A Funny (and Great) Little Man|
by Paul Greenberg
Tribune Media Services
Beginning in the 1930s, he and a small group of fellow enthusiasts almost single-handedly made the classics a popular parlor sport in this country. They did it by publishing a library of "Great Books," and then by promoting the discussion of them all across the country.
Mortimer Adler was a sophisticated scholar, but he also knew some basic things, including these:
- A democratic society that confines learning to its professoriate won't stay democratic for long.
- A cohesive society, whether it is a university or a country or a civilization, won't stay cohesive without sharing a single body of literature, which gives all a common reference point however disparate their talents, tastes or opinions.
That's why, when boy genius Robert Hutchins brought Mortimer Adler to the still new and developing University of Chicago, they insisted on a core curriculum all undergraduates would share. Rather than the elective, splintered and anything but cohesive smattering of courses that still may pass for an education at other and lesser schools.
Hutchins and Adler thought of the liberal arts not as a kind of intellectual cafeteria line but as the body of knowledge free men should know. Which was why they were called the (ital) liberal (unital) arts in the first place.
Beware the man of one book, says the old maxim. And a nation that shares a literature will be formidable, too. Mortimer Adler's collection of Great Books was a kind of core curriculum for a whole society.
Mortimer Adler understood that it is not enough to have a good teacher. As an ancient sage once told his disciples: Get thee a teacher and a companion for study.
Reading a great book is a singular experience and can be an isolating one. Discussing a great book allows people to learn not only from the book but from each other. The book itself grows and deepens as people reflect on it together. "Solitary reading," Mr. Adler once warned, "is as horrible as solitary drinking."
Mortimer Adler was not only a great mass-merchandiser of learning; he was also a funny little man whose gaps were as interesting as his strengths. His best seller, "How to Read a Book," has to be one of the most unintentionally humorous guides to learning around. It is a plodding, almost mechanical guide to reading, for it spells out every logical step in absorbing an argument, but largely ignores the intuitive and esthetic components of learning.
Nobody would ever describe Mortimer Alder's mind as poetic. His devotion to the rational could be, well, irrational. But that's exactly the kind of observation he wouldn't have let pass unchallenged. Which is what made him both a delight and a bore, at times engaging and at other times, well, just out of it.
Mortimer Adler's obscurity in his later years was not just a sign of increasing age and its burdens, but of changes in society - mainly a dangerous lessening of interest in the power of ideas. The result is that we have become susceptible to the worst ideas, or even the absence of ideas, for we are deprived of the habit of struggling with them regularly. Philosophy has become another specialized subject rather than what shapes us, and what the aware are always shaping.
Instead we waste ourselves debating facts, which should be ascertained rather than argued, and having to rediscover what the ancients knew. Often enough by bitter experience.
As Mortimer Adler grew older and weaker, so did the connection in American society between ideas and politics, ideas and economics, or just ideas and life. And when ideas are relegated to irrelevance, society becomes only a war of interests rather than a concert of thought.
Once upon a time - namely Mortimer Adler's - intellectuals could be expected to debate competing philosophers: Marx and Bastiat, Locke and Hobbes, Descartes and Vico, Madison and Hamilton ... . But today ideas are not so much criticized as deconstructed. In place of vigorous debate, an obscure, amnesiac nihilism has become the fashion. Almost by default.
The passion for ideas, which was the passion of Mortimer Adler's life, now inspires not debate but a kind of nostalgia, even bemusement. It's as if thought, which ought to be the most democratic of arenas, has become just another obscure professional specialty. Today one is more likely to find Mortimer Adler's Great Books at library sales than in people's thoughts.
All across the country, knots of people who once participated in Great Books discussions will note Mortimer Adler's passing, and be thankful for his bringing them and great ideas together. His was a long, productive and happy life - as long as he could read and discuss. Which in a way was his definition of life.
That many today never heard of Mortimer Adler or the Great Books, and many others may have to be reminded of who he was, is not a good sign for a cohesive, democratic, tolerant, learned and above all (ital) thinking (unital) society.