Overcrowded New York public schools? authoritative figures relieved the congestion of the school by allowing more intelligent children to skip grades. On several occasions, Adler benefited from this policy. At age twelve and a half, he graduated from P.S. 186 in upper Manhattan and selected to attend De Witt Clinton High School, one of Manhattan’s liberal arts secondary schools. During the first year of Adler’s attendance, only one teacher really held his undivided attention. The instructor was Garibaldi M. Lapolla, who taught freshman composition. By watching, Lapolla could tell Adler’s endeavor to become a writer, so he volunteered to help Adler learn how to write effectively. He told Adler how Flaubert had trained de Maupassant by making him write the same story over numerous times until Flaubert felt it had reached perfection. Lapolla decided to mimic that procedure. Tasked to choose an object and write a single-page description of it, Adler choose a fire hydrant as the object to describe. He ended up writing the paper twenty times before Mr. Lapolla laid his blue pencil down and gave his final approval.
Two publications, the Magpie, a monthly magazine, and the De Witt Clinton News, a weekly newspaper, were among the extracurricular activities at De Witt Clinton High. Adler became editor of the Magpie before the end of the second school year, and by the beginning of the third school year, he became the editor of the De Witt Clinton News. Diverted from his studies and schoolwork by his newly found positions, Mortimer did enough schoolwork to meet the requirements. While editor, Adler was ordered by principal Francis H. J. Paul to suspend a student from the staff of the De Witt Clinton News because his grades were below par. Disciplinary actions were injected since Adler deliberately defied a direct order from the principal. Adler was suspended from all extracurricular activities. Since he despised studying and going to class, he persuaded his parents to let him drop out of school and go to work. The family was financially unstable, so they agreed to let him quit school. Adler was fifteen years old when this incident occurred.
Going to work only meant one thing for the young Adler–a return to journalism. He was employed as a copyboy on the New York Sun. He felt working in the editorial rooms on daytime shift was better than the City Room where his hours would have been four to midnight. Day after day, editorial after editorial, Adler awaited the editor in chief to summons him to his desk to take his typewritten copy to the composing room. On the twenty-fifth day of employment, his wish came a reality. Gradually, Mortimer moved up the totem pole. He became the editor in chief’s secretary, whose pay was slightly higher than the copyboy’s pay. Adler’s parents had no remorse feelings about his termination of high school attendance because his weekly contribution to the family income was more than enough justification. Determined to reach his goal of becoming a renowned journalist, no obstacles would vacillate his choice. With an overdose of aspiration and an absurd degree of impatience, Mortimer decided to accelerate his advancement by attending night classes in the Extension Division of Columbia University. His main objective was to improve his writing skills. He enrolled in a Victorian Literature class taught by Professor Frank Allen Patterson. In the class the works of art read were by Browning, Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Savage Landor, Hazlitt and Lamb, and the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. Mill’s book really inspired the young Adler. He read the book to the degree that he knew Mill’s life story verbatim. Reading Mill’s Autobiography sent Adler in search of Plato. The night courses taken in Columbia University made it possible for Adler to enter college with standing advancement, entirely skipping the freshman year and starting as a sophomore.
Adler could truly say that the years he spent earning a living between high school and college had helped him achieve a maturity that he had claimed to achieve. From this experience he formulated an educational theory. Mortimer felt a child should begin school early to take advantage of the child’s capacity of early learning and should have the same basic schooling for twelve years. The basic schooling, Adler states “should be the same in its general direction, aiming to make all the children competent as learners, with the hope that they will become learned after they leave school, aiming to acquaint them superficially with the world of learning, and aiming to motivate them to go on learning for the rest of their lives.” Adler felt strongly about incorporating the academic hiatus approximately around age sixteen, the time of the completion of basic schooling. Adler believed the child cannot fully mature as long as they remain in school; on the contrary, they suffer from prolonged adolescence. A detergent to stop the pathological condition is by getting the young people out of school soon after the onset of puberty.
In 1952, Adler departed academic life after more than thirty years, ten at Columbia University and twenty-two at the University of Chicago. He did not consider his separation as abandonment of the intellectual life. The move made to carry and initiate intellectual undertakings had slight to no chance of prosperity confined to a university. Adler felt he was following in the footsteps of his idol John Stuart Mills. While working on the Syntopicon, Adler laid the foundation for three intellectual pursuits that occupied a major portion of his time and energy. One was a revival of his youthful vision of a Summa Dialetica. A second began with a memorandum submitted in 1948 to the Board of the Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, urging that the encyclopedia be made more than a reference book. The third was the establishment of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. Of these three pursuits, the last represented his interest in the continued learning of adults.
In April 1950, Adler with his comrades Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, took a trip to Aspen Colorado. After numerous sessions with the Peapckes in the Schweitzer Cottage, Adler made plans for lectures and discussions formed. Adler chose to do the opening lectures on the nature of man. After which, he formulated lectures that would follow, and selected associates to help carry on great book seminars. During the summers of 1950 and 1951, the lectures were delivered in the morning in the tent and in the evenings at a renovated auditorium of the old opera house. The Aspen Executive program originated to solicit the attendance of American businessmen. The readings were drawn from a two-volume agglomeration, The People Shall Judge. The selections were both historically and currently decorous to the considerations of the problems and issues that confront the citizens of an industrial, free-enterprise, capitalistic democracy, and especially citizens who also are executives of large corporations. Adler added selections from Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, J.S. Mill, and Karl Marx to the readings that were originally drawn from The People Shall Judge.
The Institute for Philosophical Research came into existence with a single objective to produce a Summa Dialectica of Western thought. Adler’s task was dealing with the philosophical controversies that had arisen in the sphere of each of the great ideas. The completed Syntopicon would provide a first, tentative, and incomplete equivalent to a chart of the basic issues on which philosophers rend. Adler was repeatedly asked in press interviews for a statement of its purpose when the doors of the institute were opened. The following was Adler’s reply: “The Institute will be engaged to take stock of Western thought on subjects which have been of continuing philosophical interest from the advent of philosophy in ancient Greece to the present day; and in this process, it hopes to discover the extent and kinds of agreement that exist among men who disagree about what is true.” It had been said that philosophers disagree on every subject that they consider and discuss. Adler states disagreements are more difficult to fulfill. To disagree a criterion has to be met. First, two men have to agree about the subject under consideration. Second, they must engage in responding to the same question. These two prerequisites are difficult that they are rarely satisfied by the thinker themselves, so the philosophers seldom disagree they just appear to. In 1952, the Institute was relocated from San Francisco to Chicago.
While in Chicago, Mortimer began working with the Encyclopaedia Britannica company because he was offered a contract that gave him financial security for the rest of his life. He established a Britannica Lectureship at the University of Chicago. The Britannica Lectureship required Mortimer to meet certain deadlines. Adler managed to find time to work on a number of editorial projects for Britannica, as well as serve the company as a consultant while carrying on the work of the institute and delivering the first and second series of Britannica Lectures at the University of Chicago. In New York on January 15, 1974, the 15th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, called Britannica 3, was presented to a press conference and to another press conference the next morning in London. The 15th edition was called Britannica 3 to draw everyone’s attention to the three-part structure of the new encyclopedia. Before the Syntopicon was published, Adler coined a word to name the invention of an idea-index. The Outline of Knowledge was called a Propaedia, which means an introduction to learning or knowledge. The nineteen volumes of essays on major subjects were called Macropaedia, which means large units of learning or knowledge. The ten volumes of short entries of minor subjects were called Micropaedia, which means small units of learning or knowledge. Adler felt, “The painful truth is that the work of an encyclopaedist is never finished, because facts change and knowledge expands, and because there is always room for improvement.”
For fifty years, he did many writings on ethics. He examined the errors in moral philosophy by four giants of philosophy: David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey. Adler reiterated his conviction that only the ethics of Aristotle provide reliable and pragmatic explanation to basic moral problems. In some of his works he concentrates on human motivations on what drives us to lead moral or immoral lives. Adler had written, “It should not be surprising that an ethics of desire, which is so uniquely Aristotelian, should also be an ethics in which the notion enough plays a central role. In its concern with wrong desires, it might even be called an ethics of enough.” Mortimer analyzed wrong and right desires, along with the elucidation of what makes them right or wrong. In detail, he deals with human needs and wants for pleasure, money, wealth, fame, power, honor, liberty, love, friendship, knowledge, wisdom, and pleasure. Adler felt the only solution to the central problem of ethics is how to seek what is really good for one’s self while at the same time not harming others.
What is the basis from which all desires stem? The basis from which all wrong desires spring is three-pronged: either (1) the wrong desire is for something that is only a partial good, yet is desired as if it were the only good; or (2) something is a limitless good for those who desire it as a definite end; or (3) though it may originally have the appearance of good is an indisputable good that is harmful rather than harmless. The prime examples of this classification are pleasure, money, and fame and power.
In the physiological aspect, along with the organs of sight, hearing, and smell are the four organs relating to the skin that are the sensitive instruments for awareness of heat, cold, pressure, and pain. These are found in the epidermis although some are found in the internal organs. There are no sensitive nerve endings for pleasure. In neurological terms there is no sense of pleasure even though most people speak and think of pleasure and pain as converses. In certain instances the word pleasure describes experience of satisfaction when desire is fulfilled or avenged. “The moral problems concerning pleasure must always focus on pleasure-or for that matter pain-solely as objects of desire and never on pleasure and pain as the experienced satisfaction or frustration of desire.” The Epicureans or hedonists in moral philosophy asserted that pleasure is the only good, but they failed to distinguish between pleasure as an object of desire and pleasure as satisfaction of desire. Both Plato and Aristotle refuted by asking whether it is better and wiser to desire both pleasure and wisdom. Adler stated pleasure was an object of desire. Most of the wrong desires fall in the sphere of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and sexual activities. About such pleasures, the moral virtue called temperance is concerned. Incessant gluttony, drunkenness, passivity, cruelty in the treatment of other human beings, and lechery or unrestrained sexual desires are the immoral characters that lead to overindulgence in the desire for stimulating pleasure.
Money is often wrongly recognized as wealth. Money as an object of desire is not something that is naturally indispensable, such as food and drink, clothing and shelter. Money can be classified as a conspicuous good that is something deemed good because it is in fact desired. That desire may be sanctioned even if it is not a right desire. Money is wrongly desired when it is desired as an end in itself and not purely as a mean. Money may be desired as the economic correlative of real worth that means desired for buying power i.e. to pay rent, insurance premiums, and professors’ salaries, and other forms of debt. Money is used to buy things that are necessary for substance, or that provides life’s comforts and conveniences, and superfluities. The reason for a limitation on the amount of wealth that can be rightly desired is that desire for wealth without limit interposed with, hindered, or baffled the acquirement of other goods that are not needed but much valuable for a good life than wealth is. When the desire for wealth is irrational it tends to defeat the pursuit of happiness. The misuse of money is the root of wrong desire regarding wealth. It would be easy to draw the line between greedy individuals and those who virtuously sought a limited amount of wealth as a fundamental condition of living a good life. Money can be spent in the wrong pursuit of sensual pleasure to excess.
Fame and power are the last of the wrong desires. Fame and power are only apparent goods and ought not to be desired for their sake as a means of happiness. The great villain can be as famous as the great hero; there can be famous scoundrels as well as famous saints. Fame and power are joined together as objects of wrong desire. Persons seeking personal power is the fame that are wrongly desired as expedient for success in striving for an objective that is itself wrongly desired as an end.
There are many substitutes and restrictive wrong desires each aiming at a different end. Although right desires are many, there is an association of them because they all aim at the same end, totum bonum or complete good. All right desires aim at real goods or apparent goods that are harmless. Persons motivated by right desires are all the same moral character. The relation of moral virtue to corruption is the same. When moral virtue is defined as the habit of right desire, its complexity must not be overlooked. Moral virtue has many aspects and involves many right desires. The basic distinction to be made is between (a) means that are effective, functioning as causal factors in the pursuit of happiness and (b) means that are constitutive, functioning as component partial goods in the whole good that is the totum bonum. Moral virtue is itself one of the two effectual means of happiness. There are a number of bodily needs for health and pleasure. If wealth is named as a real good to be sought, it covers all the commodities needed to sustain life and health. Human beings need to associate with one another for they are social beings by nature. Happiness should not be included in inventory of real goods for it is not one good among others or even the highest of the real goods, the sumum bonum. Sumum bonum identifies with totum bonum it is not a good to be sought as a mean or even as an end, but the good to be sought is the ultimate end sought for its own sake and sought as a complete good that leaves nothing more to be desired. We must distinguish between individual and common goods. The real goods needed and common goods are common in the sense the same objects of right desire for all human beings. Natural needs are not only the basis for distinguishing between real and apparent goods. Justice is a part of each individual. A man cannot be honestly composed, courageous, and just. Freedom or liberty is a real good, and it should be a required component of totum bonum. There are criterion of freedom one is the way which individuals possessed the freedom either by nature, by acquisition, or by circumstance. The second criterion is the characterization of them when they are possessed. The freedom of self-determination is freedom from causal determination by prior conditions in one’s make up and in one’s life, and the acquired freedom of self-perfection is freedom from the passions that often move one to act contrary to the decree of virtue. Love should be reserved for all forms of kind desire with the impulse to give rather than to get. Ancient English has one word for love. Greek and Latin have three words. The three Greek words are eros, philia, and agape. The three words Latin are amor, amicitia, and caritas. Along with the word love are such words as friendship and charity and phrases as erotic love and sexual love. When no sexual desire and impulse is involved in a relation to another person that we say we love, we have the form of friendship. Erotic or sexual love can be love if it is not selfishly sexual or lustful. Adler’s summation of right desires is the following: “The good life, enriched by the sumun bonum among all the other real goods that constitute the totum bonum, is one that involves a decent economic livelihood, the pleasures of play, freedom and political liberty and the joys of friendship; in addition, it is one that is greatly enriched by spending the greater part of one’s free time in pursuit of leisure, all of which contribute to the growth of the mind and to the attainment of intellectual excellence. This is the highest grade of human life.”
Adler’s philosophical background began when he decided to drop out of school and pursue his dream. Every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good, and it is for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be at which all things aim. The good is the desirable. Adler’s determination and never ending questions about life carried him to the peak of knowledge. Question declares that the truth of judgments about what is good or evil, desirable or undesirable assists in the conformity of such judgments to right desire. Ethics is a branch of philosophy. “To ask whether ethics should become transcultural is to ask whether judgments made in ethics about what is really good for human beings and about the ultimate goal they should seek and the means they should choose to attain it have objective and universal truth.”
2. Adler, Mortimer J. Desires Right and Wrong. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.,
3. Adler, Mortimer J. Philosopher at Large. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1977.