Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Mortimer J. Adler, fully Mortimer Jerome Adler

American Philosopher, Educator and Author

"Men value things in three ways: as useful, as pleasant or sources of pleasure, and as excellent, or as intrinsically admirable or honorable."

"Montaigne speak of an ?Abecedarian? ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it. The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their A-B-C?s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. They are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, ?book full blockheads, ignorantly read.? There have always been literate ignoramuses, who have read too widely, and not well. The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages. They are all ?sophomores.?"

"Money-making and other external indices of social success must become subordinate to the inner attainments of moral and intellectual virtue."

"Most of the great stories of love ? in novels and plays ? are stories of erotic love."

"My chief reason for choosing Christianity was because the mysteries were incomprehensible. What's the point of revelation if we could figure it out ourselves? If it were wholly comprehensible then it would be just another philosophy."

"Now at the end of my life, still rereading the great books that I started reading seventy years ago, I can summarize this whole process by repeating two insights mentioned before in this book: (1) the great books are the books that are inexhaustibly re=readable for both intellectual pleasure and profit: (2) understanding the ideas to be found in the great books develops slowly in the course of one?s whole life, bearing its best fruits in one?s mature years after fifty or sixty."

"One of the embarrassing problems for the early nineteenth-century champions of the Christian faith was that not one of the first six Presidents of the United States was an orthodox Christian."

"Not to engage in the pursuit of ideas is to live like ants instead of like men."

"Our political democracy depends upon the reconstitution of our schools. Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century might eventually emerge. We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster... Whatever the price... the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater."

"One of the reasons why the education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally?the parent even more than the teacher?wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain. Childhood must be a period of delight, of gay indulgence in impulses. It must be given every avenue for unimpeded expression, which of course is pleasant; and it must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful. Childhood must be filled with as much play and as little work as possible. What cannot be accomplished educationally through elaborate schemes devised to make learning an exciting game must, of necessity, be forgone. Heaven forbid that learning should ever take on the character of a serious occupation?just as serious as earning money, and perhaps, much more laborious and painful . . . Not only must we honestly announce that pain and work are the irremovable and irreducible accompaniments of genuine learning, not only must we leave entertainment to the entertainers and make education a task and not a game, but we must have no fears about what is ?over the public?s head.? Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles. The school system which caters to the median child, or worse, to the lower half of the class; the lecturer before adults?and they are legion?who talks down to his audience; the radio or television program which tries to hit the lowest common denominator of popular receptivity?all these defeat the prime purpose of education by taking people as they are and leaving them just there."

"One of the aims of sexual union is procreation - the creation by reproduction of an image of itself, of the union."

"Precisely because it can be everybody?s business, it should be part of everyone?s general education? Only by the presence of philosophy in the general schooling of all is everyone prepared to discharge the obligations common to all because all are human beings. Schooling is essentially humanistic only to the extent that it is tinged with philosophy-with an introduction to the great ideas."

"Real discussion consists of two or more persons talking to one another, each asking questions, each answering, making remarks and counter-remarks. Such conversation is at its best when the parties to it tend to regard each other as equal. That is the heart of the difference between learning by discussion and learning by instruction. In adult learning by discussion, each party to the discussion is both a teacher and a learner. Just as in the political republic, each citizen is ruler and ruled in turn, so in the adult republic of learning, each adult is both teacher and taught."

"Reading the Great Books had done more for my mind than all the rest of the academic pursuits?it is the best education for the faculty as well as for the students; the use of original texts is an antidote for survey courses and fifth-rate textbooks; and it constitutes by itself, if properly conducted, the backbone of a liberal education."

"Proper self-love is inseparable from the true love of another. In fact, it is its basis and measure. It is the second precept of charity. The mutuality of love arises from loving in ourselves the same excellence we love in others. Without amour-propre or proper self-respect, true love would be impossible."

"The basic natural right that a just society of government should try to secure - and aid or abet -- for every individual is not, and cannot be, the right to happiness, but is rather the right to its pursuit."

"Television, radio, and magazines are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements?all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics?to make it easy for him to ?make up his own mind? with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and ?plays back? the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think."

"Sometimes it feels like I'm thinking against the wind."

"Sin is not only manifested in certain acts that are forbidden by divine command. Sin also appears in attitudes and dispositions and feelings. Lust and hate are sins as well as adultery and murder. And, in the traditional Christian view, despair and chronic boredom -- unaccompanied by any vicious act -- are serious sins. They are expressions of man's separation from God, as the ultimate good, meaning, and end of human existence."

"The best protection against propaganda of any sort is the recognition of it for what it is. Only hidden and undetected oratory is really insidious. What reaches the heart without going through the mind is likely to bounce back and put the mind out of business. Propaganda taken in that way is like a drug you do not know you are swallowing. The effect is mysterious; you do not know afterwards why you feel or think the way you do."

"The characteristics of this kind of reading are perhaps summed up in the word "orthodox," which is almost always applicable. The word comes from two Greek roots, meaning "right opinion." These are books for which there is one and only one right reading; any other reading or interpretation is fraught with peril, from the loss of an "A" to the damnation of one?s soul. This characteristic carries with it an obligation. The faithful reader of a canonical book is obliged to make sense out of it and to find it true in one or another sense of "true." If he cannot do this by himself, he is obliged to go to someone who can. This may be a priest or a rabbi, or it may be his superior in the party hierarchy, or it may be his professor. In any case, he is obliged to accept the resolution of his problem that is offered him. He reads essentially without freedom; but in return for this he gains a kind of satisfaction that is possibly never obtained when reading other books."

"The books to be read should not be limited to those written in English.... Instead it should be devoted to the great works of history, biography, philosophy, theology, natural science, social science, and mathematics, as well as the... tradition of Western literature -- in English translation... Its aim should not be a survey of Western civilization, but an effort to understand the basic ideas and issues in Western thought."

"The complete realization of the ideal that is the goal?the whole truth and nothing but the truth?will never be achieved in any stretch of time. The pursuit is endless. It is in the main progressive, though there are periods when no advances are made and even some when impediments to further progress appear at the time to be insuperable. Nevertheless, the pursuit of truth is never so blocked or frustrated that despair impels us to give up the enterprise. Viewing the pursuit of truth retrospectively, we find that experts who are competent to judge?mathematicians, scientists, historians, each in their own departments of learning? have reached agreement about a host of judgments that they have come to regard as settled or established truths in their respective fields. This does not mean, of course, that all these agreed-upon truths have the finality and incorrigibility of certitude. It means only that the shadow of a doubt that still hangs over them because of what an uncharted, future has in store does not at the present moment threaten their status as established truth, temporarily undisputed by experts competent to judge."

"The failure in reading ? the omnipresent verbalism ? of those who have not been trained in the arts of grammar and logic shows how lack of such discipline results in slavery to words rather than mastery of them."

"The five "intellectual" rules: Be relevant, which means "find out what the issue is and stick to it." Divide the issue into its parts; every complex issue has parts, and move along from one part to another. Don't take things for granted. State your assumptions and see if you can get the other participants to state theirs. Make an effort to find out what the other person's assumptions are. Try to avoid arguing fallaciously. Don't cite authority as if they were conclusions. Don't argue ad hominem -- that means, don't argue against the person as opposed to against the point. Don't say to the other person, "Oh, that's the kind of thing Republicans say or Democrats say or Socialists say," as if calling it by that kind of name necessarily proves it wrong. That is a terrible fallacy of guilt by association. Don't agree or disagree with the other person until you understand what that person has said. This rule requires you in the course of discussion to say to the other person, "Now let me see if I can say in my own words what you have just said." And then having done that, you turn to them and say, "Is that what you mean?" And if they say, "Yes, it is; that's exactly what I mean," then you are for the first time privileged to say, "I agree with you," or "I disagree with you," and not one moment sooner. If, after understanding the other person, you do disagree, state your disagreement specifically and give reasons why. You can tell the other person what is wrong with their argument in four very sharp, specific ways. You can say: 1) "You are uninformed of certain relevant facts and I will show you what they are." 2) "You are misinformed. Some of the things you think are relevant facts aren't facts at all, and I will show you why they are not." 3) "You are mistaken in your reasoning and I will show you the mistakes that you have made." 4) "You don't carry your reasoning far enough. There is more to say than you have said and I will tell you what it is." These are all very polite and much to the point."

"The great books of ancient and medieval as well as modern times are a repository of knowledge and wisdom, a tradition of culture which must initiate each generation."

"The love which moves the world, according to common Christian belief, is God's love and the love of God."

"The Greeks and Romans had different names for the different kinds of love. The Greeks used the word eros and the Romans used the word amore for the kind of love we call erotic, amorous, or sexual."

"The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read."

"The hardest thing of all to do in discussion is to know how to ask good questions, the kind of questions that by their very nature generate good discussion. This is the hardest thing because asking good questions is much, much harder than answering them. We ought to be able to distinguish between questions of fact on the one hand, and questions of interpretation on the other. Such questions as whether something is the case or exists, and on the other hand, what it means, what it implies, what consequences it leads to. And then we should be able to distinguish between questions of fact and questions of value. Here we ought to know if we are asking about whether something happened, or whether it was good; how someone behaves, or how they should behave; questions of what is the case, as opposed to questions about what should be or what ought to be."

"The Paideia Program seeks to establish a course of study that is general, not specialized; liberal, not vocational; humanistic, not technical. Only in this way can it fulfill the meaning of the words "paideia" and "humanities," which signify the general learning that should be in the possession of every human being."

"The two great political philosophers that Bloom admires most are Plato and Rousseau, and neither is a democrat in my sense of the term. Neither would take Mill's view that democracy is the ideal form of government with a long future and almost no past."

"The three "emotional" rules: Keep your emotions in place. That means, keep them out of the argument, for they have no place in the argument. Catch yourself or the other person getting angry. Starting to shout, overemphasizing the point by repeating it again and again, using sarcasm, teasing, getting a laugh on the other person, all these are signs that someone's temper is getting out of hand. If you can't control your emotions, at least beware of the results of emotional disorder. Realize that your emotions can lead you either to say things you don't mean, or stubbornly refuse to admit things you really do see."

"These three ideas [liberty, equality, and justice] are the ones we live by in society. They represent ideas which a considerable portion of the human race has sought to realize for themselves and for posterity."

"Think how different human societies would be if they were based on love rather than justice. But no such societies have ever existed on earth."

"There are theories of taxation. So there are theories of love."

"Theories of love are found in the works of scientists, philosophers, and theologians."

"There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. By the time most people are thirty years old, their bodies are as good as they will ever be; in fact, many persons' bodies have begun to deteriorate by that time. But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. The mind does not stop growing at any particular age."

"There are three things that are required of conversation for it to become discussion in this good sense. First of all, the subject matter being discussed must be the sort of subject matter which permits genuine discussion to take place. Not everything is discussable, and not all the things which are discussable are equally discussable. For example, facts are not discussable. If there is a question of fact, the best thing to do is to go to a reference book and look it up. You can't settle a question of fact by discussion. Ideas are discussable, and the more fundamental the ideas, the more controversial they are, the more discussable they are. The second condition or prerequisite for good discussion is that right motive must prevail. The purpose we have in carrying on our conversation must be to learn, and if persons get engaged in serious discussion of serious themes, then their aim must be to get at the truth, not to win the argument. The third and perhaps the most important requirement of good discussion is that we should talk to the other person, not just at them. This means that listening is important, an essential part of discussion. In fact, listening is more important, even as it is more difficult, than talking. Because if one person doesn't listen to another, what that person says in the course of the conversation is not going to be very relevant."

"There is only one situation I can think of in which men and women make an effort to read better than they usually do. It is when they are in love and reading a love letter."

"There is no point in our ancestors speaking to us unless we know how to listen."

"There is no mutuality in ordinary desire: the hungry man wants to eat the food, but the food does not reciprocate ? it doesn't want to be eaten."

"There is only one true religion because there cannot be opposed truths of faith. There is only one orthodox or right theology because there cannot be two or more opposed correct understandings of those truths. Because of this, religion must be organized by a church and its dogma and ritual must be prescribed by church doctors."

"To avoid being drawn into the meshes of love is not so hard a the toils, to issue out and break through the strong bonds of Venus."

"To avoid this error, the error of assuming that that to be widely read and to be well read are the same thing, we must consider a certain distinction in types of learning. ? In the history of education, men have often distinguished between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. ? Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one. In both cases the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning, and instruction passive. There is no inactive learning, just as there is no inactive reading. This is so true, in fact, that a better way to make the distinction clear is to call instruction ?aided discovery.?"

"Too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding."

"To say, as I have said, that I have not learned a single fundamental truth from the writing of modern philosophers is not to say that I have learned nothing at all from them. With the exceptions of Hegel and other post-Kantian German philosophers, I have read their works with both pleasure and profit. The pleasure has come from the perception of errors the serious consequences of which tend to reinforce my hold on the truths I have learned from Aristotle and Aquinas. The profit has come from the perceptions of new but genuine problems, not pseudo-problems, perplexities, and puzzlements invented by therapeutic positivism and by linguistic or analytical philosophy in our own century."

"Ultimately, we wish the joy of perfect union with the person we love."

"Unless we love and are loved, each of us is alone, each of us is deeply lonely."

"Unlike many of my contemporaries, I never write books for my fellow professors to read. I have no interest in the academic audience at all. I'm interested in Joe Doakes. A general audience can read any book I write?and they do."