Mortimer Adler on Aristotle

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Bill Moyers sits down with philosopher/educator Dr. Mortimer Adler to discuss an array of topics, including: Aristotle, Marx, adult education and happiness and Dr. Adler’s groundbreaking book, Aristotle for Everybody.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Once upon a time, Mortimer Adler wanted to be a journalist. Then he discovered philosophy. Over the years I’ve had many conversations with Mortimer Adler. He’s the closest thing a journalist can come to talking with Plato and Aristotle. All you have to do is sit quietly while Mortimer interviews Mortimer.

Tonight we’ll go back ten years to the book Dr. Adler had just published on Aristotle for Everybody. It was his latest effort in a life that has been a continuing course in adult education.

MORTIMER ADLER: You can have too much wealth. You can have too much pleasure. You can have too much food. You can have too much drink. You can’t have too much knowledge. You can’t have too much moral virtue.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Mortimer Adler is 76 years old — one of America’s most prolific and controversial thinkers. Years ago he was a founding father of the Great Books Programs, and he is still passionately committed to making people think.

MORTIMER ADLER: I’m not derogating passion. I’m only saying that passion is a dispensable motor power that must be controlled. I mean, imagine having a motor that’s out of control. The glory of man is his intellect. Perfection of the intellect is the highest thing he can achieve. But the moral virtue is indispensable in doing that.

BILL MOYERS: Adler’s first love is adult education, and for 25 years he has been leading seminars at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, provoking the people who come here to wrestle with ideas of philosophy, education, economics and ethics — all subjects he has written about.

MORTIMER ADLER: This bag is a list of all the authors contained in the Great Treasury of Western thought.

BILL MOYERS: His most recent book is called Aristotle for Everybody, or Difficult Thought Made Easy. I came to Aspen to ask him about this audacious assumption.

[on camera] Let’s start with, as your friend Aristotle would say, first things.


BILL MOYERS: Why philosophy? By your own admission, philosophy bakes no cakes and builds no bridges. Why philosophy?

MORTIMER ADLER: Because philosophy is concerned with the basic ideas that everyone must use to understand the world in which we live — nature and man and society. Philosophy, as properly conceived, is the study of ideas and the understanding, the kind of understanding one gains through applying those ideas to the world about us.

BILL MOYERS: The real world? The ordinary world?

MORTIMER ADLER: Oh, the ordinary world. The world of ordinary experience. The world that all of us experience.

BILL MOYERS: Well, why philosophy, then, for everybody?

MORTIMER ADLER: Because everybody, I think, has a moral obligation to make the best use of his mind and simply knowing is not enough. Aristotle, and you did want an Aristotelian answer to the question, didn’t you?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m not sure where Aristotle ends and Adler begins.

MORTIMER ADLER: Treat them as continuous for the time being. Aristotle made the point that the mind has three basic goods, just as the body has the goods of food, shelter and clothing. The mind has three goods. One is knowledge; another is understanding; and a third is wisdom.

Now the sciences give us knowledge of the world, but not understanding of it and certainly no wisdom about it or wisdom about our lives. Philosophy is important, and why I think it is superior to science, is not that it provides — gives us more knowledge of the world, but without it we wouldn’t understand the things we know.

BILL MOYERS: Pragmatism would ask, “How do I make money?” Philosophy would ask

MORTIMER ADLER: “Why should you?” Now, let me see — if the question is put another way. Philosophy would ask, “What do you make money for? Is money, is wealth — not necessarily money but economic goods, wealth — is wealth an end or a means?” The greatest mistake a man can make, I think the greatest distortion and misdirection of a life, is a life directed toward acquiring wealth, endless acquirement of wealth as an end in itself. Wealth is a real good. One can’t lead a good life without wealth. But wealth is a means to that end, not an end in itself, and a means that must be moderated. It must be limited. The excessive accumulation of wealth can often be a heavy moral burden.

BILL MOYERS: But is it fair to ask people who are caught up in the mere business of living and of making a living to think beyond the daily criterion of life to the larger question of, okay, what’s the end of all this?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, you know, that’s why I think the Greeks, the Athenians, gave Socrates the hemlock. Philosophers ask those difficult questions that most men don’t ask themselves, and that many men don’t want to have asked because it’s disturbing. Philosophers are disturbers of the peace — the peace of mind that people like to have by not asking themselves questions about their lives, questions about the world in which they live. And all these questions are questions that require the mind to enlighten itself, to gain understanding of the world, and most of us in the modern world are — it’s curious, I don’t understand this really myself — are content with knowledge, with information, and with not trying to understand what we know. And that’s philosophy’s main contribution.

BILL MOYERS: For everyone.

MORTIMER ADLER: For everyone.

BILL MOYERS: Well, why Aristotle then?

MORTIMER ADLER: Aristotle, of all the philosophers in all the Western tradition from the 5th century B.C. down to the present day, is the eminently common sense philosopher — a man whose wisdom is based upon the common experience that we all share and have. There is no other philosopher in the whole history of Western thought that I would recommend as a guide to wisdom and understanding other than Aristotle.

BILL MOYERS: If I’m a farmer in Iowa, or a shoemaker in New York, what does Aristotle have to say to me?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, he’ll tell you both, for example, I think the first thing he would say to both of you is that you’re artists — which might surprise you, you think you’re craftsmen but he’d call each of you an artist, because the artist is distinguished by the skill he has. And I think the one kind of labor that Aristotle thought was menial and degrading was unskilled labor. Unskilled labor he looks down upon.

BILL MOYERS: But there are a lot of unskilled laborers in our society.

MORTIMER ADLER: Unfortunately. And I would say that wherever there are unskilled laborers, machinery should take over. The great advance in automation is removing the need for unskilled labor.

BILL MOYERS: But then what happens to the unskilled laborer?

MORTIMER ADLER: Then we must give them the kind of education that would provide them the skills to do a better sort of work. They’re doing an inferior — anything a machine can do human beings should not do.

BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t that get to the heart of the criticism of Aristotle for a modern world — that he really is irrelevant to people caught in circumstances they cannot control.

MORTIMER ADLER: No. It seems to me he’s saying to modern society, “Do whatever you can to remove the need for unskilled labor.” And we’ve made many advances in this direction. He’s making a moral point that’s quite relevant. He hasn’t solved the economic problem, I admit that, of how to employ the people that are disemployed by technology. But he is saying there are — there’s a hierarchy of occupations. The highest are those that use the mind at its fullest. Those which use the body only, as in the case where men are doing what animals might do, or machines might do, is degrading for human beings to engage in. Coal mining should be, for the most part, done by machinery

BILL MOYERS: What do you do with the coal miners, though?

MORTIMER ADLER: Find other walks of life for them. Better walks of life. We’re talking now about the improvement of human life.

BILL MOYERS: But did he say anything, or write anything bearing on this modern point.

MORTIMER ADLER: Yes. There’s an extraordinary passage, Bill, in The Politics, the first book of The Politics, in which Aristotle expresses the vision of an almost completely automated industry. The words are as follows, the words referring to a Greek situation, are as follows, “If the shuttle could weave by itself, or the plectrum pluck the lyre without a hand to guide it, then chief workmen would not need assistants, nor masters slaves.” And what, if you understand, that passage is saying, if you had automation, machinery that produced things, you wouldn’t have any form of menial labor at all.

You do understand, of course, Bill, that I think Aristotle has to be restated in contemporary terms. The Aristotelian texts, if you read them, themselves would, I think, defeat you. They’re very difficult. It’s very difficult writing. And they’re written in language and in imagery that is not contemporary. It’s the basic, essential truth that is there that can be restated without any loss of wisdom in contemporary terms.

BILL MOYERS: You write a lot in here about Aristotle’s uncommon common sense. How can common sense be uncommon and still be common? What do you mean?

MORTIMER ADLER: I simply mean that Aristotle’s philosophy begins with the same kind of common sense that all of us have, based upon our common experience. Because he thought more deeply and more penetratingly about our common experience, he elevates common sense to a higher — deepens it, broadens it, and elevates it, and in that respect his common sense is uncommon.

BILL MOYERS: But do you think most of us can swim that deep or fly that high?



MORTIMER ADLER: With instruction, not by ourselves. I mean, Aristotle is a master thinker, but he’s also a master teacher. And so, since he starts where we start, with common sense, we can — shall I say? — with his help raise our own common sense to that higher level.

BILL MOYERS: In Aristotle’s view, what is the most important question a human being has to ask?

MORTIMER ADLER: In the practical order, which is the order of action, the most important question a human being has to ask is, “What is the goal of my living? What should I aim at in life? How should I live in order to live well as a human being?” That, I think. And second to that, “What are the conditions under which society fulfills its mission? What is a good society?” In other words, the question about a good life and a good society are, in the order of action, the most important questions.

BILL MOYERS: Does Aristotle believe there is one answer to that question — a good life is?

MORTIMER ADLER: He believes that though men may — each man is different from another, individually in a variety of ways, inclination and temperament — may follow a somewhat different path, nevertheless, he thinks the end they should all aim at is the same. The content of a good life is the same for all.

BILL MOYERS: The same?

MORTIMER ADLER: It’s the same. And the factors involved in achieving a good life are the same for all. Let me now support those three statements. First, for him, happiness — which is another name for a good life as a whole — consists in a whole life, from birth to death, so lived that a person accumulates successively in time all the goods, the real goods, that a human being should have. Not all the things he wants, which are only apparent goods, but all the things he needs. All the things that satisfy his natural desires.

BILL MOYERS: Wouldn’t we have to all desire the same thing for there to be one good life?

MORTIMER ADLER: But that is precisely what the doctor of natural desires says. Not that we consciously desire the same thing. All our wants, Bill, your wants and my wants are different. The wants of every human being differ from those of others. It’s our natural desires, our needs that are the same. We all need — let me talk about the biological needs. We all need food, clothing, shelter, rest, play, and sensuous pleasure on the biological level. On the human level — spiritually, intellectually — we all need friendship and love. We all need a good society to live in. We all need knowledge and wisdom. There are the things our nature seeks, and our nature being the same in all of us, what we seek — not consciously, but naturally — the good man is one who desires what he ought to desire, or desires what conforms to his natural desires.

BILL MOYERS: What if you desire some, but not all, of those? What if you do not desire knowledge

MORTIMER ADLER: Then you’re deficient. You’re deficient in that respect.

BILL MOYERS: That’s very arbitrary.

MORTIMER ADLER: No. Because the good life is defined, and properly defined, as seeking all the things that are really good for you. Now, you’re not going to tell me that knowledge is not really good for you?

BILL MOYERS: I’m saying to you that if I don’t desire it —

MORTIMER ADLER: You’re bad. Knowledge is good and you’re bad. You’re failing yourself. You’re stunting your own growth. Your mind, your intellect, Bill, seeks knowledge as much as your stomach seeks food, and for you to deny that knowledge is good for yourself would be as silly as to deny that food is good for your body.

BILL MOYERS: Is this what you mean when you say there are lots of wrong plans for living well, and only one right plan?


BILL MOYERS: Isn’t that dogmatic?

MORTIMER ADLER: I don’t know why you use the word dogmatic.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, what possibly can make one plan for living the right plan and all others wrong?

MORTIMER ADLER: The answer to that question I’ve already given. Let me repeat it again. If human nature is as Aristotle describes it — I said “if” — if we do have in our nature a certain set of potentialities that are common to the species, and these create tendencies or natural desires, then there can only be one plan for fulfilling one’s nature — living according to nature.

BILL MOYERS: When you say, then, that happiness is the ultimate or final end of all our doing in this life, do you mean that I’m on this earth to find happiness?

MORTIMER ADLER: To answer that question, I have to step back a moment and say, that is a pagan or naturalist answer to the question. A devout Christian would not say that. A devout Christian would say, “You’re on this earth in order to achieve eternal salvation.” The kind of happiness that Aristotle is talking about is temporal, earthly happiness. He’s not talking about an afterlife. If man has an immoral soul, and there’s an afterlife, then you’re not on this earth solely to achieve happiness here and now.

BILL MOYERS: Yet temporal happiness is a life that achieves these ”real goods.”


BILL MOYERS: The goods of the body?

MORTIMER ADLER: The goods of the soul, goods of the spirit, goods of the mind.

BILL MOYERS: Aristotle says moral virtue is essential to a good life. What is moral virtue?

MORTIMER ADLER: Moral virtue consists of habits of good choice. Virtue aims at happiness as the end of the life, and is the habit of choosing the right means to it, choosing real goods and avoiding apparent goods.

BILL MOYERS: Make that more specific for us.

MORTIMER ADLER: Let me take the most obvious virtue, temperance. Temperance consists in the habit, the settled, firm disposition of forsaking, avoiding, giving up certain very seductive pleasures that tempt you here and now — more food, more drink, more play, more sleep — all these human beings tend to, in order to achieve remote and difficult goods that would be interfered with if you played too much, slept too much, drank too much, ate too much. Temperance is a habit of modifying the bodily desires, perfectly good desires, and you should have a certain amountñ modifying, moderating them for the sake of the total life.

BILL MOYERS: So, to be virtuous I have to be temperate in the choices before me.

MORTIMER ADLER: Yes you do. That’s right. You have to be courageous and just. The three cardinal virtues are temperance, fortitude or courage, and justice.

BILL MOYERS: What is courage?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, courage is the very opposite of temperance. Temperance is resisting seductive pleasures for the sake of a greater good, and courage is taking, willingly undergoing suffering, pains and hardships for the sake of a greater good.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example of this.

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, a soldier on the battlefield is the most obvious example. But I prefer the example of a good student. The good student studying is hard. Studying is very hard. It’s painful. And the person who lacks courage shirks the hard work of study. But the good student who has the virtue of courage and fortitude bears up under the pain of long hours of study.

BILL MOYERS: So he has courage.

MORTIMER ADLER: That’s right. Without temperance and courage, one doesn’t pursue one’s studies well.

BILL MOYERS: What is justice?

MORTIMER ADLER: Ah; that’s a virtue in a totally different direction. Temperance and courage are self — regarding virtues. They are virtues that order my life with respect to my own happiness. Justice is the virtue which orders my life with respect to the good of everybody else in a society. I think the most difficult question raised is, “I can see why I should be temperate, and why I should be courageous, because if I’m not, I may not lead a good life myself, I mean I achieve my own happiness. But why should I be just, when justice is concerned with your good and the good of society?” That’s a hard question.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the answer? You’re making difficult thought easy.

MORTIMER ADLER: The answer is that justice, temperance and courage are not three distinct virtues. They are all aspects of “virtue.” Virtue is one. Hence, you’ve got to say that a man cannot be a good man, a virtuous man, in his own private life without at the same time being virtuous in his public life. And the reason for that is virtue aims at the end. If you’re aiming at the right end — if you’re aiming at the right end which courage and temperance says you are doing, you can’t aim at the wrong end by injustice. There’s only one end. You’re either aiming at the right end, in which case you have all virtue, or you’re aiming at the wrong end, in which you have no virtue. That was the most difficult lesson for me to learn from Aristotle. I used to think, oh, well, I was temperate but not courageous, or I was courageous but not just. You have some virtues and some vices. Aristotle says, “No, you either have all virtue or no virtue.” That’s why there are probably so few people who are virtuous.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t the fact that we all fall so far short of what Aristotle says is a good or virtuous life, doesn’t that make him largely irrelevant?

MORTIMER ADLER: No. Because if I may now use the closing line of Spinoza’s Ethics, “All things noble are as difficult as they are rare.”

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] At the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Mortimer Adler has found a compatible forum for his conviction that adults ought never to stop learning. He’s become as much a fixture at the institute as the mountains around it. The institute’s technique is to bring together a variety of people to challenge and confront their ideas in an intellectual free-for-all. In Adler’s discussion of Aristotle, the participants include: America’s current ambassador to Italy [1979]; the chairman of a large corporation; the president of the Aspen Institute itself; a writer and a poet; a professor of history; a professor of criminal justice; a journalist from South America; a doctor; a graduate student in architecture; a scholar of law; and an emeritus executive of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

1st PARTICIPANT, President of Aspen Institute: In many people’s judgment, one of the breakdowns of contemporary morals and politics is the attempt to get the short-run at the expense of the long-run, whether it’s the elected official who’s thinking only of the next election, or a businessman who’s only thinking of the bottom line in the next period, or the people who would ignore the environment or things for the future. Could you elaborate a little bit on what you and Aristotle would think about questions of the notion of the future ñ the long-term — who speaks for the conscience of the future?

MORTIMER ADLER: I think, by the way you can treat Aristotle and me, for the purposes of this discussion, as Siamese twins. Aristotle’s’ concern is that the person who is trying to lead a good life, trying to achieve a good life for himself, must think about his life as a whole and not about immediate pleasures and pains today, tomorrow, and the next day. In fact, I think the essence of moral virtue, as Aristotle conceives it, is always sacrificing the immediate, apparent goods for the long-term real goods. In that sense, the long-term point of view is the fundamental moral point of view, and the short — term point of view is not.

2nd PARTICIPANT, BBC Executive: Does it really go as far as that? I mean it’s going very far, isn’t it, to think you’ve got to think of your life as a whole. There’s another great precept that says that “sufficient enough for today is the evil thereof.” It’s not Aristotle’s, God knows, but nevertheless, that the notion of having a total plan operation does seem a bit thick on behalf of your Siamese twin.

MORTIMER ADLER: No, I don’t think so, do you? Because when you are making a film, you’ve got to — and before your start — you’ve got to think about the film as a whole. Now in any of the performing arts, whether it be a concert, a great symphony concert, or a ballet, or the making of a film or the writing of a book, in any art that takes time, and life takes time, you have to think about the whole though the whole is never achieved at any time. I think the hardest message here is, that for Aristotle, the end is not a terminable end, this is very hard to people to end, but a normative end.

2nd PARTICIPANT: But you don’t think of the end all the time, you think of the part.

MORTIMER ADLER: Most people — I would agree with you.

2nd PARTICIPANT: And if you’re an actor, you’re speaking your lines in Act II, you’re not concerned with Act III.

MORTIMER ADLER: But the director has to think of the whole. I do think the long — term point of view is required if you take Aristotle seriously, his meaning, that the end that one should be aiming at is a good life as a whole.

2nd PARTICIPANT: I know that Aristotle isn’t saying that to be cheerful, to be contented, to be tranquil or to be satisfied in your wants is a perfect situation. On the other hand, there must be something between that and talking about a man when he’s dead as having been blessed. There is a condition of life that I have personally seen in people which I regard as profoundly enviable, to which I am prepared to give some names —

MORTIMER ADLER: May I? [crosstalk]

St. Augustine, in a treatise on happiness, I think not only sums up the Aristotelian insight but adds a very good point when he says, the phrase is exactly this, “Happy is the man who has everything he desires, provided he desire nothing amiss.” Virtue is the habit of not desiring anything amiss, or desiring aright So, Aristotle would say that in the course — if a man in midstream has the moral virtues — I have to add one more point — he is likely when he is finished living to have lived a good life, if he is also blessed by good fortune. So, you — the most extraordinary thing about Aristotle is that he’s the only moral philosopher in the whole of Western thought who recognized that a life can be ruined by bad fortune.

2nd PARTICIPANT: Yeah. I like that

MORTIMER ADLER: That virtue is not enough. Virtue is indispensable, but not a sufficient, necessarily, a sufficient condition.

2nd PARTICIPANT: That’s right.

MORTIMER ADLER: The most virtuous man can lead a miserable life because he is beset by all kinds of bad fortune. And that double insight explains the relationship of society to happiness. Without that, you wouldn’t understand, I think, any of the reasons why we ought to have a good society.

3rd PARTICIPANT, Writer: Were Aristotle here, would he find this to be a good or a bad society?

MORTIMER ADLER: I don’t know. Can I ask you? You asked the question, you probably had an answer in mind. What answer would you give? [crosstalk]

Anyone can be Aristotle today. You be Aristotle, now.

3rd PARTICIPANT: I suspect that Aristotle wouldn’t know what’s wrong, you see. I tend to disagree with you in your claim that he is as pertinent to our day as you are. I think that he probably wouldn’t understand what the hell is going on. I think you probably have an idea. When, in the history of culture, people lost the way and ceased to be able to find the road to happiness or something of this sort, but I doubt that Aristotle would understand.

MORTIMER ADLER: I think — may I say, I take a different view of that, Mr. Allen. In no society is the majority of human beings virtuous. By and large, most men are morally, should I say, of weak fiber. This is not new. The Christian doctrine of original sin may explain this, or there are other explanations. So that I don’t think, by and large, the number of good men — the number of men who are virtuous enough to do what is necessary, the hard things, as I say, to lead a good life, varies from time to time.

4th PARTICIPANT, Professor of Criminal Justice: I think he would recognize at least one part of this world, and one of the problems of it. But you don’t have occasion to mention in your book, but there in the original Politics is a whole section on revolution — the study of the causes of revolution. As I can remember, he ascribes to one of the central causes of revolution this lust or desire for equality. And I think that the idea of equality is a very difficult idea to get hold of. But so many of the contemporary revolutions, somehow or other, are addressed or have their roots in, or —

MORTIMER ADLER: There isn’t any question about that. That motion in the world today, not only in the United States, among our people, but among all the people is, I think, the dominant factor in our lives, and society must satisfy this desire that men have for equality of conditions. Now, there is here a distinction that I make in my own thinking which I can’t find a basis for in Aristotle. The egalitarian, whom I think is wrong, wants flat equality, uniformity, equality in degree. I think that, and I now speak in Aristotelian terms, even if Aristotle himself does not speak to this point, that the only equality that we can achieve is an equality in kind rather than an equality in degree. That is, to put it this way, a society should create an equality that justice requires. No more equality than justice requires. Now how much equality does justice require? My answer to that one is the answer of the Declaration, securing to all men, equally, their natural rights. There are two Marxist statements that I think, curiously enough, both in Karl Marx, that state the whole truth. I’m going to change Marx a little bit, because I think he misstated the first one. He shouldn’t have said, “To each according to his need,” because needs are common to all of us and the same. He should have said, “To all according to their common human needs, and to each according to his contribution,” because our contributions are different, our needs are the same. Those two principles of justice, with the first one first, because until you’ve given all what they need, you have no right to make the differential distribution in terms of contribution. If all have what they need, then you can have “mores” and have “lesses” in terms of the differential of contribution.

5th PARTICIPANT, Professor of History: You’re skirting the issue of revolution that was originally —


5th PARTICIPANT: Let me get back to this.


5th PARTICIPANT: Let me read something — Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, quotation: “We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and non — violent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that the privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the morality, and voluntarily an unjust posture, but as Reinhold Niebuhr has permitted us to say, that groups are more immoral than individuals to questions.” In the pursuit of a good life, the majority violates the will of the minority. Does not the minority have the natural right to revolution, either non — violent or violent? How would Aristotle respond?

MORTIMER ADLER: He thinks that revolutions arise, in fact he says, as Plato said before him, there is always a war between the rich and the poor, the oligarchs and the democrats, and he thinks that revolutions happen through those natural causes. I would go further in saying that when men have serious grievances, suffering injustices, they are justified, if they cannot redress their grievances by peaceful, non — violent, legal means in taking up arms to do so.

6th PARTICIPANT, Journalist: If the satisfaction of the natural needs of human beings leads to the happiness of everybody, are we not compelled by a moral imperative to redistribute wealth in the world to assure — at least to a minimum extent, as you said in the book — independently of any ideological considerations —

MORTIMER ADLER: Yes. If I understand Aristotle’s notion of the good society, it is one which tries to provide all its human beings with the conditions, the external conditions, prerequisite to their pursuit of happiness. Poverty, destitution, ill health, lack of education, I think all the goods that the welfare state tries to provide its people, are parts of the conditions of the pursuit of happiness. And a good society is one which will distribute wealth and handle the distribution of wealth to assure that every human being has those conditions. So that if that’s socialism, if that’s socialism, then however remarkable it is, Aristotle is a socialist.

7th PARTICIPANT, Corporation Chairman: Is it not possible, in an imperfect society, to set out on a journey and never get there? You start to redistribute wealth in the direction of the people who are entitled to it, but they don’t see it.

MORTIMER ADLER: I think that’s the failure, that’s the weak point in socialism. You can’t say, “We will give you the conditions of leading a good life only if you promise and prove that you can use those conditions well.” You can’t get that assurance from the person.

7th PARTICIPANT: I wasn’t looking for that. Just how do you get the conditions in terms of redistributing wealth, which is not changing conditions except temporarily?

MORTIMER ADLER: You know, Mr. Ablon, as well as I do, what the provisions and measures of a welfare society are. All Western societies in varying degrees are now welfare states. They are all socialist, not in means but in end. Their concerned with seeing that the whole population, or a very large part of it, participate in the general economic welfare, have some minimal share, at least, of the economic goods required for a good life. We’re agreed about that. We disagree when the Communists say they will do that by the abolition of private property, and we say we will do it by a free enterprise society, which mixes the public and the private sector. We’re differing about the mean and not the end. I don’t think there is a modern society in the West that is not socialist in this sense.

8th PARTICIPANT, Scholar of Law: I’d like to come back to the equality issue. I think there’s still an ambiguity when you talk about guarantee of natural rights — that’s hard to define — and when you talk about equality of condition. That really breaks down into two parts that we often call now equality of opportunity, in which I guess everybody believes, and equality of result. And that’s where the revolution comes.

MORTIMER ADLER: I mean by equality of condition, I really mean what you mean by the phrase equality of result. And that’s the hard one.

8th PARTICIPANT: That’s the hard one. Then the way it comes now, in our present context, in the inequality that exists, the discrimination, the racism, as you’ve said, that continues in the United States as elsewhere, the obligation, or at least so believed, of government to take some action to redress that imbalance, and that’s affirmative action, and that’s special admissions, it’s the Bakke case and it’s all those questions, in which there is — somebody pays a price for that, somebody who is himself or herself innocent and does not get the advantage that might otherwise have accrued to that individual. Now would Aristotle have an opinion about that kind of redressing of the balance to help those who’ve been disadvantaged at the expense of those who are, in a sense, innocent?

MORTIMER ADLER: I do not think so. I have to say —

8th PARTICIPANT: It’s an issue he did not face.

MORTIMER ADLER: I don’t think he faced it, no.

8th PARTICIPANT: How would his twin face that issue?

MORTIMER ADLER: The hard choices are where there’s good and evil on both sides, and either choice is really an undesirable choice. But you are compelled by the same thing to make a choice. So, in society, we often have to redress a grievance in jobs, as in — the Bakke case is one case in point.

8th PARTICIPANT: And that is not injustice.

MORTIMER ADLER: No. Not injustice.

9th PARTICIPANT, Doctor: You have chosen the analogy of a Siamese twin. I would like to know where you’re joined. Are you joined — ?

MORTIMER ADLER: I hope in the head and not in the hip.

9th PARTICIPANT: Well, see, this is very important because in your book we get the cerebral cortex. We don’t get anything else of Aristotle. And the question is, it’s easy to know how he thinks. It’s difficult to know who he was. ï

MORTIMER ADLER: What would you like to know? I’d be curious to know what you’d like to know about him.

9th PARTICIPANT: Well, it’s interesting. Earlier you said that he wasn’t interested in the subconscious, or the unconscious.

MORTIMER ADLER: That notion, I have to say, the notion of the unconscious does not appear anywhere in human thought until the beginning of the 19th century.

2nd PARTICIPANT: With the greatest respect, you did add that although you are rather clear that Aristotle had no knowledge of the unconscious, you also said that you didn’t think much of it yourself, either.

MORTIMER ADLER: I didn’t say —

2nd PARTICIPANT: I thought it does.

MORTIMER ADLER: I said I didn’t think much of unconscious thinking about means and ends. Let me say — now as myself, not as Aristotle — I am making a very definite effort to leave a certain amount of time in every day idle, awake, purposeless and doing nothing in order to let my unconscious pop out. I found it very fruitful indeed to sit idly staring at the water, at the end of the day of work, sitting down and intentionally doing nothing. Intentionally being at rest and idle and then suddenly, because the unconscious is there, all kinds of things I hadn’t thought about before pop into my mind — particularly in a day in which I’ve done a lot of work. If the whole day’s been idle, it isn’t purposeful to be idle at the end of it. If you’ve worked hard all day, lots of little things drop into the unconscious that you don’t notice, and then you sit back and sort of — I’m usually idle with a pad next to me.

2nd PARTICIPANT: Of course! I don’t regard that as unconscious.

MORTIMER ADLER: It is. Because the things that pop into my mind I have not searched for by thought, by any deliberate effort. All I’m doing, Sir Hugh, is indicating that I have some respect for the unconscious.

9th PARTICIPANT: Now, on page 77, you say, “As we get older we become more and more purposeful, we also become more serious and less playful.” I think the most recent modern non — philosopher writing on philosophy is George Sheehan, whose best known as a runner and physician, and he has made a very large point in relation to the importance of play if one is going to work in a dedicated manner over a long period of time.

MORTIMER ADLER: So does Aristotle make the same point.

9th PARTICIPANT: I missed it.

MORTIMER ADLER: Aristotle — and I didn’t make it in the book, because I was not concerned with the parts of life — but Aristotle names four main parts of life: sleep, this is all the biological activities —

9th PARTICIPANT: Which is also the very active use of the subconscious.

MORTIMER ADLER: — play, which is the activity which is inherently pleasant, is purposeless, it’s end is in itself — it doesn’t have an end beyond itself; work for subsistence, we’ll call toil or labor; and leisure, which he doesn’t mean free time, but learning, all the creative acts. And he says play is for the sake of work, as work is for the sake of leisure. In other words, play, the recreational, the reviving effects of play are indispensable. And children, to my observation, are essentially playful. They play a great deal. They make games of everything and play. As we get older, I think we still play, but we take many more things seriously than children do. And the unfortunate thing is, in my way of looking at it, I think it would be better if children were serious and their elders were playful.

9th PARTICIPANT: Well, I think it’s important.



9th PARTICIPANT: You’ve been on line with a series of problems, that if we really face up to every day and say we not only have to work through our government, we have to make our own personal decisions, by God, sometime during the day I’m going to want to play.

MORTIMER ADLER: The play you’re talking about is sheer enjoyment for its own sake.


MORTIMER ADLER: I would say some play. Comes as near in human life to what religious people call contemplation. It really is abstracted from all practical purpose, intrinsically enjoyable with reference to nothing beyond.


2nd PARTICIPANT: I, personally, would much prefer to be in the hands of the politician who regarded himself as being “in the great game” — I mean, Churchill, Truman, LG, and FDR, all these people they knew what they were doing; and I mean, when you look at Stafford Cripps, with all due respect to a great man, I mean all you got was earnestness, you see, not a lot.

MORTIMER ADLER: Dull, very dull.

10th PARTICIPANT, Graduate Student In Architecture: How do you describe leisure, then?

MORTIMER ADLER: Leisure is like work. In fact, I never use the word “leisure” except to say leisure work. So, leisure is not play, it’s the very opposite of play. It’s the most serious of all human activities, intensely difficult, fatiguing, the opposite of the American conception of leisure which is having a good —


9th PARTICIPANT: — mean the same thing in Greek?

MORTIMER ADLER: The Greek word for leisure is the Greek word for learning, see? Leisure isñ there are two kinds of work: serious activity for an end beyond itself, a leisure work; and subsistence work. By the way, this Aristotle — the amazing thing is he had all these distinctions toward the end of the Politics and the Ethics. The difference between leisure work and subsistence work are the kind of goods they aim at. Subsistence work is the production of economic goods, wealth. Leisure work is the goods of civilization, the arts — and science. Mr. Gardner.

11th PARTICIPANT, Ambassador to Italy: This book is called Aristotle for Everybody. Its subtitle is Difficult Thought Made Easy. Now these are rather controversial assumptions. Many scholars, many educators in this country and particularly in Europe, in Italy, the country in which I am currently living, would say Aristotle isn’t for everybody. Difficult thought should not be made easy. In fact, aren’t you and your twin at odds on this?

MORTIMER ADLER: I have to say, if I may, that I don’t think the subtitle is correct. The thought, Aristotle’s thought is not difficult. What I made easy was the writing. You see, thought written in a difficult manner rewritten to make it easy. It’s the writing I’ve done.

2nd PARTICIPANT: When you say it’s for everybody, it perhaps should be difficult for everybody. When I was a boy, I learned a Chopin Nocturne, in G minor. [hums melody].

MORTIMER ADLER: You sing well, Sir Hugh.

2nd. PARTICIPANT: I remember it very well — 14, 12 years old. I learned this thing, and I remember vividly being in somebody’s house and hearing somebody — not at a concert at all — play this thing and I realized that what I’d been playing was a simplified version. And I was deeply shocked, and I was shocked on behalf of two people, me and Chopin. I, who had been doing him down, and I’d done myself down because I thought that I’d taken it in. Now, Chopin is supposed to be difficult, and although the language may be part of the thing, Aristotle is supposed to be difficult, too. I speak as one Mr. Gardner’s Europeans.

MORTIMER ADLER: I think, curiously enough, that if I compare Aristotle with either his own ancient Greek colleague, Plato, or with any modern philosopher, let’s say Kant or Hegel, he is very much easier to understand. ï

11th PARTICIPANT: Would 215 million Americans, really, would their lives be enriched? Would they be more virtuous, would they approach excellence if they read this? And, if so, what does this mean for our educational system? Should there be more philosophy? Is the implication of all this that we should build into the primary and secondary school systems speculative philosophy?

MORTIMER ADLER: Not the primary schools. I think that philosophy, thus expounded, not philosophy as now taught in our colleges, which is as highly specialized and technical a subject as logic and mathematics are, but philosophy thus expounded as an extension of common sense wisdom, should be taught in the upper years of high school, in other words, the junior and senior year of high school. I think children of that age are ripe for it. So, I think I’d answer your question by saying this belongs in the high school curriculum.

7th PARTICIPANT: Well, I think the point lies elsewhere. The most impressive thing in the book, to me, was the inference, and I think I have it correctly, that thinking is a skill. And that thinking as a skill ought to be developed. I am less impressed, frankly, by whether the various theories of Aristotle are right or wrong, than I am impressed by the enormity of his ability to think, to think clearly, to think accurately, and to arrive at conclusions that, in a sense, prove themselves. Now, somewhere in the book you said that philosophy won’t build bridges or make soup.


7th PARTICIPANT: But let me ask you whether you think somebody who has not been taught philosophy, but has become a philosopher by being taught to think, will make better soup or build a better bridge?

MORTIMER ADLER: No. I think — let me say —



MORTIMER ADLER: Let me say why not. I think the difference between the application of science and the application of philosophy is a profound point. Science, scientific knowledge, applied science is productive — makes better things, builds bridges and makes soup. Philosophy is not productive, but directive. It gives us directions for leading our lives and conducting our society. It doesn’t produce things.

3rd PARTICIPANT: But when you describe what the good life is, you and Aristotle, you list the good life as consisting of the satisfaction of all these natural goods.

MORTIMER ADLER: Natural needs.

3rd PARTICIPANT: Natural needs.


3rd PARTICIPANT: Is it not true, though, that the intellectual need is the most important, and that the emotional needs are, in your opinion and Aristotle’s, less important for the good view of life?

MORTIMER ADLER: I don’t think so. Though I think Aristotle would say that the intellect is man’s highest power, and therefore the thing most to be perfected. I would say that he regarded love and friendship, which are on the level of emotions, as a good of equal importance to knowledge and understanding. I think it would be difficult, in terms of the amount of time it consumed, to have a large number of very close friends. And I think friendship is a very taxing and arduous form of leisure work. I really think friendship — cultivating friends and being friends is not easy. You can’t have a lot of very close friends. But I think he would never say you could have too many friends. Of real friends, you can’t have too many.

3rd PARTICIPANT: Are philosophers, then, the happiest of all men, because they can use their minds principally rather than having to divert their energies and time on other things?

2nd PARTICIPANT: You can’t tell until they’re dead.

MORTIMER ADLER: I want to take the Fifth at this point.

BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Is happiness the same thing as contentment?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, as most people in the modern, and especially in the contemporary world, use the word “happiness,” it’s a synonym for contentment. But as Aristotle uses the term “happiness,” having the meaning of the whole, good human life, it is the very opposite of contentment. For contentment is a psychological term. A man is contented today if he has what he wants, his desires, his particular desires are satisfied; and tomorrow he may be discontented for lacking something that he wants. And so one can shift, from time to time, from being contented or discontented.

BILL MOYERS: But if he’s happy?

MORTIMER ADLER: You see, contentment and discontentment are experienced. But a whole good life, happiness now in the sense of a whole good life, is never experienced because you’re never experiencing any one moment in your life. Contentment and discontent are psychological terms.


MORTIMER ADLER: Happiness is ethical, a purely ethical term.

BILL MOYERS: Say that again.

MORTIMER ADLER: Happiness is a purely ethical term, has no psychological connotations at all, as contentment and discontent have. You can experience the one, you can’t experience the other. That’s contrary to what most people mean by happiness.

BILL MOYERS: You can’t experience happiness?

MORTIMER ADLER: Happiness, no. Moments of real contentment, and there is no exclusion of good times and pleasure and joy — those are essential parts of happiness — but parts of it, not the whole. The great error is the people who confuse having a good time with leading a good life. A good life contains many moments of good time, but the playboy, who is out to have a good time all the time, is a fellow on the wrong road. He’s not going to have a happy life.

BILL MOYERS: In other words, you can have good times and bad times and still have…

MORTIMER ADLER: A good life, precisely. Precisely. I would say that, on this earth, human beings in being as they are, there is no one who has a good life that isn’t also a life filled with good times and bad times.

BILL MOYERS: Whose obligation is it to provide the real good all of us need.

MORTIMER ADLER: The individual has the obligation to do everything he can to acquire it for himself. That’s his job in pursuing happiness. But when he’s hindered, hampered, impeded by the action of misfortune, then organized society must step in and help him do what he can’t do for himself. Abraham Lincoln said, and I think it sums the thing up, society, government should do for the people what they can’t do for themselves.

BILL MOYERS: For all of us, for society, too, organized to help those who aren’t able to help themselves, assumes a certain virtue that appears often to be lacking.

MORTIMER ADLER: No question about that. The good society is probably as rare as the good life. They are both — in most cases the most we have are approximations to it. I would say, by the way, that America, the United States in the 20th century, is a closer approximation to a good society, with all its faults, than any society that ever existed before.


MORTIMER ADLER: Because I think it is making an effort to do what it can to provide for a very large number of people, if not all, a very large portion of the population with the external conditions they need to lead good lives.

BILL MOYERS: I find, Mortimer, that I need beauty for happiness. I need these mountains, and this blue sky and these trees. What is the role of beauty in Aristotle’s, and Adler’s view of life?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, beauty is the highest form of intellectual pleasure. Aristotle makes pleasure one of the real goods, the pleasure of the sense. But the pleasure of the mind, the pleasure we get from apprehending beauty is the highest form of pleasure. Aristotle’s greatest disciple, St. Thomas Aquinas, defines beauty, that it is — Latin first — id quid visum placet, that which pleases us upon being seen. As we look around, aren’t you pleased to see this? Doesn’t it please you? Not just your eye, but you’re seeing something which is more pleasant than the mere surface colors and shapes. If I may jump from Aquinas to the Old Testament, at the end of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, God, having finished creating the world, rests and on the seventh day says, “It is good.” Very good. It is good to behold and that’s what beauty is — that which is good to behold.

BILL MOYERS: You bring in the Old Testament and God. What did Aristotle believe about God?

MORTIMER ADLER: Before I answer that question, Bill, let me tell you Aristotle’s views about infinity and eternity, because they have a bearing on his conception of God. He thought there could be no actually infinite anything. There could be an actually infinite number of atoms, or an actually infinite physical world, or an actually infinite space, because for him the actual had to be definite and the infinite is indefinite. But he did not deny potential infinities — the infinity of addition, such as the endless series of numbers —

BILL MOYERS: One forever.

MORTIMER ADLER: — ever. Or the infinity of division. Divide infinitely divisible things. And he thought that time was endless, potentially infinite. Go back toñ and if you call the first instant, there was an instant earlier than that. And any instant you think is the last instant in time, and there’s an instant after that. And that’s why he thought time was everlasting, and the world would everlastingly exist in existence and everlastingly in motion. And his conception of God as the prime mover is as the everlasting Cause of the everlasting motion of the universe. That is quite different from the Christian conception of God. I don’t know what Aristotle would have said to the first sentence in Genesis. “In the beginning” — Aristotle would have been startled by that word “beginning.” “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” He would have been startled by the word ”created” because the notion of beginning, the world’s beginning or the world’s being created was foreign to him. The Christian conception of God corresponds to the Aristotelian in this sense: Where Aristotle thought the everlasting existence of the world needed an everlasting Cause of its existence and motion — of its motion particularly, not its existence — the Christian conception of God as Creator is as the cause of the being of the world. And the Christian conception is quite compatible with the view of the world always existed because the Creator is required to keep the world in existence at this very moment, to sustain its existence. At any moment of its existence, the Creative Cause is required for its contingent existence.

BILL MOYERS: What God do you believe in?

MORTIMER ADLER: You used the word “believe.” And that’s a difficult word because it means both an act of natural belief and an act of supernatural faith. So, that I’m going to have to say that, first, I think that the conception of God as the creative Cause of the world is a valid conception. And though I do not, I’m not sure yet that I would be able, by purely rational steps, to prove God’s existenceñ though I’m going to try to do thatñ I think the reasoning for the existence of a creative God is so strong that I’m willing to make the leap of faith, of natural faith, not supernatural faith, the leap of belief beyond the evidence.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, if I could prove God’s existence, I wouldn’t — I mean, no need to say, “I believe in God.” What you prove you don’t have to believe. Belief and proof are incompatible. You only say you believe what you can’t prove or know on rational grounds. So, my statement to you is a little more complicated, then. I think the evidence, the reasons I have, for thinking that God — the greater God that the Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in — exists are very strong, but not final and conclusive. And so, I need an act of belief to go beyond what I know by reason. So, to answer your question with no further quibbling. I do believe in God.

BILL MOYERS: You were born of Jewish parents. You taught Aquinas at the University of Chicago so efficiently that many of your students — Jewish, Protestants, agnostics, atheists — were converted to Catholicism. Your wife is Episcopalian. Your children have been baptized into the Episcopalian faith.

MORTIMER ADLER: One of them has been confirmed recently.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you come out, personally?

MORTIMER ADLER: Well, I — that’s a very difficult and probing question, Bill. In my recently published autobiography, I reported the fact that many of my friends, good friends are in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Church. I’ve been puzzled by my not becoming a convert to one or another form of Christianity in view of my deep interest in Aquinas. And my only answer is that when one voluntarily accepts a religion, one must be prepared to live the life that that religion recommends. For example, to become a Christian, one must be resolutely determined to walk in the path of Jesus Christ. I just don’t know that I have that will. And short of having that firm will to be a good Christian, I don’t want to become a Christian at all. Now, that may be wrong. I’m troubled by that. But that’s my only explanation for not, shall I say, entering into the religious communion whose intellectual structure I understand so well.

BILL MOYERS: Are you afraid of the price you might pay? Are you afraid of having to give up what you enjoy?

MORTIMER ADLER: I think that may be the case. I think that may be the case, though I don’t want to probe that too far, for I may discover in myself things I don’t like very much. I think what I’m saying is that all my reasoning, all my understanding, leads me almost up to the conclusion that is demonstrated, but not quite. And that gap between the reasoning that is insufficient and the final conclusion, I must make by a leap of faith by an act of my own will. So, when I say I believe in God, I am going beyond my reasoning to a conclusion that I cannot prove. Now, I hope that the next episode in my life is to write a book about God’s existence, and I may a year from now have reached the point where I think I have proved God’s existence and I won’t say I believe God exists any longer.

BILL MOYERS: You can be an infuriating man, You can be a provocative man. You can also be a man of charm and a man of warmth, and I’m wondering if Mortimer Adler the man is satisfied without a warm heart, or a heart that is warmed by the belief, by faith, as a commitment instead of just an intellectual exercise.

MORTIMER ADLER: It is warmed by a variety of things — good friends, loved ones, a loved wife and loved children. It is warmed by those things. It’s warmed by the beauty that we have around us here. It’s warmed by the intellectual excitement of discovery and thought Beyond that, the warmth you’re talking about lies — the warmth of, the peace of mind that comes with deep religious commitment — You know, let me put it another way. We talked about the seventh day of the creation of the world, the day in which God rested. I think, I really, firmly believe that what I lack is not warmth, but rest. That rest is religious. I think the phrase, you know, heavenly rest? My understanding of heavenly rest is the joy that the saints, the blessed, have in the vision of God. That’s heavenly rest. On earth, the remote, inchoate approximation to heavenly rest is, I think, the religious experience. So, what my life lacks in not warmth, but rest. Now, whether I shall achieve rest in my life, I don’t know.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Mortimer Adler wrote that book proving the existence of God. It carried him as far as reason could, and then he took the step of willed faith. Mortimer Adler is now a Christian, and a member of the Episcopal Church.

I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.


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