Mortimer Adler; Philosopher, Co-Founder of 'Great Books'


Mortimer J. Adler, the iconoclastic encyclopedist and progenitor of the "Great Books" collection of notable writers and thinkers, died Thursday at his home in San Mateo. He was 98.

The former longtime chairman of the board of editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Adler co-founded the "Great Books of the Western World" series 50 years ago to make classic philosophy and writing available to the masses.

The series was the embodiment of the idea that drove Adler's life: that the best education was a reading of the classics, mainly from the Western tradition. He turned this conviction into a successful industry, rankling much of the academic establishment along the way.

In addition to spawning the "Great Books" collection, he wrote or edited more than 60 books, with such titles as "How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education," "Six Great Ideas," "Aristotle for Everybody" and "How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan."

He also founded an education program called the Paideia Project that attempted to introduce Socratic discussion of great ideas at elementary and secondary schools. Based on the notion that "the best education for the best is the best education for all," it was, like his books, branded elitist by many education leaders.

Adler was a lifelong adversary of the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey, one of his professors at Columbia University in the 1920s. Dewey believed that truth is whatever a society finds useful at a given stage in history.

Dewey's ideas had a profound influence on how and what schools taught through much of the latter half of the 20th century and was credited or blamed for a variety of trends, from broadening reading lists to include non-Western writers to emphasizing the experience of learning over its content.

Adler believed that there were universal and absolute truths and values and that it was the duty of education to impart them.

The son of a New York jewelry salesman and a part-time schoolteacher, Adler was an independent thinker from an early age. He dropped out of high school at 14 after refusing to comply with the principal's order to fire a staff member from the campus newspaper he edited.

He turned to philosophy at 15, when he discovered that John Stuart Mill, the 19th century English philosopher, had read Plato's Dialogues when he was 5.

Adler entered Columbia on a scholarship and finished in three years. Although he made Phi Beta Kappa, he failed to received his bachelor's degree because he refused to pass a swimming test. (Columbia finally waived the graduation requirement in 1983 and gave Adler his degree.) Five years later, in 1928, he earned his doctorate, becoming possibly the only PhD with no bachelor's, master's or high school diploma.

At Columbia, he was made an instructor in the psychology department, having failed to win an appointment in philosophy after criticizing the views of Columbia icon Dewey, with Dewey in the audience.

In 1929, Adler dined at New York's Yale Club with his friend Robert Maynard Hutchins, who had recently taken over as president of the University of Chicago. The former Yale Law School dean was distraught and confessed to Adler that he knew nothing about education. He asked Adler what he remembered of his undergraduate years.

Adler replied that the only course that had impressed him was a great books class taught by John Erskine. Hutchins' eyes lighted up, and he asked Adler to name some of the books. Adler did better than that: He produced the reading list.

"I gave the list to Hutchins," Adler recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1988. "He gaped at it--there were 65 authors on it--and he said, 'My God, would you believe in four years at Oberlin and Yale, I've only read three of those books?' "

Adler, caught between candor and compassion, decided on a blunt reply. "In that case," he said, "you're not educated." Hutchins looked crushed, then cried, "I know it."

The next year, Adler joined Hutchins in Chicago and launched a great books program. It became an integral part of Hutchins' grand experiment in higher education, in which he also abolished football and fraternities and required comprehensive exams.

Adler chose 25 outstanding freshmen for the first two-year course in great books. At the end of the course they passed their oral exams with flying colors. They were so stimulated by the course and eager to deepen their understanding of the works they had studied that they asked to take the course for credit again. Breaking all the rules, Hutchins let them do it. "From that point on, " Adler recalled, "the program began to gain momentum."

In 1946 he and Hutchins started the Great Books Program, in which adults from all walks of life would meet every two weeks to discuss one of the classics. Within a year more than 7,000 adults in Chicago were reading Plato and Hippocrates and engaging in rollicking discussions. A year later, the program had spread to 43,000 people in 300 cities across the country.

To facilitate matters, Encyclopaedia Britannica reprinted 433 great books in a 54-volume set.

Adler also supervised production of the Syntopicon, a synthesis of 102 great ideas from the great books, assembled at a cost of $1 million by a staff of 60, including a young Saul Bellow.

Adler left Chicago in 1952 to found the Institute for Philosophical Research. In 1974 he became chief editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which he reorganized into a quick reference Micropedia and topic-oriented essays compiled in a Macropedia.

He churned out his own books at the rate of one a year, amassing critics as quickly as he came up with new titles. His attackers poked fun at his mass-market approach to high-mindedness. Dwight MacDonald of the New Yorker, for instance, dismissed Adler's Syntopicon as "The Handy Key to Kulture" and referred to the "Great Books" as "The Book of the Millennium Club." Critic John Leonard dubbed Adler "the Lawrence Welk of the philosophy trade."

Adler was not taken seriously by the philosophy establishment, in part, some observers suggested, because he was so successful. But Adler's dismissal of modern philosophy--anyone who came after Thomas Aquinas--also earned him scorn.

"It is as though Adler is entirely unaware of the scathingly anti-philosophical attacks of such giants as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Heidegger and Sartre," theologian Robert Short wrote in a Chicago Tribune review of "How to Think About God." "More probably, Adler hopes that by ignoring them they'll simply go away."

The first revision of the Great Books collection, some 40 years after the original publication, could be seen as an attempt to mollify some of his accusers. Expanded to 60 volumes, the new version included 45 thinkers and writers from the 20th century (among them, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Claude Levi-Strauss) as well as four women--Willa Cather, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. The additions were recommended by a distinguished panel, including Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz.

But Cervantes' "Don Quixote" was the only contribution from Spanish-language culture. And there was no Harriet Beecher Stowe or W.E.B. DuBois--no contributions at all from blacks. Henry Louis Gates, the prominent African American scholar, blasted the series for showing "profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color--red, brown or yellow."

Adler was aggressively unrepentant. The lack of Latino writers was because "Octavio Paz didn't recommend any." There were no blacks because "they didn't write any good books." No Asian authors? "If they want to stay Japanese," he declared, "they should stay in Japan."

Allan Bloom, the political philosopher who wrote the controversial 1987 book "The Closing of the American Mind," once summed up Adler as "a business genius" but not "a great scholar," who misled people into believing that all they needed to know was contained in his list of notable books. "He was an activist and a popularizer," Bloom said, "but not too much on substance."

Asked by a Chicago Tribune interviewer if he regretted spending his life spreading old ideas instead of generating new ones, Adler answered with an adamant no.

"There really are no new ideas," he said. "What I have done is try to restore what the 20th century has lost of the past, to make important ideas as clear to everybody as possible. I am not a popularizer. I don't try to oversimplify. I just think my obligation as a philosopher--and my main claim to having done something with my life--was to make important ideas clear, because I think understanding and wisdom are the two highest virtues human beings can reach for."

Adler is survived by four sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World