Volume 2 of the Syntopicon (Adler)

Mortimer Adler regularly claimed that it was impossible to be educated before the age of 40.  If true, I would also suggest it is difficult to be educated without working through something like his Syntopicon.  The setup is the same as the earlier volume.    There is a ten page essay, topical indexes, and a recommended reading list.  This review will only outline his key topics, the various positions taken, and how the great thinkers interacted with their predecessors, if time permits.


Man is the only subject where the knower and the object known are the same (Adler 1).  Indeed, “the human intellect is able to examine itself.”

The Western tradition is divided on man’s essence.  The standard (and correct) view is that man differs from animals because he is rational.  His use of speech is a consequence of this rationality.  It is not the main difference.  If this is true, then there must be some distinction between reason and sense (5).


The mind is capable of self-knowledge. This is the difference between sense and intellect.  Senses do not seem to be aware of themselves (172). 

Following Aristotle, we see that if “the soul is the principle of life and all vital activities, so mind is the subordinate principle of knowledge” (173).  And the act of intellect moves as such:

1) conception
2) judgment
3) reasoning.


Adler wisely separates the principle of absolute government from monarchy, since republics and democracies can be as absolutist (205). Monarchy as an idea underwent a transformation in the Middle Ages. It did resemble an absolute system in one sense by giving power to one man, yet it placed supremacy of law in the hands of the people (207).  The only problem with this idea is that given its birth in feudalism, it did not last long in the modern age.

Hegel suggests a robust constitutional monarchy.  In this view the state is more of a corporation. The advantage of this view is that it is quite flexible with modernity and market forces  It doesn’t have any of the disadvantages that plagued medieval models.  On the other hand, it’s not always clear what Hegel is saying.

One and the Many

In line with Aristotle, unity is the first property of being.  All contraries are reducible to things like being/nonbeing, one/many, etc.  Moreover, unity belongs to the individual natural substance.  Man is a substance.  He is not made of other substances.  Machines, though, are.

This is somewhat different from Plato.  Plato’s view had problems.  The idea of the one is also one idea among many.  Plotinus corrected some of these problems.  For him, the one transcends being.  It also transcends intelligence, since knowing requires an object, which would introduce duality into the One.


Opposites do not simply distinguish, they exclude.

Plato: Everything has one opposite.  This was his idea in Gorgias and Protagoras on the unity of virtue.  This also illustrates the numerous subdivisions in Western taxonomies.

Aristotle: made the distinction between correlative opposites (double, one-half) and contrary opposites (odd/even).

Hegel: Unites opposites by reconciling their differences.  Every finite phase of reality has its own contrary.  For example, being and nonbeing imply and exclude one another.  They are united in becoming.


The words “if” and “then” indicate that reason is a motion of the mind from one alternative to another.

Plotinus: any form of thinking signifies a weakness.  It introduces duality.  Higher intelligences, by contrast, know by intuition.  Later Christian thinkers didn’t accept this extreme a view, but they did borrow his idea on intuition and applied it to angelic intelligences.

All the praise I gave of volume one also applies to this volume.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s