Hudson and Adler and the Unexpected Treasure

Let me tell of events many years apart, and you will see the connection, and, it is hoped, understand my disorientation and delight.

First:

Mortimer Adler is to alumni of St John’s College what Moses is to Jews, or, if you like, what Lycurgus is to Spartans. He is our founder. I would never have read or learned the Great Book had it not been for him, and, indeed the Great Books would be a less well defined list were it not for him.

As it so happens, as a student I asked him a question or two, no more, during the Q&A session after his annual lecture.

The topic was whether science would soon prove an insuperable obstacle to religion, such as, when and if computer engineers ever designed an artificial self aware being, or when and if neuropsychologists learned to read or download or manipulate human thought artificially.

Even though a zealous atheist at the time, I saw clearly that Mr Adler was underestimating the resilience of religion to mere changes of fact and circumstances. As if a Byzantine in the Sixth Century were to opine that the fall of the  Empire in the West would sweep away Christianity without a murmur.

I was pleased, of course, that such a potent intellect was on my side, the side of reason (for in such terms in that day I flattered my atheism) against the chaotic forces of unreason (for in such terms I dismissed all religion.)

Mr Adler was making a simple category error: treating religious belief as a physical rather than metaphysical theory, and therefore thinking the invention of new physical sciences, such as robo-psychology, or new techniques, such as brain-washing or mesmerism , would invalidate, or even influence, the metaphysical beliefs of Christians.

I, who cannot recall my own phone number, can remember the conversation.

I questioned whether Christian theologians would be any more troubled by someone making a machine that mimicked human thought than they were troubled by the existence of bees, who react by instinct in a mechanical fashion not seemingly much different from complex clockworks. The theologian of the future could either say computers had souls on the same nonempirical grounds that he said men had souls, or deny that computers had souls on the same nonempirical ground that he denied souls to bees.

And Mr Adler briefly dismissed the question (so I thought in my youthful curiosity) in fashion not in keeping with the curiosity of a philosopher. I tried buttonhole him after the Q&A, and pursue the question, and he gave me a polite brush off, pretending not to see me.

His whole demeanor was that of a harassed and unhappy man, and, looking back, I am certain that bandying word with a smart alecky college boy was something which diminishes no man’s unhappiness or harassment.

But at the time, I was irked by the slight. My roommate of the time, Jed Arkin explained this curious incuriousity this way: “Any question you ask him, this man has heard not only a million times, but all the answers and counterarguments and answers to those answers a million times.”

The overall impression from this brief meeting was of a man of immense scholarly attainments and a powerful intellect. I don’t recall the year, but it must have been before my graduation in 1984.

Don’t take the wrong message from my anecdote: I admired then and admire now this man as a personal hero. He is a real intellectual, a man of letters, not a poseur.

Second:

Nowadays, I listen to the radio to and from work. I listen to conservative talk radio to put myself into a bad mood, and Christian radio (particularly Catholic Guadeloupe Radio Network or EWTN) to put myself into a good mood. Upon a time one morning, I was listening to Deal Hudson’s  radio program, where, instead of having a guest, he was reading from his own memoir of his conversion, AN AMERICAN CONVERSION.

I listened with particular interest, because the anti-intellectual bias, the suspicion of philosophy, which all my atheist friends freely say is found in Christianity (but which I have never had the ill fortune to encounter) was indeed found by Mr Hudson in his native denomination, and, although he still blesses them for their prayers and his enlightenment, eventually he sought out the Catholic Church as more fit for his desire to seek God through his intellect and his aesthetic passions.

I was also frankly fascinated by his brief account of teaching theology, philosophy and music to inmates of a prison.

Finding myself, for once, with funds free to devote to books, I bought a copy, and set about reading it.

To my utter surprise, I discover that Mr Hudson was an intimate of Mortimer Alder. Indeed, Mr Adler was a convert to Christianity in 1984 — in other words, only a short time after my one conversation with him.

Evidently Mr Adler did eventually see that Christianity is not a theory of physics.

To my more immense surprise, I read the story of Adler’s conversion to Catholicism in this same book. I had never heard the story before. Here is another version from the same author originally appearing at InsideCatholic.com. I reprint it in part.

The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic

by Deal Hudson – June 29, 2009

Eight years ago today, a famous American philosopher died who had lived as a Catholic the last year of his life.

[...]

The first time I met Adler I mentioned my fondness for a novelist I was reading, the Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. Adler immediately pulled out a notebook to write down his name and the novels I had mentioned. I was amazed that a philosopher of his stature would care about the opinions of a punky young professor! He encouraged me to stay in touch, and I did.

Some years later, Adler asked me to spend three summers with him at the Aspen Institute assisting him in his seminars. Afternoons were often spent smoking cigars and talking philosophy and religion (usually Catholicism). Talking to Mortimer was like talking to nobody else – his intellectual energy seemed to super-charge my mind, pushing me to think beyond the places where I had stopped before.

There was no question too dumb for Mortimer and no assertion so lame that it couldn’t be the source of another 30 minutes of conversation. During those summers in Aspen we talked for hours and never noticed the time passing, until someone would finally come to remind us about dinner. (It was Adler, by the way, who told me that cigars never taste better than first thing in the morning.)

When I met Mortimer he had not yet suffered the heart condition that led him to his late-life conversion in 1986 to Christianity. When I asked him, at our first meeting in Atlanta, why his love for St. Thomas Aquinas had not led him into the Church, he replied, “Faith is a gift, and I have not received it.” Rather than ending the conversation, that turned out to be a darned good beginning.

He had been attracted to Catholicism for many years, but when he finally received “the gift of faith” he joined a different church. (Rumor has it that his wonderful – and ardently Episcopal – wife, Caroline, made sure of that.) Mortimer became a serious, church-attending Christian, albeit of the liberal variety, reading books by Bishop Spong and others. He once took me to an bookstore to buy me the latest title by Spong, but fortunately they were out.

The more we talked the more I realized Mortimer really wanted to be a Roman Catholic, but issues like abortion and the resistance of his family and friends were keeping him away. I tried to show him that his own Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of act-potency led him to understand the necessity of protecting unborn life. But just at that moment, Mortimer would uncharacteristically mutter, “It’s all too complicated,” and change the subject. But I knew that he knew he was being inconsistent. I didn’t have to press him – because I knew he knew, and it was only a matter of time before he acquiesced.

At several of our seminars was the Catholic prelate of San Jose, Bishop Pierre DuMaine. The bishop and I would sometimes tag-team the philosopher on the Catholic Church, and we would all end up laughing about how Mortimer deflected the inevitable conclusion. As it turns out, Bishop DuMaine did not stop the Aspen conversations.

After Mortimer finally retired, and Caroline passed away, he moved to the West Coast to spend his final years. We kept in touch by phone, and I called him as soon as I heard from Bishop DuMaine that he had been received into the Catholic Church. To my ears, Mortimer sounded relieved and at peace that he had finally taken that step. The philosopher who had helped bring so many into the Church had himself finally arrived.

Read the whole article here.

The Wikipedia entry on Alder (citing the Famous People website http://www.basicfamouspeople.com/index.php?aid=3028) mentions this:

Adler took a long time to make up his mind about theological issues. When he wrote How to Think About God: A Guide for the Twentieth-Century Pagan in 1980, he claimed to consider himself the pagan of the book’s subtitle. In volume 51 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal (2001), Ken Myers includes his 1980 interview with Adler, conducted after How to Think About God was published. Myers reminisces, “During that interview, I asked him why he had never embraced the Christian faith himself. He explained that while he had been profoundly influenced by a number of Christian thinkers during his life,… there were moral – not intellectual – obstacles to his conversion. He didn’t explain any further.”

Meyer goes on to point out that Adler finally “surrendered to the hound of heaven” and “made a confession of faith and was baptized” only a few years after that interview. Offering insight into Adler’s conversion, Meyer quotes Adler from a subsequent 1990 article in Christianity magazine: “My chief reason for choosing Christianity was because the mysteries were incomprehensible. What’s the point of revelation if we could figure it out ourselves? If it were wholly comprehensible, then it would just be another philosophy.” In 2000, Adler became a Roman Catholic.

He can be considered a Catholic philosopher due to his lifelong participation in the Neo-Thomist movement, despite not being a Catholic for most of this time.

My only comment is that I feel the same surprise and astonishment as you would find, dear reader, if you cleaned your basement, found a loose wooden board, pulled it aside, found a locked door, and lo and behold the key you were given as a child by a stranger happens to fit the lock, and inside is some wonder: perhaps a silent pool surrounded by lacy stalagmites freaked with elfin jade yet never seen by eye of sun or eye or man, looming seemingly in midair above their perfect undisturbed reflections; perhaps a neolithic cave, fantastically painted with extinct elk and images of primordial shaman in mid-dance; or perhaps a pirate treasure bright with Inca gold.

Mortimer Adler, my founder and personal hero, was along the same intellectual path, following an honest pagan’s search for truth, and found his true mother in the Church, and his true father which art in heaven.

Rejoice!

30 Comments

  1. Comment by Stephen J.:

    To paraphrase the old gag about history rhyming without repeating, God gives all of us an utterly unique song to sing, but those songs harmonize in ways we can’t predict before hearing them together.

  2. Comment by joetexx:

    I am afraid my view of Dr Adler was corrupted by my own mentor in the life of the mind, Dwight Macdonald, who tore apart the Great Books idea in a famous review in 1952, the year the original set came out.

    http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/macdonald-great-books.html

    I ended up reading a fair number of the texts in the Great Books, mostly literature and political philosophy, but the only times I ever handled any of the actual GB volumes was in used bookstores.  Over 40 years I’ve seen a few individual volumes in homes, but I’ve never known or heard of anyone who had the whole set, and I’ve never seen all the set in one place – curious, since the Collection was a fair commercial success in the Fifties and the actual books are quite durable.

    I was aware that St John’s was founded on the Great Books idea. My alma mater, UT Austin, had implemented a similar idea with its Plan II B.A. Degree in the early 1960’s , eliminating textbooks almost entirely in favor of classics in the several academic disciplines including the sciences. Alas went to UT in 1970 I didn’t know about Plan II till midway through my first semester.  I was already committed to Naval ROTC and would have had to jump through too many hoops to transfer.

    My university experience is still the only thing in my life about which I am actually bitter. No disillusion in love, friendship, or politics came close to leaving the sour bilious taste that this did. I was cheated, given stones for bread. Eventually I gave up, sank temporarily into the drug and party culture and dropped out. Joined the Navy as an enlisted man, knocked around the world, got a nursing certificate and eventually went back and picked up degrees in history and chemistry. By that time I had learned to game the system and not trust my heart to it. And I’ve done quite well since then but still…

    One day around 1980 I idly picked up a copy  of The College Years , an illustrated book by  A. C. Spectorsky , who apparently managed to get a quite decent liberal education back in the depression 30’s.  I was actually crying after a few pages. He had experienced what I never got close to. I still can’t read something like Newman’s Tamworth  Room or ideal of liberal education without grinding my teeth in rage and frustration.

    So I’ve always been curious about your St John’s experience. Have you ever written about it?  Is it exerting any kind of leavening influence in American culture and society that you can detect, few though its graduates may be?
    I believe there is a bishop out in Colorado or Montana who is a St John’s man – Or maybe CTTOI he may have been in Quinn and Senior’s Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas, which was killed off by radicals in the late ’70’s – are you familiar with that bittersweet history?

    Really sorry to ramble so but you touched a tender spot. Obviously if you came out of it St John’s is doing something right. 

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Tore apart the great books idea? What, simply denied that some works have a greater influence on the intellectual life of a civilization than others?

      Perhaps it is near the Amok Time for I fear my human half overwhelms my Vulcan half with a sensation of despite akin to nausea. Considering the pathetic state of the mind of the culture since the Eighteenth Century, when all the intellectuals went mad and the teachers turned to treason, I cannot even bring myself to give such an outrageous, nay, blasphemous idea hearing. Even if Adler were dead wrong about which books to select, the concept of preserving the Great Conversation of the West and hence preserving civilization is so self evidently better than the “Year Zero” concept of obliterating all pre-Big-Brother thinking that it cannot be argued.

      Textbooks are a crime racket. Government money has ruined modern education — for without vast washed of unearned wealth, endless student loans never to be paid back, you do not think sober scholars would have stopped teaching Latin in order to teach Latino Lesbian Grievance Studies, or give master’s degree in Puppetry?

      Alan Bloom was right.

      I have spoken of my Saint John’s education many times, and likened it often to being a man with a memory in a land of amnesiacs. All the bright ideas one hears repeated by bright-voiced idiots in the media, or repeated as cliches, were originally invented by someone for some reason, usually in response to an older idea, which in turn is a response to an older yet.

      I had not realized the value of such an education until the day I came across a book reviewer condemning, of all things, my “arrogance” for claiming to recall what the culture has forgotten. In other words, he had forgotten so much that he did not even know what my claim meant. To him it sounded like boasting, mere strutting.

      • Comment by joetexx:

        Macdonald  has his full share of absurdities, many of which I became aware of years after I experienced that great surge of wonder when he helped to stamp my passport to the Republic of Letters.  I would churlish not to own that I owe him a great deal. 

        His adverse criticism of GB was largely directed toward the commercial enterprise of the 50’s and 60’s, and certainly did not deny the desirability of a list of canonical works or the value of an education based on them.  He had specific criticisms of the organization and some of the choices of the GB list, but they were the criticisms of a man steeped in that canon and respectful of it. He did not live long enough to hear the chants of “hey hey ho go Western Civ has got to go” but they would have disgusted him to the bottom of his soul.

        I was not aware that St John’s had followed the GB curriculum since 1937.

        I’ll have to take a look at Wrecszin’s bio of Macdonald; I don’t know if he was even aware of St Johns. He was a public intellectual and journalist rather than an academic, though he did the visiting professor gig occasionally . What he wrote about the universities in the 60’s focused on political protest rather than educational issues per se. It is amusing to imagine DM as a visiting professor at St Johns. I suspect he would have had a ball. 

        I knew that Adler became a Catholic late in life; God bless him. I was not aware of his lengthy sojourn in the Episcopalian boarding house on the far side of the Tiber.  He got the idea of the GB from the Summa and academic friends had been predicting that he bound to end up with Rome back in the 40’s.

        I found a link to a book review about the destruction of the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program; one of the monstrous crimes of the early PC purge. The IHP began in 1970, the year I started college. Had I known it existed I’d have swum Red River and done stoop labor across Oklahoma to get to Kansas.

        http://mtprof.msun.edu/Win1996/Dorsey.html

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          It is men like you, who coughed up good money for education and got a sack of crap instead, for whom I weep when I contemplated the state of modern education, or, rather, miseducation. The other is for people I know who boast of their education, and I ask whom they’ve read. One fellow says he got straight A’s in economics, but he does not know what caused the Great Depression. Another says she took a course in South American woman novelists.

          This was while St John’s students are reading Adam Smith and the Iliad.

          • Comment by joetexx:

            Ah, Mr Wright, weep for the US taxpayer, who coughed up the money for an NROTC scholarship which never bore fruit.

            And  I must bear a share of the blame for I gave up too easily.  What I sought was there, even in a campus hive of 40, 000 drones. The honorable professors, the students who craved the truth for its own sake, I could have found outside my formal classes had I made a real effort. It was just too easy to surrender to the circling hash pipe and the honky tonk.

            And remember this was 1971 when PC was only a lowering cloud on the horizon; the real sins of the academy in those days were careerism, credential ism, and pandering to hordes of bored students who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Russell Kirk, Page Smith and a few others saw what was coming in the 50’s, but few paid any heed. Programs like Plan II, IHP, and others were a desperate attempt to create the atmosphere of a small school  In microcosm within a large university. And they worked to some extent, though I missed out on them and they were never a possibility for most students at all.

    • Comment by Tyrrell McAllister:

      Over 40 years I’ve seen a few individual volumes in homes, but I’ve never known or heard of anyone who had the whole set, and I’ve never seen all the set in one place – curious, since the Collection was a fair commercial success in the Fifties and the actual books are quite durable.

      For what it’s worth, my wife and I own the complete set (original edition). It was a gift from her parents, who bought it themselves from a door-to-door salesman back in the day.

      The set comes with a “10-year reading plan”, of which I’m in the middle of “Year Three”. The next reading in the queue for me is Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (Parts I–II and QQ 90–97). But first I have to finish Tacitus’s interminable Annals.

      • Comment by joetexx:

        Wonder what your in-laws paid for the set. In 1952 it cost $250, which would have bought a couple of new household appliances or a decent used car back when wooly mammoths roamed the country side.

        Maybe when one of my bright great nieces or nephews marries I can burn a set of Great Books CD’s for ‘em.

  3. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    “…I feel the same surprise and astonishment…”
    This next to last paragraph is poetic and beautiful.

    The real purpose of entertainers is to keep beauty and wonder alive in this world. I often tell my daughter who chose classical music over a probable brilliant career in science that beauty is in a sense more useful than many things. Even if what we can arrive at is like straw, the important is the jewels often glittering in the straw and letting us know that there is a supreme Beauty out there.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      You view reminds me strongly of GK Chesterton’s view of the matter, particularly his ability to see the wonder in quotidian things.
      I am sorry that such a fine man as Christopher Hitchens exiled himself into the eternal lake of fire, rather than man up and face the truth, albeit I hope that he made some private conversion in his last moments, and so escaped the hellfire he so richly deserved for his public slanders and malice against Mother Theresa. However, here is a case where a hero of mine, and a man who had an immense affect on my life was converted, and I never heard rumor of the thing.
      And, by the way, an author and radio host like rather liked turned out to be his friend and confidant. Wonders indeed!

  4. Comment by Raphael:

    I’m definitely a product of the modern university system, but I have a copy of Adler’s How to Read a Book on my shelf. It has shaped the way I read. I never knew he converted.

  5. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    Is there a listing of free versions of the Great Books available for e-Reader?

  6. Comment by Halleluhwah:

    I understand the liberal arts (which for gross simplicity, I’ll group here everything not covered by the sciences) are in a very bad way in the modern university. However, to be fair, one can still receive a legitimate education in a field like engineering, physics, or chemistry. Granted, this isn’t really surprising, given the Modern Age’s emphasis on Baconian notions of how science should be done. I’m referring to the quality of education one receives, and less of the high fees for tuition, books, parking permits…the list goes on. The state of modern education is what would keep me from pursuing a degree in philosophy or history. I opted for mechanical/nuclear engineering. A degree in engineering or mathematics (or whatever) is one of the few I would recommend to incoming university students at this point. I do envy (in a loose sense) those who received a proper liberal education, studied the classics, and were taught what it is to be educated in the first place.

    My point, and the irony in all this, is that I’m far more interested in philosophy, theology, history, music, and literature in general than I’ll ever be in engineering. Engineering is a paycheck.

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “A degree in engineering or mathematics (or whatever) is one of the few I would recommend to incoming university students at this point.”

      My chiropractor, approaching her 90’s, laughed at me when I told her I did my undergrad in Philosophy.

      I laughed too, and thought to myself – “geez, I wish I’d done a hard science or math or something.” But it was not to be: that stuff is for smart people, and while I may be able to make the cut in classes taught by Process philosophers, I have neither the liberal arts education or the technical facility to have solid footing in the world today.

      People still think I’m well-read though, and I laugh. I have lots of books, and I’ve read them – but a cultivated opinion isn’t an education.

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