The Great Philosopher Who Became CatholicDEAL HUDSON
Eight years ago today, a famous American philosopher died who had lived as a Catholic the last year of his life.
Adler's pedagogy, like his Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, was rejected by the academy he left in mid-career. He continued to edit, read, and discuss great books at seminars -- like those he taught at the Aspen Institute -- and to write scholarly books. But these were increasingly ignored, so in the late 1970s he took his case to general readers in an excellent memoir, Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography, and books like Reforming Education and Aristotle for Everybody. Adler's career began to revive.
But it was Bill Moyers's several PBS specials with Adler -- especially his "Six Great Ideas" seminar from the Aspen Institute in 1981 -- that brought Adler back into the public eye. Adler capitalized on the attention with a series of readable books, winning him a new generation of readers. I was one of them. As a young philosophy professor teaching both St. Thomas and the great books, I regarded Adler with awe, knowing that he was a living link to Thomists like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, who had been his friends.
The first time I met Adler I mentioned my fondness for a novelist I was reading, the Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. Adler immediately pulled out a notebook to write down his name and the novels I had mentioned. I was amazed that a philosopher of his stature would care about the opinions of a punky young professor! He encouraged me to stay in touch, and I did.
Some years later, Adler asked me to spend three summers with him at the Aspen Institute assisting him in his seminars. Afternoons were often spent smoking cigars and talking philosophy and religion (usually Catholicism). Talking to Mortimer was like talking to nobody else -- his intellectual energy seemed to super-charge my mind, pushing me to think beyond the places where I had stopped before.
There was no question too dumb for Mortimer and no assertion so lame that it couldn't be the source of another 30 minutes of conversation. During those summers in Aspen we talked for hours and never noticed the time passing, until someone would finally come to remind us about dinner. (It was Adler, by the way, who told me that cigars never taste better than first thing in the morning.)
When I met Mortimer he had not yet suffered the heart condition that led him to his late-life conversion in 1986 to Christianity. When I asked him, at our first meeting in Atlanta, why his love for St. Thomas Aquinas had not led him into the Church, he replied, "Faith is a gift, and I have not received it." Rather than ending the conversation, that turned out to be a darned good beginning.
He had been attracted to Catholicism for many years, but when he finally received "the gift of faith" he joined a different church. (Rumor has it that his wonderful -- and ardently Episcopal -- wife, Caroline, made sure of that.) Mortimer became a serious, church-attending Christian, albeit of the liberal variety, reading books by Bishop Spong and others. He once took me to a bookstore to buy me the latest title by Spong, but fortunately they were out.
Deal W. Hudson. "The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic." Inside Catholic (June 29, 2009).
Reprinted with permission of InsideCatholic.com. The mission of InsideCatholic.com is to be a voice for authentic Catholicism in the public square.
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