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

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).

Mind

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.

Monarchy

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.

Opposition

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.

Reasoning

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.

The Angels and Us (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. The Angels and Us. New York: MacMillan, 1982.

This is not a theological-exegetical treatment of angels. That is neither a criticism or a compliment. Adler’s purpose is to give a philosophical explanation, not a theological proof for angels.  One might ask, “Why can’t we just go by what the Bible says on angels and leave it at that?”  There are several problems with that idea.  I learned the hard way that people really do not want to deal with what the ancient Near East, including the Bible, says about malakim and dark spirits.   Moreover, logical deductions from sound premises are just as binding.  Philosophy is inescapable.

Mortimer Adler limits his analysis to that which philosophy allows one to say about angels.  This means at best he can give only an explanation of x, not a proof.  This is frustrating at times, but I understand why he does it. The philosophical benefit to such an approach is that it allows him to focus on the mind-body problem, since an angel is a mind without a body. One more preparatory note: I am not necessarily convinced of the Chain of Being model. I grant Adler’s rebuttal to Lovejoy, but I am not so sure he adequately dealt with Samuel Johnson’s criticisms.

Ptolemaic societies had an easier time with philosophical approaches to “planetary intelligences.” For Aristotle, these moved bodies which in turn move others seem a lot like what we would call angels. Quite obviously, “an incorporeal agent could be nothing other than a mind or intelligence.”[1] Even though angels are minds without bodies, they can assume corporeality in their missions to earth.[2] The biblical text itself is quite clear, as Abraham’s visitors ate with him and later grabbed Lot and his family.  (We will leave aside, of course, Genesis 6:1-4.)

Not surprisingly, Adler’s main guide is Thomas Aquinas, and his main guide to Thomas is Etienne Gilson.  This is as it should be. Beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius, Christian reflection saw the angels as a hierarchy. I do not think Pseudo-Dionysius is correct in his taxonomy, but the underlying principle bears reflection.  Adler notes: “The descending order of hierarchies…consists in grades of creaturely perfect…The perfection referred to is not moral, but metaphysical—a perfection in the mode of being.”[3] This is the Great Chain of Being, or one series of links in it, anyway.

This chain marks a intellectual mode of perfection. The fewer the ideas, the higher up.  This is simplicity in its classical sense.  A Seraph, for example, has fewer ideas than a malak, but he comprehends more in those fewer ideas. Is this Chain of Being really necessary?  Aquinas thinks so.  There would be a gap in reality without them. But can the Great Chain of Being survive modernity’s attacks on it, particularly in the fine book by Arthur Lovejoy?[4] Lovejoy’s actual, if not intended, target is Leibniz, not Aquinas.

When the Great Tradition speaks of a chain of being, it does not have something like arithmetical sequences in mind. Each links differs in kind, not in degree.[5] Moreover, each angel differs with the next by species, assuming, of course, that one accepts Thomas’s account of the angels.

Hell’s Angels

This is where Scripture is largely silent.  We know Satan fell.  We just do not know when. We know it was before man’s fall but after the “Everything is good” pronouncement. Angels, like Adam, were created mutable. If angels were created perfect, then some could not have fallen for obvious reasons. As best as we can tell, the angels that fell, in choosing evil instead of good, did so in the second moment of their existence. Their wills were then locked in place. The angels who obeyed were confirmed in grace.

The Substance of Angels

If a substance is a conjunction of form and matter, and angels are immaterial, then either all their forms are the same, and hence all angels are the same angel, or they must differ in some other way.  They do so by species. Each angel is its own species.[6] Each angelic species is a conjunction of form and its individual act of existence.

That angels interact with physical matter is clear.  How they do so is not as clear.  Since they are not physical, they cannot do so physically (except when they assume bodies). It does so by means of spiritual power. An angel “occupies its place intensively by surrounding it with its power.”[7] This might make more sense if we contrast it with humans.  When a man fills a place, he does so extensively, by physically occupying that place.  Not so with angels.

An angelic mind is purely intellectual.  It does not know discursively. When a man knows something, he does so by forming concepts and judgments.  Angels know with one act of intuition, but not all angels have the same knowledge. They know by virtue of infused knowledge.

Conclusion

Theologians and biblical scholars will wince at some of Adler’s conclusions. His philosophical reticence to affirm theological truths is annoying at times.  On the other hand, his analysis is on point and he avoids getting off topic. For those who read the Great Books, this is required reading.


[1] Mortimer Adler, The Angels and Us, (New York: MacMillan, 1982), 6.

[2] Adler, Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 45.

[4] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971).

[5] Adler, The Angels, 62. This also eliminates any fear of pantheism between God and man.

[6] Ibid, 126.

[7] Ibid, 130.

Aristotle for Everybody (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J.  Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy.

Even with the advances in science, Aristotle’s shadow is unavoidable.  We still operate with concepts like “part,” “whole,” “motion,” “change,” etc.  Despite modern pedagogy in the university, we still use logic and assume it is valid.

“Great Divide”

First problem: What differentiates “all living organisms from inert bodies” (Adler 5)? From this we draw a line between some living organisms and others.  Aristotle keeps drawing these lines and classifying individuals.  In order to do this, he posits that each thing has a nature. He finally arrives at the conclusion that man is a rational animal.

On one side of the line are “bodies.”  On the other side are “attributes.” The key idea is that an attribute exists in a thing but not of itself.  A stone’s weight exists in the stone, but no one thinks that the weight of a stone exists on its own.  Moreover, a body changes; the attributes do not.  The attribute of hardness doesn’t become “smoothness.”  Rather, the stone becomes smooth.

We can best discuss man by seeing him in three different dimensions:

Man is:

Making (Beautiful).  This covers the metaphysical angle.

Doing (Good)

Knowing (True)

Man the Maker

A work of art is man-made. It is more accurate to say that man produces; he does not create.

Change and Permanence

The problem is how can something always be in a state of becoming, always in change, yet remain the same.  One type of change is motion (a change in place), alteration (a change in quality), and a change in quantity.  All of these changes take place in time.

The Four Causes

I can’t do any better than to quote Adler:

1. Material cause: that out of which something is made.
2. Efficient cause: that by which something is made.
3. Formal cause: that into which something is made.
4. Final cause: that for the sake of which something is made 

To Be or Not to Be

To understand Aristotle on being, we need a firm grasp of “matter,” “form,” “potentiality” and “actuality” (50).

Privation is a lack of a certain form. Potentiality is when you predicate the words “can be” of a thing.  A matter can lack a form but nonetheless have the potentiality for it. “Matter always has a limited potentiality for acquiring other forms” (53).

Man the Doer

Man usually acts towards a goal. This is practical thinking, thinking about means and ends. Means are the ways we achieve our goal or other means.  For Aristotle the end to which we aim is “living well.” However, when Aristotle says we are to aim for the right ultimate end, this isn’t relative.  There is an actual objective Good to which all seek to aim. People who do not aim for this objective end have disordered passions.

This is happiness.  It is important to note that ancient man didn’t consider those who were still living to be truly happy.

Man the Knower

“The senses are the doorway to the mind” (130). They are instruments, and in a nice turn of the phrase, the mind, too, is an instrument.  It is the “form of forms” (134). Thinking does more, as it also “relates the ideas it produces.”

The next chapter is on the laws of logic.  In some ways, that chapter alone is worthy of an entire review.  On the other hand, there isn’t much in it that isn’t also found in other logic texts. Some comments are appropriate, though.  For example, the term in both major and minor premises is the middle term. It functions to connect the major premise and the conclusion.

Moreover, if the major premise is negative, the conclusion must be negative.  A positive conclusion cannot follow from negative premises.

I recommend this book to any starter in philosophy.

A Syntopicon vol 1

Adler, Mortimer. The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon vol. 1.

I didn’t consider myself educated until I started working through this book. The program is simple: one can either read straight through multiple Great Books, and/or read through the entries in the syntopicon, gain a working understanding of the issue, and then follow up the passages at the end of the chapter. (I’ll illustrate later). Syntopical reading at its basic level is reading simultaneous books/passages about a single topic. If we go deeper, syntopical reading means interacting with what an author said about previous authors on the same topic.

The syntopical approach is what separates this volume from other anthologies. (Anthologies are about as valuable as school textbooks.)

Being, an example

Let’s take the most important philosophical concept in Western history: being. I’ll provide some brief highlights from the text and then post pictures of the reference system.

  1. With the exception of few other terms, only being is common to all kinds of things (127).
  2. A contingent being is one whose essence can be divorced from existence; a necessary being is one whose essence is identical to existence (129).
  3. Since being itself is that whereby a thing is, being belongs primarily to God and to all other things according to modes of derivation or participation.

Reading Plan for 2022

I don’t do New Years Resolutions. I simply pick up where I left off the day before. Some of these books, however, have been on my shelf for a while, or I have been slowly working through them.

Adler, Mortimer. The Great Ideas. This is the syntopical intro to his Great Books Series. Working through these volumes will make you educated in the traditional sense. Debates over whether homeschooling or classical education are really meaningless if you aren’t familiar with these issues.

Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones.

Wodehouse, PG. The Best of Wodehouse.

Orwell, George. Essays.

Waugh, Evelyn. Decline and Fall.

Kline, Meredith. Kingdom Prologue.

The following are from the Great Books.

Volume 2 of Aristotle.

Chaucer

Plutarch

Mill

The non-uniqueness of classical education

I am not attacking classical education. I just don’t think it is all that special. Let’s do a thought experiment. What is it about reading Ovid that makes classical education superior? And don’t say Latin. You can learn that anywhere.

I am going to take a topic from the Great Books Series. I am then going to follow the references. The point that Mortimer Adler makes is that the Great Books (which are far from perfect) routinely generate questions about the great topics (e.g., justice, education, God, etc). My point is that such an independent education can do just as much or more as a Classical education.

Step one: read the section on education. It’s a summary of the Great Tradition.
Step 2: Read Adler’s Outline.
This is an analytical reference sheet. The sub topic is “The Ideal of an education man.” The following are the passages from the authors Adler mentions. Not all authors are good. These are just the ones I had nearby.
John Stuart Mill: general idea: the educated man reflects upon his own experiences in light of the tradition and customs.
Boswell on Johnson. Key point: the desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind (echoing Aristotle).

To be fair, there isn’t anything profound about these, but if you spend a week working through the references, it starts to add up. And you have a curriculum of sorts ready. This isn’t to attack Classical Greece and Rome. I just don’t see the immediate cash value of reading about incest in Ovid.