Wisdom, Inc.

by Albert R. Vogeler


    Two score and ten years ago an ambitious publisher brought forth on this continent a new magazine dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal in their capacity to become wise.  And he named it  Wisdom.   It embodied, from the  beginning, paradoxes and ironies that are much easier to see today than they were fifty yeas ago.  An elitist publication (hard covers, opulent large format, semi-annual issues in limited numbers),  it nevertheless embodied a populist message (everyone can aspire to wisdom, the great minds of the past speak directly to our generation through their books, and they can make our lives better if we learn how to read them). This glossy “class magazine for the masses”  seemed  briefly to prosper after its much-publicized founding in 1956,  then stagnated, and staggered into financial failure in 1964.  It remains to this day on library shelves,  an unread relic of a purportedly idealistic publishing venture that was deeply tainted with hubris.     

    On the front cover of the March 1960 issue, which encapsulated and expounded  the scheme of the entire series, a trio of modern sages—Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, and William Benton--nestle closely in cameo portraits among images of the supreme minds of Western civilization, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle;  Shakespeare, Spinoza, and Kant;  Newton, Darwin, and Freud.  On the back cover they are joined by Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante; Galileo, Hobbes, and Hegel;  Chaucer, Cervantes, and Goethe.  Our three Wise Men are certainly in good company, but they are at pains to let us know that their purpose is simply to introduce us to the others, not to join them in the heavenly fraternity.  Yet, quite deliberately, they present themselves  to us as authors of articles like “The Wisdom of Mortimer J. Adler” and “The Wisdom of Robert M. Hutchens,”  and, in the case of Benton, pose for the camera meditating before  a lofty stack of the Great Books. Concerned to impress us with the wisdom of those in the celestial Pantheon, they are also showing us how wise they are in understanding and appreciating them, and how we would be smart to emulate their appreciation and learn the technique of acquiring wisdom through the Great Books. All three were unabashedly didactic and  boldly self-assured, Adler having written a famous book called How to Read A Book, Hutchins having  defined the aims of education in The University of Utopia,  and Benton having acquired the Encyclopedia Britannica by buying it from Sears Roebuck and then giving  it to the University of Chicago.

    Most issues of Wisdom featured a Karsch-quality cover photograph of a notable contemporary personage (along with a few old-timers like Jesus, Franklin, and Lincoln) accompanied by a dozen or more short essays or reprinted articles relating to  the featured personality.  Accompanying a score or more of these icons of undoubted “wisdom”  in the series were quite a few  less credible, less durable claimants to it:  Churchill is there, but so is Walt Disney;  Einstein appears along with David Sarnoff; Schweitzer nudges William Benton; Lincoln shares space with Cecil B. DeMille.

    One explanation for such curious juxtapositions, which might initially appear to be mere lapses of judgment, lies in the identity of the publisher and editor of Wisdom--Leon Gutterman.  His understanding of  “wisdom”  was clearly influenced by  the mid-20th  century American entertainment industry and celebrity culture.  His photograph in the March 1960  issue shows him seated judiciously at his desk before a small replica of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker,  along with eight sharpened pencils, two pens, a clock,  and lots of manuscript pages.  This seemingly  earnest, shrewd, and vigilant proprietor is unlike his senior partners in Wisdom  not only because he is twenty years their junior but because he offers no credentials, in contrast to their conspicuously-touted public and scholarly achievements  that gave weight to the enterprise.  The fact that he was a Hollywood press agent and movie screen writer would not be helpful to Wisdom’s image.  

     But Gutterman is not at all reticent  about castigating a society that desperately needed the dispassionate high thinking propounded in his new business enterprise:  “Modern civilization suffers intensely from the maladies of mediocrity, foolishness, triviality, superficiality, frivolity, futility, juvenility, and shallowness.”  The remedy?--wisdom attained by reading the Great Books.  His symmetrical aphorism-- “without the love of books the richest man is poor; but endowed with this treasure, the poorest man is rich”—sounds like an advertising slogan, the selling of a product.                       

     The commercial underside of Wisdom  is revealed only  in small type.  Published by “The Wisdom Society for the Advancement of Knowledge, Learning, and Research in Education” located at  a fashionable Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, address, the magazine was protected by copyright, and reproduction of  it in whole or part prohibited without prior written permission. (So much for Wisdom as humanity’s shared inheritance.)  It was available by subscription only, through membership in the Wisdom Society, which issued a “Certificate of Honor” to each paid-up member. It claimed 150,000 subscribers, and 100 initial backers who together put up $1,000,000.  The Society’s “Wisdom Seal of Approval,” not surprisingly, was awarded to the  54-volume Great Books of the Western World,  the mammoth publishing enterprise of (among others) Adler, Hutchins, and Benton.

    Wisdom magazine was far from being a solitary standard-bearer of high culture for the masses.  It was only one part of an extraordinary network of formal and informal connections that undergirded the mid-20th century publishing phenomenon  I have called “Wisdom, Inc.”  Two precocious promoters of self-educaton, Adler and Hutchins, associated themselves  with Benton, a hard-driving  advertising executive, and later with Gutterman, the publicist,  in creating Wisdom  magazine.  Adler, having been the (self-styled) Professor of the Philosophy of Law at the University of Chicago,  was simultaneously  Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research, Associate Editor of the Great Books of the Western World, and founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Great Ideas project, the Syntopicon.  Hutchins, having been President and then Chancellor  of the University of Chicago, was Editor-in-Chief of the Great Books of the Western World, co-editor of The Great Ideas Today,  Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and President of the Fund for the Republic.  Benton, having been a Yale classmate of Hutchins, a co-founder of the influential advertising agency Benton and Bowles, Vice President of the University of Chicago, U.S. Senator from Connecticut, and Ambassador to UNESCO,  was publisher and Chairman of the Board of Encyclopedia Britannica and publisher of the Great Books of the Western World.         

    This unprecedented  interlocking directorate of intellectual entrepreneurs facilitated the cerebral tsunami that washed over the publishing world just after mid-century.  The confluence of educational and commercial opportunities in post-war America is its larger context.  The new upward mobility of the middle class, the boom in college and adult education, the growth of self-help and positive thinking,  innovations in packaging and advertising, long-playing records and paperback books, book clubs and the Readers’ Digest, Henry Luce’s Life and Time styles of communication, door-to-door encyclopedia sales—these were developments that made high culture available as never before.  They also, inevitably, led to producing, packaging, pricing, and promoting culture as never before.  We now call this the commodification  of culture. Chicago, once hog-butcher for the world, became its culture-provisioner.

     Wisdom  magazine’s role in all this, though not central, was emblematic.  Indeed, what happened a few years after its demise shows how far the concept of Wisdom had been corrupted and mixed with money.   Leon Gutterman sought to salvage and recyle the contents of the defunct magazine in a new series of  “Wisdom Books” and an “Encyclopedia of Wisdom.”  Capitalizing on widespread cravings for  recognition and prestige, he offered a “Wisdom Award of Honor” and a place in the “Wisdom Hall of Fame” for a $100 donation to his ongoing  publishing enterprises. Over 20,000 people, many of their names taken from Who’s Who, were told they could join the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mohandas K.  Gandhi, and other “Eminent Recipients” of the honors.  Multiple deceptions  accompanied these solicitations.  No discernible achievements were required.  There was no Board of Editors making the awards, only Gutterman himself.  No Hall of Fame existed.  No serious work had been done on an encyclopedia. After protracted, complex, and humiliating hearings  before an Administrative Law judge in the early 1970s, the editor of Wisdom was found guilty of mail fraud by soliciting money under false pretenses.  Ordered to desist, he barely escaped civil and criminal penalties.

    In their wisdom, Adler, Hutchins, and Benton remained aloof from these embarrassments.