Dick Cavett Interviews Dr. Mortimer J. Adler on Television (1978)

(A transcription of Dick Cavett’s delightful television interview with Dr. Adler in 1978.)

DICK CAVETT: I can always see one face that looks disappointed when I walk out. I don’t know what it is. Good evening, and philosophy today — don’t touch the dial — is generally a pretty technical and academic matter. And philosophy is a pretty remote figure, as I would say, to most of us, including me.

My guest tonight and tomorrow night, Mortimer Adler, believes that is all wrong. He thinks philosophy should be for everybody, that it should be a part of ordinary, daily life, that a philosopher belongs in the marketplace. And in a long career of writing and teaching, he has not been above a little salesmanship of a bestseller here and there. He is Chairman of the Board of Editors for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago, and he has turned out a long line of almost, let’s say, evangelical works that actually try to bring great books, great ideas to the people. You have seen him over the years in the advertisement — pipe. He is a familiar face. And he was an editor, for example, of the famous 102-volume set called Great Books of the Western World. His latest work is something called Great Treasury of Western Thought.

He’ll be here for two nights. I’ll bring that out tomorrow night. I forgot to bring it with me tonight. There are some people who do feel that in his zeal, Mr. Adler goes to far in boiling down, packaging, and selling the classics. But as you are about to see, he has no trouble dealing with that criticism or with anything else that is tossed his way. Will you welcome, please, then a fascinating man, Mortimer Adler?

You upset some people somewhere once by saying that you had only been educated in the last twenty-five years. I think that is a quote from an address you gave somewhere.


CAVETT: This, of course, because of your age being — is it seventy-five?

ADLER: Seventy-six.

CAVETT: Seventy-six, left out your — there is always an appreciative moan from the audience when someone like you or Bob Hope, who is that age, appears to be fifty. That left out, of course, the years of your formal education and —

ADLER: I call that schooling, not education.

CAVETT: Oh, please tell us the difference.

ADLER: Well, schooling is what goes on in institutions. It is only a preparation for education. No one ever gets educated in school. One of the troubles with the educational system is the wrong supposition that school is a place where you get an education, so that when you get a degree, that certifies you are an educated man or woman. That is far from the truth.

CAVETT: So now, yes, there is the phrase, “My son just completed his education.”

ADLER: Utterly crazy. Utterly crazy.

CAVETT: Whereas, in fact, you wouldn’t even assume that he had begun it?

ADLER: No, he hadn’t begun it. But schools are not at their best, I assure you. And they aren’t doing what they should be doing. But if they were doing what they should be doing, if they were at their best, the best they could do would be to prepare the young to become educated in their adult life by their own means — by reading, by discussion, by travel, by thought. And when I say that I have ever been educated or become educated in the last twenty-five years, I mean that quite seriously. Only a really mature person has enough depth of soul to have ideas to take root and understand things. And the joke of that is that though I now think I am educated, I have forgotten most of the things I have learned in school.

CAVETT: Is that bad?

ADLER: No, good.

CAVETT: Uh, huh? Okay.

ADLER: Because most of the things you learn in school, you only learn to pass examinations with. And they aren’t worth — they aren’t very important.

CAVETT: That depends on the school, doesn’t it? I mean, there are schools where you simply learn the dates of the Dred Scott Decision and the Hanseatic League, and memorize them for the test, and then throw them out happily forever. But if you are asked to write on the following quotation everything you know about the phrase, “the poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,” or something, isn’t that a little different?

ADLER: The most important things that you learn in school that you don’t forget are the skills you acquire — the skills of writing and reading, of good speech, even of good behavior in some sense —

CAVETT: Yes. . . and typing I would add.

ADLER: Well, typing is a very fun skill. I learned that before I went to school.

CAVETT: Typing is the best thing I ever had. It saved my life a few times. Ten dollars a day.

ADLER: It’s very important.

CAVETT: You were quite a kid. I think I would like to have known you as a kid, but I am not entirely sure.

ADLER: You would have liked to have known me if you hadn’t been one of my teachers.

CAVETT: If what?

ADLER: If you had not been one of my teachers. My teachers didn’t like to know me because I was a nuisance to them.

CAVETT: Apparently you drove them up the blackboarded wall occasionally.

ADLER: I did indeed. I had a very kindly professor at Columbia. He was a professor of psychology. I was very fond of Professor Poffenberger. But I would walk into his office about fifty minutes before class. There was a list of twenty-five questions for him to answer.

CAVETT: For him to answer?


CAVETT: And if he hadn’t prepared, did you grade him?

ADLER: And John Dewey, who I had studied at Columbia in the early 1920s —

CAVETT: The John Dewey?

ADLER: The John Dewey. He was, again, a kindly gentleman, who lectured very slowly so that I could take his lectures down in longhand. I would go home to my study and type the lecture out. I collected these lectures that I wrote about. And I noticed that what he said on Tuesday was inconsistent with what he said the previous Thursday. So I would write him a letter, and say, “Dear Professor Dewey, last Thursday you said . . . ” and I would quote. “But this Tuesday you said . . . and that does not seem quite consistent to me. Would you please explain?”

Well, he came to class and said, “A student in class wrote me a letter.” He read the letter and then tried to explain. I wrote the answer down. And the answer didn’t solve the problem. So I wrote him another letter. And this went on for three weeks. And he finally had his assistant come to me, and say, “Dr. Dewey wishes you would stop writing him letters.”

CAVETT: Does that show the proper attitude on the part of an educator?

ADLER: No, I was a nuisance. I admit I was a nuisance. I was a very persistent student.

CAVETT: Uh huh, you admit that.

ADLER: In fact, one teacher I had a Columbia that you probably know the name of — Irwin Edman, he wrote a book called Philosopher’s Holiday, I would argue with him so vigorously in class that one day I came to class at two-thirty. He was standing outside the door, and said, “Mortimer, I think you had better take the afternoon off. You get too excited in class.”

CAVETT: Yes, I read about that. And he actually thought you were in some danger of getting hyper or whatever. Well, when I say is that the proper educational attitude, I wonder what should be the limit of a teacher’s involvement with a student who is rigorously questioning him?

ADLER: I think the teacher should be complete. But that depends upon the students — the teacher’s having enough time for an individual student.

CAVETT: Yes, uh huh.

ADLER: And my, I think, my failure was to recognize the limits of the teacher’s time.


ADLER: I was more of a burden than I should have been.

CAVETT: So somewhere between you and the student who falls asleep in class is the ideal.

ADLER: I think that many of my teachers did not resent my pertinacity in pursuing the question.

CAVETT: Uh huh, you never had the poor taste to correct the teacher’s spelling in fourth grade as I did once?


CAVETT: Good. I barely survived that, even with my alleged friends. There was a man once named John Stuart Mill who couldn’t remember a time when he couldn’t read Greek.

ADLER: Well, he couldn’t read Greek before the age of three.

CAVETT: Oh, is that it?

ADLER: You know, his father, who is James Mill, was a great English philosopher. And his father’s friend was Jeremy Bentham, an even greater English philosopher. And Mill had other children. He must have had maybe half a dozen children that he sent to ordinary schools. But when John Stuart was born, he decided that he and Jeremy Bentham would bring this child up according to their own ideas of schooling. So they taught John Stuart Greek in the cradle. And as John Stuart reports in his autobiography, he could speak and read Greek at the age of three. He had read The Dialogues of Plato in Greek at the age of five, “And could distinguish,” he said, “between the Socratic method and the substances of Platonic philosophy.” Between five and eleven, he had read most of the books that I really came to know as the Great Books. At eleven he edited his father’s History of India. At twelve, he edited Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Proof. And at eighteen, he had a nervous breakdown.

CAVETT: Well, I am certainly glad to hear it. Now, could you imagine what W. C. Fields would have done with that?

ADLER: I read John Stuart Mill’s autobiography when I was fifteen. And, my God, I said, “I’m fifteen. I don’t know Greek. I never read any Plato.” In fact, I didn’t even know who Socrates was at fifteen.

CAVETT: So you were five years behind on Aristotle probably, and then how many on Virgil?

ADLER: Well, at that time I was working on the editorial page of The New York Sun. And I took an advance on my week’s salary, which was four dollars — I got four dollars a week —


ADLER: I got four dollars a week, which was a large salary in those days, and I went down to a secondhand bookstore on John Street and bought a secondhand set of Plato and started to read the Dialogues of Plato. And that is what ruined me.

CAVETT: Ruined you?

ADLER: I stopped — I decided that up to that point I had planned to become a journalist. But I decided I wanted to become a philosopher. And I went back to college as a result of reading John Stuart Mill and Plato.

CAVETT: Did your parents think this was a little peculiar, that this was a phase, and pretty soon he’ll start playing baseball and noticing girls and forget all this junk?

ADLER: I had a German father who took study rather seriously. My mother had been a schoolteacher. So they were a little less inclined to say that kind of thing.


ADLER: But, you see, I had left high school — no, I shouldn’t say that. I had been expelled from high school.

CAVETT: Leaving a grade.

ADLER: No, I had a disagreement with the principal. And he won the argument. But he did suspend me from all — I was editor of the school paper, and he suspended me from all activities. And I decided to leave school, I guess. So I went to work on The New York Sun, and I had only finished two years of high school. So going to college wasn’t easy. I had two years of high school preparation to make up. So while I was working as an office boy to the president of the Worthington Pump and Machinery Corporation down at 115th and Broadway, I did all the studying I had to do, take the regent’s examinations, and entered Columbia. So I went to Columbia.

CAVETT: Yes, aren’t you one of those rare birds who has a Ph.D. but not a B.A.?

ADLER: I have a Ph.D. but no M.A., no B.A., and no high school diploma.

CAVETT: Has the statute of limitations run out on this? Is it all right to admit this?

ADLER: I have been given by the University of Seattle an honorary B.A. I have been given by St. Mary’s College an honorary M.A. But no one has given me a high school diploma.

CAVETT: I hate to ask such a square question, but isn’t it a requirement in getting a Ph.D. in every school to have had an —

ADLER: No, no.

CAVETT: I didn’t realize that.

ADLER: I had more than enough credits to graduate from Columbia. In fact, I think you needed 130 points of credit, and I had a 145. They were all As.

CAVETT: Yeah, so you were —

ADLER: I had no problem with that at all. The reason why I didn’t get the diploma was that not only did I not swim, I refused to go to —

CAVETT: You did say swim?

ADLER: Swim, I didn’t take the swimming test.

CAVETT: Had you failed to study for it or what?

ADLER: Well, worse than that. At Columbia in my day, maybe it is still true, physical education was required for all four years. And I cut all four years. I cut physical education. I never went to gym. And my reason for not going to gym was that I hated to dress and undress in the middle of the day. You see —

CAVETT: Once a day is enough, yes.

ADLER: And it was just before graduation, just after I had gotten my Phi Beta Kappa key, the dean called me, and said, “Mortimer, I have looked at your record, and you haven’t been to gym for four years. Is that true?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, you can’t get your diploma.” So I marched in the procession at Columbia but didn’t get my diploma.

CAVETT: Dressed, I assume.

ADLER: Yes, of course, I paid twenty dollars, which I never got back by the way.

CAVETT: Now, what do you think about that? In retrospect do you still hold that you were within your rights? What about the Greek idea of the trained body and the trained mind?

ADLER: No, I was not within my rights. He was within his rights to withhold my diploma because physical education was a requirement, and I didn’t do it.

CAVETT: Yeah, eventually did you miss something valuable? Are you still against physical education?

ADLER: Well, you know that I share Mr. Hutchins’s view about physical education or exercise in general.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: Hutchins used to say, “Whenever I feel the impulse to exercise, I lie down until it passes away.”

CAVETT: Yes, Dr. Jonathan Miller, on this show, put running and jogging where some people think it should be put, although I am a practitioner of it, and I think he is wrong. But not to dwell on this too much, but, you know, there is, along with an intellectual tradition in some societies, a parallel physical tradition of — seriously, I think there is perhaps some link between a well-tuned body and an alert mind.

ADLER: Well, yes, I don’t look with contempt upon a well-tuned body. But I don’t enjoy tuning it.

CAVETT: You can get people to do that. You’ve had the temerity, I think — oh, let’s go back a bit to your — I am still fascinated with you as a kid. You were not only, from what I read about you, content simply to study avidly but began to educate your own sister, I think, at a very tender age.

ADLER: Yes, I had become an avid student of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the theory of evolution. So I gave her lectures on evolution and the origin of the human species when she was about ten.

CAVETT: And you were older?

ADLER: Yes, I was fourteen.

CAVETT: Were you ever chosen for the baseball team as a kid?

ADLER: No, no. I did start writing very early. One of the reasons why I was able to get that job on The New York Sun, though I was only fifteen years old, was that because when I was ten years old or eleven in public school, I won an essay contest and a silver medal from The New York Sun for writing an essay on Napoleon. So I marched down — I wanted a job and marched down and showed them my silver medal. And I got the job.

CAVETT: You had the right credentials. You wrote — some of the things I want to get to with you — you wrote a book called How to Read a Book.

ADLER: In 1940.

CAVETT: Of course, presumably, people who need to know how to read a book couldn’t read it, could they?


CAVETT: So is there a previous book that should be written?

ADLER: No. You are right. People have said, “How do I learn how to read a book?” But the book teaches you how to read as you read it. And say, that if you begin with real little skill, as most people will begin with little skill, since most people have acquired the skill of reading up to the fourth grade and not beyond — I mean most Americans have fourth grade reading abilities. Even when they graduate from college, they are not much better than fourth grade reading abilities. The book is an attempt to show what the art of reading, the skill of reading should become as one develops beyond that elementary level.

CAVETT: Yes, uh huh.

ADLER: They obviously — most Americans are functionally literate. They can read the newspaper, Time Magazine, the advertisements, directions on signs.


ADLER: But give them a difficult book — a lot of reading consists in taking a book that is over your head — if it isn’t over your head, if there is nothing in the book that you can’t understand as soon as you see the words, you don’t need any skill in reading, obviously, except the ordinary elementary school, fourth-grade level. But if a book that is over your head, and no books — none of your heads can possibly lift your head up, can they? If a book that is over your head puzzles you, the art of reading — and if you don’t fully understand it as you read the words, the art of reading consists in the skill of being able to — without any help from outside — find out what that book is saying and to state it better. I almost say that it is the skill of being able to lift your own mind up from understanding less to understanding more.

CAVETT: And in your book you tell how to do that?

ADLER: Yes, another important thing to say about it is that I once had to write a slogan for an ad, I think, about the book, but it was a bestseller. And I what I suggested with it was that the art of reading consists — the art of staying awake while reading. Most people don’t stay awake.

CAVETT: As many people say, “Oh, that is a wonderful book for going to sleep.”

ADLER: And those books, I don’t call that reading. I mean, the books you read to go to sleep with, the books you read on airplanes, the books you read while waiting to pass the time are like movies. They are the time killers, the enjoyment. I am talking about serious reading, which is profitable to the mind because it improves your understanding. And here I would guess, Dick, that I don’t read more than five books a year. I read a great many to go to sleep with. I must scan hundreds that come into my office that I put on shelves and classify or make notes about if I want to go back to them.

CAVETT: Someone saw you on a plane reading a thriller, The Vicar of Christ, was it?

ADLER: Yes, it is. That is right. I went to Australia with The Vicar of Christ.

CAVETT: That is escapist reading for you?

ADLER: It occupied two long flights to Auckland and back from Sydney.


ADLER: But that is not reading.

CAVETT: But when you consider books, do you only read five a year?

ADLER: I seldom read a book except at my desk or at a table with a pencil and pad, marking the book, writing notes. That is what I mean by reading.

CAVETT: Librarians just fainted all over the country when you said that.

ADLER: Yes, but I only mark my own books, not library books.

CAVETT: Okay, yeah.

ADLER: And unless reading is a very intense activity, unless it is sufficiently fatiguing so that you get tired after you do an hour or two of it, you aren’t doing it. And most people, I think, do not have the experience of reading this way.

CAVETT: My wife reads at least a book a day, which gives me a terrible inferiority complex.

ADLER: Do you know what Thomas Hobbes said about that? You might tell your wife.

CAVETT: I will.

ADLER: He said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.”

CAVETT: I think maybe you had better tell her that. And here she is now. She is quite sharp-witted. And it is amazing that she has managed — she can go into Foyles’s Bookstore in London and not find anything she hasn’t read in whole sections of the store. And it just gives me the —

ADLER: Are we talking about reading for pleasure or reading for profit now?

CAVETT: Both, but see, she has also made the mistake of trying to read to go to sleep and once finished the entire Memoirs of Cardinal Wolsey without falling asleep.

ADLER: Oh, no.

CAVETT: That was the price of making that mistake. Some people might see your book, How to Read a Book, and say, “Oh, good, a book on speed-reading.”

ADLER: Oh, no.

CAVETT: Perish the thought.

ADLER: Perish the thought. In the revised edition, which came out in 1974, we made the point that the theory of speed-reading is entirely wrong. One should not be able to read quickly. We should be able to read at variable speeds. Some things we want to look at and be able to scan very quickly. And some things they are opposite. We want you to be able to read as slowly as possible. In fact, as the book becomes more difficult and more important, I would say ten pages an hour is the maximum. It depends on what you are working at. If the book becomes something that is inconsiderable, insubstantial, you can scan it in fifty minutes or thirty minutes.

CAVETT: Yes, there was a friend of mine who stomped out of the famous lady’s speed-reading course, when they said, “When you are just reading for fun like a novel,” but he said, “But I take novels quite seriously. I consider those important reading.”

ADLER: I think the claim, the famous Evelyn Wood’s claim is quite wrong. I think you can increase a person’s speed in scanning a book. I don’t think you can increase the speed of comprehension.

CAVETT: Yes, I taught a speed-reading course on cassette one time. I mean, that some companies use. And it is based on a sound principle that our muscles can be trained to move infinitely faster. It is not literal, of course. Never is it faster than we think it can. And so for people who just have to quickly digest a lot of stuff, you can do it at lightning speed with a little practice. One of the things that you get a kind of grudging respect from your colleagues on is what I guess you might call your utter faith in learning and self-improvement. And some people question whether this is the right way to educate anybody, to ask them to just sit down, as you say, at your desk with a book alone and have a dialogue with, say, Plato, in the sense that there are not that many people — and I am not afraid of including myself in this — who at first glance are not just going to be able to take Plato alone. I would like to have — and would you deny I should have this? I would like to have Bernard Knox talk to me a bit about what Greece and the setting and the philosophy and the history and so on is? Or Aristotle, is Aristotle for everybody? Or don’t they need some help?

ADLER: You read the book to the effect that Aristotle is for everybody, as the Great Books are for everybody. But I agree with you. Though I think one should do a certain amount of work alone, I also think it is a great help to have someone else read the same book you are reading and have someone to talk to about it, whether it be your elders, your colleagues, or a teacher in discussion. One of the reasons why we set up the Great Books Discussion Program, one of the reasons for the Aspen Program, as I have been teaching the Great Books since 1923, is that to read them entirely by yourself is not nearly as fruitful or enjoyable. It is always better to read them with somebody else and have a discussion. the Great Books Program is a program in which, whether it is at St. John’s College, or whether I do it at Aspen, or I’ve got a Great Books Seminar for adults in Chicago that has been going since 1943. We read a book every month, and we meet on a Wednesday evening for two hours and talk about the book.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: As a moderator, I ask questions about the book. But when the discussion gets generated in this cross-table conversation, that is what makes it enjoyable. And you learn more. And I don’t think you can learn entirely by yourself. I agree with you.

CAVETT: We sometimes get labeled as the man who says, “Get rid of schools, get rid of teachers, get rid of written exams, get rid of classes,” and this misunderstands you to a degree. You have said things along those lines.

ADLER: I can be very precise about that, Dick.


ADLER: I think schools and teachers are dispensable.

CAVETT: By that you mean —

ADLER: They are not absolutely necessary. People have become educated without schools and without teachers.


ADLER: But they are very helpful.


ADLER: And if they were better, it would be even better. They would be even more helpful.

CAVETT: Uh huh, now Groucho Marx, to pick an odd example, was one of the best-read men I had ever met. He hardly ever went to school. He had a tiny amount of schooling. Are you willing to say that had he gone to school, he would have been less educated in your sense of the word than if he had —

ADLER: If he had gone to a good school where they had taught him how to read and write and speak and given him, shall I say, a superficial introduction in his youth to the world of learning, he might have profited by that and gotten further in his own education. See, I think the school is a help, an aid, toward the process of becoming educated.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: It functions best when it functions most effectively in that direction. When it tries to educate the person in school, it fails, because that can’t be done. That is because immaturity is not just a difficulty; it is an impossible obstacle to becoming educated.

CAVETT: You can’t over leak material. It has to come upon —

ADLER: You cannot become educated while young.

CAVETT: You would, I think, favor having so-called formal education end earlier in a person’s life.

ADLER: Yes, that is very important. That is my most serious criticism in the American school system.

CAVETT: And you mean more by it than just every one of us who has ever looked out on a beautiful spring day and thought, “Why am I sitting in this stuffy classroom?”

ADLER: In all the great European systems of schooling, not education, but schooling, the basic undergraduate schooling is twelve years. There are two, six forms, elementary and the secondary, primary and the secondary. And after that there is university.

CAVETT: Ending at about eighteen. Eighteen, yes.

ADLER: I would like to move — we have, unfortunately, sixteen years, starting at six and ending at twenty-two, so that young people are in school and the undergraduate college between eighteen and twenty-two, which is much too late. And one of the reasons for the decline, serious decline of our colleges is increase of specialization, increase of vocational training, the dwindling and decline of liberal schooling and general schooling is that is too late. It is not realistic to ask young people, boys and girls between eighteen and twenty-two not to think about their future careers, not to think of specialization, not to ask for some vocational preparation. You could up to sixteen. So I would like to suggest that schooling start at age four. The sooner we get the young out of the home, the better I think. Starting at four, by the way, we know everything about early learning that children at age three can begin all the Montessori experience supports that.

CAVETT: Kids are hungry to read, some of them at three.

ADLER: That’s right. You really are wasting two years by starting at six. Start at four, run two periods of six years each, primary and secondary.


ADLER: Give the Bachelor of Arts degree at age sixteen. That completes undergraduate education. Have that twelve years of schooling completely general, completely required, no electives, no specialization, no vocational preparation. And then at sixteen, have four years of compulsory non-schooling.

CAVETT: Meaning what?

ADLER: Everyone out of school. School is closed.

CAVETT: The one thing you can’t do is go to school. The one thing you can’t do.

ADLER: That’s right.

CAVETT: Oh, I wish this had been true years ago.

ADLER: Between sixteen and twenty, and during that time either work in the public or private sector, the Army or the Navy, travel, anything to grow up so that when those who come back to the university, they come back and are mature as they are not now.

CAVETT: In ways I envied the guys who came to college from the war because they said, “I never realized what it was like until I got away from it and realized how much I wanted it at an earlier age.”

ADLER: I was teaching at the University of Chicago right after the Korean War. So I had in my classes two kinds of students — those who came through the ordinary way, and G. I. Bill students, students of the G. I. Bill of Rights.

And though they are far closer to the same age, they are utterly different.

CAVETT: You could tell who the ardent student was.

ADLER: That is right.

CAVETT: I have to cut you for the moment, but tomorrow at the same time, we will return. Adler, thank you. And you will be with us tomorrow.

ADLER: Thank you.

CAVETT: We will see you tomorrow, and good night.

DICK CAVETT: Gee, well! [dropping the book on coffee table]

MORTIMER ADLER: What a weight!

CAVETT: That was recorded on the Harvard seismograph when that hit the table. Welcome to the second of a twopart conversation with a man who spends a lot of his time conversing, mentally at least, with Aristotle, Aquinas, Montaigne, Tolstoy, and so on, who believes that you should to. That is the point. And perhaps more importantly is that you can if you want to.

I am referring, of course, to Mortimer Adler, the man who brought us the famous 102-volume set of Great Books of the Western World.

ADLER: Can I correct that?

CAVETT: Yes, it is not 102 volumes. It is 102 authors.

ADLER: No, it is seventy-four authors, 102 great ideas in fifty-four volumes.

CAVETT: Oh, that’s right. How do you know? I knew that was wrong as my eye read past it on the cue card. See now, I’m off the hook. Whatever the number is, it is a wonderful thing. And he has reshaped the Encyclopaedia Britannica as Chairman of its Board of Editors. It has been the forefront of numeral educational publishing projects aimed at bringing these great works, great thoughts into the everyday lives of ordinary working people. And as you know, if you watched last night, here is a man who talks wittingly, fascinatingly about all of this. So if you will welcome, again please, Mortimer Adler, we will resume.

Mr. Adler, this hefty book that I dropped there, of course, is one that I think I referred to. It is called the Great Treasury of Western Thought. My guess is that is about five pounds. It is quite a wonderful thing to have around. It raises a question in my mind that isn’t answered in there.

ADLER: Good.

CAVETT: Which is this idea that is sometimes formed or framed as a criticism of you in that sort of thing. That to reduce knowledge to tablets, so to speak, that are numbered and can be looked up in an index, and so on, is book like that and look up, let’s say, love, and find out what Plato and others have thought about it and said about it, and so on, might lead people to the idea that they can solve their problems that way.

ADLER: Oh, no.

CAVETT: And if that were true, then highly intelligent people would still not have problems with love, even though they know what the greatest minds have said about it.

ADLER: Oh, nothing could be further from the truth. And if anyone charges me with that, that is really slander.

CAVETT: Well, I’m certainly glad I didn’t say it.

ADLER: You know, what one reads in books may improve the mind but it doesn’t solve problems. One has to solve problems by practical thinking, not by understanding ideas. I think the more understanding you have, the better you can think, the more likely you are able to deal intelligently with life’s difficult, practical problems. But there is no assurance. I would not recommend that book to solve the problem of the jilted lover or divorce or the problems with parenthood — there is a marvelous section in that book on — marvelous statements. It is not just an ordinary book of quotations, because in an ordinary book of quotations the quotes are very short, memorable sayings, you know. These are long statements, the best statements we can find.

CAVETT: This isn’t one of those useful for after dinner speaker books where you get fifteen witticisms on —

ADLER: No, it is not portable material but readable material. There is a marvelous series of chapters there on the family, on parents and children, on what’s involved in rearing children. In my judgment there is no more difficult problem in the world than the problem of rearing convenient. But somehow it is intellectually suspect in some way. And some of your colleagues even say — and I guess my point beyond that is the idea that you can take a children. In fact, no one knows how to do it. Everyone — I’ve been a parent in two marriages, I had two sets of boys, and I can think of no problem more difficult than the problem of bringing up a young person up well. I think no one is skillful at it.

CAVETT: As Abe Lincoln said in another context, “If all of the wisdom of the world were brought to bare on it, it would still be a problem.”

ADLER: That is right. And I think things like the Great Treasury of Western Thought are a joy to have merely because they, shall I say, catch the mind, not solve problems. On other hand, I don’t mean that the more understanding you have of important ideas, that isn’t helpful to solving problems but no assurance that you can solve them. Many problems are so difficult that no aids are going to do the job for you.


ADLER: So of that charge, can I regard that charge as refuted?

CAVETT: I think you have pretty well put it to rest, although you may even have had this experience. I have once in an unnamed city in the heartland of America. I went into a home that had no books, except it did have the Great Books in its bookcase. But you know how you can tell when a book has never been opened once?


CAVETT: There is a certain virginity to a book that if the cover has even been —

ADLER: Yes, uh huh.

CAVETT: And I wonder if some people don’t buy it in the same sense that some people get a degree, thinking, “Oh, now we’ve got the Great Books right there in our own living room. So we are educated.”

ADLER: Well, what Mr. Hutchins and I thought about that when we started to edited the —

CAVETT: Dr. Hutchins of the University of Chicago.

ADLER: Yes, Bill Benton had just acquired Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1943, at least became its proprietor, publisher in connection with the University of Chicago. He came to Hutchins and me, and said, “I would like to do more than publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I would like to publish a set of Great Books.” He had begun to read the Great Books in the seminar that Hutchins and I taught, which we called The Fat Man’s Great Books Course.

CAVETT: Why was that?

ADLER: Because they were all bankers and lawyers and industrialists.

So we talked about it, and Hutchins said, “I don’t want to publish the Great Books because they would be just a piece of furniture in the American home. Unless we can find some way of getting people to take the books off the shelf, I am not interested in producing a set of books that are going to decorate the American living room. I’m not interested in wallpaper or furniture.”

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: He said, “Give me a chance to think about it. Mortimer and I will think about it and see if we can find some device that will give us at least some assurance that when the people or persons buy the set of books, they would be inclined to take the set off the shelf.”


ADLER: About a month later I came up with the idea of the Syntopicon, which then took me eight years to produce.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: I said, Suppose we create an index to the idea content of the Great Books so that a person can find out before he has read through them what Plato and Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius and Aquinas and Locke and Dante and Tolstoy and Shakespeare have to say about, let’s say, love or the difference between erotic love and conjugal love or romantic love and conjugal love. They might take the Great Books and read in them on that topic, finding points of interest before they read through, before they get them off the shelf. And having they even got them off of the shelves, they might be then tempted to take them off a second time or a third time. It was kind of a seductive process.

CAVETT: Oh. Uh huh, a kind of guidebook to the Great Books themselves.

ADLER: Well, not a guidebook so much as an invitation to read.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: Read in part, not in whole.


ADLER: Well, Hutchins said, “It’s a fine idea, Mortimer, you go and do it.” And I gave Britannica a budget of $45,000 that I could do it in three years. A million dollars and eight years later, I finished the job. It took a large extent of persons reading the Great Books. In fact, it was an investment of 400,000 man-hours of reading to put 165,000 references to the Great Books into 3,000 topics in the Syntopicon.

CAVETT: You must have been up to your ears in index cards.

ADLER: We were as a matter of fact. We had an indexing staff, an intellectual staff of thirty-five and a clerical staff of eighty. That was because we didn’t have computers in those days. Just the handling of the index cards was that. Now this book is a product of the Syntopicon, because with the Syntopicon you have to go to work, you have to go to the shelf, and take the Great Books off the shelf, and look up the passages by volume and page.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: What we did was to take the passages out of the Great Books and put them here. So this is still a further shortcut, you see?

CAVETT: Can people turn in their Syntopicon and get a refund to get one —


CAVETT: My only quarrel with the Great Books, and I couldn’t name all the authors that are in there, and I certainly haven’t read them all, is that the one author that I consider indispensable isn’t in there.

ADLER: Who is that?

CAVETT: Mark Twain.

ADLER: I think you may be right about that. There are two authors in there that I think should not be there and two that are not there that should be there.

CAVETT: Who are the two dogs?

ADLER: The two dogs are Plotinus and Laurence Sterne. I put Plotinus in because I thought we had to have one great mystical philosopher, which he is. And Bob Hutchins put Laurence Sterne in because he always laughed at Tristram Shandy. But that was wrong.

CAVETT: Tristram Shandy, yeah.

ADLER: Well, that was wrong. We should have had Moliere and Mark Twain. We didn’t have Moliere because we couldn’t get a good translation of the French into English at the time we published it.


ADLER: And I can’t remember the reason why — we do have Moby Dick.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: It is certainly a great American novel.


ADLER: But we should have Huckleberry Finn, I think.

CAVETT: You cannot have Huck Finn and not have some of the, well — yeah, I think you could defend putting The Essays of Twain in with —

ADLER: Because I think one of Twain’s greatest books, very little known, is his book called The Personal Reminiscences of the Joan of Arc. Most people don’t know that he wrote that book.

CAVETT: Was that one of those that wasn’t released during his lifetime?

ADLER: Yes, a marvelous book.

CAVETT: Yeah, his wife had a stern hand on him in censorship. And some Mark Twain things have not even been released yet. There are few things that we have been — and you know some of the things —

ADLER: The Great Books, which is fifty-four volumes on the one hand, and the Britannica, which is thirty volumes, and yet they represent two different kinds of, shall I say, aids to the mind. Britannica — let me put it another way. If I said, Food, shelter, clothing, rest are goods to the body —

CAVETT: Right.

ADLER: You say, well, those would be goods to the mind. I think there are only four basic goods of the mind, and one of them I can’t handle at the moment, but five are information, organized knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and skill — know how.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: Now of those four, let me leave — understand, because you can’t acquire skill or know how from reading books.

CAVETT: Yes, uh huh.

ADLER: But you have to have a coach for. You have to have a coach for playing tennis; you have to have a coach for reading, or writing, or speaking. The Britannica as a great encyclopedia, at the best — and I think it does this very well — provides the access to information and organized knowledge.


ADLER: The Great Books, it is a totally different thing dealing with, don’t you think, the Great Ideas provide access to understanding and wisdom?

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: And of the two, I think the Great Books are more important, myself.

CAVETT: Why Britannica? Why not Americanica?

ADLER: Because it is called Encyclopaedia Britannica, because it was created in Scotland.


ADLER: It was created in Scotland in 1768.


ADLER: It has gone through the last edition, which I was partly responsible for creating, more than 200 years later. It was in 1768, we came out with the fifteenth in 1974. And I think the fifteenth is an improvement on the long tradition of Encyclopaedia Britannica because it divides the structure to two parts, one in which we call the micropedia, and one called the macropedia. I invented the word Syntopicon, and I invented the words propedia, micropedia, and macropedia. Propedia is the introduction to learning, micropedia is the little learning, and macropedia is the large learning.

CAVETT: It sounds like the Greek Marx brothers or something. Dr. Adler, I guess when we say Aristotle, it is an awesome four syllables. “Aristotle, wow! Too deep for me” is a reaction that many college graduates would have. And if you say Aristotle is for everybody, then Aristotle is for the cabdriver, for example, who drove me to work today. I don’t have a limousine, despite something that was said on The Tom Snyder Show. I meet the common man.

ADLER: I like to talk to taxi drivers, too. They are very philosophical.

CAVETT: Yeah, I wish some of them would shut up already, but I often get, they do often give you a bit of philosophy. But I think if you take Aristotle, and, as you say, make him comprehensible by reducing him in some way, by compartmentalizing him in some way or giving extracts and so on, is it still Aristotle? There are academics who would say, “But philosophy is a tough, rigorous, disciplined enterprise. You can’t expect that Aristotle shouldn’t be for everybody.” Why should the cabdriver feel inferior if he hasn’t read Aristotle? How can he be expected to? I will shut up now.

ADLER: Let me answer that by saying three things first. First, along with William James, who said, this in the opening of Pragmatism, “I think philosophy is everybody’s business.” It is the one great subject that isn’t a specialist’s concern. And I think the ruin of philosophy in the twentieth century is that it has become a specialist’s concern. Philosophers now only write for other philosophers in journals or books that are technical. I think philosophy is everybody’s business. Everybody, to philosophize is a common trait of the human mind. In fact, the taxicab driver does it, you see?

Secondly, Aristotle is of all the philosophers of the West, and even more than Plato, the common-sense man’s philosopher. Aristotle starts where commonsense starts. And merely by reflection deepens it and heightens it but stays with commonsense, so that when the book of mine, called Aristotle for Everybody, came out, I objected to the publisher’s subtitle. I couldn’t make them change it. They want to put on the title — I wanted as the subtitle of the book, Introduction to Commonsense. They insisted upon Difficult Thought Made Easy. That is false.

CAVETT: That is nauseating.

ADLER: Yeah, I think it is wrong. I am delighted the book has sold well in spite of that. The reason for that is that Aristotle’s thought is not difficult. The Greek writing is difficult.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: It is a difficult text in Greek, and the translations into English are difficult because, in the first place, the books that we have of Aristotle were not written by him. The scholarly judgment is they are over-complicated pieces of composition with a lot of editorial input — his own notes, students’ notes, put together by an editing process. They don’t read the Dialogues of Plato we read. They are not written by a fine writer. As a result, what I tried to do is not make difficult thought easy but easy thought, expressed in a difficult way, easy to read. In other words, Aristotle’s thought is easy.

CAVETT: To uncomplicate the wording of —

ADLER: In words of one syllable for the most part.


ADLER: And I think it can be done. And I tried, by the way, when I wrote the book, I had my two boys, who were then ten and twelve, read it as it came out of typewriter, and I wrote a chapter in the morning and had them read it in the afternoon and let them ask me questions.

CAVETT: To see if they could dig it?

ADLER: And they could.

CAVETT: But are they young John Stuart Mills or what?

ADLER: Oh, no. I have failed.

CAVETT: They probably have other qualities.

ADLER: They are very nice boys, very nice boys indeed.

CAVETT: Maybe you should give an example of the Western mind meeting the, shall we call it, the Soviet mind. You were telling — I heard you telling something in the back room about an audience. Any comic would call a tough audience that you played to — where was it? In Romania?

ADLER: No, in Budapest last summer. Carolyn, my wife and I, were visiting Phil Kaiser, who is the United States Ambassador to Hungary, an old friend of ours. We were spending three days at the American Embassy residence in Budapest. And the cultural affairs officer of the embassy said, “As long as you are here, Dr. Adler, would you mind doing us a favor? Would you mind addressing the Hungarian Institute of Philosophy, which is a branch of the Hungarian Academy of Science?” I said, “No, I would be glad to do that.” He said, “What would you talk about?” I said, “An unconventional view of the history of Western thought.”

So we set up at four o’clock one afternoon. We drove downtown in the ambassador’s car with the American flag flying. And there in this large auditorium — well, a decent-sized room, to my surprise were eighty Hungarian philosophers. I didn’t even think they made philosophers in Hungary.

CAVETT: Maybe it was the eighty Hungarian philosophers.

ADLER: And few of them spoke English. Most of them only Magyar. I was introduced by the chairman, a very gracious introduction, which was translated into English for me. And then I spoke in English, and it was translated. I spoke in spurts, and it was translated in Hungarian. And the part of my speech, which was connected with Aristotle — in the history of philosophy, the contribution of the Greeks is outstanding. Most of the wisdom, I think, most of the philosophical wisdom we have in the West is to be found in Plato and Aristotle, and very little after that. In fact, modern philosophy, for me at least, is almost a total loss of wisdom, rather than an advance of it. And I kept making this point. And toward the end of the lecture, I said, “Let me give you one example of that.

A distinction that Aristotle makes, that I think is of fundamental importance in moral and political problems, is the distinction between natural desires, the natural propensities of human nature were common to all of us. And acquired desires, the desires we acquire through reading, advertisements, or being envious of what one neighbor has, or one’s own personal experience” — “And we have two English words,” I said, “to name these common human desires, our human needs, we say, and our individual wants. Our common human needs or individual wants.” Everyone in the room, if we made a list of everybody, there would be as many lists as there are persons. But if you say what human beings need, then the list would be the same for everybody.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: I said, looking at these eighty communists sitting in front of me, eighty students devoted to Karl Marx, I said, “You know, come to think of it, what I have just said to you should be of great interest to you because it is a bearing of your understanding of Karl Marx. Doesn’t Karl Marx say at the end of the Manifesto, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs?’ And that can’t be right, can it?” I said, “because if he really meant needs, they couldn’t be his needs because his means individual. He must have meant to say, ‘to all according to their common human needs.’ And he couldn’t have meant, could he, ‘to each according to his wants,’ because no society possibly can satisfy all human wants? Please tell me whether you think my interpretations of Marx is correct.”

There was absolute silence. Stony silence. I looked at the ambassador. The ambassador looked at me. I said, “This is very important. You are obviously much better students of Marx than I am, but I would like to be informed on this point. I would like to have you instruct me. Am I not right in saying that Marx could not have meant, ‘to each according to his wants’? And he shouldn’t have said, ‘to each according to his needs, but all according to their needs.'” Again, stony silence.

I tried once more. I said, “I have come a long way from Chicago. And I wouldn’t like to go back empty handed. Please, tell me what you think about this point.” And, oh, man, there must have been over eighty.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: And I think so old that he had no fear of any further reprisals from the state. He got up and said in broken English, “Dr. Adler,” he said, “I think you may be right about this. But I am not yet prepared to say so.”

CAVETT: He might have been in another ten years. Was there a murmuring?

ADLER: Yes, there was.

CAVETT: Well, there must have been a murmuring when the name Karl Marx first left your lips, even though, to criticize the fact that he might be correctible in some way — to bring up the idea that Marx might be imprecise.

ADLER: Well, it wasn’t too shocking to them, though they knew Marx well, to have the name of Karl Marx connected with Aristotle, because in Das Kapital, in the great work Kapital, Marx said he learned more from Aristotle than anybody else. Aristotle’s chapter on justice and the ethics and his dealing with the acquisition at the end of the first book of the Politics, Marx found the most instructive texts in the whole of Western thought.

CAVETT: Yes, well, an anticommunist would say, “Well, then, let’s get not only Marx but Aristotle out of the schools.”

ADLER: I think that might be the case.

CAVETT: Yes, and your answer to that would be?

ADLER: Well, what anybody would answer with any sense would be, “Nothing that is capable of being discussed should be out of the schools.”

CAVETT: Yeah. I wonder if — Marx would have written that in German, of course, originally.


CAVETT: Could there possibly be less ambiguity — or in the German original?

ADLER: I have to confess ignorance of the German original here. I must say I would like to do the research to find out.

CAVETT: Ignorance?

ADLER: Ignorance.

CAVETT: The man who —

ADLER: Yes, knowledge of a German word is an item of ignorance I am willing to confess happily.

CAVETT: Happily, yes. So, do you think the less of me if I were to tell you that “jedem entsprechend seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem entsprechend seinem benötigt” is the original of that quote?


CAVETT: Do I go to the head of the class?

ADLER: Yes, you can have a copy of this book.

CAVETT: Thank you, but I think this is already my property. I think I pulled a dirty trick on you. I think I may have ran and looked it up. But I don’t think I am capable of such a low —

ADLER: Is the word needs properly translated?

CAVETT: Fähigkeiten would be — yeah. Yeah, I think Fähigkeiten would be ability. And benötigt would be needs.

ADLER: What would wants be in German in distinction? That is because the English words needs and wants — anyone can test this out for themselves.

CAVETT: There are at least twenty-five different words for want. One of them means if you want a woman desperately. One of them means if you want more ration coupons.

ADLER: But none of these means needs.

CAVETT: And one means, “if he is the one to get the other.” I mean, German covers everything.

ADLER: But in English, anyone that is —

CAVETT: I don’t think it means “needs” though.

ADLER: In English, anyone that is at all puzzled about that distinction, there is a very simple way of checking it.

CAVETT: Uh huh.

ADLER: You cannot have a wrong need. You can want something — you can have a wrong want. You can’t have a wrong need.

CAVETT: Yes, you can desire the wrong thing, but you can’t need wrong things — because you need food.

ADLER: That is right. What you need is right for you.

CAVETT: You couldn’t need the wrong thing.

ADLER: What you need is always really good for you. What you want is always apparently good for you and may or may not be really good for you.


ADLER: That is a very important point.

CAVETT: Say, Gertrude Stein bopped you on the head once. So would you please explain what I meant just being flippant —

ADLER: She did. Once back in 1932, she was visiting the University of Chicago. I mean, she was the heyday then.

CAVETT: Did you suggest that Rose was not a rose?

ADLER: No, no. Worse than that. She was visiting the University of Chicago, and the president of the University, my friend, Bob Hutchins, invited her for dinner and forgot that while he had invited her for dinner, he and I had to teach a Great Books class. The dinner party went on. Thornton Wilder was there, two trustees of the university, and Bob and I teaching from seven-thirty to nine-thirty, came back to the president’s house after the class was over. And the dinner party had coffee and cognac, coffee and brandy. We sat down, and Gertrude immediately attacked the president. She said, “Hutchins, what have you been doing?” And he said, “Miss Stein” — and she said, “Don’t call me Miss Stein, call me Gertrude Stein.”


ADLER: He said, “Miss Stein.” He made that mistake two or three times. He said, “Miss Stein.” She said, “Call me Gertrude Stein.” Finally he did. “What have you been doing?” He said, “We have been teaching the Great Books?” “What are the Great Books?” she said very quickly. And he said, “Well, they are the most important books in Western interpretation.” “Well, what are some of the Great Books?” And so he started to name Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle. And she said, “Do you read Plato and Aristotle in Greek? Do you read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus in Latin? Do you read Montaigne in French?” “Oh,” he said, “No. Miss Stein” — “Gertrude Stein,” she said. “No, Gertrude Stein,” he said, “we read them in English. Our students are not accomplished linguists, and so” — “Well, you can’t do that” she said. “You can’t do it at all. You must read Greeks in Greeks, Latins in Latin, French in French,” and so forth. He said, “No.”

At that point, I jumped in, and said, “But, you see, you may be right about poetry, Gertrude Stein. Poetry may not be translated, but ideas belong to any language. And ideas, whether they are expressed in German or Greek or Latin are the same ideas. And we are concerned with our students and ideas.” And I started to argue with her. She got up from the table, walked around, hit me on the head, and said, “Young man,” she said, “I won’t argue with you. I can see you are the kind of young man that always wins arguments.”

CAVETT: The one kind she won’t argue with.

ADLER: Well, the dinner party finally came to an end. We were sitting at the table still. And the butler came in. And the butler said, “The police are here.” And Gertrude Stein said, “Have them wait.” I was absolutely astounded. And I leaned over to Thornton Wilder, and I said, “What does she mean have them wait?” “Oh,” he said, “she wants to see Chicago at night in a squad car. And Mr. Goodspeed arranged to have two police captains to come and pick her up here and take her for a ride in the ghetto.”

So the two police captains were cooling their heels downstairs, and finally the dinner party ended, and we were standing around. I was standing next to Alice B. Toklas, who was Gertrude’s slender shadow. And Alice said to me, “This has been a most wonderful evening. Gertrude has said things tonight that it will take her ten years to understand.”

CAVETT: That’s wonderful. Adler, I’m sorry I didn’t get to ask you the one question I wanted to, which may have to be answered in yes or no, can a great book be written today? We have four seconds left.

ADLER: Yes, it can be, but they aren’t being written.

CAVETT: Come back some time, and tell us why. Thank you.

ADLER: Thank you.

NOTE: For those of you who may be interested, this hour-long program is available in both DVD and VHS formats. For more information visit…The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas or contact Max Weismann at [email protected].

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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