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Discussing the book "Six great ideas" with the author Mortimer Adler

BROADCAST: Sep. 17, 1981 | DURATION: 00:49:39

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Studs Terkel A few years ago Mike Nichols in a, in a comic routine spoke of being -- he was a British writer, and he says "Poets can't make a living these days." He -- "Playwrights can't, writers can't. Only philosophers can make a living." He says, "Look at Bertrand Russell." He was very funny. At the same now I was thinking of perhaps the most celebrated of our popular philosophers, of Mortimer J. Adler who, you know, you knew him, people do, from the Great Books courses that he and Robert Maynard Hutchins instituted at the University of Chicago during those glory days at the University, and Professor Adler is chairman of the board of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Mortimer J. Adler Editors.

Studs Terkel Editors, rather, and director of the Institute of, of Philosophical Research that gave us the Syntopicon, we can perhaps talk about that a little, too. And his most recent book, How to Read a Book is certainly one of his most popular and indeed a bestseller, the most recent one is Six Great Ideas published by Macmillan. And so I thought perhaps the reflections of Mortimer J. Adler in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] And so we begin, Dr. Adler, with the Six Great Ideas. One of the first things you say is that philosophy is everybody's business and that it's part of everyday being.

Mortimer J. Adler It's the -- of all the academic disciplines, it's the only one that is not a specialty. And, and one of the great, one of the great troubles in my view of what has happened to philosophy in the 20th century academically, is it has become as technical and as professional, professional and specialized as mathematics or logic or physics or, or chemistry, and it's, it's lost its meaning for most people. And my effort in the last few books I've written, Aristotle for Everybody before this and in the book on How to Think About God and this book, is to deal with important ideas, which about a philosopher should be dealing with anyway, in language and in terms that anyone can understand, because I think, you know, these six ideas, three of them, truth, goodness, and beauty, the ideas we judge by and the basic values we employ in measuring things, and the other three ideas, liberty, equality, and justice, which are absolutely central in our understanding of politics and economics and society, and understanding of our American framework of government.

Studs Terkel Why I suppose you have those, those very phrases, the very phrase and ideas appear again and again, don't they, in the Declaration of Independence.

Mortimer J. Adler In fact, five of the ideas appear in the second paragraph of the Declaration.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Self-evident truths

Mortimer J. Adler All men are created equal, they are endowed with certain unalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which means good.

Studs Terkel Which goodness.

Mortimer J. Adler And to secure these rights, just governments, the very governments instituted by men in deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Studs Terkel Well, consent of the governed, and so let's come to that, we're talking about these six ideas, that are part of every day lives?], consent of the governed. I know that when you were teaching at the University of Chicago in the, in, I remember in the law school, philisophy law at the time, I was a law student and sitting as you were -- well, you had your colloquies with various members of our faculty. And there was Plato, Aristotle and Zuroast -- the various ones you'd -- consent of the governed. Yet Plato, Plato was pretty much of an authoritarian. He didn't think much of consent of the governed.

Mortimer J. Adler The matter of fact the, the notion of the consent of the governed is coeval with constitutional government. The, the Greeks, and it wasn't Aristotle, it was Solon in, in Athens and Lycurgus in Sparta who first invented the idea of a constitution, and a constitution, this is not democracy now. The constitution is a framework of government merely defining public offices that the citizens agree to. The, in other words, and they, and Aristotle says that in a constitutional government, the citizens are free men and equals, and are rule and are ruled in turn. Now that ideal, not democracy because only a small number of men are committed to citizenship. Democracy is

Studs Terkel Of course there were, there were slaves.

Mortimer J. Adler Oh sure slaves and, and all kinds of d -- women were disfranchised into [unintelligible], you know, you don't expect this in the ancient world, in fact, the first political writer, the first in the whole history of Western civilization who came out for universal suffrage was John Stuart Mill in 1863. That's the first, no one else!

Studs Terkel It wasn't til Mill. Was there a society? This is, we, we always think of the Greeks, you, you know, of, of that golden age of Greece, was there any society, east or west in which there was, in which there were no slaves, in which women had suffrage

Mortimer J. Adler

Studs Terkel A few years ago Mike Nichols in a, in a comic routine spoke of being -- he was a British writer, and he says "Poets can't make a living these days." He -- "Playwrights can't, writers can't. Only philosophers can make a living." He says, "Look at Bertrand Russell." He was very funny. At the same now I was thinking of perhaps the most celebrated of our popular philosophers, of Mortimer J. Adler who, you know, you knew him, people do, from the Great Books courses that he and Robert Maynard Hutchins instituted at the University of Chicago during those glory days at the University, and Professor Adler is chairman of the board of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Editors. Editors, rather, and director of the Institute of, of Philosophical Research that gave us the Syntopicon, we can perhaps talk about that a little, too. And his most recent book, How to Read a Book is certainly one of his most popular and indeed a bestseller, the most recent one is Six Great Ideas published by Macmillan. And so I thought perhaps the reflections of Mortimer J. Adler in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] And so we begin, Dr. Adler, with the Six Great Ideas. One of the first things you say is that philosophy is everybody's business and that it's part of everyday being. It's the -- of all the academic disciplines, it's the only one that is not a specialty. And, and one of the great, one of the great troubles in my view of what has happened to philosophy in the 20th century academically, is it has become as technical and as professional, professional and specialized as mathematics or logic or physics or, or chemistry, and it's, it's lost its meaning for most people. And my effort in the last few books I've written, Aristotle for Everybody before this and in the book on How to Think About God and this book, is to deal with important ideas, which about a philosopher should be dealing with anyway, in language and in terms that anyone can understand, because I think, you know, these six ideas, three of them, truth, goodness, and beauty, the ideas we judge by and the basic values we employ in measuring things, and the other three ideas, liberty, equality, and justice, which are absolutely central in our understanding of politics and economics and society, and understanding of our American framework of government. Why I suppose you have those, those very phrases, the very phrase and ideas appear again and again, don't they, in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, five of the ideas appear in the second paragraph of the Declaration. Yeah. Self-evident truths -- All men are created equal, they are endowed with certain unalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which means good. Which goodness. And to secure these rights, just governments, the very governments instituted by men in deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Well, consent of the governed, and so let's come to that, we're talking about these six ideas, that are part of every day lives?], consent of the governed. I know that when you were teaching at the University of Chicago in the, in, I remember in the law school, philisophy law at the time, I was a law student and sitting as you were -- well, you had your colloquies with various members of our faculty. And there was Plato, Aristotle and Zuroast -- the various ones you'd -- consent of the governed. Yet Plato, Plato was pretty much of an authoritarian. He didn't think much of consent of the governed. The matter of fact the, the notion of the consent of the governed is coeval with constitutional government. The, the Greeks, and it wasn't Aristotle, it was Solon in, in Athens and Lycurgus in Sparta who first invented the idea of a constitution, and a constitution, this is not democracy now. The constitution is a framework of government merely defining public offices that the citizens agree to. The, in other words, and they, and Aristotle says that in a constitutional government, the citizens are free men and equals, and are rule and are ruled in turn. Now that ideal, not democracy because only a small number of men are committed to citizenship. Democracy is a Of course there were, there were slaves. Oh sure slaves and, and all kinds of d -- women were disfranchised into [unintelligible], you know, you don't expect this in the ancient world, in fact, the first political writer, the first in the whole history of Western civilization who came out for universal suffrage was John Stuart Mill in 1863. That's the first, no one else! It wasn't til Mill. Was there a society? This is, we, we always think of the Greeks, you, you know, of, of that golden age of Greece, was there any society, east or west in which there was, in which there were no slaves, in which women had suffrage of No, There

Mortimer J. Adler No. Let me say that the reason for slavery -- it's hard to remember this. We live in a, a technologically advanced society in which slaves would, it would be economically wasteful. Machines are so much better than slaves. I mean, in fact slavery without, would have gone out in the United States had the cotton gin been invented and perfected much sooner. And slavery, slavery was, was carried on way past its economic usefulness. But in the ancient world, there would have been no civilization at all without human slavery. In China or anywhere else, because in Egypt this is true, unless a small -- in, in a world in which men's subsistence is eked by terribly tiring and time-consuming toil on a daily basis, no one has, has time free to develop the arts and sciences and the institutions of the state. That is, the, the just-- this is not justifying it, it is explaining it. That the invention of slavery was a kind of technological advance. The domestication of animals came first. The domestication of animals, dogs and horses and oxen, bullocks, took a certain amount of labor off man's back and muscle.

Studs Terkel Off certain men's back.

Mortimer J. Adler [Unintelligible] In a primitive society, off the whole tribe's back. I mean, primitive societies had, had imitated animals. Not slaves. See? Then when you go from the primitive tribes to cities, the addition of domesticated animals you add human, human animals who are treated as, as instruments of production. And this enables the men who own them, as the men who own machines now, to have their time free, not to do nothing, but as Aristotle says, those who have stewards and slaves to run the households provide the means, should spend their time in philosophy and politics. Where philosophy means the institutions, all the arts and sciences, and politics means

Studs Terkel They, they were free, these men who, who, who owned slaves, to study and think, but how could they even conceive of words like equality and justice?

Mortimer J. Adler They, they, they did.

Studs Terkel It was in the abstract, of course.

Mortimer J. Adler They regarded, you see, again you must, you must both acknowledge their error and understand their error. That is an error, and a serious one without any question. There are, are no slaves by nature. And the interesting thing that Aristotle did was, since he knew that slavery was an, an, an almost necessary institution, and he knew it was unjust to have slaves by purchase or slaves by conquest or by force, he tried to justify an unjust thing by saying that there were some men who were intended by nature to be slaves. He was wrong, and Rousseau very smartly in the social contract corrected him. He said Aristotle was right, but he mistook the effect for the cause. If a man is, child is born into slavery and brought up in slavery, nurtured as a slave, he will appear to be by nature a slave, whereas in fact he's only by nurture a slave. Absolutely profound point.

Studs Terkel So he will

Mortimer J. Adler That by the way explains women, too.

Studs Terkel If he is conditioned to be a slave, then he accepts, of course there were those in the slave revolts, naturally, who

Mortimer J. Adler They will, they will, they will appear slavish.

Studs Terkel Yet Aesop was a slave.

Mortimer J. Adler So was Epictetus, the great Roman Stoic philosopher. There are many in, in Rome!

Studs Terkel He wasn't born to be a

Mortimer J. Adler No, he was, he was captured and sold. In fact, most of the Greek pedagogues, most, most of the persons who carried Greek civilization into Rome came as Greek slaves captured by the Romans.

Studs Terkel So we, we come to it because it was Aristotle said some are born to be free, some are born to be slaves.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah, yeah. But that was an error. But you understand how he made the error.

Studs Terkel Error, agree-- yeah, I can, under the nature of the, of the cer-- no, I'm thinking this is fantasy on my part. And it just, you know, just a wild kind of fantasy. Was there no society at all of which we may know far less than we do of the Greeks

Mortimer J. Adler Oh, primitive

Studs Terkel At which there may have been

Mortimer J. Adler No slaves.

Studs Terkel A kind of equity.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah. All primitive societies.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Mortimer J. Adler Very primitive.

Studs Terkel They were.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah.

Studs Terkel Now

Mortimer J. Adler As soon as you get cities.

Studs Terkel They're the

Mortimer J. Adler As soon as, as soon as, the interesting thing is slavery is coincident with the rise of civilization, and the rise

Studs Terkel And, and I suppose property.

Mortimer J. Adler And property. And, and, and the arts and sciences, in, in for example the great development of astronomy in, in Egypt and in Babylon was a priestly class that didn't work, was supported, time, free time for the use of what I call the pursuits of leisure which are the [color?], the pursuits of the mind. It's indispensable, without that free time you can't get it. If everyone has to work for a living 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Studs Terkel Mmm, yeah.

Mortimer J. Adler No hope.

Studs Terkel So. Let's take -- of course now we have machines.

Mortimer J. Adler There are slaves.

Studs Terkel That can be slaves provided

Mortimer J. Adler And the Japanese are much better, they got robots that can be slaves, even

Studs Terkel Provided they're used toward

Mortimer J. Adler Right!

Studs Terkel Human ends.

Mortimer J. Adler That's right!

Studs Terkel Human needs.

Mortimer J. Adler Absolutely.

Studs Terkel Rather than -- well, let's consider the truth, okay, truth, goodness, beauty, ideas we judge people by. Liberty, equality, justice by which man

Mortimer J. Adler -- And women.

Studs Terkel Live by. Okay. Truth. Now, Pilate once asked, "What is truth?" Okay. Now, truth once upon a time, the great many of the world was flat.

Mortimer J. Adler Let me,

Studs Terkel Was that a truth

Mortimer J. Adler No. Let me, let me give you a, a, that, that's a kind of a familiar illustration. Let me give you a better one.

Studs Terkel All right.

Mortimer J. Adler Truth is immutable. Men's judgments about what is true or false is quite changing, but the way to, the way to understand the immutability of truth is this: In, in the 17th century, Newton, the greatest physicist that ever lived until Einstein, probably the greatest ever, flatly declares in his Opticks, in his Principia Mathematica, physi-- Philosophiae Naturalis that the atom is indivisible. It was false then. Not until the 20th century do we actually know that the atom was divisible by dividing it. In the -- all previous centuries when all men thought that the atom was indivisible, they were wrong. The truth that the atom is divisible was true then, true now, and it will be true forever. It will never be, never be false.

Studs Terkel Could I try this for size, see what you think, Mortimer, the truth. When Galileo looked through the telescope and saw that Copernicus was right, that the Earth travels around the sun, that he discovered something that we, the Earth is only part of one larger entity.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah. Okay.

Studs Terkel Is not the center. Okay. Now we live in 1981. We still maintain that one country, whether it be US or USSR or China by God is it, is what it's about [unintelligible]. Now haven't we come to a truth now where the split atom or the nuclear war which nobody can win, that the only truth is that we're all part of one global village and there is no number one? I'll try that.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah, but, but that, that's a different meaning. The astronomical truth remains exactly the same in the -- Copernicus was right.

Studs Terkel I'm saying it's directly connected with an astronomical truth.

Mortimer J. Adler No, no, it isn't.

Studs Terkel Or a physical truth, split the atom.

Mortimer J. Adler There's a, I'm, I'm 100 percent with you. Studs, I've been a wor -- one world man even before Wendell Willkie was. I think we are one global village. I think we have, I think for the peace, the prosperity and for the survival of mankind on Earth, for the cure of all our -- most of our problems now are global. Our population problem, our energy problem, our environment problem, our war problem, our economic problem, our, our, our, our energy problem, all of them are global problems, none of which can be solved by national governments. Secondly, the, the good of mankind, I mean -- most, most of the good societies of the way, world, whether they could call them Socialist or Democratic Socialism or Communist makes no difference to me at all. They are all welfare societies in the sense that no one is to be left out. There'll be to be no, no starving, destitute human beings. Well, you can't, you can't run that show and spend the millions on destruction that has involved -- I mean, I mean we, we've got to come to the end of this idiocy of military installations. Russia is just suffering just as much as we are, I assure you. They suffer differently. They don't call it inflation, they call it "No butter. No bread. Bread lines." See? The only solution, and I, I must say I just came back from Athens where I addressed 300 bankers in a, in an international banking association from all over the world, and I tried this out on them, I said, talking about the world, I said, "Don't you agree? You are, you, you, you form an international association here, that you represent the world of -- we know that the world must become one politically and economically, and there is no solution except world federal government now." Surprised to have them not say no! There, there is, that is the answer, it has to be. How it's going to -- it only -- yeah?

Studs Terkel I'm sorry, I was even saying, even for the moment not federal government, we know that people have to find their identity. New countries, third world countries, and so there is a nationalism. No I'm not, not nationalism if it become jingoistic, find identity. I'm, I'm saying even with that nationalism if we say there is no one society, I don't care whether east or west, that is the center, no more than Earth is the center of the universe

Mortimer J. Adler That's why

Studs Terkel That's what I meant by the

Mortimer J. Adler We must have one, we must have one, one cultural community, and I want to say something about that. That is impossible unless there are certain common shared values worldwide. If what is good and bad, if what is right and wrong, if what is true and false, is our objective and the same for all men, give it up! You've got to get over cultural prejudices and nationalistic prejudices. The things that divide men are the evil things. Nationalism and culturalism divide men. They have to be -- I have no object to culturalism with respect to dress or dance or cuisine.

Studs Terkel No, I, I think a, a culture to some extent could be healthy. To some extent.

Mortimer J. Adler Bear in mind, it varies

Studs Terkel I mean that if I, in that I, it, each people is different. To maintain that, at the same time not to say it's better than.

Mortimer J. Adler Precisely the point. The point I'm trying to make is that the cultural differences are very superficial. The really important things are what unite men together. They're all human beings and they, they should acknowledge the same truths, and agree about the same values.

Studs Terkel You know, this was one of Bertrand Russell's last comments, the time of the nuclear crisis then in '62 '63. He said, "You know, there are differences of con -- we must overcome these because there is one common humanity." Unless you recognize that we're all

Mortimer J. Adler Absolutely the, absolutely the case.

Studs Terkel Going

Mortimer J. Adler Absolutely the case. You know, most people use the words "objective" and "subjective" and use the words "absolute" and "relative" and don't know what they mean. Now I, I, I've been so perplexed by this because in all the discussions I have about truth or beauty or goodness, the question of the objective and the subjective and the absolute and the relative comes in, let me just give you four simple definitions. The objective is what is the same for you, me and every, every other Joe, The subjective is what is different for you, for me and all the other Joes or Marys there are. The absolute is what is the same at this time, at any other time, at this place, any other place, and under any circumstances. The relative is what varies from time to time, from place to place, and with circumstances.

Studs Terkel You know, it's funny as we freely associate I was thinking as you were talking, there is this passage in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath in which the Joad family is heading toward the West during the Depression and the drought, the dustbowl days, and they've stopped somewhere and some sharecropper is returning from California, he's "Don't believe a word those guys say, there're only five jobs where they say there are 100 jobs. I'm going back and starve quietly where I came from." And so Preacher -- so Tom Joad asks Preacher, "Is that man telling the truth?" And Casey says, "The truth for him. For us," he says, "I don't know." Well, it was the truth for them, but they didn't experience it yet.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah.

Studs Terkel Which leads to a big question. Must one have to experience horror in order to be horrified by horror?

Mortimer J. Adler I don't know the answer to that question, Studs, but whenever anyone says "The truth for me," he isn't talking about the truth, he's talking about what his opinion of the truth is. The truth is not something for me or for you. I repeat: the divis, the divisibility of the atom is not true -- you don't say is true for me and not true for you. It's true! Anyone who has the opposite opinion is wrong!

Studs Terkel No, see what I'm thinking is, must we experience, this is coming back to it -- we know when someone says, "Let's drop the bomb," it's almost casually about dropping bombs and atomic war, we have never had a bomb fall on us, but you talk to a person in Dresden or in Hiroshima

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah, No, no, no,

Studs Terkel You see, then it becomes something else.

Mortimer J. Adler I, I think

Studs Terkel Then, then he says "You're mad."

Mortimer J. Adler That's right. The -- that isn't a question of truth. That's a question of, of sensitivity. People, it is amazing that people cannot exercise their imagination to deal with things that are not intimately part of their own experience. One of the, I think one of the great values of, of, of the novel, of reading great novels, is that the novelist sug-- gives you vicarious experience. He enables you to experience deeply and emotionally something that lies beyond the scope of your own experience, and there, there's -- for example, this in a sense John Hersey's book on Hiroshima if properly read would make people, if they read it properly, would make people sensitive something they never experienced, you see.

Studs Terkel Something you just said about a, a great novel can do something to that person over and beyond the actual words of it. James Baldwin once said, this is about 20 years ago, said "I felt I was alone, I felt no one felt as I did, until I read Dostoevsky, and then suddenly I realized, Wow! I'm like that guy in that book." Now, that is

Mortimer J. Adler Very, very important.

Studs Terkel Nature.

Mortimer J. Adler Very

Studs Terkel And so this leads to a question. You have here, this is about truth. The truth to be found in poetry is not the same as the truth we look for in history, science or philosophy. But suppose I were to say to you that Einstein thought like a poet, that is, the leaps he took on imagination are poetic leaps. That is, he was not -- a technician alone could never do that.

Mortimer J. Adler No, but then I think that's a -- I think personally, Studs, that's a misuse of the word "poetic." Einstein, most of Einstein's thinking is primarily intuitive and then he backs it up with reasoning later, but he doesn't, that is, there are two, there are two meanings of science. There's science one and science two. Science one is the actual way in which the scientist gets his ideas. Science two is the rationalization of the ideas after he's got, and there's -- people who think that science two represent science one are greatly mistaken. We have to -- when you teach it, you teach science two. But when science is in, comes into being, it comes into being science one, not by the scientific process that we ordinarily describe.

Studs Terkel No, I meant was, over and bey-- for example, I think you said this once, there are some people who are called scientists who are not, they're technicians. Two and two is four, and that's it. They solve their little problem. Think of it. But what they've done, they haven't considered the results of it, over and what is beyond

Mortimer J. Adler Great scientists are men of great imagination. I mean, I, I, in fact, it's almost impossible to fathom how Einstein did the imaginative tricks with his mind that he did. They're really quite extraordinary.

Studs Terkel Now, I'm thinking of Bronowski once spoke of Coleridge speaking of the variety and similarity that you suddenly find something familiar in that which seems strange. Well, poets do this of course with their metaphors, so does great

Mortimer J. Adler Great scientists do it too, yeah

Studs Terkel Yeah, in that sense. So we're talking about truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, justice. These are words of course politicians use all the time.

Mortimer J. Adler Everyone uses them. I, I doubt if anyone in the course of a, of a month hasn't used them many many times.

Studs Terkel But we have to dig into as to what they really mean.

Mortimer J. Adler Really mean. And they all, thereby they all have, none of them has a single meaning. They're all very complex notions with a whole range of meanings and what's terribly important is to understand what that range of meanings is, to know that there are subtleties about truth and goodness and beauty and subtleties about liberty, equality, and justice so that you don't deal with them as if they were flat and unvaried.

Studs Terkel In the, in the Declaration of Independence, self-evident truths. What would be a self-evident

Mortimer J. Adler Let me give you an example. I've got a very good example. Take a triangle. Take a square. Now, you can draw a -- two diagonals in a square. The reason why you can draw two diagonals in a square because a diagonal in a regular polygon is a line that connects non-adjacent angles, and there are two non-adjacent angles in a square, so you can draw two diagonals. The proposition there are no diagonals in a triangle is self-evident. If you know that a triangle is a three-sided figure and that a three-sided figure has no non-adjacent angles, you also know at once you can't draw diagonals in a triangle. That's self-evident. And the way to understand, the way to understand that Studs, the easiest way to say it is, when you find it impossible, literally impossible to think the opposite, to force your mind. You couldn't if you sat here from now to tomorrow morning force your mind to think "I can draw a diagonal in a triangle." You can't do it! That's self-evident.

Studs Terkel That's self-evident.

Mortimer J. Adler There aren't many, there aren't many propositions like that. Small number.

Studs Terkel The Declaration says "All men are created equal." That's

Mortimer J. Adler That's not self-evident. That is not self-evident, and it is not, it is not self--

Studs Terkel They speak of it as self-evident truths in the Declaration.

Mortimer J. Adler Jefferson was being rhetorical rather than logical there. The reason why it's not self-evident -- I can make it self-evident, but he didn't make it self-evident. He put the word "created" in. The proposition that all men are created is not self-evident, that assumes that God exists and God created men, and that God exists is not self-evident and that even if God exists, that God created anything is not self-evident, these are all things that require argument.

Studs Terkel Since you say created, of course that leads to

Mortimer J. Adler Sure, that's what [produces?] trouble. But let me

Studs Terkel The subject today.

Mortimer J. Adler I can, I can change the, I can change Jefferson's statement. It wouldn't be as powerful in the 18th century as his was, but suppose I say all men -- oh, I'll even make it better because the word "men" is unfortunate. All human beings are by nature equal, which is nothing but to say that no one is more -- no individual human being is more or less human than any other. That's all it means.

Studs Terkel Or by nature he got -- the word "created"

Mortimer J. Adler That's what the word, that's, that's the bad word.

Studs Terkel If we take a slight pause and I wanted to pick up with today of what is truth, will you hear the word "creationism."

Mortimer J. Adler Oh, that's

Studs Terkel No, no, I know, it's, it's, we have to face it. [laughing] In a moment if we may just and then, and then deal with

Mortimer J. Adler it I'll

Studs Terkel As quickly you want to. After this pause. We're talking to Mortimer J. Adler, his most recent work is called Six Great Ideas, and the ideas are the three, three that we judge others and ourselves by, truth, goodness, beauty, these are general phrases and more specific perhaps as we go along. And truths. I must say truths, ideas we live by, liberty, equality, justice, and we resume -- the book is published by Macmillan, and again by your reading, I notice a reading -- one philosopher you can read with a great deal of ease, his style is a felicitous one indeed, and so we'll resume in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] My guest is Mortimer J. Adler, we'll resume the conversation, and I deliberately brought up creationism. I know it -- but nonetheless there it is as though Darwin never existed.

Mortimer J. Adler You see, the, the Moral Majority, which is just the most recent form of American fundamentalism, fundamentalism in the Christian tradition, I don't know that, I, there, I think there is a similar fundamentalism in the Talmud, in the Talmudic tradition of the Jews. I can't speak for, for Islam, though I'm sure that the Ay -- the Ayatollah and his cohorts are equally fundamentalist. This is the most serious, most serious of all theological errors. This is scandalous. The one book that cannot be read literally and only literally is sacred scripture. The Old Testament, the New Testament. To say on the one hand it's the word of God, the revealed word of God, and say what it says is literally true makes mincemeat and nonsense of it!

Studs Terkel Because it's poetry.

Mortimer J. Adler No, no,

Studs Terkel It's poetic. No, therefore their metaphors.

Mortimer J. Adler Metaphors! And unless you understand -- for example, "The arm of God is raised in wrath" -- now, you know that God has no arm! And you know that God has no emotions! If you know any-- if you know anything about God at all, you know -- say, if you believe a religious person, and have any kind of a decent

Studs Terkel -- You don't believe in an anthropomorphic God.

Mortimer J. Adler That's right, purely spiritual being. No arm, no wrath. Hence when you, when the phrase "The arm of God is raised in wrath against the, the disobedient children of Israel," that's just -- it must be understood! And these utterly stupid fundamentalists! The Moral Majority, I, I, I really, I, I boil in anger!

Studs Terkel I must ask you, we, we'll leave them

Mortimer J. Adler -- Well

Studs Terkel I met a kid of the streets, and this is a marvelous, see what you think of this. I once asked him, this is a tough kid, little Puerto Rican kid, little education, he says -- I says, "What is God? Who is God to you?" And he says, "God to me? Well, you see, I'm Puerto Rican, you see, so I think maybe God has brown skin. A, a Chinese kid might think God has yellow skin." Now I, I'm thinking about his insights, he says -- "I think a, a, a white, a kid thinks -- Italian kid thinks God's Italian." Then he said, "Whatever you are, you want somebody great to be like you." I thought it's a wonderful insight he had.

Mortimer J. Adler But, but, but again

Studs Terkel You see

Mortimer J. Adler Mistaken, mistaken

Studs Terkel No, I'm, I'm not talking about the anthropomorphic as -- I'm talking about his imagination that you want to be part of something aside from yourself.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah, but you must not

Studs Terkel -- That resembles

Mortimer J. Adler -- You must not make the image of God, it must not make God in your own image. One of the worst things. Worst -- these, these, these are by the way, this is very serious errors, these are very

Mortimer J. Adler No, I, I, that wasn't

Mortimer J. Adler And they are broad in the world today, you know. They're broad in the world today.

Studs Terkel Well, let's, you know -- something we haven't talked about, that's goodness. You have goodness here. Now, goodness, if ever there were a word that is generally promiscuously misused it is "goodness." You know, one get a little difference between doing people good and doing people good!

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah. Or being good or acting well or seeking the good or achieving the good or leading a good life or creating a good society. So it is one of the fundamental words in the language and requires a great deal of analysis. I mean, it, it's not easy and yet everyone, everyone uses it, uses the word "good" and "bad" or "good" and "evil" and "right" and "wrong" which are derivatives of those two basic words, and one of the reasons I wrote so many chapters on the, on the notion of goodness is because it's a very complicated notion to get clear.

Studs Terkel Well, I suppose someone said "It's good for you but not for me."

Mortimer J. Adler Well, that's wrong. Because there are two meanings of good, there's the real good and the apparent good, just like true for me and not for you. Good for -- there is a true for me and not for you, because my opinion, I think my opinion is true and you think your opinion, and what I like I call good, and what you like you call good, but I assure you there are some things which are good whether you like them or not. And there are some things that are good even if you dislike them. And they're not for you and for me, you see? That in every one of these, in all three of these basic ideas, Studs, the true, the good, and the beautiful, you have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective aspects of them. They all have both objective and subjective aspects, and the trouble is that most people, in a loose and vulgar way, think only of the subjective aspect of true, good, and beautiful.

Studs Terkel Then you're talking about certain immutable aspects

Mortimer J. Adler And an object-- immutable and objective.

Studs Terkel Yeah. I know. Liberty. Okay. Liberty, license. There's difference, isn't there? Liberty and license.

Mortimer J. Adler Liberty consists in being able to do anything that you -- being free to act as you wish so long as your action injures nobody else or the community. To act as you wish with a consequence of injuring others is license, not liberty.

Studs Terkel You know, there, there was a teacher, A.S. Neill, he had a school outside London called Summerhill, and Neill had his own way of teaching. He says, "liberty, license," and he was accused of being too easy, too permissive, and he said, "Wait, there's a difference here. We had -- where the students are self-governing, I'm part of that self-governing body," he says, "But --" I says, "You mean you allow them to -- ?" "No. Now if a boy gets up at two o'clock, a boy can blow a trumpet if he wants to. But if he blows a trumpet at two o'clock in the morning and disturbs the others, that's license."

Mortimer J. Adler That's right.

Studs Terkel And so that's basically we're talking about, aren't we?

Mortimer J. Adler Yes. Precisely. Precisely. Precisely.

Studs Terkel So what -- I was thinking of -- there's so many thoughts come to my mind. Oh, I know, you, you're quoting William James on pragmatism and truth. Now here's, we hear now pragmatism is a word political figures use all the time. "Let's be practical. Let's be pragmatic."

Mortimer J. Adler James, James' pragmatic theory of truth was not nearly, really a new theory of truth. The theory of truth that Ja-- the theory of what the truth is that James espoused was the ancient, ancient correspondence theory that Aristotle first enunciated in the fourth century B.C.. What James added to it was the test, the sign, the thing that showed whether or not a given opinion was true or not. See you can know what truth is and not know whether this opinion is true or false. And James suggested, "How can you tell, whether -- after you know what truth is, whether this particular opinion is true?" Well, he says if it works. If you follow it out, act on it and it doesn't, you know, knock your head against reality and bloody your skull, it's true. If you find that when you act on it reality comes up and slaps you in the face and says "No, no, you can't do that!" Let me give you an example I use in the book.

Studs Terkel Sure.

Mortimer J. Adler Two men are drifting down a stream on a bright sunny day in a, in a boat. And they've been told that there's a cataract, a dangerous cataract some distance away, but they misremember what they were told. They think they were told it's four miles away. In fact, they were told it's two miles away. They hold the opinion that it's four miles away, and they go to sleep in the sun as the boat drifts, because they think they have plenty of time drifting slowly, but the, the cataract is just two miles away and before they know it, before they've waked up in time, the boat goes over the side. Now that's, that's, that's a pragmatic test of the falsehood of that opinion. Four miles away was false, it's two miles away, and reality hit them in the face. You see? That, that is a pragmatic test of true and false.

Studs Terkel Yeah. We live in a strange time, a time of obviously revolutionary changes in every way

Mortimer J. Adler -- Every

Studs Terkel In all aspects of political, literary

Mortimer J. Adler That's right.

Studs Terkel And of course in physics.

Mortimer J. Adler Oh no, basic physics sure.

Studs Terkel And so here we come to, we had come to an atom that is split. People thought could never be split

Mortimer J. Adler -- Right.

Studs Terkel As a result our whole world is different, or our prospects are different, too. Unless we adjust. Now we come to it. Isn't that a question also, a world adjusting to a newly discovered truth or aspect of, if you don't then we go. I suppose the di-- I'm no anthropologist but I suppose, or dinosaurs didn't make it because they couldn't adjust to the world's changing

Mortimer J. Adler I think man is probably pragmatically speaking the most successful animal on earth, because lacking teeth and claws and other, and armor, lacking what the highly specialized animals of the past had, which have made them inflexible and unadjustable, man has only his hands and his reason. And these are very adjustable tools, and so man alone is able to live in almost any climate on earth, in any environment and to adjust to any amount of change. Any amount of change.

Studs Terkel I accept that if man cannot accept, does not accept that change in a new light, this was Einstein's great fear.

Mortimer J. Adler If he, if he's not using his, if man not using his intelligence is the dumbest of animals.

Studs Terkel Well then, of course we come to the, obviously we can no longer say there have been wars and always will be wars because it would be different. Except there is no winner.

Mortimer J. Adler That's right. General Maxwell Taylor very wisely, he's a very wise general who's against all this nuclear stuff, who said that war is a process of getting something you want. A nuclear war, you -- no one gets anyone, anything he wants and so it's, it's a bit, not, not even a good definition, it doesn't fit the definition of war at all! It doesn't belong to a war, it's something else, a kind of suicidal, suicidal mania!

Studs Terkel Did Taylor say that?

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah.

Studs Terkel So we come to taste. Oh, beauty. You, you have beauty here. Well, taste comes from -- you have beauty as one of the three aspects by which we judge people.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah. Or judge things.

Studs Terkel Thing. So beauty, guy says, "Chacon a son gout." "Each to his own taste." Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

Mortimer J. Adler That's the same business about true for me not for you, good for you, not for me. You, you think it's beautiful, I don't, but that's all objective beauty. Let me, let me try something on you.

Studs Terkel All

Mortimer J. Adler When I was at Columbia back in the early twenties, Abbott and Trabue, two professors at Teachers College, invented a poetry appreciation test, and this is what they did, Studs. They took a stanza of Keats, a stanza of Shelley, a stanza of Browning, a stanza of Tennyson, a stanza of Wordsworth, and they spoiled it three ways. They spoiled the rhythm, they spoiled the rhyme, they spoiled the sense. They put on a piece of paper the four versions: the original by Keats, and the three spoiled versions, or the original by Tennyson, and then they gave it to some students, and said "Which do you like best? Put down one, two, three, four according to which you like best." A few students preferred the original Keats to the spoiled versions. Most of the students in varying ways preferred the spoiled versions to the original. Now, were, were the spoiled versions better than the original? Even though to the students without much taste, with poor taste, I say poor taste preferred the bad versions. The unbeautiful versions. Clearly if you use this, says take that, if you realize that, that when you take a great work of art and spoil it, spoil it, you're doing something do it objectively, and the people with poor taste will like the spoiled version better than the original.

Studs Terkel But you know

Mortimer J. Adler Therefore poor taste consists in enjoying what is not beautiful.

Studs Terkel Well, you know what I would -- I think I'd have gone a step further. Why do those kids have that poor

Mortimer J. Adler Because their, their taste wasn't cultivated.

Studs Terkel Ah, so now we come to the nature of a society in which we live

Mortimer J. Adler You cultivate it.

Studs Terkel Now, let's, let's take that a step further. Suppose instead of top 40 tunes, which we hear every day on radio because it sells, top 40, popular, suppose instead of that surfeiting, you know, being the air all the time, suppose instead of a soap opera, though, there were literature done in soap opera form daily, from the very early days of that childhood children

Mortimer J. Adler -- You cultivate taste.

Studs Terkel That child would have good taste.

Mortimer J. Adler Absolutely!

Studs Terkel It's not a question of something innate.

Mortimer J. Adler See I, I think, I think there are three imperatives. The logical imperative is you ought to cultivate your mind to think logically so that you can distinguish between the true and the false. The ethical imperative is you ought to form moral character where you desire what is really good, not what is very -- and the aesthetic imperative is that you ought to have your taste cultivated so's you appreciate the good!

Studs Terkel I'm talking about forces that determine our tastes.

Mortimer J. Adler That's right.

Studs Terkel Daily.

Mortimer J. Adler Oh, there are no question

Studs Terkel And it is that aspect that has to be faced no matter how much we may argue and debate it in the classrooms.

Mortimer J. Adler I agree. I agree

Studs Terkel It's the daily -- any chi-- I, I'm convinced, now this may be the romantic in me. I'm convinced that any child, if he hears as much Mozart or good jazz or folk music as whatever the top tune might be, as -- hears that as often as the other, he will eventually in the opposite of [aggression?] choose the good.

Mortimer J. Adler I think he will, too. I agree with you. Completely. And we don't, one of the worst things about our education system is we don't try to do that. We don't try to cultivate taste, and God knows the electronic media are largely responsible.

Studs Terkel That's the primary thing. So we're, we've been touching on this, you, you take off, we've been touching on this in a cursory way. The new book of, of Mortimer J. Adler, Six Great Ideas, truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality

Mortimer J. Adler Justice.

Studs Terkel Justice. Okay. Justice. Now the word "justice" is a word, too, you immediately think of the lady blindfolded with the unbalanced scale.

Mortimer J. Adler That symbolizes the fact that justice is non-discriminatory.

Studs Terkel Also the scales are unbalanced or justice is blind, too.

Mortimer J. Adler Sure. I mean she's Or

Studs Terkel -- Or both.

Mortimer J. Adler She's be colorblind and race blind and gender blind, that is, treats all human beings equally.

Studs Terkel And also blind to justice, too.

Mortimer J. Adler No, I don't think so.

Studs Terkel See, if she's blindfolded, the scale is

Mortimer J. Adler No, I think you're reading the symbol wrong. I think that's not it. But justice is a

Studs Terkel I'm seeing the symbol, so often is reality.

Mortimer J. Adler Justice, justice I think is the, is the prime, the primary notion of those three. Justice is more important than liberty and equality, because justice controls and regulates liberty and equality. No one should have more freedom than he can use justly. No one deserves more equality than he ought to have.

Studs Terkel How could -- I know, this is looking back to Plato and Aristotle. How could they talk about justice?

Mortimer J. Adler They did very well.

Studs Terkel With a slave, no, with, with, with a slave class.

Mortimer J. Adler Because they, because they convinced themselves there was -- by the way, Plato, curiously enough, is much more critical of slavery than Aristotle. Even though he is as you say authoritarian. He -- he, he was less content, less acquiescent in the idea of, of slavery than Aristotle was. But in any case, you know, the men who've written books about justice and have developed the idea can themselves make mistakes about it. I mean, there is, as [unintelligible] said again and again, the ancients made a mistake about slavery, it was always unjust, the enslavement of any human being is a rank injustice, as great an injustice as murder is, but you have to understand why it is to -- look how long it has taken. Look how long it has taken, and even in the world today, there are large parts of the human race that are in abject subjection, abject almost slavery, aren't they? So that we haven't, we haven't, we haven't come full circle on this yet. We haven't recognized the deep injustices, and there are lots of male chauvinist pigs who think that women are unequal, there are -- absolutely is, as violently unjust as those who think that there are inferior races which should be treated as slaves. I mean, there's a great deal of injustice in the world.

Studs Terkel How, how did Plato regard dissent? He was not too hot on that, was

Mortimer J. Adler I don't think he would have understood dissent. I think it means he, that the, the notion, these notions of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, are, are really don't come into them until you get to John Stuart Mill. I mean, it's amazing. Mill, the great liberal of the 19th century, middle of

Studs Terkel So it's not 'til the 19th century that these ideas were seriously discussed.

Mortimer J. Adler Well, seriously discussed, they, they were, that all their angles were understood. I mean don't, don't misunderstand me. The greatest discussions of justice are in Plato and Aristotle, even though they made errors. No one, no one even compares with them. No one compares with Aristotle and Plato in the examination of that idea of justice. But they made two errors. Not Plato, Plato only made one. Plato made no error about women. He thought that men and women -- in fact, the two great thinkers in the West who were right about women and the equality of men and women are Plato and John Stuart Mill. Aristotle made two errors, about natural slavery and the inferiority of women.

Studs Terkel But if, what -- if it was not 'til the 19th century these theses, how would -- how about the early America, how about Jefferson in the 18th century?

Mortimer J. Adler Jefferson had slaves.

Studs Terkel No, I'm talking about the nature of, the serious discussion of setting down the idea of justice in the Declaration of Independence. Something new was happening here.

Mortimer J. Adler Yeah,

Studs Terkel Like Tom Paine and Sam Adams, something new was happening here.

Mortimer J. Adler No, they're, they're talking about constitutional government as just, and despotism unjust. They're talking about the justice of, of natural rights. I mean, you know, the doctrine that there are certain inalienable rights or natural human rights is a fundamental notion of justice. They had it.

Studs Terkel And so, who was it said, "Better to suffer injustice than to do it?"

Mortimer J. Adler Plato!

Studs Terkel He

Mortimer J. Adler Plato! Well, as a matter of fact there are two things in Plato

Studs Terkel But he did injustice, though. Yeah.

Mortimer J. Adler There's another thing that

Studs Terkel Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Mortimer J. Adler I don't know that he did it. You are correct in thinking that he's not always -- you know, there are no human thinkers, however great, and Plato and Aristotle are among the greatest, who do not make errors. We make errors, you make errors, I make errors, but the, the, Plato's two profound questions that no one else ever raised is, "Why should I be just to you? What's, what's in it for me? How do I benefit?" Good question. By being just to you, I can see how I benefit you! But how does it benefit me to be just to you? That's one question, and the other question you just mentioned is, "If I have to, if I'm forced, faced with a choice, as sometimes men are faced with a choice between either suffering injustice or doing it, which should I choose?" and Plato's answer was always, "Suffer, don't do it."

Studs Terkel "What's in it for me?" I suppose to look at it in a kindly light, enlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interest rather than simply selfishness.

Mortimer J. Adler It looks that way,

Studs Terkel You know, what's in it for me of course, is something else. But just to give anybody a break who says that, let's say it's an enlightened self-interest. If I'm good to you I, I'll do better. Well that's basically true. If we're really, if, if we don't

Mortimer J. Adler I think there's a deep answer, this is a complicated question, I think there's a deeper answer to that which we try to explain in the book.

Studs Terkel What's that?

Mortimer J. Adler Well, it's a complicated, very good but very complicated answer.

Studs Terkel Moral responsibility. I think about that. If someone is very hungry, you know, we speak of free, free world and everything this and as against another world, one of the freedoms is, as someone, "Well, you're free to do anything." Free to be hungry is not really a freedom, is it?

Mortimer J. Adler No, no, no. No, no, you're not free to -- that's, that's kind of silly.

Studs Terkel No, and so therefore I'm, I'm talking about the idea that if someone commits -- well, I guess it's, I guess it's Jean Valjean, really, come back to that, don't we? And is

Mortimer J. Adler People, people use the word "freedom" in a loose sense, as they use a lot of other words. One of my whole efforts in the course of this kind of book is to teach the readers of the book how not to use these basic words and loose sentences and you'd be a little more precise, and it may clear up their thinking. They -- I mean, I, I, I have found in giving lectures on these subjects that people do appreciate having their minds corrected. Being able to think more clearly, making distinctions more precisely, know more definitely what they mean when they speak.

Studs Terkel Why was it the six? I mean, in your syntopicon?

Mortimer J. Adler A hundred and two.

Studs Terkel A hundred and two. Now, what is it about these six?

Mortimer J. Adler I picked these six because I thought the first three are the most pervasive and transcental of -- transcendental of all values. Truth, goodness and beauty are key -- there no thing broader than that, but I picked the second three because they're so important for anyone who wants to understand the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address or the Constitution of the United States, I mean in terms of American, American obligations. I thought every school child should know what liberty, equality, and justice were.

Studs Terkel Using that, because I mean in, in your syntopicon there is honor, for example. There is law. There is

Mortimer J. Adler Oh, sure. There's a lot to -- fact, I'm going to write another couple of years from now after that book gets out and then round. I'm going to write another book called Six More Great Ideas. I keep on doing it for a long time.

Studs Terkel Well you could do this until you retire.

Mortimer J. Adler That's right, that's right, yes. [laughing]

Studs Terkel One other thought -- now, the book is Six Great Ideas by my guest, Mortimer J. Adler, Macmillan the publishers, and How to Read is one of his most popular books, and you've written scores, you've written really scores of them

Mortimer J. Adler -- Twenty-eight!

Studs Terkel Twenty-eight, so, what thought do you have for us now before we say goodbye, after mentioning the book once more? About the Six Great Ideas or any other ideas? Well,

Mortimer J. Adler Well, I, I've ha -- I've had, in, in recent experience last year two or three very delightful experiences discussing these ideas with high school students, and one of my greatest ambitions right now is to get the discussion of ideas of this kind into the high school curriculum. The, the children enjoy it enormously to have their minds addressed, to have their minds opened to these ideas. And they're very bright about it. I mean, the trouble is that this kind of thing doesn't go on at our high schools at all!

Studs Terkel Of course, you're touching on a very delicate point and a real one, that is, if expectations, if they know, this child, no matter what school he is, knows you expect

Mortimer J. Adler That's right.

Studs Terkel Expectations are great from him, they'll be a coming through, if you expect nothing from them, they will offer nothing. It's what it amounts to. Well, there's a good deal offered in Six Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler, my guest and it's available. I thank you very much.

Mortimer J. Adler Thank you, Studs.