bitten by the journalism bug, becoming editor of the Magpie, the school’s newspaper. In this role, he defied the principal. Disciplined, he dropped out of school and landed a job at the Sun. It was with an eye to improving himself as a journalist that he enrolled in the Extension Division of Columbia University, where a course in Victorian literature “was the start of my undoing as a journalist.” Presented with Browning, Tennyson, and Rossetti, and learning that Mill could read Greek at age three, Adler came to think himself a late bloomer. From the very outset, there was a sense of urgency in his pursuit of knowledge, as if he had to make up for lost time.
One can see in the ambitions of the teenage Adler the Americanization of education. Knowledge was sought mainly as an instrument to move up the ladder of American society rather than as an end in itself. Yet as Adler entered Columbia College the ideal of liberal education gradually took hold of his mind, pushing out more pragmatic considerations. The disinterested ideal of the liberal arts would come to be his guiding star through the many decades that lay ahead.
As public education was retooled by Deweyites to produce good consumers, American universities lost the sense that they had a definable mission to the young. They became smorgasbords where the raw undergraduate was asked to invent his own notion of education and choose courses accordingly. Adler resisted this trend, insisting on the relationship between disciplines and authors, between aspects of culture and its creators. When he and his friends began to draw up lists of books that would be the sine quibus non of an education, they were guided by the goal of philosophizing itself. Once “philosophy” had been an umbrella term covering all disciplines, ordering them to an overall goal, which is wisdom. And what was wisdom if not, ultimately, knowledge of the divine?
One could tell the story of Adler’s life in terms of his gradual acceptance of the implications of that defining fact. The point of the life of the mind is to know God: God is the ultimate end of human life. Philosophers go back and forth on the existence of God: Can it be proved? Can it be disproved? Does the idea of God even make sense? Adler’s affinity for Aristotle led him inexorably to Thomas Aquinas. The give and take of the Socratic dialogue had fascinated him from the beginning of his philosophical education, and he found it again in the Summa Theologiae. Examining rival answers to a question before deciding between them was the essence of philosophy. From the outset, Adler was a formidable dialectician. This is not to be confused with what has come to be called “dialogue,” which is really a euphemism for dodging serious argument. By contrast, dialectics seeks the truth and rejects its opposite after having entertained all of the relevant objections.
But even dialectics can be an impediment to truth. The bane of philosophizing is the disconnection between life and the quest for knowledge. When it takes place, this disconnection is especially unfortunate because of the necessary prominence of moral questions and the centrality of God to philosophy. Adler’s gradual progress from an early belief in the possibility of fashioning a compelling proof of God’s existence to an extra-philosophical relation to God is the real story of his life.
Adler was regularly asked how he could know so much about Catholic theology without accepting it as true. He gave what he called a Thomistic answer. He had not been given the grace of faith. But that, one might say, is a Calvinist rather than Thomist reply. The grace of faith is not offered to a select few and withheld from the rest. It is offered to all, but each must accept it himself. Eventually, Adler became a Christian. Finally, he became the Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life. That a number of prominent notices of Adler’s death failed to mention this central event in his life is a distressing sign of how peripheral religion has become for many in our time.
Serious but not solemn, domineering but, in his way, self-effacing, Adler always conveyed the sheer fun of the intellectual life. There is something arbitrary about deciding on exactly one hundred great books, but why not? He wrote a bestseller called How to Read a Book that was shamelessly didactic. Always read with a pencil in your hand. Make notes directly on the page. Buy your own copy, of course.
On Amazon.com, eighty-eight books are listed under his name. He had a gift for titles. Aristotle for Everybody. Ten Philosophical Mistakes. How to Speak, How to Listen. Six Great Ideas. How to Think about God. The Time of Our Lives. The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes. The Four Dimensions of Philosophy. The man who urged everyone to read the great books and authors flooded the market with books of his own. Of course these books were meant to direct you to real books, to great books.
The interrelationships of the great ideas and authors fascinated Adler. Hence the Syntopticon, a device to help one maneuver among the great ideas. It was a centerpiece of Adler’s lifelong interest in education. In The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus, he proposed a thorough outline for the education of the young. He also fashioned reading programs for adults that exercised, and still exercise, a great influence on many lives. Nor did Adler overlook the fact that God had given minds to the rich and prosperous as well. He undertook a kind of apostolate to the affluent. The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies conducted executive seminars in which Adler and CEOs read and discussed Platonic dialogues. University professors teaching the affluent young laughed at this, just as they mocked the generalism that Adler advocated. Perhaps they feared, like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, becoming that “narrowest of specialists, the well-rounded man.” Superficiality is a danger, but is it any worse than pedantic narrowness?
Adler was democratic—and Aristotelian—in his belief that all men desire to know. Universal education was an Enlightenment dream, as was the hope that knowledge would lead automatically to virtue. Well, it doesn’t, and knowledge without virtue can be a menace. But, likewise, virtue without knowledge is insufficient for a good human life. What Mortimer Adler sought to do was to diffuse as widely as possible the great achievements of the human mind. He failed to have much influence on public education, just as he and Robert Hutchins failed to change the University of Chicago. But over the course of a long life, Adler preached and exemplified the merits of a liberal education. And in doing so, he touched the lives of millions.
A few years ago a symposium on Adler’s work was held in Aspen. Many papers were given, and Adler listened to them all. He was already very old, indeed he had to be helped into the seminar room by two of his sons. It was an occasion when he might have felt posthumous. But he never could be simply a third person; he had to be an interlocutor. The high point of the meeting was Adler’s detailed response to all the papers. Speaking extemporaneously as always, it was clear that he hadn’t missed a word and that the old feistiness was still there. But the truly memorable moment came when he spoke of the transition in his own life from being intellectually convinced of the existence of God to loving the God that he knew. The philosopher’s God became incarnate in Christ, and finally Adler saw that his long quest for wisdom could best be seen as a kind of Imitatio Christi. Requiescat in pace.
Ralph McInerny is Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies and Director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. His Gifford Lectures, Characters in Search of Their Author, were published by the University of Notre Dame Press last year.