Mortimer Adler, (December 28, 1902 – June 28, 2001) professor, educator, author, once claimed to be the most highly paid philosopher in the world. That may well be true as he was a long time professor at the University of Chicago, a popular lecturer and teacher, and author of over 50 books. He first burst into public consciousness with his best-seller non-fiction book, How to Read a Book, in 1940. His last book, Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary, was published in 1995.

I first met Dr. Adler at the University of Chicago when he and Milton Mayer were teaching a course on the Great Books. Unregistered students were allowed to sit in during the classes and enjoy the interaction as Adler and Mayer sat at the head of a long rectangular table with registered students seated all around it. I kept attending because I found the discussions fascinating and I could enjoy them without fear that I would be called on. My interest must have been obvious because at one point a note was sent from the head of the table to me, seated off to one side. It read: “Why are you here?” Under that I wrote: “Trite as it may seem, I’m seeking the truth” and sent the note back on its way.

That little incident seems to what led to my being invited to work for Mr. Adler as the Syntopicon was being put together. The Syntopicon was an index to the 102 ideas in the 54 volume set of The Great Books of the Western World, the first edition published in 1952.(Here is a link to our picture in LIFE magazine on 1/26/48.) The job certainly was nothing I applied for–I did not  know there was such an opening or even that such a thing was  happening.   (See my previous post on evolution.)

I soon married and started having children but still followed Adler’s career with interest. He was fond of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas and there was talk, even then, in the 1940’s, about his being seen praying in a Catholic church.  I learned he was accused of converting students to Catholicism because he taught St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica and Jews and Protestants were turning Catholic. He preferred to blame this on his friend Dr. Herbert Schwartz, a Jew who also had converted to Catholicism.

The truth of this is demonstrated in the following quote from The Night is Large by Martin Gardner:

Many of Adler’s students who converted were Jewish. Although Adler’s rhetoric played a role in these conversions, there were others on the campus who were even more influential, such as Adler’s close associate William Gorman, an Irish Catholic from birth, and Herbert Schwartz, a Jewish convert to the church who had obtained his doctorate at Columbia under Richard McKeon. Schwartz, whose official position at Chicago was on the faculty of music, had an enormous influence on the Jewish students who converted. Later he became the leader of a Catholic community in New Jersey. He died in 1981 leaving a raft of manuscripts that his disciples published in a periodical called Filioque. Other Jewish converts included Herbert Ratner, Kenneth Simon, Janet Kalven, Peggy Stern, Paula Myers, and Alice Zucker, all of which have retained their faith. Ratner, who became a medical doctor, was director of public health,Oak Park, Illinois, and editor of Child and Family Quarterly. Simon became Father M. Raphael at St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, Massachusets, and a Trappist monk.

I was amazed to learn that among the Jewish converts to Catholicism at that time was my old friend, Dr. Herbert Ratner! Dr. Ratner was so helpful and influential in my life that I actually started this blog so I could post a tribute to him. Now, fifty years later, I learn  that Adler and Ratner  were friends during my Chicago years and were cut from the same cloth!

I was delighted to find on YouTube a video clip of Mortimer Adler taken in 1990, during a C-Span interview. How wonderful to see him looking so good and making so much sense at the age of 88!

I cannot resist adding this quote from Janet Kalven, one of Adler’s students,  showing the challenging and Catholic-friendly intellectual climate at the University of Chicago in the 40’s and 50’s.

The thirties were a time of extraordinary intellectual ferment at Chicago, in large measure due to Hutchins [president of the University at the time] and Adler.  Their stance ran counter to the prevailing campus culture and was propaedeutic so far as Catholicism was concerned.   From them I learned to question the received wisdom of the semanticists, psychologists, sociologists, cultural relativists; to respect the intellectual rigor of the Greeks and the medievals; to suspect the reductionism of the physical and biological scientists; to read a text on its own terms, define a concept and analyze an argument.  I cut my intellectual teeth, so to speak, on all the big questions: the nature of language,  knowledge, truth, the nature of man (I was not a feminist then), of society, of justice; the existence of God….The Hutchins-Adler training was a necessary but not sufficient condition for conversion.  It made Catholicism intellectually  respectable, but it did not make anyone become a Catholic.  A much more powerful and intimate witness is necessary, I think, to enable people to act as  contrary to our upbringing and education as our little group did.

When Dr. Adler died in 2001 Ralph McInerny wrote In Memoriam:


Adler was regularly asked how he could know so much about Catholic theology without accepting it as true. He gave what he called a Thomistic answer.  He had not been given the grace of faith. But that, one might say, is a Calvinist rather than Thomist reply. The grace of faith is not offered to a select few and withheld from the rest. It is offered to all, but each must accept it himself. Eventually, Adler became a Christian. Finally, he became the Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life. That a number of prominent notices of Adler’s death failed to mention this central event in his life is a distressing sign of how peripheral religion has become for many in our time.

And on the death of Dr. Adler, Chuck Colson wrote:   “Adler was such a prominent thinker and educator that the New York Times devoted some forty column inches to his obituary.  They covered his life, his writing, his teaching career, and his work as a director for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“An amazing career!  Yet for all their coverage they never mentioned the most significant thing in his life…….

“Adler’s move from belief in “the god of the philosophers” to the God of the cross was a long time coming.   But he recognized that if the God he knew must exist really did exist, he would have to make the leap from logic to faith.

“In 1984 — bedridden with illness — Adler made that leap.  Seeking solace in prayer, he received what he called the “gift of grace” and professed belief “not just in the God my reason so stoutly affirms,”  as he said, “but the God . . . on whose grace and love I now joyfully rely.”

“Adler showed us that faith does indeed have its reasons — and in that he was a wonderful model for worldview thinking.

“Maybe that’s why the media ignored his conversion.  The idea that the Christian faith is logically coherent and reasonable was too great a leap for secular-minded journalists to make.”

In his tribute  to Mortimer J. Adler,  Peter Redpath (Philosophy Department, St. John’s University, and Chairman of The Angelicum Academy) wrote:

In 1983 Dr. Adler formally converted to Christianity, specifically to the denomination of his wife, who was Episcopalian. Sixteen years later, in December, 1999 in San Mateo, California where he lived and shortly thereafter passed away (d. June 28th, 2001), he was formally received into the Catholic Church by His Excellency, Bishop Pierre DuMaine, of San Jose, CA, who was a long-time friend and admirer of Dr. Adler.

Adler quotes:

“We acknowledge but one motive – to follow the truth as we know it, whithersoever it may lead us; but in our heart of hearts we are well assured that the truth which has made us free, will in the end make us glad also.”

“Articles of faith are beyond proof. But they are not beyond disproof. We have a logical, consistent faith. In fact, I believe Christianity is the only logical, consistent faith in the world. But there are elements to it that can only be described as mystery..”

“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 be just another philosophy.”

For fifty years Mortimer Adler has been my model of rigorous thinking and intellectual integrity. It gives me comfort that he was finally not only a Christian but a Catholic, not because I feared for his soul (he followed Truth to the end) but because it’s not easy these days being Catholic.  There’s comfort in numbers and I’m glad Mortimer Adler decided to join us!


[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 Redpath.