Six Great Ideas:
Truth - Goodness - Beauty - Liberty - Equality - Justice

Mortimer J. Adler

[a conversation with Bill Moyers, 1981]

Each summer since 1951, Mortimer J. Adler conducts a seminar at The Aspen Institute in Colorado. At the 1981 seminar, fifteen leaders from the worlds of business, literature, education, and the arts joined him in an in-depth consideration of the six great ideas that are the subject of this book: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty -- the ideas we judge by; and Liberty Equality and Justice -- the ideas we act on. The group discussions and conversations between Dr. Adler and journalist Bill Moyers were filmed for broadcast on public television, and millions of people followed their exploration of these important ideas. Discarding the out worn and off-putting jargon of academia, Dr. Adler dispels the myth that philosophy is the exclusive province of the specialist. He argues that "philosophy is everybody's business," and that a better understanding of these fundamental concepts is essential if we are to cope with the political, moral, and social issues that confront us daily.

The Great Idea of Truth

BILL MOYERS: Six great ideas -- truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, justice. Why these six?

MORTIMER J. ADLER: One answer, Bill, is the Declaration of Independence -- the document that every American should understand -- and five of those six ideas are in the first four lines of the second paragraph. Let me recite those four lines:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they're endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" -- which is the ultimate good -- "That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

There are five of the six ideas, and the sixth is in another great document, Pericles' famous speech at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in which he was comparing Athenian civilization and culture with the militaristic stale of Sparta, and said, "We Athenians cultivate beauty without effeminacy." -- There's the six of them.

Now, there's a second reason. Three of these ideas -- the first three, truth, goodness and beauty -- are the values by which we judge everything in the universe -- our ideas, our thoughts, human conduct, the world of nature and the world of artistic products. The second three ideas -- liberty, equality and justice -- are the ideas that relate you and me, relate people in society. Their equality, their freedom to relate to one another, their just or unjust treatment of one another -- they are the ideas that govern our actions. They are the ideas by which we evaluate governments and societies and laws.

MOYERS: One of the oldest of all questions: what is truth?

ADLER: Truth consists in the agreement between what we think and what is in the world, what is real.

MOYERS COMMENTARY: Aspen, Colorado, home every summer for the Aspen Institute. To its seminars come people from all over the world, to take pan in intellectual free-for-aIls over the classic ideas of Western thought. In their midst, that most demanding and controversial provocateur of all, the philosopher and teacher Mortimer Adler. He's been disturbing the peace of mind in this valley for 30 of his 80 years.

MOYERS: You've been coming out here a long time.

ADLER: Yes, indeed, more than 30 years.

MOYERS: You've spent a lot more of your time than that with the great books.

ADLER: The great books for me now goes back more than 60 years, back to the 1920s, when I was a student at Columbia University and began reading them under the marvelous guidance of a great teacher, John Erskine. And in fact I've been reading, studying and teaching the great books ever since then.

MOYERS: What led you to them?

ADLER: Well, the attractiveness of this teacher and the course he offered. It took two years: we read about 60 books in two years, and discussed them once a week on a Wednesday night. And I learned, I think, how to discuss the great books and how to lead discussions of the great books from him. Marvelous teacher, John Erskine. And the more I read them, the more I studied them, the more I led discussions of them, the more I discovered that the heart of the great books of the great ideas -- the great ideas they discuss -- there in those books is the Western discussion, the Western consideration, the Western examination and exploration, and the controversies about the great ideas.

MOYERS: What in particular grabbed you in those early days, when you were just a student?

ADLER: Well, the issues raised, they used to he the most important intellectual issues: and often the most important practical issues that any human being can face are stated in terms of ideas like liberty and equality and justice, or truth, goodness and beauty, man, God, immortality, sin, virtue, happiness. I mean, the great ideas are at the heart of our lives in some sense -- certainly, our intellectual lives, no question about that at all.

MOYERS: You're most known to many people for your work in Aspen with this institute.

ADLER: Yes, well, it was in 1950 that Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke first brought me to Aspen, and I've been coming ever since. Walter in 1950 established the Aspen Institute and in the next year we started the first executive seminars that I've been moderating for the last 30 years. And in those executive seminars the central ideas have been liberty, equality, justice, rights, property, tragedy -- ideas that I've been considering all my life. And I must say that these Aspen seminars have been the most refreshing and fruitful summers I can possibly spend.

MOYERS: But in addition to moderating the seminars, you've written a lot, haven't you?

ADLER: Oh, yes. In that house there, for example, I wrote two books -- the book on the existence of God, and a book on moral philosophy. Back there in the house from which we started, I wrote the book on angels, and a book on the great ideas, and in this house we're coming to along here in a moment, I wrote a book called The Time of Our Lives a book called The Common Sense of Politics, and a book called The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes. So that along this street, just within these few hundred yards, I've written seven books in Aspen.

MOYERS: What was the idea behind the executive seminars and of bringing adults to the table to discuss these ideas?

ADLER: Well, all, all the people that come to these executive seminars -- top executives from our corporations, top persons in United States public life and the professions -- they've all become, shall I say, narrow specialists in their fields, and Walter's idea and the idea of the Aspen Institute under Joe Slater has been to open their minds to the great truths, and the great discussions -- to make them generalists as well as specialists.

MOYERS: Try to re-educate them.

ADLER: Re-educate them, and they all, I think, appreciate that re-education. I've known almost no one who has come to an Aspen executive seminar that hasn't regarded it as one of the most profitable two weeks in his life.

MOYERS: Is it your feeling that adults can deal with these later in life more easily than they could --

ADLER: It's been said that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but a human adult is not an old dog. And a human adult can learn very much more than children can. In fact, as you grow -- as you become more mature, learning is more fruitful because you have wider experience, wider back-ground to increase and improve your understanding. I've always thought that adult learning was the very -- the very essence of human education.

MOYERS: The seminars we're going to be in over the coming days will include people from different cultures. What is your feeling about the cross-cultural exchanges that take place."

ADLER: I think we're still at that stage in the world's development when there is no trans-cultural community. I think we're going to have difficulty having the Easterners and the Westerners, the non-Westerners, talk to one another. But it'll be, even though difficult, the fact -- the appearance, the emergence of those difficulties will teach us what we have to do to achieve in the course of time a world cultural community.

MOYERS: But you do think that truth is global?

ADLER: I think that truth is trans-cultural; I think all the fundamental values are trans-cultural.

MOYERS COMMENTARY: Nothing so becomes the human being, says Mortimer Adler, as our mind; and nothing gives him more joy than provoking us to use it. His latest book, Six Great Ideas, will engage and enrage these men and women who have gathered to debate. You'll meet each by name during this series of films, including a Native American author, an Indonesian philosopher, an oil producer from Texas, a physicist, a lawyer, a judge -- 15 in all, of diverse experience and opinion, in the company of six great ideas and one Mortimer Adler.

MOYERS: Why the pursuit of truth?

ADLER: It's the deepest human aspiration; it's the thing that distinguishes mankind from all other animals. In fact, in his pursuit of truth man is -- in contemplation of truth, man is most like God.

MOYERS: Most like God?

ADLER: The contemplation of truth -- Aristotle thinks of God as being concerned only with the contemplation of truth.

MOYERS: Is it merely -- or only -- an intellectual pursuit?

ADLER: I think it is. I think it's the mind of man -- it is not a matter of the heart, it's not a matter of feelings -- it's a matter of the mind, the reasoning mind, the understanding mind that we use to pursue truth.

MOYERS: But are there not works of art, the literature of Carlos Casteneda, for example, that may not be truthful but is meaningful?

ADLER: Oh, yes. I mean, the great -- there is poetic truth, of course, but poetic truth is of a totally different kind and I think you're correct in saying poetic truth lies most in its significance rather than in its, shall I say, factual accuracy.

MOYERS: An example?

ADLER: Well, just take for a moment the extraordinary poetic truth in the satirical writing of Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels. Obviously not true in fact, but extraordinarily true in meaning.

MOYERS: What difference do you -- or what distinction do you draw between objective truth and subjective truth?

ADLER: Objective truth is truth that is independent of individual differences, differences in circumstance, time and place. What is objectively true is always true and true for all men everywhere at all times.