Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Aristotle of Everybody by Mortimer J. Adler

Aristotle of Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy by Mortimer J. Adler

Writing a comprehensive and concise summary of Aristotle's ideas is a difficult task, especially if the author wishes it to be accessible not only to the average reader but also to children in middle school. That ambition is what Mortimer Adler aimed at with this book. His thirteen year-old and his eleven year-old read the manuscript and gave helpful feedback, so he certainly thinks it is a success. But is it readable for children who don't have a professional philosopher and intellectual for a dad?

The book is comprehensive, touching on all the topics in Aristotle's theoretical and practical thinking. Adler uses an easy to follow structure to work through them all. He starts with the idea that Aristotle has reflected deeply on the common sense understanding of the world, so deeply that his theories are uncommonly common sensical. Most everyone wants to be like this and that's why they enjoy games like "Twenty Questions" or "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?". Those games naturally lead into a discussion Aristotle's taxonomy of reality, dividing it into living and non-living things, then the living into plants, animals, and human beings.

Humans, as rational animals, can be looked at in various ways. In one way, they are makers of material things like chairs and songs, leading into discussions of the four causes, changes in being, and artistic endeavors. In a second way, humans are doers of actions, looking at us as moral agents who seek a certain good not only for themselves (ethics) but for others (politics). In a third way, humans are thinkers, leading to discussions of how men know what they know, along with the nature of truth, logic, and certainty in Aristotle's philosophy. Adler concludes the book with more difficult questions on infinity, eternity, immateriality, and God. An appendix references the sections of Aristotle's texts that Adler drew upon for each discussion.

Since the scope is so huge, this book is not a quick or light read even at 200 pages. His exposition is clear but a little dry. Examples are used throughout the book but only with laser-like focus on the point at hand. Readers never come to a passage where a short story explains an idea and provides a little color for the book. On the other hand, the book does hit all the major points in Aristotle's philosophy, making it a nice substitute for or supplement to a college course on Aristotle. Reading the book is definitely worth the effort put into it. I think it would be too challenging for middle school students, but high school and up can make it through.

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