By Mortimer J. Adler (Selection from “How to Read a Book” 1940)
Let us not get confused about means and ends. Reading the great books is not for the sake of talking about them. Mentioning them by name may give you the appearance of literacy. But you do not have to read them to participate in parlor sports or outshine the silver at a dinner party. I hope I have made it clear that there are better reasons for read – really reading – the great books.
So far as conversation is concerned, it is the other way around. I have recommended discussion as an aid to reading, not reading for the sake of “brilliant” conversation. The conversation between reader and author, which is an integral part of good reading, may not take place unless the reader is accustomed to the discussion of books. If he has friends with whom he talks about books, he is more likely to talk back to the books themselves.
But there is another and more important point. Even reading the great books well is not an end in itself. It is a means towards living a decent human life, the life of a free man and a free citizen. This should be our ultimate objective. It is the ultimate theme of this book. I shall turn to it at the end of this chapter. For the present, I want to give a little more attention to the problem of discussion in relation to reading.
You can, of course, carry on a conversation with a book alone, but that will seem to most people like talking to yourself. For lively conversation, you need more than books and the ability to read them. You need friends and the ability to talk and listen. Unfortunately, just having friends is not enough. We all have friends. But suppose our friends do not like to read books, and do not know how to read and talk about them. Suppose they are friends of the golf course or at the bridge table, friends of music or of the theater, or anything except books. In that case, the kind of conversations I imagined in the last chapter will not take place.
You may have conversations which start in the same way with current topics or recent books. Someone recites the newspaper headlines or the latest news broadcast. The big news these days is full of problems. It contains the seeds for countless conversations. But do they develop? Does the talk leave the level of the newspaper and the radio? If it does not, everyone will soon find the conversation dull and, tired of repeating the same old stuff, you will decide to play cards, go to the movies, or talk about your neighbors. No special literacy is required for that.
Someone may have read a book, probably one that is now being talked about in well-informed circles. There is another chance for a conversation to begin. But it will falter and die away early unless by good luck there happen to be other readers of the same book. More likely the others will join in by mentioning other books they have recently read. No connections will be made. When everyone has given and taken recommendations about the next book to read, the talk will shift to the things people think they have in common. Even if several are present who have read the same book. The conversation is likely to choke because of their inability to discuss it in a away that leads somewhere.
I may be exaggerating your situation somewhat, but I speak from my own experience of too many endlessly dull social evenings. It does not seem as if there were enough people who had a common background of reading. It has become fashionable to use the phrase “frame of reference.” Good conversation requires all those who engage in it to speak within the same frame of reference. Communication not only results in something common; it usually needs common background to begin with. Our failures in communication are as much due to the lack of an initial community of ideas as to our inabilities in talking and listening.
What I am saying may sound as if it had drastic implications. Not only do I want you to learn to read, but now I am asking you to change your friends! I fear there is some truth in that. Either you yourself will not change very much, or you must change your friends. I am only saying what everyone knows, that friendship depends on a community of interests. If you read the great books, you will want friends with whom to discuss them. You do not have to find new ones if you can persuade your old ones to read along with you.
I remember what John Erskine said when he launched the group of students I belonged to on the reading of the great books. He told us that for some years past he had noticed that college students could not talk to one another intelligently. Under the elective system, they went to different classes, meeting only now and then and reading only this or that textbook in common. Members of the same college year were not intellectual friends. When he had gone to Columbia at the beginning of the century, everyone took the same courses and read the same books, many of them great ones. Good conversation had flourished and, more than that, there had been friendship with respect to ideas as well as on the playing field or in fraternities.
One of his motives in starting the Honors course was to revive college life as in intellectual community. If a group of students read the same books and met weekly for two years to discuss them, they might find a new sort of fellowship. The great books would not only initiate them into the world of ideas but would provide the frame of reference for further communication among them. They would know how to talk intelligently and intelligibly to one another, not only about the books, but through the books about all the problems which engage men’s thought and action.
In such a community, Erskine said, democracy would be safe. For democracy requires intelligent communication about and common participation in the solution of human problems. That was before anyone thought that democracy would ever again be threatened. As I remember, we did not pay much attention to Erskine’s insight at the time. But he was right. I am sure of it now. I am sure that a liberal education is a democracy’s strongest bulwark.
I do not know what chance there is of changing the schools and colleges of this country. They are moving in the opposite direction today, away from the three R’s and literacy. (Paradoxically enough, the current trends in education, which I have criticized, are also motivated by a devotion to democracy.) But I do know that something can be done about adult education. That is not yet entirely under the control of the teachers’ colleges and schools of education. You and your friends are free to make plans for yourself. You do not have to wait for someone to come along and offer you a program. You do not need any elaborate machinery to set up one. You do not even need any teachers. Get together, read the great books, and discuss them. Just as you will learn to read by reading, so you will learn to discuss by discussing.
I have many reasons for thinking this quite feasible. When I went to Chicago and started to teach a reading course with President Hutchins, some people in a near-by suburb invited me to tell them about it. The group consisted of mature men and women, all of them college graduates, some of the men engaged in professional work, some in business, many of the women involved in local educational and political activities as well as in taking care of their families. They decided they would like to take the course. In college we read about sixty books in two years at the rate of one a week. Since the suburban group would not have as much time (what with babies and business to occupy them), they could only read a book a month. It would take them about eight years, therefore, to read the same list of books. Frankly, I did not think they would stick at it.
At first they read no better than most college graduates do. They were starting from scratch, the veneer-thin scratch that a college education leaves. They found that their habits of reading, adjusted to the daily paper and even the best periodical or current book, were remarkably like no skill at all when they came to read the lliad, The Divine Comedy, Crime and Punishment; Plato’s Republic, Spinoza’s Ethics, or Mill’s Essay on Liberty; Newton’s Opticks or Darwin’s Origin of Species. But they read them all and in the course of doing so they learned how to read.
They kept at it because they felt their proficiency grow with each year, and enjoyed the mastery which skill provides. They can tell now what the author is trying to do, what questions he is trying to answer, what his most important concepts are, what reasons he has for his conclusions, and even what defects there are in his treatment of the subject. The intelligence of their discussion is clearly greater than it was ten years ago, and that signifies one thing surely: they have learned to read more intelligently.
This group has kept together for ten years now. So far as I can see, they plan to continue indefinitely, increasing the scope of their reading, and rereading some of the books they did poorly by in the earlier years. I may have helped them by leading their discussions, but I am sure they could now go on without my help. In fact, I am sure they would. They have discovered the difference it makes in their lives.
They were all friends before they started, but now their friendships have matured intellectually. Conversation now flourishes where before it might soon languish and give way to other things. They have experienced the pleasure of talking about serious problems intelligently. They do not exchange opinions as they would the time of day. Discussion has become responsible. A man must support what he says. Ideas have connections with one another and with the world of everyday affairs. They have learned to judge propositions and arguments by their intelligibility and relevance.
Several years before I went to Chicago, we had started a similar adult-education program in New York. Mr. Buchanan was then assistant director of the People’s Institute, and he and I persuaded Mr. Everett Dean Martin to let us try reading the great books with groups of adults. We were proposing what was then a wild experiment in adult education. It is not an experiment any longer. We should not have thought it was then, if we had remembered the facts of European history. The discussion of important problems has always been the way adults continue their education, and it has seldom taken place except against the common background provided by reading important books.
We started about ten groups all around the New York area. They met in libraries, gymnasiums, church social halls, and Y.M.C.A.’s. They consisted of all sorts of people- some who had been to college, some who had not, rich and poor, dull and brilliant. The leaders of these groups were young men most of whom had not read the books themselves but were willing to try. Their chief function was to conduct the discussion, to start it off by asking some leading questions, to keep it going when it bogged down, to clarify disputes when they threatened to becloud the real issues.
It was a great success. It stopped only because it needed financial support it did not get to pay for staff and maintenance. But it can be revived anywhere and any time by any group of people who decide they will read and talk about the great books together. All you need are some friends to begin with, and you will be better friends before you are through.
You may say that I have forgotten one thing. In both the New York and Chicago groups I have described, there were leaders responsible for conducting the discussions, leaders who may have had a little more experience than the rest of the group in reading the books. Trained leaders would help you get started, I admit. But they are a luxury, not a necessity.
You can proceed in the most democratic fashion by electing a leader for each meeting. Let the different people take turns at it. On each occasion the leader will probably learn more about reading and discussing the book than all the others. If every member of the group gets this experience in turn, the whole group will learn more quickly than if they imported a leader from the outside. There is this compensation in the plan I am suggesting, though it may be more difficult at the start.
I do not have to tell you how a book should be discussed. All the rules for reading tell you that. They are a set of directions for discussing a book as well as reading it. Just as they should regulate the conversation you have with the author, so they govern the conversation you can have with your friends about the book. And, as I have said before, the two conversations mutually support each other.
A discussion is led by the asking of questions. The rules for reading indicate the major questions which can be asked about any book, in itself or in relation to other books. The discussion is sustained by the answering of questions Those who participate must, of course, understand the questions and be relevant in the remarks they make. But if you have acquired the discipline of coming to terms with an author, you and your friends should have no difficulty in coming to terms with each other. In fact, it is easier, because you can help on another reach an understanding. I am supposing, of course, that you will have good intellectual manners, that you will not judge until you understand what the other fellow is saying, and that when you do judge, you will give reasons.
Every good conversation is a unique thing. It has never happened that way before and will never happen again. The order of the questions will be different in every case. The opinions expressed, the way they are opposed and clarified, will vary from book to book and from group to group discussing the same book. Yet every good discussion is the same in some respects. It moves freely. The argument is followed wherever it leads. Understanding and agreement are the constant goals, to be reached by infinitely various routes. A good conversation Is neither aimless nor empty. When something worth discussing has been will discussed, discussion is not the stale and unprofitable thing most people think it is.
Good discussion of important problems in the light of great books is almost a complete exercise in the arts of thinking and communicating. Only writing is left out. Bacon said: “reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Perhaps even exactitude can be attained through the precision which well-regulated discussion demands. In any case, the mind can be sufficiently disciplined by reading, listening, and talking.
The mind which is trained to read well has its analytical and critical powers developed. The mind which is trained to discuss well has them further sharpened. One acquires a tolerance for argument through dealing with them patiently and sympathetically. The animal impulse to impose our opinions upon others is thus checked. We learn that the only authority is the reason itself-the only arbiters in any dispute are the reasons and evidences. We do not try to gain ascendancy by a show of force or by counting the noses of those who agree with us. Genuine issues cannot be decided by the mere weight of opinion. We must appeal to reason, not depend on pressure groups.
We all want to learn to think straight. A great book may help us by the examples it affords of penetrating insight and cogent analysis. A good discussion may give further support by catching us when we are thinking crooked. If our friends do not let us get away with it, we may soon learn that sloppy thinking, like murder, will always out. Embarrassment may reduce us to making an effort we had never supposed was within our power. Unless reading and discussion enforce these demands for straight and clear thinking, most of us go through life with an amazingly false confidence in our perceptions and judgments. We think badly most of the time and, what is worse, we do not know it because we are seldom found out.
Those who can read well, listen and talk well, have disciplined minds. Discipline is indispensable for a free use of our powers. The man who has not the knack of doing something gets tied up in knots when he tries to perform. The discipline which comes from skill is necessary for facility. How far can you go in discussing a book with someone who does not know how to read or talk about it? How far can you get in your own reading without a trained ability?
Discipline, as I have said before, is a source of freedom. Only a trained intelligence can think freely. And where there is no freedom in thinking, there can be no freedom of thought. Without free minds, we cannot long remain free men.
Perhaps you are now prepared to admit that learning to read may be significantly related to other things-in fact, to all the rest of a reader’s life. Its social and political implications are not remote. Before I consider them, however, let me remind you of one immediate justification for bothering to learn to read.
Reading-and with it thinking and learning-is enjoyable for those who do it well. Just as we enjoy being able to use our bodies skillfully, so we can derive pleasure from a competent employment of our other faculties. The better we can use our minds, the more we appreciate how good it is to be able to think and learn. The art of reading can be praised, therefore, as intrinsically good. We have mental powers to use and leisure in which to employ them disinterestedly. Reading is certainly one way of fulfilling them.
If such praise were all, I should not be satisfied. However good reading may be as an immediate source of pleasure, it is not completely an end in itself. We must do more than thinking and learn in order to lead a human life. We must act. If we wish to preserve our leisure for disinterested activities, we cannot shirk our practical responsibilities. It is in relation to our practical life that reading has its ultimate justification.
Reading the great books has been for nought unless we are concerned with bringing about a good society. Everyone wants to live in it, but few seem willing to work for it. Let me say briefly what I mean by a good society. It is simply the enlargement of the community in which we live with our friends. We live together with our friends in peaceful and intelligent association. We form a community to the extent that we communicate, share common ideas and purposes. The good society, in the large, must be an association of men made friends by intelligent communication.
Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.
The loss of freedom follows. When men cannot live together as friends, when a whole society is not built on a real community of understanding, freedom cannot flourish. We can live freely only with our friends. With all others, we are constantly oppressed by every sort of dread, and checked in every movement by suspicion.
Preserving freedom, for ourselves and our posterity, is one of our major concerns today. A proper respect for liberty is the heart of sound liberalism. But I cannot help wondering whether our liberalism is sound. We do not seem to know the origins of liberty or its ends. We cry out for all sorts of liberty¬freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly¬but we do not seem to realize that freedom of thought is the basis for all these others. Without it, freedom of speech is an empty privilege, and a free conscience nothing but a private prejudice. Without it, our civil liberties can be exercised only in a pro forma way, and we are unlikely to retain them long if we do not know how to use them well.
As President Barr, of St. John’s College, has pointed out, American liberalism today asks for too little, not too much. We have not demanded, as our ancestors did, a mind freed from ignorance, an awakened imagination, and a disciplined reason, without which we cannot effectively use our other freedoms or even preserve them. We have paid attention to the external uses of liberty rather than its essence. The reigning educational system suggests, moreover, that we no longer know how free minds are made and, through them, free men.
It is not just a play on words to connect liberalism and liberal education, or to say that training in the liberal arts liberalizes¬makes us free. The arts of reading and writing, listening and speaking, are the arts which make it possible for us to think freely, because they discipline the mind. They are the liberating arts. The discipline they accomplish frees us from the vagaries of unfounded opinion and the strictures of local prejudice. They free our minds from every domination except the authority of reason itself. A free man recognizes no other authority. Those who ask to be free from all authority¬from reason itself¬are false liberals. As Milton said, “license they mean, when they cry liberty.”
I was invited last year by the American Council on Education to address its annual meeting in Washington. I chose to speak about the political implications of the three R’s, under the title “Liberalism and Liberal Education.” I tried to show how false liberalism is the enemy of liberal education, and why a truly liberal education is needed in this country to correct the confusions of this widely prevalent false liberalism. By false liberalism, I mean the sort which confuses authority with tyranny and discipline with regimentation. It exists wherever men think everything is just a matter of opinion. That is a suicidal doctrine. It ultimately reduces itself to the position that only might makes right. The liberal who frees himself from reason, rather than through it, surrenders to the only other arbiter in human affairs¬force, or what Mr. Chamberlain has called “the awful arbitrament of war.”
The political implications of the three R’s, or the liberal arts, are not far to seek. If democracy is a society of free men, it must sustain and extend liberal education or perish. Democratic citizens must be able to think for themselves. To do this, they must first be able to think, and have a body of ideas to think with. They must be able to communicate clearly with one another and receive communication of all sorts critically. It is for such ends that skill in reading and reading the great books are obviously only means.
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, the following speech occurs:
Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school; and whereas before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou has caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou has build a paper-mill.
Reading and writing looked like high treason to the tyrant. He saw in them the forces which might shake him from his throne. And for a while they did, in the gradual democratization of the Western world through the spread of learning and the growth of literacy. But we see today a different turn in human affairs. The means of communication which once were used by liberators to free men are now used by dictators to subdue them.
Today the pen is as potent as the sword in the making of a despot. Tyrants used to be great generals. Now they are strategist in communication, beguiling orators or propagandists. Their weapons are the radio and the press, as much as secret police and concentration camps. And when men are pushed about by propaganda, they are as servile as when they are coerced by brute force. They are political puppets, not free men democratically ruled.
Hobbes was suspicious of democracy because he feared its tendency to degenerate into an oligarchy of orators. Though our aims be different from his, we must admit that recent history supports his point. We have seen abroad how the leading orator in the land can become its tyrant. We must save democracy from these inherent weaknesses by closing such roads to despotism. If we are being oppressed by organizations of force, we fight to disarm them. So we must disarm the orators, and we must do so in advance of the day when their spell begins to bind. There is only one way of doing that in a land where free speech is everybody’s privilege. The citizens must become critical of what they read and what they hear. They must be liberally educated. If the schools fail to give them such education, the must get it for themselves by learning to read and by reading. But, for their children’s sake, they may ultimately realize that something will have to be done about the schools
The fact that liberally disciplined minds make it harder for those who try to misuse the means of communication is a negative point. There are positive advantages as well. A democracy needs both competent leaders and responsible followers. Neither is possible unless men can exercise free judgment and are in possession of principles which direct action to the right ends. A democratic citizen is an independent subject, because he is ultimately subject to his own free choices. A democratic leader rules only by guiding, not imposing upon, that freedom.
Just as a good teacher tries to elicit active learning on the part of his students, so the art of ruling in a democracy is one of inviting active participating on the part of citizens. But just as good teaching cannot succeed unless the student have the art of being taught-the skills involved in learning actively from a teacher- so democratic ruling fails unless the citizens possess the reciprocal art of being ruled. Without the art of being taught, students must receive instruction passively. They can learn only through being indoctrinated, in the vicious sense of that word. As we have seen, we are properly teachable, or docile, only to the extent that we have the mental discipline to learn by the active and free use of our powers. Similarly, without the art of being ruled, we can be governed only by force or imposition.
A democracy, in short, depends on men who can rule themselves because they have the art of being ruled. Whether they occupy the offices of government or merely the rank of citizens, such men can rule or be ruled without losing their integrity or freedom. Brute force and insidious propaganda are evils with which they are prepared to cope. To maintain the reciprocity between ruling and being ruled is to guarantee political and civil liberty. They do not suffer because all men are not in the government or because just laws must be enforced.
The art of being ruled and the reciprocal art of ruling, like the arts of being taught and of teaching, are arts of the mind. They are liberal arts. The democratic ruler must move us by rational persuasion. If we are good democratic citizens, we must be capable of being moved that way-and only in that way. The appeal to fact and reason distinguishes rational persuasion from vicious propaganda. Men who are moved by such persuasion remain free because they have moved themselves. They have been persuaded knowingly.
To know how to be ruled is thus the primary qualification for democratic citizenship. A liberal education is needed to qualify men for their political duties as well as for their intellectual life. The art of reading is related to the art of being ruled as well as to the art of being taught. In both cases, men must be able to engage in communication actively, intelligently, critically. Democratic government, more than any other, depends upon successful communication; for, as Walter Lippmann has pointed out, “in a democracy, the opposition is not only tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is indispensable.” The consent of the governed is fully realized only when, through intelligent debate of issues, all colors of political opinion share in the formation of decisions. Debate which is not founded on the communication of all parties is specious. The democratic process is a sham when men fail to understand each other. We must be able to meet other minds in the processes of government and social life as well as in the processes of learning; and, in both case, we must be able to make up our own minds and act accordingly.
We must act, however. That is the final word in every phase of human life. I have not hesitated to praise the reading and discussion of great books as things intrinsically good, but I repeat: they are not the ultimate ends of life. We want happiness and a good society. In this larger view, reading is only a means to an end.
If, after you have learned to read and have read the great books, you act foolishly in personal or political affairs, you might just as well have saved yourself the trouble. It may have been fun at the time, but the fun will not last long. Unless those who are well read can act well also, we shall soon find ourselves deprived of the pleasures we get from these accomplishments. Knowledge may be a good in itself, but knowledge without right action will bring us to a world in which the pursuit of knowledge itself is impossible-a world in which books are burned, libraries closed, the search for truth is repressed, and disinterested leisure lost.
I hope it is not too naïve to expect the contrary from genuinely liberal education, in school and out. I have some reason to believe that those who have really read the great books will probably think well and soundly on the issues we face today. The man who thinks clearly about practical problems certainly knows that they are well solved only by right action. Whether he will respect the obligation to act accordingly is, of course, beyond the province of the liberal arts. Nevertheless, they prepare for freedom. They make free minds and form a community of friends who share a common world of ideas. Beyond that the responsibility for acting like free men is ours to accept or shirk.
Note: This is a selection from “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler (1940). I’m re-printing it here because of the relevance it has to the notion of “study groups” and families regularly meeting together. I originally posted this on December 5, 2008 and am reposting it again today as we launch the American Liberty Society.