THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 132, July 30, 2001
"DING DONG, ...!"
On Mortimer Adler
by Gail Jarvis
Special to TLE
Mortimer Adler who, during his days of glory, was revered as a godlike intellectual, died on June 28th but his passing was barely mentioned by the mainstream media. It was Adler who decided for the rest of us which books should be considered "Great Books of the Western World." We were immensely impressed by Adler's awesome mind that enabled him to determine which were the greatest books out of all the books ever written.
Many of us, including myself, purchased the Great Books' box of gray and black paperback editions to read and discuss at weekly group meetings. We felt empowered because we were reading the greatest books ever written, their greatness certified by Mortimer Adler.
But at some point during my discussion groups, I began to wonder why only these specific books were considered great. What about other writers and thinkers, especially those I had studied in philosophy, economics and other courses? And why was the selection limited to the Western world, because at that time Eastern wisdom was permeating America? But to ask such questions would blaspheme Adler and incur the wrath of my peers. After all, Adler was a genius.
My doubts about Adler were finally corroborated by one of his associates, Joseph Epstein. In a recent magazine article Epstein does not portray Adler as a genius but rather as a brash "propagandist" with an enormous ego who "would tromp over people who disagreed with him." Epstein states that Adler was "never big on civility" and he goes to great lengths to give examples of "Mortimer's ineptitude". Although Adler employed a panel of experts to assist him he always had the last word and his opinion was always the correct one. What comes across in the article by Mr. Epstein is that the selection of Great Books was autocratic rather than democratic.
But I can't say that I didn't enjoy those weekly discussions. Although I'm unable to remember all of the books in that little gray box I do recall struggling through one by Maimonides. About the only thing that stuck with me was Maimonides assertion that a truly intelligent person realizes that there are things that are not understandable. Of course, this was written before the birth of Adler, a man who understood everything.
After selecting the greatest books, Mortimer Adler then enumerated "Six Great Ideas" which were Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Liberty, Equality and Justice. Although this list sounds a little like a Hallmark greeting card it does have merit. Today the list would have to include Diversity and Tolerance.
Adler next listed "Ten Philosophical Mistakes" of great thinkers such as Locke, Kant, Hume and Hobbes. Naturally, Adler felt he was imminently qualified to challenge these famous philosophers. One of the philosophical mistakes he identifies is the implication that good and evil are subjective. To his credit, Adler believed in a universal morality which is anathema to today's moral relativity which allows each group and indeed each person to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.
Also, I must at least make mention of Adler's "Six Conditions of Philosophy" as well as his "Ten Guidelines for Correct Philosophical Thinking." The man was a compulsive list maker. Complex issues had to be compressed and pigeonholed to be understandable by the untutored masses.
"Great Books" made Adler a recognizable public figure. But it was television that provided him exposure to a national audience and he cleverly used the medium to conduct guided tours through the maze of his sacrosanct belief system. I often wondered why the ACLU didn't attempt some kind of legal maneuver to prevent his discussion of the Bible, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other religious tracts on television. And sometimes I felt that I wasted my time in philosophy classes when I could have watched Adler on TV. His approach was so simple, so compartmentalized, so soothing: six ideas; six conditions; ten guidelines; ten mistakes.
Eventually Mortimer Adler's television programs began to annoy me. I couldn't decide who was the bigger phony, Adler or his genuflecting host, Bill Moyers. They became two of the most overrated men in show business, and, yes, show business is all it was.
Unfortunately there is a risk involved in picking the greatest books and the greatest ideas because they may not stand the test of time. Mortimer Adler ignored this risk because his arrogance prevented him from acknowledging that he might be wrong about anything. His insolence reminds me of Washington bureaucrats who also promote untested and unproven theories. But Adler only recommends theories to us while bureaucrats enact them into laws. Frederic Bastiat has warned us about "the spectacle of a few men molding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and of fraud."
The Great Books series prominently showcased Sigmund Freud whose theories have now been largely discredited. Today we cannot imagine a therapist telling a depressed woman that her diagnosis is "penis envy", one of Freud's pet theories. Instead she would be prescribed Ativan or another psychotropic drug. A couple of these pills would be immensely more effective and considerably less expensive than two years on Freud's couch. But these drugs weren't available when Adler ordained Freud's theories as a scientific breakthrough.
Also included in the Great Books series were selections from "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx. Poor Mortimer didn't realize that Marx's theories would fail everywhere they were tried and are now as discredited as Freud's. (Of course, Marx's ideas are still taught by some elite college professors.) Personally, I think Adler's selection of economists is too restricted. He includes John Maynard Keynes whose language can be as obscure as the novels of his friend Virginia Woolf. And, of course, he had to include selections from Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations". But many other economic writers such as David Ricardo, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises were ignored.
Charles Darwin's "Descent of Man" also made Adler's list of Great Books. (I've always wondered why Darwin used the title "Descent of Man" rather than "Ascent of Man". Maybe he knew something we didn't.) When Adler picked Darwin's book, people were considered ignorant if they didn't believe in the theory of evolution - remember the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee. Alas, scientists are now relegating Darwin's theory of evolution to the trash heap along with Freud's silly complexes and Marx's collectivist fairy tales.
Mortimer Adler was a con-artist who unwittingly conned himself. I think he actually believed he was the scholarly guru he pretended to be. He was certainly a learned individual and many of his ideas about morality should be welcome in today's moral vacuum. Also we should thank him for encouraging people to read important books. Finally, because of Adler, some of us learned to be more skeptical of self-appointed "meaning of life" prophets.