GREAT PHILOSOPHER STILL AT LARGE
Men were much bigger and wiser in those days, not like they are now. Just as in the time of Odysseus breaker of horses, and honey-tongued Nestor, these were men bigger than life, men about whom and by whom great books are written. Shortly before Mortimer J. Adler died, my friend Gary Dunn had asked the elder Adler whether any great philosophers had lived during the twentieth century. To Gary’s surprise, Adler named three: Henri Bergson, Jacques Maritain, and Etienne Gilson. In my estimation, Adler was wrong. He should have included a fourth: himself. In the tradition of Socrates, Adler rarely made that sort of mistake. Like Socrates, he never claimed to know what he did not know or not to know what he did know. During the twentieth century, Adler did not receive his due from the “professional philosophers” for the magnitude of his philosophical intellect. Understandable. If Adler was right about the current state of philosophy, most contemporary philosophers would have to recognize that they have largely abandoned the philosophical tradition. Mortimer Adler died on 28 June 2001, faithful to the end to the philosophical tradition that he loved. His passing might occasion some contemporary thinkers once again to dismiss him. To paraphrase Adler, though he be “dead in the sense of not jolting us out of lethargy by his living presence, he is dead in no other sense. To dismiss him as dead in any other way is to repeat the folly of the Ancient Athenians who supposed that Socrates died when he drank the hemlock.”
Peter A. Redpath, Philosophy Department, St. John’s University and Director of the Angelicum Academy and Angelicum Great Books Program.