Andersen: Freewheeling the brain |

Andersen: Freewheeling the brain

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Mortimer Adler sat on the couch in a small home in Aspen’s West End. It was the mid-1980s, and he had consented to an interview. I was surprised by the humble dwelling consigned to Aspen’s pre-eminent philosopher.

Talk about brain power! This man had it going like a particle accelerator. The information compiled in his gray matter far exceeded that in many public libraries.

In addition to the 50 books of philosophy and education he wrote, Adler oversaw the creation of an intellectual masterwork, the “Syntopicon.” This guide to the Great Books of Western Civilization reflected Adler’s genius for indexing and cross-referencing ideas.

The “Syntopicon” links themes and ideas from the massive 45 volumes of Great Books, a compendium of literature from Homer to Freud compiled, in large part, by Adler. This was done long before the advent of the computer age when an encyclopedic mind like Adler’s was brilliant in the organic complexity of its functions.

So there I was, a young Aspen Times journalist, asking Adler, world-renowned Aristotelian scholar and primary architect for the Aspen Institute Executive Seminar, how he wrote a book. What I learned, moreover, was how he enhanced the performance of his mind.

It was about 11:30 on a winter morning. Just the two of us were in the home, and it was very quiet. I asked him how he wrote a book — one of which he was in the middle of writing at that time.

“I write a chapter per day,” he said, showing me a stack of manila folders next to his typewriter (note: typewriter). “I have already done the research, so each folder represents the raw material for a chapter, organized for writing.

“I write from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., then send off each chapter to my secretary for review and proofreading. I do this every day until the book is done.”

I asked Adler what he did after 11 a.m., assuming he undertook some activity that acted as a balance to his huge cerebral output. “Do you go for a walk?”

Adler’s expression changed to mild perturbation. “I wouldn’t walk across the street if I didn’t have to,” he stated. Adler was not a physical man, and he told me the story of how he had been refused graduation from Columbia University, even as a star pupil, because he refused to take the swimming test.

Adler belonged to the same school of thought as Robert Maynard Hutchins, the youngest-ever chancellor at the University of Chicago, whose first official act was disbanding the football team. Hutchins had famously quipped, “I get my exercise being pallbearer for my athletic friends.”

Adler, the brainiac, would not stoop to physical exertion, nor would he read or listen to music during downtime while writing a book.

“I do absolutely nothing. I simply let my brain freewheel,” he said. “Then I’m ready at 5 the next morning to write another chapter.”

Freewheeling the brain. How difficult that is for most of us, especially under today’s constant barrage of social media. To allow the brain to simply percolate in its own random thoughts is perhaps the greatest — and most lacking — of modern challenges.

On a hut trip two weeks ago with my son, Tait, we sat quietly, listening to the crackling of the wood-burning stove, letting our minds freewheel into random associations. I thought back to Adler with a smile.

“You know what I hardly ever do?” I asked. “This. Just freewheeling the brain.”

I left Adler after the interview feeling richer for understanding him. But as I walked through the West End on that beautiful winter day, I realized that he lacked something vital to the human organism.

Adler disdained the “body” part of the Aspen Idea. His books, seminars and ideas all point to the mind, not to the body. He missed something crucial to existence, something very human and corporeal and beyond the philosophical and theoretical.

Cultivating the mind to a high degree is an achievement, but it’s not the complete person. A celebration of the body is a beautiful complement to any mind — yes, even to Adler’s.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at