May 30, 2007
Ethical Culture Leader-in-Training
One of the most important aspects of Ethical Culture is the primacy of ethical action. While the legacy of Felix Adler offers the philosophically minded ample opportunity for esoteric contemplation and debate, it demands that the value of philosophy be judged by how well it nurtures ethical behavior. This essay, while focused on philosophical distinctions concerning reality and knowledge, is offered in that broader ethical spirit. It presupposes that the reader has some background in Adler’s thought, so I will not explain it from the ground up, but I will place it in a wider context. In examining the role and form of idealism in Adler’s thought, this analysis offers both a thesis that reflects historical and intellectual realities, and a critique of Adler that reinforces the primacy of ethics. Hopefully this will bring out the best in Adler’s writing and, in a small way, help strengthen the Ethical Culture movement.
Introduction Read more »
Selection from “A Liberal Jew on Jesus: Felix Adler Praises Jesus, a chapter from The Truth About Jesus: Is He a Myth?, M. M. Mangasarian
(In 1890 Mangasarian founded the Independent Religious Society in Chicago, a Rationalist group, of which he remained the leader until his resignation in 1925.)
It was predicted some years ago that the founder of the Ethical Societies will before long return to the Jewish faith of his fathers. However this may be, we have seen, in his estimate of Jesus and John Calvin, evidences of his estrangement from rationalism, of which in his younger days he was so able a champion. In his criticism of the Russian scientist, Metchnikoff, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Prof. Adler, endorsing the popular estimate of Jesus, accepts also the popular attitude toward science. He appears to prefer the doctrine of special creation to the theory of evolution. We would not have believed this of Felix Adler if we did not have the evidence before us. We speak of this to show the relation between an exaggerated praise of a popular idol, and a denial of the conclusions of modem science. It is the popular view which Prof. Adler champions in both instances. In his criticism of Metchnikoff's able book, 'The Nature of Man,' Prof. Adler writes:
"And to account for the reason in man, this divine spark that has been set ablaze in him, it is not sufficient to point to an ape as our ancestor. If we are descended from an anthropoid ape on the physical side, we are not descended from him in any strict sense of the word on our rational side; for as life is born of life, so reason is born of reason, and if the anthropoid ape does not possess reason as we possess it, it cannot be said that on our rational side we are his progeny." Read more »
CRITICISMS AND ADLER’S “LAST OUTLOOK”
Certainly there are many aspects of Adler’s perspective that strike us as narrow-minded, particularly the sexism and racism of his time which he did not fully escape. (See EPL 236 for examples of his racism.) The most consistent criticism of Alder over the last century concerns his idealism.
Two strands of Adler, his idealism and his pragmatism, are intricately tied together. His idealism – his belief in a supersensible world that exists ideally – seems too close to the supernaturalism many modern humanists reject. While rejecting some characteristics of Adler’s idealism, it might be useful to appreciate what elements can be reinterpreted so they do not clash with science and skepticism. Clearly, Adler thought that without some form of human experience of something more than “the world as it is,” people could not be motivated to create a more ideal “world as it could be.” Is Adler most vulnerable to criticisms of his general desire to make room in his metaphysics for a “something more that actual material reality,” or is it the form and method of how he expressed this “something more” that gets him into trouble?
(I) Morris Raphael Cohen Read more »
Adler, Felix. An Ethical Philosophy of Life.
Copyright 1918. Reprinted by Ethica Press, 1986.
Religious Fellowship as the Culminating Social Institution
IN this chapter I shall undertake to sketch the plan of a religious society as determined by the spiritual ideal herein set forth. The religious society is the last term in the series of social institutions, and its peculiar office is to furnish the principle for the successive transformation of the entire series. It is to be the laboratory in which the ideal of the spiritual universe is created and constantly recreated, the womb in which the spiritual life is conceived. No single religious society can adequately fulfill this purpose. The spiritual ideal itself must necessarily be conceived differently by different minds; but the great general purpose will be the same, despite variations in shades of meaning and points of view.
(I) Examples of Adler’s commitment to social responsibility:
Adler founded the visiting nurses program.
Adler founded a kindergarten and the Workingman’s School.
Adler served on NY State’s Tenement House Commission.
Adler was president of the National Child Labor Committee.
The first settlement house in the United States was founded by one of Adler’s “lieutenants” Stanton Coit.
Four Ethical Culture leaders signed the NAACP founding charter, and Adler, along with W. E. B. DuBois, was one of two American delegates to the 1911 Conference on Race in London.
(II) Rejection of Materialism in Capitalism and Socialism
Adler rejects both capitalism and socialism as socially irresponsible because they both stress materialism. The claim by capitalism that individual self-satisfaction will help all is merely an “afterthought”, a rationalization of pure materialism. Socialism is “individualism carried to its extreme boundaries” where all people get the benefits of materialism. Neither is concerned with spiritual side according to Adler. (Ch. IV, RSI 120 – 123)
Adler admits that for some socialists their egalitarianism has moral impulse behind it, but he sees socialism as dedicated to force and hostile to “rights” and spirituality. (RSI 125-126)
Class war would lead to hatred that would remain after “equality” was established. Unless motives for social change are derived more from ethics than struggle, real change can’t occur. We can’t change the situation and then change human beings. (RSI 129) Read more »
Whether we are talking about our selves, others, or the relationships we have that are woven together into a community, Adler sees our challenge as being about bringing the ideal into actuality.
(I) Elicit the best in others, and thus in our self (EPL 208-236, RSI 192-207, RD 165)
Adler explains “elicit the best” in An Ethical Philosophy of Life, Ch. 7 + 8.
Most simply stated, Adler views relationships as mutually nurturing – when we work to bring out the best in others, we become better. It is in the effort, not the result, that our own ethical advancement is achieved. Salvation, for Adler, is found in the attempt to bring out the best in others, whether they respond to our efforts or not. (See EPL 220) He states that only if we are truly interested in the other, can self-improvement occur (otherwise we are merely using the other). He cites the positive examples of parents trying to bring out the best in their children (EPL 222) and friends being mirrors to our own development. (EPL 235)
Adler uses artistic metaphors in describing how we paint portraits of our own spiritual associates imagining them at their best. This gets us beyond the unattractive features of personalities. In particular, in dealing with “black sheep” of families, to improve our relationship we must purge from our thoughts and speech every trace of irritation. (EPL 231-233) He writes: “I am the creator of these spiritual images. And, having these images in mind, so far as I am connected with others, I am to see them in the light of this their possible perfection…. Every man and woman should thus be a spiritual artist, portrait painter, the portraits painted having this virtue in them that they are not only like the original, but that the original, beholding them is stirred to a great love for this his sublime counterpart, and is moved in some measure to conform to it.” (RSI 200) Read more »
Comparing Churches and Ethical Societies, Notes by Hugh Taft-Morales reflecting on Chapter 10 of The Religion of Duty by Felix Adler.
1) Both meet Sunday morning.
2) Both solemnize marriage and death, and life passages. Adler suggested use of festivals and ceremonies such as baptisms, vocational initiations, celebrations of citizenship and of humanity, festivals of seasons, commemoration of the departed. (EPL 350-352)
3) Both involve in charity. Ethical Culture is a “hearth at which the spirit of charity may be kindled.”
4) Both serve as schools of “moral idealism.” Adler credits churches for infusing “its moral influence into the lives of ordinary men and women.”
5) Both arouses spiritual distress then offers ways to appease distress
6) Both expresses in song and responsive services
7) Both must provide for “private communion of the individual with the spiritual presences which the ideal evokes,” such as through creation of books for the bereaved and ill, and books on friendship and the experience of sin. (EPL 353)
B) Differences Read more »