A Twentieth-Century Delusion

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


A cultural delusion is widespread in the twentieth century. The extraordinary progress in science and technology that we have achieved in this century has deluded many of our contemporaries into thinking that similar progress obtains in other fields of mental activity. They unquestioningly think that the twentieth-century is superior to its predecessors in all the efforts of the human mind.

Some of our contemporaries make this inference consciously and explicitly. They do not hesitate to declare that the twentieth-century has a better, a more advanced and sounder, solution of moral and political problems, that it is more critically penetrating in its philosophical thought, and that it is superior in its understanding of, and even in its wisdom about, the perennial questions that confront human beings in every generation.

The Great Ideas and issues and the Great Conversation concerning these ideas that can be found in the Great Books is not for them. Their minds are closed to the possibility that they may be wrong in the inference they have made without examining the evidence to the contrary.

But there may be some — perhaps many — among our contemporaries of which this is not true. They may be prone to the twentieth-century delusion as a result of the indoctrination they received from an inadequate schooling, or as a result of the currents of journalistic opinion that fill the press, the radio, and television. But they may still be open to persuasion that they have mistakenly believed in the superiority of the twentieth-century in all fields of intellectual endeavor. It may be possible to show them that, though the twentieth century has made some contribution to the understanding of the Great Ideas, the significance of that contribution cannot be understood without seeing it in the light of the greater contribution made in earlier epochs of the last twenty-five centuries.

A syntopical approach to the Great Books is for them because that is precisely what it does. It is the apt remedy for what I have called the twentieth-century delusion, which psychiatrists would call a grandiose delusion. The Great Ideas dramatically exhibit the Great Conversation that has been going on across the centuries, in which any unprejudiced and undeluded mind will see the merit of what has been thought and said. Such wisdom as has been achieved is in no way affected or conditioned by time and place.

Unprejudiced and undeluded readers of the Great Books and this approach will, I think, discover for themselves that, with respect to the understanding of the Great Ideas, differences remain over the centuries. It is almost as if the authors were all sitting around a large table talking face-to-face with one another, differing in their opinions, disagreeing, and arguing.

An auditor of the conversation going on would soon come to regard them as if they were all alike as eminent contemporaries, in spite of their differences in time, place, and language. That auditor would not regard

what he heard as voices from the remote past talking about problems no longer of vital concern. Instead, he or she would become fascinated by the fact that all the things he or she heard being said concerned matters of current interest and importance.

A study of the Great Books declares to its readers that our Western civilization is the civilization of the dialogue or symposium, which is the Great Conversation in the Great Books about the Great Ideas.

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