Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
Member of the Alliance for Liberal Learning

Friday, December 2, 2016

Wittgenstein 'On Certainty'

On Certainty (Uber Gewissheit 1949-1951) by Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, translated by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (1969-1975), at PrawfsBlawg

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mortimer Adler on The Word (Jn 1:1-5, 14)

Mortimer J. Adler Sermon: Christ Church, August 7, 1994


I. My text for today is the gospel according to St. John, I, 1-5, 14

That text reads as follows:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father."
II. At this point, I would, with your indulgence, like to repeat what I said in my sermon four summers ago in 1990. I pray that in this sermon I do not speak heresy or anything that verges on heresy.

Heresy is a stubborn will to deviate from the articles of faith adopted by an established church. In the Anglican communion, it is a willful departure from the 39 articles.

To disagree with theologians is not heresy, for the theologians often disagree with one another.
In the course of this sermon I may disagree with Christian theologians from the 4th to the 14th centuries, but to do so is not heresy.

As you know, I am a philosopher, and I must tell you that it is easy for a philosopher to be a believing Jew or a believing Muslim (not fundamentalist Jew or fundamentalist Muslim, for that no philosopher can ever be).

But, it is much more difficult for a philosopher to be a believing Christian, even if not a fundamentalist Christian, because the dogmas—the articles—of Christian faith—are difficult to understand, The grievous error of fundamentalism applies not only to Scriptures but to the creed. It is the error of which St. Ambrose cured St. Augustine when the latter heard the former preach on Milan on the text; Idolatry and the Making of Graven Images. "The letter killeth; the spirit givesth life."

III. At this point, I would like you to face with me the first problem that confronts us. What does the word "word" mean?
A. Clearly not the visible or audible spoken word of any natural language, such as English, French, German, etc. 
B. The Greek word "logos" is in Latin "ratio" and should perhaps be translated in English by "thought" 
C. A little more freely we can think of “logos” as standing for the divine intellect, the mind of God 
D. God’s essence is to exist and also God’s essence is to be Intellect. 
E. The text of John I mentions the two great mysteries of the Christian church: the trinity and the incarnation.
(1) The Trinity: three person of one substance.
(2) One individual having two natures: divine and human
F. No conflict between Christian monotheism and the doctrine of the trinity. G. And in the Nicene creed, we say that the second person of the trinity is begotten, not made, which means procreated, not created. 
H. Two beginnings: Genesis, I and John, I. Can we reconcile them? 
I. At this point, permit me to read you some passages from a commentary on the trinity written by Father Walter Farrell, a Dominican Priest and a collaborator of mine.
"The Trinity is a mystery. Unless we had been told of its existence, we would never have suspected such a thing. Moreover, now that we know that there is a Trinity, we cannot understand it. The man who attempts to unravel the mystery is in the position of a near-sighted man straining his eyes from the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a glimpse of Spain. We cannot probe the depths of the ocean of divinity with the foot-rule of the human intellect. 
"When such truths are made known to us by a superior intellect, there is not much we can do with them. Certainly we cannot prove them; we have little result from attempting to probe them; we can show they are not violations of reason, that is that they do not involve contradictions, and we can dig up a few clumsy illustrations. Thus, for instance, we can show that the idea of three persons in one nature is not inconceivable, it is not the contradictory statement that the same thing is at the same time one and three. As a matter of fact, the exclusion of this often alleged contradiction against the truth of the Trinity is absurdly simple; ... 
"In the mystery of the Trinity, the persons are distinct from each other; but each one is identical with the divine nature. Is this not a violation of the mathematical principle that two things equal to a third are equal to each other? The Father is not distinct from the divine nature, the Son is not distinct from the divine nature; therefore the Father is not distinct from the Son. The revealed truth is that though Father and Son are not distinct from the divine nature, they are distinct from each other. 
"By way of illustration we hit upon such clumsy, things as the merging of three flames into a single flame; the light of a candle, which is red, yellow and blue, yet one light; or the trunk of a tree springing from the roots and the fruit coming from both root and trunk, yet all three make up one tree.
"Human reason cannot get much done with truths that are entirely proper to the mind of God. Perhaps the best procedure, in dealing with the Trinity, would be to single out the basic theological terms, subject them to analysis and illustration, so that we might be able to achieve an accurate statement of the mystery and maintain our slender intellectual foothold on the towering truth of three divine persons in one divine nature."


IV. Let me turn now from the gospel of St. John, I and the Nicene creed, to the Lord’s prayer. You will soon see my reason for doing so.
"Our Father, who art in Heaven, blessed be thy name..."
A. The troublesome word is "heaven." Over the last 25 centuries it has changed its meaning in remarkable ways. 
B. For Aristotle, the heavens were referred to by the word "de caelo." The celestial 
C. For him and for the astronomers of Alexandria later, it referred to the visible sky above our heads: the sun, moon, and the fixed stars and the constellations. 
D. In the high Middle Ages—12th and 13th centuries—before the Copernican revolution, the word "heaven" still referred to the sky above our heads. 
E. Then, with Galileo and Kepler it referred to the solar system with the sun, not the earth, at the center. 
F. With this imagery, it was alright to say that heaven is up there and earth is down here. It still was a physical space, to which one could ascend and down from which one could descend. 
G. Now in the 20th century, we know that the solar system is a small speck in our milky way, and that the physical cosmos consists of thousands of galaxies receding from us at the speed of light.
V. Under these circumstances, how shall we think of the heaven that is home of the transcendent God: We must think of it as eternal (timeless and spaceless) and immutable. Physical or material bodies cannot go to heaven or descend from heaven. There is no up and down about going to heaven, or about being in God’s presence there, or in the hell that designates God’s absence.

VI. We must learn to be Christians without using our imaginations—without all the superstitions and myths that are no part of Christian faith. (The very worst error in theology is fundamentalism—taking the word of holy scripture literally and imagining what they tell us. Our Christian faith must be enlightened by our intellects, not by our imagination.

VII. Finally, let me return once more to the text of the day, the first chapter of the gospel according to St. John.
A. How can we understand that the word was both with God and was God? I do not understand how to answer this question? The first sentence of Genesis, in the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth... In the beginning (the same beginning?) the word was with God and the word was God? 
B. The two great mysteries of the Christian faith
(1) The trinity and the incarnation;
(2) God is both transcendent and immanent: Christ for a time and the Holy Spirit forever in time.
(3) The divine nature of Jesus; and the Crucifixion.
(4) The resurrection: and the problem of a spiritual body

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Focus on Great Books, Not Textbooks

Tim Pratt interviews John Felis, a student in the St. John’s College Graduate Institute in Annapolis.
"'I don’t have to write 10 papers about stuff I don’t care about,' he says. 'That’s work; that’s laboring. Here, there’s this freedom.'

"Readings for the curriculum are organized into five segments: Literature; Politics and Society; Philosophy and Theology; Mathematics and Natural Science; and History. Students must complete four of the five segments—36 semester credit hours—to earn the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts degree. Work is completed in seminars, tutorials and preceptorials."

Friday, November 18, 2016

The failure of the department of Economics

Jonathan Stern at The Chronicle.
"In spite of all of their hard work, most undergraduates at Duke who study Economics leave benighted, knowing nothing of the luminaries of the history of the field, and in most cases, nothing either of its great ideas.
[...]
"The root of the problem is the poisonous idea that curriculums need not—nay ought not—entail the Great Books, the canonical texts of the Western intellectual tradition. The idea first stole over the minds of educators in the early part of the 20th century and corrupts them to this day. As Robert Hutchins reminds us in The Great Conversation, 'Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition.' The failure of Duke’s Department of Economics can be attributed directly to this great scourge of education. ..."

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Establishing a foundation for philosophy

Caitlin Trude interviewed Rev. Tony Amatangelo at the Moorpark Acorn.
"'In our culture, the idea of there being any objective truth is oftentimes a foreign concept,' said Amatangelo, lead pastor of Moorpark’s Life Spring Community Church. 'Our culture accepts that truth is relative from person to person, and that’s such a core philosophical mistake.'

"Amatangelo said that’s just one common gap in modern thought that American philosopher and author Mortimer Adler addresses in his book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes.

"'(When) I start talking to somebody and I realize there’s a fundamental philosophical error between us, I like to go back and get Mortimer Adler’s perspective on it,' he said. 'I think Adler is one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. He takes each of these 10 philosophical mistakes and distills it down into something you can read really quickly.'"

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Makeover Mania

'Inside the 21st-Century Craze for Redesigning Everyting', by Rob Walker at The New York Times Magazine

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Great Books of the Western World as Free eBooks

At Prodigal No More, who asks,
"If an eBook or PDF of the appropriate work becomes available, leave a comment so this list can be updated."

Monday, November 14, 2016

Brutus et Cassius absolvuntur!

Daisy Dunn at the Times Literary Supplement.
"This, the trial of the millennium, held only two millennia late, was organized by the charity Classics for All. ... The witnesses included Virgil, Plutarch and Shakespeare.

"Caesar’s death on the Ides of March 44 BC from multiple stab wounds inflicted by a band of men that included Brutus and Cassius precipitated further bloodshed, and ultimately the rise of Augustus. The question at the heart of the trial was whether Caesar’s death was necessary. Was it murder, or was it justifiable homicide?"

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On Hegel's 'The Philosophy of History'

At The Leo Strauss Center,
"Seminar in Political Philosophy: Hegel’s The Philosophy of History" was taught winter quarter 1965. It has 16 sessions and audio files for 16 sessions."
Hegel on History was the subject of Episode 15 at The Partially Examined Life.

(via Penny Parker at The Great Conversation)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Veteran’s Story

Donald Whitfield at the Great Books Foundation.
"In an NPR interview, Benjamin Busch, author of the foreword to our anthology, Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, takes exception to our impulse to routinely thank veterans for their service. While expressing gratitude for the sacrifices citizens make when they join the armed forces is well meant, the gesture hardly begins to address the complicated circumstances surrounding military service. Better, Busch says, to ask a veteran to tell you a story. And so, to commemorate this Veterans Day, as an Army veteran myself, here’s my veteran’s story about a veteran’s story..."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Unlocking the Power of Inquiry-Based Learning

Bill Siegel on 'Training teachers to ask curiosity-driven questions that force students to search for meaning' at Great Books Foundation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Man Who Could Make Your Kids Less Ignorant

Gil Troy at The Daily Beast.
"Although he died nearly 40 years ago in 1977, we need the wisdom of the educational reformer Robert Maynard Hutchins. While he probably would be shouted down on many campuses today for being politically incorrect, this Oberlin graduate and anti-McCarthyite was a true liberal. He wanted universities producing thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical world citizens, not narrow-minded specialists, soulless technicians or indoctrinated political bullies."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

From the Center: Adler on conversation; excerpt from 'The Doubling' by Diana Sheets;

Recent communications with members of the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas included:


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Discussion Guides for 'Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions'

At the Great Books Foundation,
"These free, downloadable discussion guides will help your book group delve deeper into the ideas presented in our anthology Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions. Each guide includes an overview of the novel or film as well as thought-provoking questions to support lively discussion of each of these cultural masterpieces."

Monday, November 7, 2016

College Admissions: The 5 Most Unusual Colleges in the U.S.

Cristiana Quinn at GoLocalProv.
"Are college tours and info sessions leaving you bored and listless? Do you feel like the campuses and curricula are all pretty much the same? Well here are five colleges that shatter the mold.

"They aren’t for the faint of heart or traditionalists, but they do present opportunities rarely found in the realm of higher education..."

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Next Best Books

Essay by Waller R. Newell on 'Resisting the war on history', at The Washington Free Beacon.
"I have always believed that the Great Books help us to understand history, including its distaff side. More and more, though, I have come to believe that a knowledge of history is also needed to help people understand the Great Books..."

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Nearly Essential Goethe

Frank Freeman reviews The Essential Goethe, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, edited and introduced by Matthew Bell, at The University Bookman.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Turner’s work of nature

Dinah Birch reviews Young Mr Turner: The first forty years, 1775–1815, by Eric Shanes, and The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J. M. W. Turner, by Franny Moyle, at Times Literary Supplement.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Monday, October 31, 2016

Sinner, Scholar, Saint

Douglas Kries reviews Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, by Robin Lane Fox, at Claremont Review of Books.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

From the Center: Adler on cooperative arts, and on prudence;

Recent communications with members of the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas included:
  • Mortimer Adler on the three cooperative arts
  • Adler on prudence as one of The Great Ideas
  • Biographical note on Aristotle


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Galileo Fought Dirty With His Fellow Scientists

'The Italian astronomer had critics inside and outside the Church.'

Christopher Graney at The Atlantic

Friday, October 28, 2016

Liberalism and capitalism have hollowed out society – so where do we turn now?

Rowan Williams reviews The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, at New Statesman.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The True and Only Lasch: On 'The True and Only Heaven', 25 Years Later

Susan McWilliams at Modern Age

If there comes a time when the Additional Bibliography for The Great Idea of Progress in the Syntopicon is to be updated, I suggest this work.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Conscious exotica

'From algorithms to aliens, could humans ever understand minds that are radically unlike our own?'

Murray Shanahan at Aeon (via Arts & Letters Daily)