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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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