Seeking to Know Seven Great Ideas for Learning and Long-term Flourishing in Conflicted Times

“Philosophy is everybody’s business.” –Mortimer J. Adler 

Educator and philosopher Mortimer Adler made several important points about philosophy in the twentieth century that still apply to our time. Indeed, philosophy is everybody’s business and so are ideas. Among the 103 Ideas that Adler catalogued and explored with others, he asserted that there are six great ideas (or “Transcendental” ideas) that stand out most of all: 

  • Truth
  • Goodness
  • Beauty
  • Liberty 
  • Equality 
  • Justice 

Of truth, goodness, and beauty, Adler asserted that these are the ideas that we judge and evaluate by. 

Of liberty, equality, and justice, he asserted that these are the ideas that we live by. The six ideas work together as part of our pursuit of virtuous happiness–or long-term flourishing as some might call it these days. 

Our popular understanding of the notion of an idea is that it is subjective. Each person has his or her own ideas in this sense. Such an understanding of ideas is very individualistic and fits with some of our most important personal experiences. 

But Adler asserted that ideas are much more important as common objects of thought. In that sense, ideas are that by which we understand the world, time, history, each other, common essential values, and timeless concepts. That does not mean that we all see ideas the same way in terms of details and applications, but it does mean that ideas can help us communicate and relate well to each other enough to disagree and agree thoughtfully. Most of all, ideas help us know and share meanings; they help us understand knowledge. 

This notion of ideas as common objects of thought rings especially true for our time. From the COVID-19 crisis to disturbing issues of racism and injustice this year, Adler’s basic understanding of ideas seems more relevant than ever. Our ability to argue and even begin to comprehend that these problems have happened before suggest the importance of ideas as common objects of thought. Because of ideas, we can passionately consider what is true and good in order to guide our claims and confessions about what we should do in terms of liberty, equality, and justice. Because of ideas, we can seek to understand and pursue better ways to live. 

Although the idea of beauty may seem inconsequential, it plays an important role in defending a person with all the dignity, respect, and honor that should come with merely being a human being. With such an idea in mind, we can look more carefully and rightly at the ugliness of injustices. We can rightly be motivated to act and to argue. When considering the goodness and value of human lives in the face of ugly diseases, we can feel compelled to give generously, seek cures and treatments to alleviate suffering, or at least refrain from hoarding so that others may survive and flourish. 

I have often returned to Adler’s Six Great Ideas when thinking about difficult personal and public issues, and I have also been reminded of one idea that he should probably have included: love. Spiritual and religious traditions have recognized this as the greatest idea that human beings can pursue and live out. Using Adler’s understanding of ideas as that which we judge by or live by, we can see that love is a special idea that calls us to judge by love (or judge lovingly?) and to live by love. 

The French philosopher Luc Ferry commends “the wisdom of love” as an essential idea and practice for the twenty-first century (A Brief History of Philosophy, 262-264). Although he does not subscribe to Christian faith personally as an atheist, Ferry charitably commends the best parts of Christian thought and history for the idea and practice of love. Consequently, he recommends that we work at the challenging task of thinking through a philosophy of love in order to pursue meaningful lives. 

An idea must be powerful when it can connect the thinking of an atheistic French philosopher and an American Christian minister and civil rights activist. The words of John M. Perkins in Dream with Me express such surprising congruence as Perkins shares that he has “come to understand that true justice is wrapped up in love” (29). Respectfully, Perkins would likely argue gently that the bigger idea is not merely the idea of love but the divine person of love: God. But those theological and philosophical differences need not divide us in public spaces during these difficult times. Today, a colleague and friend reminded me well that we need to return to the fundamentals of living and learning in order to flourish. These seven ideas certainly fit the bill for seeking to know how to engage such an important pursuit. 

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. When do you think you really know something is true? What tends to convince you? (evidence, experience, intuition, testimony, reasoning, or other?)  
  2. Apply the same question from #1 to goodness and beauty.
  3. Are the ideas that you judge by (or value by) clear to you in how they influence the ideas you live by?
  4. How important do you think love is for knowing the other great ideas? 
  5. Is love more than tolerance? How so? 

For Further Reading and Reflection:

Six Great Ideas, by Mortimer Adler 

A Brief History of Philosophy, by Luc Ferry 

Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, by John M. Perkins 

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