Mortimer Adler

Mortimer J. Adler, a precocious student (and later critic) of philosopher John Dewey at Columbia University, had also been attracted to the University of Chicago in the 1930s. Hutchins had found appointments for him in philosophy and psychology and at The University of Chicago Law School.

Mortimer Adler with Indexing for Great Books of the Western World

Adler was an evangelist for a broad, liberal education and a strident critic of the disciplinary specialization just then coming to fruition at American universities. His and Hutchins’s impassioned arguments for an undergraduate curriculum based on the classic texts of Western civilization touched off years of stimulating, though acrimonious, debate at the University in the 1930s. Adler’s belief in exposing undergraduates to the classics fell in with Hutchins’ view that, “What the nation needs is more educated B.A.’s and fewer ignorant PhD’s.” Wags on the Midway soon were quoted reciting, “There is no God but Adler, and Hutchins is his Prophet.” Students also were heard singing an old New Year’s standard with a new refrain, “Should auld Aquinas be forgot.”

Adler later helped Hutchins complete editorial work on Britannica’s unique 54- volume canon of Western intellectual history, Great Books of the Western World. The set was published in 1952, the same year Adler left The University of Chicago. Notwithstanding its intellectual gravitas (from Homer, Aristotle and Aquinas to Freud), Britannica sold “Benton’s Folly” to ordinary Americans with great success.

By the early 1960s, the 14th Edition of Encyclopædia Britannica was showing its age. Benton, by this time, had also been an Assistant Secretary of State (he thought up the Voice of America), and a United States Senator (a Democrat from Connecticut and the first to denounce Senator Joe McCarthy).

When Benton was assembling his editorial team to prepare the groundwork for the 15th Edition, he found Adler in San Francisco, where he was finishing his two- volume work, The Idea of Freedom (1958-61). Hutchins, who had retired to California to head the Fund for the Republic think tank, established with help from the Ford Foundation. The Fund had helped finance Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco.

Adler, Mortimer with BooksIn December 1962, as Adler celebrated his 60th birthday, his Institute was going nowhere, his marriage had failed, and he was in debt. Thus, he was in a receptive mood when William Benton reached out, “Come back to Chicago, Mortimer, and help me make a new and greater Encyclopædia Britannica. I’ll not only pay you a princely salary and fund the Institute, but I also support a series of Benton Lectures at The University of Chicago that can be the first step towards a new career for you—and an education for them.”