I first met him in 1981 fresh out of graduate school with a doctorate in the liberal arts not a single discipline mind you, but an interdisciplinary degree. Meeting Mortimer, the godfather of the Great Books, was like a visitation from Mount Olympus. He didn’t disappoint me with the quality of his mind, or with rude manners, as Epstein details.
I worked with Adler, as his fellow, for three summers at the Aspen Institute. It wasn’t much of a job; even in his later years Mortimer didn’t want or need much help. Being the Adler Fellow afforded me the privilege of watching him teach seminars and smoking cigars with him in the afternoon. As a teacher and conversationalist, Adler was, in my experience, without many peers.
No one I have ever met listened as intently as Mortimer. Even if he stubbornly disagreed, he would take differences to heart, often coming back to the argument days later. He would mull over these problems in the afternoon, which he spent “idling” rather than writing – sitting in front of a notepad writing down whatever came into his mind.
He could be very hard on people who repeatedly made the same “philosophical mistake.” Mortimer didn’t worry about his student’s self-esteem problems, and most of his seminar participants enjoyed the cold shower of his blunt remarks. So, it stunned me and the entire seminar one Aspen morning when he announced that, on the previous day, I had solved the last remaining flaw in his argument for the existence of God (How to Think About God). Mortimer ended up dying a Catholic.
Epstein is right in saying Mortimer didn’t handle personal emotions well. In fact, he wanted to write them out of philosophy as much as possible, for example, as part of our aesthetic response to music. He scolded me when my pro-life arguments became emotionally heated.
Epstein wrongly asserts that Adler never made any serious contribution to philosophy. No one in the last century wrote a better book on philosophical anthropology – The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes. Adler’s arguments for the immateriality and distinctiveness of human intelligence only grow in importance as the years pass.
But pointing at a specific text or argument really misses the point of Adler’s achievement as an entrepreneur of the liberal arts. Without Adler, American education would have been deprived of its central, almost institutional, counterweight to pragmatic specialization and vocationalism. It was Adler’s mania for the great books, his seminars, his popular books, and television appearances that kept the public interested in education for its own sake.
But it is easy to make fun of men who are obsessed, and Mortimer was obsessed with defeating the enemies to liberal education and sound philosophical reasoning. He was convinced that Western thought went off its
tracks, driving toward subjectivity, with Descartes and Kant, and thought that the revival of Aristotle and St. Thomas was the solution. In this project, the Catholic philosophers of his generation – Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Yves Simon, Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. – were his allies.
Adler received many accolades in his lifetime, so a little score-settling at the end will not affect his reputation.