Friday, December 2, 2022

The Conversion of Mortimer Adler

Discovering Perennial Truth

Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) was a widely influential philosopher and educator in 20th century America. His Socratic pedagogy of seminars based on the "great books" of the Western world aimed to educate people to understand the "great ideas" and engage in the "great conversation" of the Western humanities tradition, not merely as historical artifacts but as paths to discovering the deepest truths and higher purposes of life. He was professor at the University of Chicago and later founded the Institute for Humanistic Studies (which offered seminars for business executives and professionals).
Adler's philosophical mentors were Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. He defended the objectivity of philosophical truth against skepticism and positivism. He collaborated with prominent Catholic philosophers, and his seminars helped more than a few of his students to discover the Church nd become converts. Yet Mortimer Adler himself only came to Christianity slowly. The drameatic depths of his long journey from the "God of the philosophers" to Jesus Christ are unknown to us. But from his own autobiographical testimonies, and from the observations of some friends, we can glimpse signs of the gradual yet distinctive workings of grace.
The son of Jewish immigrants in Manhattan, Adler had a largely secular upbringing. It was philosophy that first introduced him to God, and at Columbia University he first encountered the "integrity, precision, and brilliance" of Thomas Aquinas. Over many decades he pursued the "philosophy of God" as a fascinating and demanding intellectual exercise, and became a convinced Thomist in many respects. But he claimed to have no interest in personal religious faith.
Nevertheless, his real life suggested otherwise. In the late 1930s he was powerfully drawn to the Catholic Church and "agonized over the question" of converting. But he felt hindered by the fear of opposition from his parents, his Episcopalian wife, and his closest friends. Years later, in his 1977 memoirs, he concluded that he didn't receive the grace of faith because he didn't want to convert, he didn't want to change his secular-liberal lifestyle and take up the challenges of Christian living. He wanted to study God, but also keep him at a distance.
Adler's first wife divorced him, and we know little of the origins or details of this relationship. His marriage to the devout Episcopalian Caroline Pring in 1963, however, seemed to represent a step forward toward a relationship with God. Caroline witnessed to the importance of her own faith, and her hope that he might share it someday. Mortimer's grave illness in 1984 finally opened up the long-awaited possibility. The pastor of Caroline's church visited him in the hospital and prayed for his recovery, and something mysterious happened. The eighty-two-year-old philosopher wept, and began saying the Lord's Prayer. For days afterward, he continued to repeat the Our Father (the only prayer he knew). He realized that--for the first time--he was praying to the God he had studied for so long. He repented of his sins and was baptized in the Episcopal church on April 21, 1984.
One step remained before him. He returned to the Aspen Institute seminars and a new generation of young Catholic Thomist philosophers who befriended him, along with Father Pierre DuMaine, the future Catholic bishop of San Jose, California. Mortimer and Caroline eventually retire to San Mateo (in DuMaine's diocese), where she passed away in 1998. The following year, at the age of ninety-seven, Mortimer Adler was received into the Catholic Church by his friend Bishop DuMaine, after so many years of learning from Christ's brilliant and humble disciple Saint Thomas Aquinas.

John Janaro in Magnificat, November 2022, Vol.24, No.9, 276-277.

Mortimer Adler: Champion of Great Books Education
By Erik Ellis
March 14, 2022

Even now, decades after his death, eighth-graders everywhere get to read the Odyssey, thanks to the efforts of a man born to Jewish immigrants in the heart of New York City. Philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler is largely responsible for what we call Great Books education. Adler wanted more for America’s youth than he had received from his Ivy League professors, so he worked to bring the American education system back into the Western tradition.

Adler was born into a world with diminishing respect for that tradition. Writings from Homer to Augustine were taught only to the elite, and usually in excerpts. Charles Eliot, Harvard University’s president at the time, had purged most of the core curriculum at his institution, an act that put the hammer to Greek and Latin studies. Eliot tried to remedy the situation by publishing “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” a compilation of influential works of literature and philosophy, but Adler didn’t think this adequately accounted for the classical tradition. Adler’s professor at Colombia, John Dewey, spent much of his life fighting the liberal arts education model, favoring vocational training for students. The two did not get along.

As Adler saw it, the benefit to his Ivy League education was revealed to him in a single English class. John Erskine, an English professor who became the first president of the Juilliard School, introduced Adler to the Socratic seminar. In Erskine’s class, students would read a book every week and discuss their findings in the classroom. Erskine would speak as little as possible, only asking questions to guide students to new topics. Adler went on to popularize this method, an effort now considered one of his greatest accomplishments.

After graduating from Colombia, Adler began his crusade against the ideas made popular by Dewey and his associates. He disdained the idea of training students for a single job and scolded those who discouraged the goal of self-improvement. In the preface to his book “Aristotle for Everybody,” Adler wrote, “When I say ‘everybody,’ I mean everybody except professional philosophers; in other words, everybody of ordinary experience and intelligence unspoiled by the sophistication and specialization of academic thought.” He wrote for everyone, of any age and class, simply because he believed it was right for them to be educated.

When he wasn’t writing books, Adler was finding other ways to get his message across. He ran night schools for labor unions, made appearances on television and radio programs, and developed The Great Books of the Western World series for Encyclopedia Britannica. The more people who knew the themes of the great books, the more people there would be who could rejoice in and contribute to what Adler called “the Great Conversation.”

In his studies of literature and philosophy, Adler found common topics of discussion. The ideas of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and other ancient philosophers overlapped, which proved to Adler that some topics are prevalent throughout time and across cultures. Adler assembled a guide to these ideas in a volume he called “A Syntopicon.” Education in great books meant following the themes in the “Syntopicon” and ultimately joining in the Great Conversation about them. By doing so, a larger number of people than ever before could engage with these ideas. Broadening participation in such philosophical discussion was one of Alder’s main goals.

Many of Adler’s critics wondered what the point was in continuing the Great Conversation. As they saw it, a common person could add little to the findings of Aristotle, and Aristotle, in turn, had little to say that addressed present problems. In Adler’s mind, however, Aristotle’s insights were of permanent value, and common people could and should engage with them, learn from them, and even try to put them into practice. The Great Conversation that Adler reignited a century ago is now a tool that anyone can use to craft a common intellectual heritage.

The study of integrated humanities through a chronological framework that melds history, philosophy, and literature together owes to the work of Mortimer Adler. This practice has extended from higher education to primary and secondary schools across the country. Americans would do well to reflect on and revisit these philosophical inquiries. In doing so, they may yet contribute, in their own small way, to the Great Conversation.

Erik Ellis is a Research Fellow at the Center for Thomas More at the University of Dallas and works in the faculty of philosophy at the University of the Andes in Santiago, Chile. This overview of Mortimer Adler is based on his interview with Scott Bertram on the Hillsdale College Classical Education Podcast.

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