Mortimer Adler brings some 'Great Ideas' to public TV

According to philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, truth, goodness, and beauty are the ideas we judge by; liberty, equality, and justice are the ideas we act on.

And public television, according to Mr. Adler, is where a discussion of all six great ideas belongs.

Together with TV's own home-grown philosopher, Bill Moyers, Mr. Adler is conducting a freewheeling indoors-and-outdoors television seminar from Aspen, Colo., called ''Six Great Ideas'' (PBS, Mondays, 10-11 p.m. through Nov. 29, check local listings). It is probably the ultimate ''talking head'' show, with all participants not only talking but thinking as well. It has millions of PBS viewers thinking as well.

On his way to lecture at the University of North Carolina, Mr. Adler dropped by to chat about his many projects. This man, whose spry movement matches the liveliness of his mind, is chairman of the board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago, senior associate of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and member of the board of The Great Books Foundation. He also lectures, teaches seminars and, in his ''spare time,'' manages to write about a book a year.

He is caught up in the wonders of video. ''I just saw all six hours of the series,'' he says. ''It is utterly remarkable - the film editing is so creative. A writer writes and you are caught in the tracks of his thoughts. You can't tear it up and put the pieces together with scissors and paste. But the film editor starts with the film as raw material and makes something new.''

How did the Moyers-Adler collaboration come about?

''Bill and I have been teaching seminars at the Aspen Institute for many years, and he made a film there about a discussion of the Communist Manifesto. Then, when I did a book called 'Aristotle for Everybody,' we made a film about that as part of the 'Bill Moyers Journal.' Then, Bill said, 'Let's really do a whole series.'

''Bill really represents the man in the audience. The kind of questions he asks me - common-sensical - are the kind of questions the listener would like to ask me.''

Of the six great ideas in the series, which is closest to Mortimer Adler's heart?

''All I can tell you is which two are the most difficult. Beauty is more difficult to discuss than goodness and truth. In the last three, equality is more difficult than liberty and justice. There are unanswered questions about beauty and equality one must frankly face.

''One thing I want to make sure to say here: All of the six ideas are important - they are to the brain what glasses are to the eyes. Getting these ideas in people's understanding and having them clear is a great benefaction. It's the most fundamental form of teaching I know. Much more fundamental than lecturing about physics and chemistry.

''In the future, why should anybody remember facts when he will be able to push a button on a computer and get the answers? Why burden your memory? I'm sure I've forgotten 90 percent of what I once knew in order to pass examinations. What difference did it make? I know how to find out. What I understand, I understand. And I won't lose that ever. These 'Great Ideas' films are trying to get your understanding enlarged, not fill your mind with facts.''

What would make ''Six Great Ideas'' a success by Adler's standards?

''I would regard us as having succeeded if two things happen: we get 50,000 letters in the course of six weeks; if the films activate large numbers of viewers to write for transcripts or go to the book 'Six Great Ideas' (New York: Macmillan) and read some more. My idea of real success would be if the series raises further questions to which the viewer is motivated to try to find answers. If discussion groups are formed that would be ideal.''

How does Mr. Adler react to the criticism that a series like ''Great Ideas'' is elitist, that it is aimed at a select few?

His irritation makes itself evident in his knit brow, the sudden stern focusing on the interviewer of the constantly dancing eyes. ''I think this series is exactly the kind of thing which should be on public television. There is a very sizable segment of the population out there that deeply appreciates it. When we did our Aristotle program last year, we got 10,000 letters in two weeks.

''Commercial TV, newspaper editors, and most lecturers underestimate the intelligence of the American people. They talk down to the audience. And the audience gets weary of being fed pap. I've always found that you must cast just a little bit above people's heads. Not so far that they can't reach it, but far enough so that they have something to reach for.'' Civil War drama

''John-Boy Goes to War'' is what CBS might have called its long-heralded Civil War mini-series.

The Blue and the Gray (CBS, Sunday 8-11 p.m.; Tuesday, 9-11 p.m.; Wednesday, 8-11 p.m.) ''humanizes'' the Civil War so effectively that it has been turned into what sometimes resembles a long episode of ''The Waltons,'' at other times, a soap opera. A grand and glorious soap opera, of course, but no less a sudsy behind-the-scenes version of everything from Gettysburg to Appomattox.

It appears to be reasonably authentic, based as it is upon a treatment by Civil War historian Bruce Catton and John Leekley, scripted by Ian McLellan Huntercqs. ''The Blue and the Gray'' takes farmboy John Hammond (played John-Boy-like by John Geyser) from his Virginia home to a job as a correspondent-illustrator on his uncle's newspaper in Gettysburg, then to a position as battlefront artist for Harper's Weekly - all of which allows him to wander about both North and South battlefields, observing, reacting, even drawing.

When the war is over, John-Boy has moved forward (just like progress, get it?) and has graduated into that newfangled art form, photography.

Meantime, the film manages to bring the Civil War right into the viewers' living room. I know it sounds ridiculous to object to the amount of violence portrayed, since the Civil War was an especially gruesome conflict, but in the first three hours, after some of the ''Red Badge of Courage''-inspired sequences , I found myself longing for a quiet return to the farm in Virginia. But it may very well have been the intent of director Andrew V. McLaglen to indicate just the way the boy warriors were also feeling.

Most of the time, however, together with the marvelously understanding Stacy Keach (constantly out-acting him, by the way), John really covers the war and various domestic hassles thoroughly. In there are cameo parts by such superb actors as Gregory Peck (as Lincoln, of course), Sterling Hayden (as John Brown), Rip Torn (as General Grant), and even smaller bits by Paul Winfield, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, Robert Vaughn, and Rory Calhoun.

''The Blue and the Gray'' was obviously an attempt to duplicate the broad sweep and flamboyant extravagance of ''Gone With the Wind.'' While it may not erase the memory of Scarlett O'Hara from the minds of romantic Civil War buffs, it does provide three evenings of superior, if not superlative, TV fare. But it's not half as exciting even though it is more than twice as long.

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