The Great Idea of Truth


(The Television Series)


As broadcast on National Television (PBS)

Each summer since 1951, Mortimer J. Adler conducted a seminar at The Aspen Institute in Colorado. At the 1981 seminar, fifteen leaders from the worlds of business, literature, education, and the arts joined him in an in-depth consideration of the six great ideas that are the subject of this book: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty — the ideas we judge by; and Liberty Equality and Justice — the ideas we act on.

The group discussions and conversations between Dr. Adler and journalist Bill Moyers were filmed for broadcast on public television, and millions of people followed their exploration of these important ideas. Discarding the out worn and off-putting jargon of academia, Dr. Adler dispels the myth that philosophy is the exclusive province of the specialist. He argues that “philosophy is everybody’s business,” and that a better understanding of these fundamental concepts is essential if we are to cope with the political, moral, and social issues that confront us daily.

NOTE: Here we are providing only the video transcript of the intermittent conversations between Dr. Adler and Bill Moyers.


The Great Idea of Truth


BILL MOYERS: Six great ideas — truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, justice. Why these six?

MORTIMER J. ADLER: One answer, Bill, is the Declaration of Independence — the document that every American should understand — and five of those six ideas are in the first four lines of the second paragraph. Let me recite those four lines:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they’re endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — which is the ultimate good — “That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

There are five of the six ideas, and the sixth is in another great document, Pericles’ famous speech at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in which he was comparing Athenian civilization and culture with the militaristic stale of Sparta, and said, “We Athenians cultivate beauty without effeminacy.” — There’s the six of them.

Now, there’s a second reason. Three of these ideas — the first three, truth, goodness and beauty — are the values by which we judge everything in the universe — our ideas, our thoughts, human conduct, the world of nature and the world of artistic products. The second three ideas — liberty, equality and justice — are the ideas that relate you and me, relate people in society. Their equality, their freedom to relate to one another, their just or unjust treatment of one another — they are the ideas that govern our actions. They are the ideas by which we evaluate governments and societies and laws.

MOYERS: One of the oldest of all questions: what is truth?

ADLER: Truth consists in the agreement between what we think and what is in the world, what is real.

MOYERS: [voice-over]: Here comes Mortimer Adler, armed with great ideas — six, to be exact. He aims to make us think about truth, beauty and goodness, liberty, equality and justice. And the first of these is truth.

Aspen, Colorado, home every summer for the Aspen Institute. To its seminars come people from all over the world, to take part in intellectual free-for-aIls over the classic ideas of Western thought. In their midst, that most demanding and controversial provocateur of all, the philosopher and teacher Mortimer Adler. He’s been disturbing the peace of mind in this valley for 30 of his 80 years.

[to Dr. Adler] You’ve been coming out here a long time.

ADLER: Yes, indeed, more than 30 years.

MOYERS: You’ve spent a lot more of your time than that with the great books.

ADLER: The great books for me now goes back more than 60 years, back to the 1920s, when I was a student at Columbia University and began reading them under the marvelous guidance of a great teacher, John Erskine. And in fact I’ve been reading, studying and teaching the great books ever since then. It took two years: we read about 60 books in two years, and discussed them once a week on a Wednesday night. And I learned, I think, how to discuss the great books and how to lead discussions of the great books from him. Marvelous teacher, John Erskine. And the more I read them, the more I studied them, the more I led discussions of them, the more I discovered that the heart of the great books of the great ideas — the great ideas they discuss — there in those books is the Western discussion, the Western consideration, the Western examination and exploration, and the controversies about the great ideas.

MOYERS: What in particular grabbed you in those early days, when you were just a student?

ADLER: Well, the issues raised, they used to he the most important intellectual issues: and often the most important practical issues that any human being can face are stated in terms of ideas like liberty and equality and justice, or truth, goodness and beauty, man, God, immortality, sin, virtue, happiness. I mean, the great ideas are at the heart of our lives in some sense — certainly, our intellectual lives, no question about that at all.

MOYERS: You’re most known to many people for your work in Aspen with this institute.

ADLER: Yes, well, it was in 1950 that Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke first brought me to Aspen, and I’ve been coming ever since. Walter in 1950 established the Aspen Institute and in the next year we started the first executive seminars that I’ve been moderating for the last 30 years. And in those executive seminars the central ideas have been liberty, equality, justice, rights, property, tragedy — ideas that I’ve been considering all my life. And I must say that these Aspen seminars have been the most refreshing and fruitful summers I can possibly spend.

MOYERS: But in addition to moderating the seminars, you’ve written a lot, haven’t you?

ADLER: Oh, yes. In that house there, for example, I wrote two books — the book on the existence of God, and a book on moral philosophy. Back there in the house from which we started, I wrote the book on angels, and a book on the great ideas, and in this house we’re coming to along here in a book called The Common Sense of Politics, and a book called The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes. So that along this street, just within these few hundred yards, I’ve written seven books in Aspen.

MOYERS: What was the idea behind the executive seminars and of bringing adults to the table to discuss these ideas?

ADLER: Well, all, all the people that come to these executive seminars — top executives from our corporations, top persons in United States public life and the professions — they’ve all become, shall I say, narrow specialists in their fields, and Walter’s idea and the idea of the Aspen Institute under Joe Slater has been to open their minds to the great truths, and the great discussions — to make them generalists as well as specialists.

MOYERS: Try to re-educate them.

ADLER: Re-educate them, and they all, I think, appreciate that re-education. I’ve known almost no one who has come to an Aspen executive seminar that hasn’t regarded it as one of the most profitable two weeks in his life.

MOYERS: Is it your feeling that adults can deal with these later in life more easily than they could —

ADLER: It’s been said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a human adult is not an old dog. And a human adult can learn very much more than children can. In fact, as you grow — as you become more mature, learning is more fruitful because you have wider experience, wider back-ground to increase and improve your understanding. I’ve always thought that adult learning was the very — the very essence of human education.

MOYERS: The seminars we’re going to be in over the coming days will include people from different cultures. What is your feeling about the cross-cultural exchanges that take place.”

ADLER: I think we’re still at that stage in the world’s development when there is no trans-cultural community. I think we’re going to have difficulty having the Easterners and the Westerners, the non-Westerners, talk to one another. But it’ll be, even though difficult, the fact — the appearance, the emergence of those difficulties will teach us what we have to do to achieve in the course of time a world cultural community.

MOYERS: But you do think that truth is global?

ADLER: I think that truth is trans-cultural; I think all the fundamental values are trans-cultural.

MOYERS: [voice-over]: Nothing so becomes the human being, says Mortimer Adler, as our mind; and nothing gives him more joy than provoking us to use it. His latest book, Six Great Ideas, will engage and enrage these men and women who have gathered to debate. You’ll meet each by name during this series of films, including a Native American author, an Indonesian philosopher, an oil producer from Texas, a physicist, a lawyer, a judge — 15 in all, of diverse experience and opinion, in the company of six great ideas and one Mortimer Adler.

[to Dr. Adler] Why the pursuit of truth?

ADLER: It’s the deepest human aspiration; it’s the thing that distinguishes mankind from all other animals. In fact, in his pursuit of truth man is — in contemplation of truth, man is most like God.

MOYERS: Most like God?

ADLER: The contemplation of truth — Aristotle thinks of God as being concerned only with the contemplation of truth.

MOYERS: Is it merely — or only — an intellectual pursuit?

ADLER: I think it is. I think it’s the mind of man — it is not a matter of the heart, it’s not a matter of feelings — it’s a matter of the mind, the reasoning mind, the understanding mind that we use to pursue truth.

MOYERS: But are there not works of art, the literature of Carlos Casteneda, for example, that may not be truthful but is meaningful?

ADLER: Oh, yes. I mean, the great — there is poetic truth, of course, but poetic truth is of a totally different kind and I think you’re correct in saying poetic truth lies most in its significance rather than in its, shall I say, factual accuracy.

MOYERS: An example?

ADLER: Well, just take for a moment the extraordinary poetic truth in the satirical writing of Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels. Obviously not true in fact, but extraordinarily true in meaning.

MOYERS: What difference do you — or what distinction do you draw between objective truth and subjective truth?

ADLER: Objective truth is truth that is independent of individual differences, differences in circumstance, time and place. What is objectively true is always true and true for all men everywhere at all times.

MOYERS: What is the difference between truth and reality?

ADLER: Truth is a property of our thought, reality is what measures that property.

MOYERS: Explain that.

ADLER: Well, “true” and “false” are adjectives that apply to the acts of our mind — our judgments, our opinions, our thoughts or our statements. Reality is what those thoughts, opinions or statements are about. And when the statements, thoughts or opinions we have agree with reality as tested by the pragmatic consequences of acting on our judgments, you see, then reality, which is independent of our minds, and is what it is regardless of what we think about it, sometimes supports our action when we think truly — and lets us go on — and when we think falsely it blocks us, frustrates us, and often does us in.

MOYERS: You say in the book, “If a given statement is ever objectively true, it is true forever and immutably true.” What does that mean?

ADLER: Let me give you an example. For centuries, most men and even most scientists thought that the earth was the center of the solar system. That the sun, the moon and the planets revolved around a stationary earth. That was Ptolemy’s astronomy, and the Greek astronomy — Aristotle’s astronomy. And Copernicus came up with the opposite view — the so-called heliocentric view — that in our solar system, not in the universe at large, the sun is the center and the moon and the planets including the earth revolve in orbits around the sun. It then took some time to prove the correctness of the Copernican theory. It took the time until we got to the Foucault pendulum, which really registers the motion of the earth. Now, that didn’t suddenly become true — it always was true. For all the centuries when men thought otherwise it was true that the earth revolved around the sun even though it took until the 17th and 18th centuries for us to come to know that to be true and generally acknowledge it. The truth is always the same when we know it — when we have it. The fact that men change their minds, that what scientists and other men think is true at a time when it is wrong, doesn’t make it true.

MOYERS: What determines whether a statement is true or false?

ADLER: As in this case, the evidence, the evidence of the Foucault pendulum absolutely shows the rotation of the earth.

MOYERS: And that will therefore be true forever.

ADLER: Well, no, not forever — as long as the solar system lasts. Not forever, I’m sorry, I can’t guarantee the eternity of the solar system.

MOYERS: Do you believe in the reality of the imagination?

ADLER: I don’t like the word reality. Do you mean, do men have imaginations? Yes.

MOYERS: But do you believe that in their imagination there is truth?


MOYERS: The truth of experience? If I imagine that something is so.

ADLER: No, imagination —

MOYERS: What men see in their minds that you can’t see — that’s not true?

ADLER: Well, if, on the basis of what they imagine they make a statement about what they imagine, and the statement is about the real world, though they’ve come to it by the imagination, then that statement is either true or false. But it isn’t their imagination that is true, it is the statement they make on the basis of their imagining. Imagination as such is neither true nor false.

MOYERS: But are you looking at the world from a peculiarly Western center?

ADLER: I have found that the ideas that — the great ideas that I’ve been concerned with are Western ideas. I think it is — I think I’m talking not about the great ideas of world culture, which doesn’t exist yet, but the great ideas of Western culture. I have to admit that this is parochial. In fact, I’ve had some experience with Far Eastern colleagues at the East-West Center in Honolulu, and I have tried to find out whether we had any common ground in discussing such simple ideas as liberty and Justice, and we don’t. They have a totally different vocabulary. In fact, justice is not nearly as important for them as another idea, which is harmony, which doesn’t count for very much in the West.

MOYERS: Can there be false knowledge?

ADLER: No, there can’t be — you see, when you use the word true and false, you have in use the word opinions. There can be true and false opinions, but knowledge by its very nature carries the connotation of truth.

MOYERS: So when the ancients said the world is flat, it was a false opinion, not false knowledge.

ADLER: Right, it was not knowledge at all, it was false opinion.

MOYERS: Why do you think we prefer the opinions — and I’m quoting from your book here — why do you think we prefer the opinions to which we are attached on emotional, not rational, grounds?

ADLER: Well, it’s simply that our emotional attachments are strong. We like to attach ourselves to opinions that favor our feelings, that favor our desires, that favor our temperamental inclinations. I don’t think that’s difficult to explain at all.

MOYERS: So opinion is stronger than truth.

ADLER: In many cases, yes. In fact, stronger than even ordinary opinions are deep-set prejudices, much stronger.

MOYERS: Even when we know that all men are created equal, and all men are by nature equal, we retain our prejudice that some men are inferior to others.

ADLER: Oh, no question about it.

MOYERS: How do you explain that — why is truth so often the victim?

ADLER: Because, because men in general are not given to using their minds as instruments for rational assessment of what is true and false. Most men just simply are persons who harbor opinions, cherish opinions, and don’t submit them to tests or investigation. That’s the reason, I think.

MOYERS: Does this invalidate the pursuit of truth?

ADLER: No. It does —

MOYERS: If you know that emotions are going to finally triumph?

ADLER: No. It simply means that we should try, I think — just as we should try to cultivate in every human being a good moral character, which is a moral character inclined habitually to making right rather than wrong choices, so we should try to cultivate in all human beings a rational mind. And a rational mind is one which suspends judgment when it doesn’t have evidence or reasons for affirming something is true or false, and only judges in the light of evidence and sound reasons. And most people are not rational. They are capable of being rational, but — just as most people are capable of being good, and haven’t got — do not have good moral characters cultivated — so most human beings, capable of being rational, do not have their minds rationally disciplined to assess evidence and reasons for affirming or denying.

MOYERS: Thomas Jefferson believed, I think he believed, that every generation has the right to a revolution, and I often think he meant the right to alter the view of the world.

ADLER: The pursuit of truth is a continual process of correcting errors, enlarging inadequate grasps of the truth. There we two ways, by the way, in which the pursuit of truth is carried on. On the one hand, an error is corrected, a falsehood is rejected and is replaced by a truer statement. And I say truer — when I say true. I always mean truer rather than completely true — no, I doubt if any statement we make is rich enough to be completely true; and truer at this time, not absolutely true or finally true, because every statement except for the self-evident ones are in the realm of doubt and are subject to enlargement and correction by better evidence and better reasoning in the future.

MOYERS: You write in Six Great Ideas, “Disagreement about matters of truth is not, in the final reckoning, to be tolerated.” Now, that strikes me as consistent with what a tyrant would say, who has said, “This is the truth and there shall be no disagreement.”

ADLER: The crucial words in that statement are, “in the final reckoning.” If it’s a matter of truth, at the end of time all men should be able to agree about it. That’s the goal. If it’s a matter of truth, agreement is the ideal to be pursued.

MOYERS: But how do you pursue that agreement?

ADLER: Oh, by the continual effort to get better reasons, correct errors, you get better evidence. Look, if something is true, if something is objectively true in the system which we’ve been talking about it, all men should agree about it. If they don’t, someone is in error, and the error must be corrected. I’m not saying who is in error. But when there is disagreement about a matter of truth, someone is wrong.

MOYERS: Doesn’t that bespeak the totalitarian mentality?

ADLER: No, you don’t force it. You only mean that you must — not to be tolerated means no one should give up on it, no one should say, “Oh, well, let’s not argue any longer.” We should never give up the argument. If a matter of truth is disputed, you and I are obligated to the pursuit of truth, to go on arguing with one another, going out and getting more evidence, my correcting your errors of reasoning, your correcting mine, on ’til the end of time, long as we live.

MOYERS: That’s the pursuit of truth.

ADLER: That’s right.

MOYERS: And it is in this [holding book].

ADLER: That’s right.

MOYERS: In lectures and conversations and in personal meetings, I’ve heard you affirm the existence of God. Suppose I were an atheist, and I said after hearing you say God exists, “No, Mortimer Adler, you’re wrong, God does not exist.”

ADLER: I would have to proceed differently than I would in the case of the fish I caught is larger than the fish you caught. That we can put to the test by getting a tape measure out and putting the two fish on the ground and measuring them, observing the measurement. In the case of a disagreement about God’s existence, there is nothing but an appeal to reason. I would have to say to the atheist, I have grounds for affirming God’s existence, I think grounds beyond a reasonable doubt for affirming God’s existence, would you listen to my arguments? All I could do, in fact I’ve written a book that tries to do this, to set the arguments forth as clearly and plainly as possible. Now, the atheist will raise objections to my arguments. I must then answer his objections. I may or may not succeed in persuading him. Suppose I fail, suppose he remains an atheist and I remain a theist, a person who affirms God’s existence. One of us is right and the other is wrong, because either God does exist or God does not exist, and if the atheist is wrong, he’s wrong forever, not just tonight, just now, for if God does exist, He’s always existed and always will exist.

MOYERS: But in matters of religion, you say there is finally no way to decide which is true and which is not.

ADLER: About all matters of faith, articles of religious faith are beyond argument. If there were any way, if there were any way at all to offer evidence or reasons in support of one faith or another, it wouldn’t he faith. Faith is that which goes beyond the evidence of things seen.

MOYERS: And that’s very personal.

ADLER: Yes. I’d go further and say it isn’t William James’ “will to believe,” something I do voluntarily. I think that the proper doctrine is to say it’s a gift of God. Those who have faith have it as God’s gift.

MOYERS: But you can’t prove that.

ADLER: No. I can’t prove it, that itself is unprovable. That itself is an article of faith.

MOYERS: So, then, in the final analysis, who determines truth?

ADLER: There is no answer to that question; no one deter-mines truth. Truth is always a matter of the arbitrament of men arguing with one another. No one determines — the truth is determined — the truth of opinions is determined by reality; when two men disagree about what they think is true, that must be submitted to argument, to evidence, to observation, to reason.

MOYERS: So the pursuit of truth is not a destination; it’s a process.

ADLER: Precisely. And one that will go on to the end of time. I don’t believe it ever will stop. And I only hope that, though I think there is some backsliding, that if we have a long life for the human race on earth, if we live the 100 million years the planet will endure, that we will accumulate more and more truth, correct more and more error, enlarge our grasp of the truth. But we will always fall short, we’ll always fall short of the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


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