A Conversation With Mortimer Adler
[Transcript of the 15 February 1976 program, Bill
MORTIMER ADLER: Marx is really the
latest of the last Hebrew prophets. And he is a Hebrew prophet
in spirit and content. And like the Hebrew prophets of old, in
the Old Testament, he is both a predictor of the future and a
reformer. They were both ... with Divine inspiration which Marx
didn't have, that's why he's only ninety percent right. If he
were 100 percent right, it would be a different thing. But 90
percent right and 10 percent wrong is terribly important. It is
the 10 percent wrong that is most important of all.
BILL MOYERS: His name is Mortimer Adler. He was born in 1902, not too
late to sit at the feet of Plato, Socrates and John Stuart Mill. Ever
since he was a teenager, he's been making people think, and often
angry. In the next hour you'll see why.
MOYERS: Philosopher, educator, author, editor. Mortimer Adler has
been known to incite intellectual riot among non-consenting adults.
He's a mind-loper, a philosophical provocateur, as much at home with
Marx as most of us are with Walter Cronkite.
ADLER: By property we do not mean in this discussion the shirt on
your back, which is your property, it's your private property. You
can't wear it and anybody else can't wear it at the same time. It's
yours on your back and the shoes on your feet, the car you drive, the
food you eat, that's private property and no one can abolish it. It
can't be abolished.
When Marx talks about private property, he means that's short for
private ownership of the means of production, the private ownership of
capital, and only that. Property means capital; and private property
means the private ownership of capital. That's the only sense in which
he's using the term and the only sense in which we should use the term
as we discuss this.
MOYERS: He has written widely on philosophy, politics, economics, law
and morals. Many years ago he helped to inspire the Great Books
Program for Liberal Colleges and Adult Education. And his first love
remains the teaching of adults.
To his seminars at the Aspen Institute in Colorado come business
executives, scholars, judges, journalists, and untitled citizens whose
credentials are an open and sometimes a bemused mind.
ADLER: There's a powerful rhetorical ... this is an address, YOU,
pointing his finger at the bourgeois capitalist, you are horrified at
our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing
society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of
the population. Its existence for the few is solely due to its
nonexistence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You approach us,
therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the
necessary condition for whose existence is the nonexistence of any
property for the immense majority of the society. In a word you
approach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely
so. That is just what we intend. Now if you remember the word property
here, what he's saying is in this paragraph the trouble is not that
there is a private ownership of property, of the means of production,
but that it's concentrated, highly concentrated, in one-tenth of the
population. Nine-tenths have no ownership in the means of production.
And that's the cause of the trouble. Now, if that's the cause of the
trouble, the remedy is not the abolition of the private ownership, but
the very opposite - the diffusion of it.
MOYERS: His critics say he's an imperial dogmatist, ruling these
sessions and dominating his peers -- if he has peers -- with the
presumption of authority that borders on intellectual tyranny. The
criticism seems to roll right off. He's heard it all his life. "I'm
not trying to be popular," Mortimer Adler says, "I'm only
trying to make you think."
MAN: Mr. Adler, I have been an exponent for internal matters and I
want to bring this up again and get your reaction...
ADLER: Internal? Domestic or what?
MAN: Internal ... inside.
ADLER: I see. I see.
MAN: In terms of Marx and he doesn't skip the issue, although he
throws it right in the garbage can, as far as I'm concerned. May I
read please, quotes
ADLER: What page?
MAN: One forty-four, second column ... second ... first full
paragraph ... he's in quotes, I suppose, making a mock-up,
undoubtedly, when he said... "Religion, moral, philosophical and
judicial ideas have been modified in the course of historical
development, but religion, morality, philosophy, political science and
law constantly survive this change." He's making fun of that.
ADLER: Yeah. The arts, philosophy, religion, have their roots in the
economy. In other words the kind of art you get, the kind of
philosophy you get, are the slave...what he is saying is: when you
read Aristotle, that isn't philosophy pure and simple, that's the
philosophy of a slave-owning society. You read St. Thomas Aquinas,
that's not philosophy pure of theology. That's the religion and
theology of a feudal society. And he's saying all the cultural
epiphenomena, all the cultural superficial things, are based on
economic modes of production. That's what he's saying.
MAN: Well, I don't believe that.
ADLER: I didn't say...that's what he's saying.
MAN: But I mean to say, if an eternal truth is an eternal truth,
doesn't it belong to mankind...
ADLER: He's saying there are no eternal truths. Obviously, Marx is
saying there are no eternal truths.
MAN: Well, he's wrong.
ADLER: Mr. Dufallo, at this time in the morning? Privately, yes.
MOYERS: Mortimer Adler taught at Columbia University from 1923 to
1929 an then joined Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago,
where he was for many years, Professor of the Philosophy of Law. There
were, together, the most controversial pair in higher education. In
1952, Adler founded the Institute of Philosophical Research to explore
and analyze the basic ideas and issues in the thought of the Western
You've been for 25 years taking the great ideas, as you call them,
and mixing them into the lives of business executives, and housewives,
and others. Why? Why so much of your career spent in that particular
ADLER: I'll tell you why. Because I firmly believe that learning in
adult life is the most important learning there is. I think what
children, and I regard anyone in school as a child, even when he's at
the University level, any institutionalized person, as immature and a
child. I think the learning of the immature is very insufficient for a
life. The most you can learn in school is very little. The learning
that comes after school, after you've matured, after you've been out
and gone through the world of hard knocks and had all the grieving and
difficult experiences of the adult human being, you're much more
capable of understanding what's to be understood.
For example, I have read Tolstoy's War and Peace with
children in college and I have read Tolstoy's War and Peace
with adults. The difference is day and night. The children can't
understand War and Peace. They can't understand the love of
Pierre and Natasha. They just can't understand it.
MOYERS: Wouldn't the consequence of this be some very radical changes
in the structure of education in our country and the timing of
education in our country?
ADLER: It's the most radical change proposed: that a liberal
education be completed in 12 years and the people be given the
Bachelor of Arts degree at 16 and after that, no one be in school
between 16 and 20. I want compulsory non-schooling; I want them to
start at four. Twelve years to 16. And at 16 everyone out of school.
No one allowed to come back to school until 20 and then only by
selective examinations. Everyone admitted; free admissions up to a
Bachelor of Arts degree. Highly selective admissions for the
University, for the advanced degree. And then, everyone...somehow
everyone taken into adult learning in one form or another.
MOYERS: I've always been interested in how you got interested in
ADLER: Well, it was in a sense an accident. I was taking a course at
Columbia University. I was working on the New York Sun and to
improve myself in certain respects I was taking a course in the
Extension Division at night in Victorian Literature. One of the books
assigned to be read was John Stuart Mill's autobiography. And there I
learned to my great surprise and chagrin that John Stuart Mill at the
age of five had read the dialogues of Plato in Greek and could
distinguish between Socratic method and the substance of the Platonic
philosophy. And here I was 15 years old and never heard of Plato
before, and never read any dialogues of Plato. So I went out and
bought a pirated edition of the Dialogues of Plato for four
dollars, I think it was. And I started to read the Dialogues. And I
was so fascinated by Socrates, by the actual intellectual process
going on, that I started to play Socrates with my friends. And I went
around and button-holed and interrogated them. And that's how I got
into it. I decided that I didn't want to be a journalist any longer. I
wanted to be a philosopher and I went to college.
MOVERS: Did your friends resent you?
ADLER: They resented Socrates; they resented me. Surely. It's a very
nasty process, questioning people the way Socrates did. That's why
they gave him the hemlock as a matter of fact.
MOYERS: There's a story that you used to write letters to Professor
Dewey at Columbia challenging his educational theories. Are they true?
ADLER: Yes. In fact he spoke ... he lectured very slowly, haltingly.
So that I could take his ... almost the entire lecture down in
long-hand. And I would go home and then sit down and type it out. And
as I typed it out, I recognized there were some inconsistencies in it.
Or that what he said today didn't quite cohere, hang together, with
what he said a week or two days ago. So, I'd write a letter, "Dear
Dr. Dewey: According to my notes, a week ago you said... But today you
said... How do you put these things together please?"
And he'd come to class and say, "A member of this class has
written me a letter," and he'd read the letter out loud, and
answer it. I'd write the answer down and then I'd find that the answer
was inconsistent with something else. So, he put up with this for
about three weeks, and then of course ... I was unrelenting. I kept on
writing the letters. He finally called me in his office and he said, "Would
you please stop?"
MOYERS: Did you?
ADLER: Yes, I did.
MOYERS: And you were how old?
ADLER: I was then 17.
MOYERS: And you were challenging John Dewey?
ADLER: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. In fact I had one other teacher that
you may have heard of at Columbia, Erwin Edmond, who asked me not to
come to class because I got too excited.
MOYERS: Your resume doesn't include a high school diploma or a
Bachelor of Arts.
ADLER: I left high school at the end of the second year. I left ... I
was thrown out of high school. I had told the principal a huge lie and
he caught me in it. I was the editor of the high school paper and he
had asked me to do something which I didn't do and then lied my way
out. So, I left high school and went to work on the New York Sun.
And then, under the influence of Plato, managed to get enough credits
together by studying on my own to go to college; and entered Columbia
in my sophomore year, my second year. Finished Columbia in three years
but didn't get the degree, partly because I couldn't swim. I just
didn't want to swim.
MOYERS: Couldn't swim?
MOYERS: What did it have to do with the degree?
ADLER: At Columbia, in order to get a Bachelor of Arts degree you had
to swim the pool two lengths on your face down and one length on your
back and dive from the high tower. But that wasn't the only reason I
didn't get a degree. I didn't go to gym. And physical education was
... four years of physical education was required at Columbia. And I
didn't go to gym because I thought it was a terrible nuisance to have
to dress in the morning at home, go to class, undress and go to ... go
to gym and undress, put on gym clothes, run around the track or
something like that, then dress again. That seemed to me to be a
terrible demand. I cut gym for four years. So, when my final records
came up, I didn't have the qualifying courses to graduate.
MOYERS: Has Columbia ever shown any penitence over denying you the
ADLER: Not really, no. But, you know, one doesn't have to have a
Bachelor of Arts degree to get a PhD and I went on and did graduate
work. In fact without a Bachelor of Arts degree I finished my
undergraduate work in June of 1923 and started to teach at Columbia in
September of 1923.
MOYERS: There are two other stories I've always wanted to have
confirmed or have denied. One is that you used to drop live boa
constrictors on the shoulders of people to test their reactions.
ADLER: Yes, the story is in general accurate, but in detail not. I
was doing ... this was at a time when I was doing some work for my PhD
in Psychology. And I was studying the emotions, the physiological
reactions, all the physiological changes that took place during really
violent emotions -- pupillary changes, changes in blood pressure,
psychogalvanic reactions, changes in breathing and heartbeat.
So, I had these students who volunteered to be subjects for the
experiment, in a dark room chained to all the apparatus with their
eyes against two little holes through which I looked ... I could look
at their pupils, you see, right at the pupils as they contract. And I
had a colleague who either shot a revolver off behind their heads or
dropped or coiled a boa constrictor around their necks. And another
occasion I would look under the table with a flashlight and kick them
in the shins to get them angry. And we got all kinds of...the only
thing we couldn't get was sex and hunger. It's impossible to get sex
and hunger in the laboratory while people are chained.
MOYERS: Even Masters and Johnson didn't use that technique. The other
story says that once you met Gertrude Stein and you were engaged in a
conversation with her and finally she hit you over the head two or
three times and said, "Adler, you're obviously...
ADLER: "I'm not going to argue with you. You're the kind of man
that always wins arguments." That was an extraordinary evening.
She was there with Alice B. Toklas at Bob Hutchins' house for dinner.
And this conversation went on and got more and more heated. And
finally, about 10 or 10:30 the butler came in and said, "The
police are here." And Gertrude Stein held her hand up and said, "Have
Two police captains came because Gertrude Stein wanted to see Chicago
in a squad car at night and it had been arranged by one of the
trustees at the University.
So everyone got up to leave and I was standing there shaking hands
and I stood next to Alice B. Toklas and she said to me, "This has
been a most wonderful evening. Gertrude has said things tonight it
will take her 10 years to understand."
MOYERS: Did you ever get a feeling that your friends and others as
well just were uneasy by the presence of a philosopher in their midst?
ADLER: Particularly, if the philosopher is in the Socratic habit of
asking questions or saying why do you think that's true? Why do you
think so? That's always disturbing.
MOYERS: After you've defined it, after you've spent all of your adult
life living with it, how do you define philosophy today? What is
ADLER: Well, let me see if I can give you an answer that is clear and
concrete and intelligent. Philosophy, like science and like history,
is a mode of inquiry...and a mode of inquiry adapted to answer certain
questions that other modes of inquiry can't. The historians can't
answer the questions the scientists ask. The experimental scientists
can't answer the questions the mathematician asks. The mathematician
can't answer the questions the historian has. But these three,
history, mathematics and experimental science are modes of inquiry,
each with methods adapted to answering certain questions. Now
philosophy is a method of inquiry distinct from the other three
designed to answer questions that none of the other three can answer.
And in my judgment those questions are among the most important
questions human beings ever face.
There are two kinds. There are the speculative questions about the
existence of God and the structure of the Universe, and about what it
involves in anything existing or not existing, about the questions
about the nature of man, the nature of the human mind which no
scientist, historian or mathematician can answer. Those are the
speculative questions which the philosopher is concerned with. But
more important from the point-of-view of society are practical
questions, formative questions, the questions about right and wrong,
good and evil, ends and means, particularly ends to be sought. These
are totally beyond any other mode of inquiry to answer. These are the
most important philosophical questions. Unless we have answers to
those, answers to all of the other questions are going to be dangerous
MOYERS: We are a very pragmatic and commercial society, a society
that's interested in getting things done and getting them done in a
hurry. What's the role of philosophy in that kind of pragmatic
ADLER: Well, I would say the more pragmatic the society, the more the
society is concerned with the means - the efficiency of the means -
for getting things done, the more it needs philosophy to question it
about the ends for which it's using the means.
The more you're concerned with the efficiency of the means, the more
you should be instructed or asked to consider the ends, the more power
you have - and we have, really, more power than is good for us - the
more you should have that power checked in terms of how it's being
used and again, the question of ends and values are the controlling.
MOYERS: Bo you see any evidence that we're showing more wisdom in the
use of our power?
ADLER: No, no.
MOYERS: Is that a roundabout way of saying that philosophy, the
asking of these important questions, is having very little impact on
ADLER: Let me just say that in my judgment the most serious defect of
modern culture, is the, shall I say, rejection of philosophy, the
enthronement of science. Most Americans, most Europeans, I guess it's
true of most Russians, think that science has all the answers and that
answers which are not achieved by the scientific method are not
respectable as knowledge.
MOYERS: But science produces things. It produces dishwashers, garbage
disposals, and medicine that heals bodies...
ADLER: That's right. Right. The question that you ought to ask me,
'cause students always did ask me this question: "That's why
science is so wonderful. It's useful. What use is philosophy?"
And the answer is there are two kinds of uses that knowledge has. One
is productive. It produces dishwashers and medicines and so forth. And
science is productive, technologically applied, and philosophy is
totally non-productive. That the other use of knowledge is directive,
not productive. It tells you where to go and how to get there. It
tells you...in other words, if you ... wouldn't you like to be...don't
you regard it as important to know where to go for a vacation and how
to get there. That's not productive knowledge; that's directive
knowledge, is it not? I mean, is it not directive knowledge to know
what you should aim at in life and how to achieve that end. That's not
productive knowledge. That's directive knowledge. Philosophy is
directive, not productive. Science is productive, not directive.
MOYERS: If I hear you, you're saying we're not really asking as a
society where are we going, we're just going there.
ADLER: We aren't asking where we ought to be going. Correct.
MOYERS: Adler has definite ideas about where we ought to go. The
economic counterpart of political democracy, he says, is economic
democracy. Men cannot exercise freedom in the political sphere when
they are deprived of it in the economic sphere. So, with lawyer/author
Lewis Kelso, Adler wrote a book called "The Capitalist Manifesto".
.The idea, originally developed by Kelso, is to make capitalists of
practically everyone. Families would have two sources of income, from
wages and from capital, from shares in American enterprise. Income
would rise from capital rather than from labor. This widely diffused
capital ownership, far beyond anything we now have, Adler calls
Universal Capitalism - the dream economy. He begins with a look at the
economic history of mankind.
ADLER: And let me summarize and pull all this together for you with
the diagram on the board, which I think is useful because it really, I
think, summarizes all the existing impossible alternatives that come
out of the reading of this text and the related texts. Let me do that
[charts not provided in this online version]
I've used the simple letters. A, B, C and D, so you can refer to the
economies by saying the A-Economy, the B-Economy, the C... And we
start off with above-the-line the economy that introduced Capitalism
to the world, take Marx at his word and quite properly bourgeois
Capitalism. Over here, this is a free enterprise capitalism, any
question about it? Not only the private ownership of the means of
production, but unregulated. No inroads, no government regulations,
the free market, as free as you can get it. The Adam Smith ideal.
Let's follow it across the line. C. P. P. is what Marx says is true
of it. It's not only private ownership of the means of production, but
concentrated. One-tenth or less than one-tenth of the population owns
all the means of production. And the property rights, P. R., are
uneroded. That's the situation Marx is describing as existing in 19th
Century England, 19th Century America, 19th Century Germany. And you
say, does it exist anywhere in the world today? Maybe Peru, maybe it's
Chili...not Chili, maybe it's Bolivia, Uruguay. Maybe it's Saudi
Arabia. But I assure you it's only in backward countries, only in very
backward countries, that anything like bourgeois Capitalism exists
anywhere in the world today.
Over here, two very important symbols. W stands for welfare, the
general economic welfare of the people. Welfare. Economic welfare.
What in the Preamble of the Constitution said, "...promote the
general welfare," which the economic Bill of Rights of 1944
define for the first time since Hamilton and Jefferson argued about
it. That Bill of Rights which you read in the first day is what we
mean by general economic welfare with everyone participating in it.
This economy, bourgeois Capitalism, is negative on welfare, obviously
negative. If it were positive on welfare, the wide-spread misery
wouldn't exist. And negative on democracy. Again, right on the point
read what Henry George this morning, says about great inner qualities
of wealth and the operation of democracy. You can't have political
democracy without an economic base as well. And this society didn't
give the economic base for democracy and democracy didn't flourish in
I come now to the first reaction to this, which is Marx. B: negative
on free enterprise. Obviously...none at all. I am using the word
Capitalism all the way through here for the capital intensive
economies. But the mode of ownership here is different. Here the state
is the collector as a whole, which is concentrated on owners in
private and no property rights at all in anyone's hands, except the
right to the shirt on my back, but no property rights in the means of
production. What does it achieve? It achieves welfare. Does it achieve
democracy? I am now making a prejudiced Western judgment. No. They may
think they do. I think they don't. That's for you to decide as you
please, but I say it's positive on W and negative on D.
I now come to the economies that exist in the rest of the advanced
world -- all of Western Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada,
New Zealand. These are all still ... notice, free enterprise
unrestricted here. Free enterprise negative entirely here. Free
enterprise circumscribed here, limited, regulated freedom, not
unrestricted. Regulated here. This...the best name for this is
socialized Capitalism. The we ... when American, we don't like the
word Socialism we don't call it socialized here. We call it the mixed
economy. But it's the same thing. We have a private sector and a
public sector. It is an economy in which there are eroded, beginning
the New Deal...beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson,
right down in our country...definitely eroded property rights. But
still with a high...I would still say that we have in this country if
not one-tenth, the private ownership of the means of production is in
the hands of the top fifteen percent. It's probably one-tenth of the
population still. Look at the actual ownership in the stock of our
But those property rights, even if they are more widely diffused than
that are highly eroded. But now you get, if you look at all these
socialized capitalisms, or mixed economies - Sweden - there's a
spectrum of them. Some o them are less socialized, some are more
socialized in varying degrees, but they all are welfare economies,
which the economic welfare of the people is the aim of the economy to
achieve in varying degrees, and they are all in varying degree
democracies. Democracy becomes viable here as it is not viable here
and viable here.
Now, I come last to the prescription that comes out of Marx, and out
of, b the way, Horace Mann. I'm going to read you one sentence in
Horace Mann. This is 1853. Remember that word, property means capital,
not just ordinary shirt of someone's back. He says, talking about the
antagonism that has existed between Capital and Labor, "Property
and labor in different classes are essentially antagonistic. But
property and labor in the same class...", listen to that, "Property
and labor in the same class are essentially fraternal." That's
page 75. What does that mean? It means, what this D means over here,
and it means what I read you in Marx about if the trouble is the
concentrated ownership of the means of production, the cure is the
diffusion of the ownership of the means of production. This I'm going
to call Universal Capitalism, meaning every man a citizen, every man a
capitalist. Every family with two incomes, the income of working, the
income of equities on capital. Every man, every family, with some
ownership of capital, some contribution ... two factors in production.
Earnings from two factors. Earnings from the earnings of capital;
earnings from the earnings of labor. Welfare economy ... this will
produce an even greater diffusion of wealth than this does and
This, by the way, the diffused private ownership of the means of
production and restored property rights. Those eroded property rights
here would be restored because ... of the change from concentrated
private ownership to diffused private ownership.
Now one more comment. These three are all ... if you ... one of the
most important things in the world is to get over the horror of words.
Americans still have a horror of the word, socialism. They should not.
It's as good a word, it's as fine a word, shall I say, of describing
what should take place as democracy is.
The word, communism, is a different kind of word and I want to
separate it. All three of these economies are socialist in the sense
their aim is the participation by all human beings in the economic
welfare of the community, in the general economic welfare. That's the
socialism defined in terms of ends. Communism is socialism in terms of
means. The means here are the abolition of private property, the state
ownership. The means here are the mixed economy, the public and the
private sector. The means here are the diffusion of capital. Three
This is the only one that's called socialism of means that we use the
word communism when the means are the socialist, historically,
beginning socialist, means abolishing the private ownership of the
means of production. But all three of these if viewed in terms of what
their ends are, are socialisms. And socialism is the great revolution
of the 20th Century. Just as...in something you may or may not have
read, there's no retrograde motion back from democracy. Once suffrage
gets extended, there's no motion back from it, I think, unless you
have authority and revolution from the right. So, I think there's no
retrograde motion back from socialism. We'll never have any advanced
economy that is not a welfare economy from now on.
MAN: You've mentioned that in capital intensive societies so far, the
predictions of Communism have not come true. But I wonder if you could
write a scenario that would cause the inflationary pressures or in any
other way, cause us to get to Communism from where we are today. What
kind of scenario would that be like?
ADLER: Well, the increasing amounts of government control of the
economy to the regulation of prices, wages; the excessive control of
the economy. Now the other thing I have to add at once. And certainly,
there is the other portion and I didn't put it down because it isn't
part of the economic picture, but there is in the world today, both
among the rich nations and among the poor, and between the poor and
the rich within those nations, the strongest drive is toward equality.
And it's easier to handle the problems of political equality; but when
you get to economic equality, you are faced with the most difficult
question. Do you mean by economic equality everyone with the same
amount of goods? No differences in income? No differences in
possessions...the material possessions of the goods that are called
If you do, then I think...and that's what a large number of the
people who are talking about equality are egalitarian in that sense. I
use the word egalitarian as a term of derrogation, not of praise. And
that meaning of equality, I think, is not only unattainable, but in
the effort to attain it, will just necessarily require authoritarian
means. It can't be done by free processes and by ordinary legislation.
Hence, unless we can reconceive equality so that we can understand
what deToqueville means. And he's the man that created the phrase for
us, an equality of conditions, which is the ideal democracy, and I
subscribe to that ideal. Judge?
JUDGE MARVIN FRANKEL: It seems to me, with all respect, that the
worry about egalitarianism, which is being widely expressed these
days, is a little bit - I don't know how to say this respectfully -
commercial. I don't know any country that's been done in by equality.
ADLER: Not yet.
JUDGE: Not yet. And I don't know any that's threatened with it. The
inequalities in this country are so gross that to worry about absolute
leveling, I suggest, is at least premature.
ADLER: I couldn't agree with you more. And I'm glad you made the
point because I'm not saying by any means that we have achieved an
equality of conditions in my sense of the term equality of conditions.
But it is terribly important to know what you mean by equality of
conditions short of that leveling egalitarianism. Now, I would say
that the extreme left wing in Great Britain at the moment, the United
Kingdom, the real Marxist leaders of the strong TUC union, the TUC
groups, do have in mind at least not the achievement, but a tendency
toward equality in the wrong sense. They really want to redistribute
the ... wealth tax, a whole series of measures that they've proposed
-- I don't think they'll go through ... if they do, they'll ruin
Britain, I think - are pushes for the wrong notion of equality. Now my
point is not that we should give up. If you think what I've said is
any kind of counter-policy against trying to equalize conditions,
that's not the case. Democracy calls for the greatest equalizing of
conditions in human life. But equalizing the conditions of human life
in my qualitative sense of equality is not the same as leveling in
amounts, which is the egalitarian notion. And that's the difference.
One should not in recoiling from one give up the other.
MOYERS: For most of his life Mortimer Adler has dwelled on the
weighty ideas of Western Civilization, cosmic thoughts for the common
man, someone said. But it's true. He has had a passion to bring closer
to the street, at least to the local library, an organized inventory
of those animating concepts like truth, freedom and justice.
As Chairman of the Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, he is still
at it. And recently he completed the most audacious project of an
audacious life - the fifteenth edition of the Britannica, an outline
of the whole of human knowledge ii forty-three million words.
If Mortimer Adler is a man of enormous ego, and there's no doubt that
he is he also is a man of extraordinary endeavors, which only unusual
pride in self can often inspire. Now Adler has turned from the
universe to a more parochial arena, the basic ideas of the American
With an old friend, William Gorman, he has just published a book
called "The American Testament", an effort to see if the
great ideas that forged the nation still mean what they once did.
Are those principles that were based in the founding era of this
Republic still relevant today?
ADLER: They are capable of being understood more deeply and broadly
today, and as a result of 200 years of experience, than when they were
written. Not that they are in the minds of the people, no. I would say
one of the most regrettable things is that most Americans either
recite the Declaration of Independence or remember some of its words
exactly the way a large number of church-going Christians recite the
Lord's Prayer without hearing a word or understanding a word. It is
really, I think, a most important thing that could happen in this
Bicentennial era, next year particularly, is for Americans to read the
Declaration of Independence out loud slowly and ponder each word as
they read it.
MOYERS: The beguiling terms in that second paragraph of the
Declaration that you mentioned a minute ago, to me today, are "Life,
Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Now, you've written a
great deal about the pursuit of happiness and the good life. What do
you mean in 1975 and six by the term "the Pursuit of Happiness"?
ADLER: Of all the phrases this seems to me simply the most inspired.
First, because he did not say that among men's inalienable rights,
which a just government should secure, the attainment of happiness. If
he had said that, it would have been nonsense. No government could
guarantee to all men the attainment of happiness since the attainment
of happiness depends in some part upon their free will, upon how they
exercise their choices, what they do with their own lives given the
opportunities, you see. So the attainment is not within the power of
Now the pursuit ... he chose the word pursuit, which is a remarkable
choice on his part, meaning a government should attempt to secure for
every man the external conditions within its powers to control, to
facilitate the pursuit by the individual of happiness.
Second point ... equally important. Since the challenge here to a
government that is going to be just, is that it should secure this
right to pursue happiness for every man. The pursuit of happiness has
to be cooperative, not competitive. If what I did in pursuing my
happiness competed with you so that if I got it, you didn't get it ...
if what we were doing came into conflict, no government could resolve
MOYERS: But that's what we have today, isn't it?
ADLER: We have conflicts; but not in the pursuit of happiness.
Because most people ...! would guess that...I would really guess that
99 percent of Americans, educated or uneducated, I don't care who they
are, don't understand what the word happiness means.
Let me give you an example. I'll come back to what the pursuit
involves in a moment. Host Americans ...! suppose most Europeans,
think that happiness consists in getting what you as an individual
want for yourself. You have certain interests, certain desires, if you
get it...you get what you want ...! use the word want very
carefully...want for yourself, then you'd be contented and you feel
happy. Most people use the word happy as something they feel. As if it
were a psychological state. Today I felt happy; tomorrow I might not
feel happy. Last summer I was very happy. That's all wrong. If that's
what the word happiness meant, then the phrase in the Declaration of
Independence is meaningless and misleading.
Happiness consists in that quality of a whole human life, being a
whole successive in time, minute after minute, you never experience
happiness any moment when you're alive. The only time that anyone can
really say that anyone's happy is after he's dead because you look at
the life as a whole and say, "Well, he's done it; he's achieved
it." But until he's dead, you have nothing to judge since the
happiness is a quality of that whole life.
Now what is that whole quality? I can answer that three ways and I
can come back to the Declaration in a moment. A human life is a happy
life, in other words a good life, a good human life, a decent human
life, if in the course of all its days from birth to death the
individual living that life manages to acquire and possess and use all
the things that are really good for a man to have. And the crucial
word there is really good. Now what is really good for a man to have?
The things that satisfy his basic human needs, which are the same for
MOYERS: Basic human needs?
ADLER: Well, now let me give you an example. A great many men, a
great many men want power, arbitrary power over other men. No one
needs arbitrary power over anyone else in order to lead a good human
life. What everyone needs is not power, but liberty. And liberty is
largely, as Locke pointed out, consists in being free from the
arbitrary power of other men. If the Declaration ... if Jefferson in
writing that phrase had not really known the difference between needs
and wants, and supposed the pursuit of happiness was by each
individual the pursuit of what he wanted and included...allowed that
to include the wanting of arbitrary power of one man over another, it
would be impossible. No government could secure that. I want power
over you. You want power over me. If the government secures my desire
for power over you, it would frustrate yours over me. And it can't
secure our right to pursue happiness. Hence, if you see that, you see
that the pursuit of happiness must be the pursuit of those things that
everyone needs and needs alike because they're human.
Now, you say what do I mean by human needs? And I ought to answer
that question concretely because it seems to me that if I don't do it
... and I brought along with me cause it's connected with the ... let
me read you a list of real goods. May I?
MOYERS: The things that you believe every human being needs to be ...
to pursue happiness.
ADLER: That's right. Because unless we get concrete about this, we'll
leave everybody in the dark. I've formed seven categories. Now these
are things that are really good for every man to have, because every
man needs them because these needs are inbuilt capacities. And every
need is a capacity and therefore, the satisfaction of the need is the
fulfillment of the capacity or the perfection of the human being. And
that's what happiness is: the perfection of the human being in the
course of a lifetime.
Now, here they are. First, the goods of the body. Simple ones like
health, vigor and the pleasures of sense. Everyone needs health, a
certain amount of vigor, and a modicum of sensual pleasure.
The goods of the mind. You've got a mind, able to know. Hence, it
needs knowledge, understanding, a modicum of wisdom. Together with
such goods of the mind's activity as skills of inquiry and the
critical judgment and the arts of creative work.
Goods of character. By the way, the first three are very difficult
for a government to provide though they can provide the conditions of
health, they can't provide health in fact. You have to take care of
your own body.
Goods of character. Such aspects of moral virtue as temperance and
fortitude together with justice in relation to the rights of others
and the goods of the community.
The good of personal association; such as family relationships,
friendships, and loves.
The first four are largely within your power and can only be
indirectly facilitated by what a government or society does. The next
three are the ones -^ that a government is obliged to do very
specifically to facilitate your pursuit of happiness.
Political goods; such as peace, both civil and external, and
political liberty, together with the protection of individual freedom
by the prevention of violence, aggression, coercion, or intimidation.
Economic goods; such as a decent supply of the means of subsistence,
living and working conditions conducive to health, medical care,
opportunities for access to the pleasures of sense, the pleasures of
play and esthetic pleasures, opportunities for access to the goods of
the mind through educational facilities in youth and adult life, and
enough free time from subsistence work, both in youth and adult life,
to take full advantage of these opportunities.
Finally, social goods; such as the quality of status and opportunity
of treatment in all matters affecting the dignity of the human person.
Now, I say, if every human being after childhood, infants, had all
these goods, he is given ... if he in fact has all these goods in the
course of his lifetime, he has led a good life.
MOYERS: You're a Utopian, Mortimer Adler. How can an individual
expect to achieve these even with government security?
ADLER: I have most of these. I hesitate to say this since it involves
a little bit of hubris and pride, but as I look at my life, now 72
years old...if the next 10 years ... 12 years ... 15 years before I
die ... or before ... whatever it is, go along as approximately the
last 30 or 40 have gone along, I think when you look at my life in
terms of these goods, you give my funeral oration, Bill, and say, "There
was a happy man."
MOYERS: But a very significant exception to the rule of humanity.
MOYERS: A 17 year old ... 19 year old black kid in the ghetto in
Harlem. How can he expect to expect these things?
ADLER: That's why our society is unjust. A good system ... I didn't
say our society was just. Did I? You're saying it's Utopian; I'm
saying it's quite practical. But our society hasn't begun to achieve
it yet ... for a large number ... nevertheless, let me put it to you
this way. You take American society in 1875, you take American society
in 1775. You take England in 1675. Let's go back 100 years at a time.
And I say as you go back and let's say within the Anglo-American
tradition just by itself for the moment because I take others it's
Every hundred years back fewer and fewer human beings had even an
approximate chance to lead the good life. Fewer of the population. In
Elizabethan society a very small number would have had the conditions
of life conducive to making good lives for themselves.
In America today, in 1975, a larger percentage of our total
population have available to them the conditions conducive to the
possession of these goods. I didn't say they possessed them.
MOYERS: You're not
saying that these would guarantee a good life. You're only saying
they're the conditions for them.
ADLER: That's right.
MOYERS: Are you saying ...
ADLER: Moral virtue ... I mean, if a person ... let's suppose that a
person had all the opportunities and decides to make ... simply spends
his life making a grotesquely large fortune for himself, and succeeds.
That success is the ruination of his life. He's ruined his life. He's
over-exaggerated one good entirely at the expense of all or many of
MOYERS: You've just listed a number of aspirations that you say we
all have in common.
ABLER: Because they are basically rooted in the potentialities or
capacities of our common human nature.
MOYERS: Is it even just to talk of them, however, in the full list
while there are many people, not only in our society, but around the
world, who don't even have the very basic needs of the physical life?
ADLER: Surely, because it is absolutely necessary to hold before
yourself at all times the full recognition of the ideal, the ideal not
being Utopian, but practicably and fully realizable. Now, I do believe
and will not give up for an instant the belief that it is possible,
that it is within the bounds of possibility for society to exist in
which every human being has what every human being needs to lead a
decent human life. There's nothing impossible about it all.
Now you understand what I'm saying here now is, when I'm saying about
a human being, I'm talking about those external conditions which a
society can provide to facilitate.
If you said, "But doesn't a human being need moral virtue?"
to lead a decent human life, I would say absolutely because moral
virtue consists in making the right choice among alternatives any
time. And now if you said, "Do you envision a time on earth when
every human being will attain happiness because every human being will
have the moral virtue he needs?", my answer is no. I don't
believe that sin, vice, crime will ever disappear from the world.
MOYERS: But you do think that a government constituted to secure
these rights, has an obligation to provide conditions for the basic
human needs, including food, air...
ADLER: All those within his power to provide. He can't provide, for
example, let's say, he can't provide moral virtue in the individual.
MOYERS: Holding out this image, as you said, of the ideal, haven't we
done that throughout our 200 year history. And hasn't that created the
most intense and anguished conflict and expectation on the part of
people for whom those things are not available?
ADLER: Yes, but just think a moment now. The oppressed...let me step
back a moment. I think I can point out to you what I call the great
watershed or the great divide in history.
Prior to this century, in every society there were oppressed
majorities and privileged minorities. It was the larger part of the
population that were in one way or another deprived of what human
beings need to lead a human life. And a very small part of the
population, the aristocrats, the landed gentry, the privileged class,
always a minority, had ... not that they used it well, not that they
used it well always...but they had what human beings needed.
Now at some point in the 20th Century, in the more advanced countries
in the world that have become our welfare societies, are societies
with a conscience, where some satisfactory recognition of these basic
human rights has occurred. Suddenly, it has been reversed. We now have
privileged, or shall I say, satisfied majorities. Majorities whose
needs are being taken care of and underprivileged and oppressed
minorities. Now that's extraordinary. An advance from an oppressed
majority to an oppressed minority is a real advance. Not enough. You
want to remove all oppressed groups.
But the point of progress is to come from an oppressed majority to an
oppressed minority, don't you think?
MOYERS: That would be an accomplishment ... is an accomplishment.
ADLER: I think we've done it. We've done it.
MOYERS: But if you talk to working men on the Boeing assemblylines;
you talk to mothers on welfare in a dozen slums of this country...?
ADLER: I'm still talking about an oppressed minority. You're right.
MOYERS: And you think that we have the capacity in modern society...?
ADLER: For removing that oppressed minority. I don't think there's
any question about it.
MOYERS: In this country or globally? ADLER: In this country and
MOYERS: That everyone who's living can have the basic needs of life?
ADLER: Yes. It would require the elimination of war. I don't think we
can produce enough wealth to both provide the goods of consumption and
the goods of destruction. You understand that. That would be too much.
But when you think that half of the American budget; half of our
budget goes to the goods of destruction, not the goods of consumption.
Let's suppose for a moment, right now, America was in an isolated
chamber so that it had no need for any foreign policy or any military
Establishment, remove that entirely from our budget. Had the welfare
to be used. Could we provide it or could we not provide every human
being in our society with the things we need? The answer is yes
without a question.
MOYERS: The question arises as to whether or not, if all of the
resources were available for providing everyone with the good life...
ADLER: No, I'm sorry. With the conditions they need.
MOYERS: With the conditions they need for the good life, in order to
do that, in order to distribute resources on the basis of need as
opposed to power, governments wouldn't have to become so
authoritarian, so decisive, and so intervening in the life of
everyone, that the liberty that would be lost as a consequence of the
gaining of the conditions of the good life would be too great a price
to pay. Is that possible?
ADLER: Yes, it is. If, for example, it may very well be that the
Soviet system, which is in my judgment a totalitarian system in which
you don't have, except nominally, democratic processes at work, in
which a highly centralized government, authoritarian in its operations
does make an effort to see that every human being in that society is
not deprived of the essentials, no matter how they succeed. China is
trying to do the same thing. Those are both authoritarian governments
that have tried to do this and to some extent have succeeded.
I don't think the authoritarian method, or the authoritarian regime
is necessary for that purpose. I think it can be done in our kind of
system by popular majorities, particularly if those popular majorities
understand that the equality, the equality of conditions which de
Toqueville talked about is not, shall I say, reductive in the sense
that everybody will have the same amount of everything. That, I think,
MOYERS: Two questions arise. One, how do you define enough and two,
if I have more than you, what's to keep you from wanting what I have
and therefore, creating new tension?
ADLER: You're absolutely right. If human beings are not morally
sensitive, not morally educated, there'll be a conflict between ...
there now is a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. That's
the conflict that divides the world and our society. Correct?
MOYERS: What do you mean moral? What do you mean by moral?
ADLER: I'm talking about the good life. I never mean anything by
moral except the conditions for leading a good life. A person who has
much more than he needs is likely to be misdirected in the pursuit of
MOYERS: But if the pursuit of more were my definition of happiness...
ADLER: I'm sorry, I'm going to stop you. You can't say your
definition of happiness. You haven't got any right to have a
definition of happiness. Happiness is as objective as gravity.
MOYERS: You mean, I have to accept your definition of objective
ADLER: I'm saying unless you approach the problem of happiness with
the same objectivity you approach the problem of gravity, there's no
point even in discussing it. If you think happiness is what you define
it to be, then we have nothing to discuss at all. It's only if
happiness is objective in the sense it's the same for everybody and
you look at it, and find out what it is, by looking at human nature
and seeing what goods a human being needs.
MOYERS: But the man on the hill in that big expensive
quarter-of-a-million dollar house...
ADLER: Probably totally ... subject to all kinds of illusions.
MOYERS: You're making judgments about him and you don't even know
ADLER: Absolutely. Well, now wait a minute now. I'll tell you how I
make the judgment. And I'll make you make the same judgment. Let's
take a miser, the old-fashioned, classical miser, sitting in that
dark, damp cellar. He says to himself, and he has a right to say, "All
I want is gold. And look, here in this cellar of mine, I've got piles
of gold. I see it glitter. I can touch it." What he doesn't want
are friends. What he doesn't want is political participation. What he
doesn't want is health. What he doesn't want is knowledge. All the
things he needs to be a decent human being. I say he's...and I'm
playing on words...that miser is miserable. I don't care what he
thinks about himself. He may say, "I've got everything I want.
I'm the happiest man alive." He's a fool. He's an incredibly
misled fool because he doesn't know what happiness is.