U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Cultivating New Audiences: Aristotle—and Adler—for Everybody

Lacy_Book-Cover_FinalThis is an 1800 word piece cut from my book’s 1980s chapter, “‘The Poobah of Popularizers’: Paideia, Pluralism, and the Culture Wars, 1978-1988.” In this section, removed during the last possible round of trimming, I argued that Mortimer Adler’s 1978 book, Aristotle for Everybody, relaunched his career as a public intellectual. Although Adler proclaimed himself an Aristotelian in the 1950s, after 20 some years as a neo-Thomist, it was this book that attempted to directly explain what it meant to be a twentieth-century Aristotelian. The decision to cut this piece was very difficult. Aristotle for Everybody signaled a new, highly accessible writing style that would greatly contribute to Adler’s 1980s resurgence as a public figure. The section also contained some useful repetition in relation to prior chapters—reminders for my reading audience. Finally, Adler’s new book also raised questions about his views of the accessibility of certain ‘great books’ in relation to fostering a viable “public philosophy.” Enjoy! – TL


Mortimer J. Adler was able to reposition himself as a public intellectual with a vigorous re-dedication to Aristotle’s idea of the common good. In Philosopher at Large he had reflected again on a notion he borrowed from William James and first articulated in 1947: that philosophy ought to be “everybody’s business.”[1] While he did genuinely seek to popularize the great books idea in the 1930s and 1940s, it was only in the 1970s that he firmly dedicated himself to popularizing knowledge generally. He regretted his earlier attempts, in the 1920s and through the early 1950s, to denigrate the efforts of those such as Will Durant who wrote for non-technical audiences. Adler cited a specific event as his low point: a 1927 debate with John Haynes Holmes in New York City where Adler took a negative view on the popularization of knowledge. At that time Adler claimed that he sought to maintain philosophy’s integrity “as a technical subject.” But, in 1977, he went as far as to accuse himself, excessively perhaps, of being an “elitist snob” in the 1920s who exhibited a “Platonic contempt for the many” and an “addiction to elitism.” Adler claimed to have lost this by the 1950s after a full “intellectual and emotional” conversion to democracy—a conversion evident in Conditions of Philosophy, Time of Our Lives, The Common Sense of Politics, and other writings.[2]

Adler’s late-life admission helps explain, somewhat, the perception of some historians and cultural critics that he and Robert Hutchins were motivated more by money than the common good. Second, the admission also helps one to see yet another paradox operating over Adler’s life: a willingness to democratize one kind of knowledge (i.e. the great books or the Western tradition), but not another, philosophy. Finally, Adler’s confession explains why Clifton Fadiman and Simon and Schuster had to be aggressive with Adler in molding drafts of How to Read a Book to help it reach a larger audience. That point also brings the analysis to the Seventies: it was at the end of that decade that he achieved a simplified writing style that would enable this newfound desire for larger audience. These changes helped renew the great books’ profile on America’s cultural and educational landscape.

In these endeavors Adler maintained his dedication to the common sense realism he first began personalizing in the 1940s: common sense and common experience, based in the philosophy of Aristotle, ought to be the indicators of philosophy’s “common human vocation.”[3] The fact that this philosophy rested, or appeared to rest, on traditional modes of thinking—Aristotle, Aquinas, logic, reason, and the pursuit of truth—assured Adler of a congenial relationship with conservatives. Adler’s first book following his autobiography was Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. Desiring a stronger connection with his recent philosophical work, Adler had wanted the subtitle to be: “Introduction to Common Sense.” But the publisher objected. In this and later works he tried to balance the role of being an “edifying teacher” with acting as an “inquirer concerned to advance knowledge in a highly technical field of scholarship.”[4] Adler would attain these goals somewhat in his written work, but failed spectacularly in the realm of edification with the 1990 release of Britannica’s Great Books.

Numerous members of Adler’s community of discourse read drafts of Aristotle for Everybody. By 1978 that community included old standbys, transitional figures, and some newcomers; the group would remain essentially unchanged for the rest of Adler’s life. Clifton Fadiman read a draft, as did several Van Dorens: Charles, his long-time spouse Geraldine (“Gerry”), and John. All three Van Dorens would play major roles in Adler’s forthcoming educational endeavors. Marlys Allen, Adler’s secretary at the Institute for Philosophical Research since the mid-1960s, helped edit the manuscript. She would be with Adler for the rest of his writing career. Otto Bird, who helped Adler with the Syntopicon in the 1940s, read the Aristotle manuscript. Adler’s wife Caroline, who had been his secretary before becoming his wife, also read the final draft. In a nod to the special nature of Aristotle for Everybody, Adler’s two sons by Caroline, Douglas and Philip, read early drafts. The only significant member of Adler’s late-life community of discourse who did not help with Aristotle, for reasons unknown, was Jacques Barzun. Adler first met Barzun at Columbia in the 1920s, and Barzun wrote favorable reviews of How to Read a Book and Britannica’s Great Books. He reemerged in the late 1970s as an important voice in Adler’s community.[5]

Adler set his new populist writing style with Aristotle for Everybody. The book utilized short sentences and simple language. The “Introduction” set the tone: “Why Aristotle? Why for everybody? And why is an exposition of Aristotle for everybody an introduction to common sense? I can answer these three questions better after I have answered one other. Why philosophy?” Chapter one continued with an accessible approach:

Many of us have played two games without realizing we were on the way to becoming philosophical. One is called “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral”; the other, “Twenty Questions.”

Both games consist in asking questions. However, that is not what makes them philosophical games; it is what lies behind the questions – a set of categories, a scheme of classification.[6]

One thing become obscured in Adler’s quest for simplicity: Aristotle himself. In writing to promote Aristotle as a sound basis for a public philosophy Adler quoted very little from “The Philosopher” himself. A friend of Adler’s, James Sloan Allen, read proofs of Aristotle and noted its ironic lack of “Aristotle’s words.”[7]

As he had with How to Read a Book in 1940, Fadiman again made key contributions in 1977. He had recommended that Adler follow Hendrik Van Loon’s style employed in The Story of Mankind (1926). Feeding his friend’s ego, Fadiman wrote that “Hendrik had about one-hundredth of your mental power,” but nevertheless argued that “Van Loon succeeds in his aim. You do too, but not totally.” Here is Van Loon’s chapter one opening: “We live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark. Who are we? Where do we come from? Whither are we bound?” Fadiman acknowledged that some may view Van Loon as “vulgar popularizer,” but his suggestion clearly hit home with Adler, who clearly mimicked Van Loon’s introduction. Fadiman also confirmed Adler’s hope for the book: “It can be read by 14 pluses who know nothing of Aristotle.”[8] Adler himself acknowledged in the book’s preface that his first title choices were “The Children’s Aristotle” or “Aristotle for Children.” As a postscript, neither Fadiman nor Charles Van Doren saw the lack of Aristotle’s words as detrimental to the manuscript, but seconded Allen’s observation. Little objective data is available on sales for Aristotle for Everybody, but Macmillan’s hardback version came to market in May 1978 and reached a seventh printing in November 1979. Bantam’s paperback version reached a sixth printing through September 1985. In 1982 Adler referred to sales that exceeded 50,000 copies after Adler discussed the book on Bill Moyers’ Journal in 1979—a year after publication.[9]

The Epilogue to Aristotle for Everybody contained a curious reflection about Aristotle and the great books. The reflection goes to Allen’s comment about the lack of Aristotle in the text, and foreshadows problems Adler would have in carrying out two literary-oriented missions with two means to what seems to be similar audiences (i.e. “everybody”). Adler wrote:

In my Introduction to this book, I recommended to anyone who wished to learn how to think philosophically that Aristotle was the teacher to begin with. I did not recommend that anyone should start by reading the books that Aristotle wrote. That is the very last thing I would tell anyone to do.

Aristotle’s books are much too difficult for beginners. Even in the best translations, much of what is said remains obscure. The translators use many words that are unfamiliar, words…[not] in our everyday speech. Though some of the Greek words that Aristotle himself used were words that his fellow Greeks used, he gave them special meanings.[10]

What is to be made of this unexpected message? Was Adler suggesting that some great books are not for beginners? Did he regret including Aristotle in Britannica’s set? Since Aristotle would be included in the 1990 Britannica set, the answer to the last two questions must be no. These contradictory statements are explained by the fact that Aristotle for Everybody, like How to Read a Book in 1940, was meant for an audience less literate than that of the Great Books. But Adler also wrote his next “seven or eight major philosophical books” from 1978 to 1992, with hopes of reaching audiences similar to Aristotle for Everybody.[11] If this was what it took, according to Adler, to make philosophy “everybody’s business” and “restore philosophy to its proper place in our society and culture,” then what of Adler’s other vocation, the promotion of great books? How would Adler reconcile his hopes of bringing two very different types of non-fiction literature to the same audience—“everybody,” as it were? What would this mean for the overriding, if inexplicit, goal of Adler’s life: the democratization of culture through the great books?



[1] Mortimer J. Adler, “The Philosopher,” in The Works of the Mind, Robert B. Heywood, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947). In a 1979 interview with Dick Cavett Adler relays that he obtained this sentiment from the opening lines of James’ Pragmatism (1907).
[2] Adler, Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 44-45, 105-106.
[3] Adler, Philosopher, 313; Mortimer J. Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 237-238.
[4] Adler, Philosopher, 47. The desire for a different subtitle was articulated, again, in a 1979 interview with Dick Cavett (see below–#280, p. 13).
[5] Adler, Philosopher, xi, 66-67, 281-283; Adler, Second Look, 67, 190, 289, 297-299; Adler, Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (New York: Macmillan, 1978), viii; Adler, Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary (New York: Scribner, 1995), 7; Adler, Haves Without Have-Nots: Essays for the 21st Century on Democracy and Socialism (New York: Macmillan, 1991, xii; Charles Van Doren, “Personal History: All the Answers,” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, available here http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/28/080728fa_fact_vandoren. Geraldine edited a volume that collected Adler’s early educational writings, entitled Reforming Education: The Schooling of a People and Their Education Beyond Schooling (1977 and 1988).
[6] Adler, Aristotle, ix, 3.
[7] University of Chicago Special Collections/Mortimer J. Adler Papers (hereafter UCSC/MJAP): Box 108, folder “Aristotle – prepub corres” (Allen to Adler, 2/15/1978); Box 101, folders “Critiques of Intro” (Fadiman to Adler, 6/14/1977) and “Critical Correspondence” (Van Doren to Adler, 7/26/1977).
[8] UCSC/MJAP, Box 101, folder “Critiques of Intro” (Fadiman to Adler, 6/14/1977).
[9] Adler, Aristotle, vii; Adler, Aristotle for Everybody (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), iv; Mortimer J. Adler, “A Philosopher’s View of Television,” KNOW (1982, no. 4): 17. All prior and subsequent references to Aristotle for Everybody come from the Macmillan edition.
[10] Adler, Aristotle, 191.
[11] Adler, Second Look, 236.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Two points re Aristotle: first, can people living today salvage Aristotelian realism while jettisoning his theoretical baggage, centrally his theory of forms? You either assume common sense is common sense, or make very technical arguments, which are beyond the scope of popularizations. Second, I believe the ancient schools distinguished between their public and esoteric knowledge. If so it isn’t paradoxical but fitting that Adler would display this trait

  2. Howard: Thanks for the comment. On your first point, I don’t know if it’s possible in terms of philosophizing in a true, or orthodox, Aristotelian fashion. But Adler was a neo-Aristotelian and an eclectic in method. He clearly wanted Aristotle’s realism, and Adler sought to accomplish this by incorporating a Scottish-style common-sense realism based on common experience. Adler outlined this in his 1965 book, The Conditions of Philosophy.

    On your second point, Adler never—to my knowledge—ever espoused an “esoteric” Straussian type of knowledge. To Adler, if it was esoteric, it was probably useless or sophistry. All knowledge had to have a public character, accessible to all with some moderate literacy and the drive to acquire it.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to reply.
    So the world of the modern Aristotelian would be populated by things, that are not illusory or epiphenomena.
    That’s what’s meant by Aristotelian realism.
    However, would such a position still retain his essentialism even without his theory of forms?
    How would it differ from other forms of empiricism?
    Your blog is stimulating.

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