Great Books of the Western World
Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952 by Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. to present the Great Books in a single package of 54 volumes. The series is now in its second edition and contains 60 volumes.
The original editors of the series chose three criteria for inclusion: a book must be relevant to contemporary issues, and not only important in its historical context; it must reward rereading; and it must be a part of "the great conversation about the great ideas," relevant to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas identified by the editors. Books were not chosen on the basis of ethnic or cultural inclusiveness, historical influence, or the editors' agreement with the views expressed.
The project got its start at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Hutchins collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course, generally aimed at businessmen, for the purpose of filling in gaps in education, to make one more well-rounded and familiar with the "Great Books" and ideas of the past three millennia. Among the original students was William Benton, future U.S. senator and later CEO of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He proposed selecting the greatest books of the canon, complete and unabridged, having Hutchins and Adler edit them for publishing by Encyclopædia Britannica. Hutchins was wary, fearing that the works would be sold and treated as encyclopedias, thereby cheapening them. Nevertheless, he agreed to the project and paid $60,000 for it.
After debates about what to include and how to present it, with an eventual budget of $2,000,000, the project was ready. It was presented at a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on April 15, 1952. In his speech, Hutchins said "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind." The first two sets would be presented to Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Harry S. Truman.
Sales were initially poor. After 1,863 were sold in 1952, less than one-tenth that number were sold the following year. A financial debacle loomed, until Encyclopædia Britannica altered the marketing strategy and sold the set (as Hutchins had feared) through experienced door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. Through this method 50,000 sets were sold in 1961. In 1963 the editors published Gateway to the Great Books, a ten-volume set of readings designed as an introduction to the authors and themes in the Great Books series. Each year from 1961 to 1998 the editors published The Great Ideas Today, an annual update on the applicability of the Great Books to current issues.
Originally published in 54 volumes, The Great Books of the Western World covers categories including fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics. Hutchins wrote the first volume, titled The Great Conversation, as an introduction and discourse on liberal education. Adler sponsored the next two volumes, "The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon", as a way of emphasizing the unity of the set and, by extension, of Western thought in general. A team of indexers spent months compiling references to such topics as "Man's freedom in relation to the will of God" and "The denial of void or vacuum in favor of a plenum". They grouped the topics into 102 chapters, for which Adler wrote 102 introductions. The volumes contained the following works, color-coding the spines to denote the categories:
- Syntopicon I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love
- Syntopicon II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World
- Aeschylus (translated into English verse by G.M. Cookson)
- Sophocles (translated into English prose by Sir Richard C. Jebb)
- Euripides (translated into English prose by Edward P. Coleridge)
- Aristophanes (translated into English verse by Benjamin Bickley Rogers)
- The Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements
- Apollonius of Perga
- Nicomachus of Gerasa
- Marcus Aurelius
- P. Cornelius Tacitus (translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb)
- Nicolaus Copernicus
- Johannes Kepler (translated by Charles Glenn Wallis)
- Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (Books IV–V)
- The Harmonies of the World (Book V)
- Thomas Aquinas
- Thomas Aquinas
- William Shakespeare
- The First Part of King Henry the Sixth
- The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth
- The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth
- The Tragedy of Richard the Third
- The Comedy of Errors
- Titus Andronicus
- The Taming of the Shrew
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona
- Love's Labour's Lost
- Romeo and Juliet
- The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
- A Midsummer Night's Dream
- The Life and Death of King John
- The Merchant of Venice
- The First Part of King Henry the Fourth
- The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth
- Much Ado About Nothing
- The Life of King Henry the Fifth
- Julius Caesar
- As You Like It
- William Shakespeare
- Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
- The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- Troilus and Cressida
- All's Well That Ends Well
- Measure for Measure
- Othello, the Moor of Venice
- King Lear
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Timon of Athens
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- The Winter's Tale
- The Tempest
- The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth
- William Gilbert
- Galileo Galilei
- William Harvey
- René Descartes
- Benedict de Spinoza
- Sir Isaac Newton
- Christian Huygens
- Treatise on Light
- John Locke
- George Berkeley
- David Hume
- Jonathan Swift
- Laurence Sterne
- Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
- Jean Jacques Rousseau
- Immanuel Kant
- Critique of Pure Reason
- Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
- Critique of Practical Reason
- Excerpts from The Metaphysics of Morals
- Preface and Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics with a note on Conscience
- General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals
- The Science of Right
- The Critique of Judgement
- American State Papers
- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
- John Stuart Mill
- Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
- Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier
- Analytical Theory of Heat
- Michael Faraday
- Experimental Researches in Electricity
- Charles Darwin
- Sigmund Freud
- The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis
- Selected Papers on Hysteria
- The Sexual Enlightenment of Children
- The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy
- Observations on "Wild" Psycho-Analysis
- The Interpretation of Dreams
- On Narcissism
- Instincts and Their Vicissitudes
- The Unconscious
- A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis
- Beyond the Pleasure Principle
- Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
- The Ego and the Id
- Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety
- Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
- Civilization and Its Discontents
- New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
In 1990 a second edition of Great Books of the Western World was published, with updated translations and six more volumes of material covering the 20th century, an era of which the first edition was nearly devoid. A number of pre-20th century books were also added, and four were dropped: Apollonius' On Conic Sections, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Joseph Fourier's Analytical Theory of Heat. Adler later expressed regret about dropping On Conic Sections and Tom Jones. Adler also voiced disagreement with the addition of Voltaire's Candide, and said that the Syntopicon should have included references to the Koran. He addressed criticisms that the set was too heavily Western European and did not adequately represent women and minority authors.
The pre-20th century books added (volume numbering is not strictly compatible with the first edition due to rearrangement of some books—see the complete table of contents for the second edition):
- Jean Racine
The six volumes of 20th century material consisted of the following:
- William James
- Henri Bergson
- John Dewey
- Alfred North Whitehead
- Science and the Modern World
- Bertrand Russell
- Martin Heidegger
- What Is Metaphysics?
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Karl Barth
- The Word of God and the Word of Man
- Henri Poincaré
- Science and Hypothesis
- Max Planck
- Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
- Alfred North Whitehead
- An Introduction to Mathematics
- Albert Einstein
- Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
- Arthur Eddington
- The Expanding Universe
- Niels Bohr
- Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (selections)
- Discussion with Einstein on Epistemology
- G. H. Hardy
- Werner Heisenberg
- Physics and Philosophy
- Erwin Schrödinger
- Theodosius Dobzhansky
- C. H. Waddington
- The Nature of Life
- Thorstein Veblen
- R. H. Tawney
- The Acquisitive Society
- John Maynard Keynes
- Sir James George Frazer
- The Golden Bough (selections)
- Max Weber
- Essays in Sociology (selections)
- Johan Huizinga
- Claude Lévi-Strauss
- Structural Anthropology (selections)
- Henry James
- George Bernard Shaw
- Joseph Conrad
- Anton Chekhov
- Luigi Pirandello
- Marcel Proust
- Willa Cather
- Thomas Mann
- James Joyce
- Virginia Woolf
- Franz Kafka
- D. H. Lawrence
- T. S. Eliot
- Eugene O'Neill
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- William Faulkner
- Bertolt Brecht
- Ernest Hemingway
- George Orwell
- Samuel Beckett
Criticisms and responses
Criticism has attended Great Books of the Western World since publication. The stress Hutchins placed on the monumental importance of these works was an easy target for those who dismissed the project as a celebration of dead European males, ignoring contributions of women and non-European authors. The criticism swelled in tandem with the feminist and civil rights movements.
In his Europe: A History, Norman Davies criticizes the compilation for overrepresenting selected parts of the western world, especially Britain and the U.S., while ignoring the other, particularly Central and Eastern Europe. According to his calculation, in 151 authors included in both editions, there are 49 English or American authors, 27 Frenchmen, 20 Germans, 15 ancient Greeks, 9 ancient Romans, 6 Russians, 4 Scandinavians, 3 Spaniards, 3 Italians, 3 Irishmen, 3 Scots, and 3 Eastern Europeans. Prejudices and preferences, he concludes, are self-evident.
In response, such criticisms have been derided as ad hominem and biased in themselves. The counter-argument maintains that such criticisms discount the importance of books solely because of generic, imprecise and possibly irrelevant characteristics of the books' authors, rather than because of the content of the books themselves. In France there appeared several criticisms arguing that writers included in the list such as Milton, Harvey, Gillbert or Melville weren't universally as relevant as some other writers such as John Calvin and Voltaire, who were initially excluded; also, that it excluded many non-British or US authors from the early 20th century who were better known to French readers, such as Musil, Roth or Zweig.
Criticisms of the works selected
Others thought that while the selected authors were worthy, too much emphasis was placed on the complete works of a single author rather than a wider selection of authors and representative works (for instance, all of Shakespeare's plays are included). The second edition of the set already contained 130 authors and 517 individual works. The editors point out that the guides to additional reading for each topic in the Syntopicon refer the interested reader to many more authors.
Criticisms of difficulty
The scientific and mathematical selections also came under criticism for being incomprehensible to the average reader, especially with the absence of any sort of critical apparatus. The second edition did drop two scientific works, by Apollonius and Fourier, in part because of their perceived difficulty for the average reader. Nevertheless, the editors steadfastly maintain that average readers are capable of understanding far more than the critics deem possible. Robert Hutchins stated this view in the introduction to the first edition:
- Because the great bulk of mankind have never had the chance to get a liberal education, it cannot be "proved" that they can get it. Neither can it be "proved" that they cannot. The statement of the ideal, however, is of value in indicating the direction that education should take.
Criticisms of the set's rationale
Since the great majority of the works were still in print, one critic noted that the company could have saved two million dollars and simply written a list. Encyclopædia Britannica's aggressive promotion produced solid sales. Dense formatting also did not help readability.
The second edition selected translations that were generally considered an improvement, though the cramped typography remained. Through reading plans and the Syntopicon, the editors have attempted to guide readers through the set.
Response to criticisms
The editors respond that the set contains wide-ranging debates representing many viewpoints on significant issues, not a monolithic school of thought. Mortimer Adler argued in the introduction to the second edition:
- Presenting a wide variety and divergence of views or opinions, among which there is likely to be some truth but also much more error, the Syntopicon [and by extension the larger set itself] invites readers to think for themselves and make up their own minds on every topic under consideration.
- John Erskine
- Charles W. Eliot
- Robert Maynard Hutchins
- Mortimer J. Adler
- Educational perennialism
- Western canon
- Great Books
- Harvard Classics
- Mortimer Adler (September 1997). "Selecting works for the 1990 edition of Great Books of the Western World". Great Books Index. Retrieved 2007-05-29. "We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process."
- Mialton Meyer (1993). "Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir". University of California Press. Retrieved 2007-05-30. This biography of Robert M. Hutchins contains an extensive and lively discussion of the Great Books project, although the author burdens it with personal opinions.
- Carrie Golus (2002-07-11). "Special Collections tells the story of a cornerstone of American education". The University of Chicago Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
- "Great Books of the Western World (eBooks @ University of Adelaide)". University of Adelaide. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
- Robert Teeter (2005-01-04). "Great Books of the Western World (2nd ed., 1990)". Retrieved 2007-05-30.
- Sabrina Walters (2001-07-01). "Great Books won Adler fame, scorn". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2007-07-01.
- Peter Temes (2001-07-03). "Death of a Great Reader and Philosopher". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2007-11-04. Retrieved 2007-07-11.
- John Berlau (2001-08-27). "What Happened to the Great Ideas? – Mortimer J. Adler's Great Books programs". Insight on the News. Retrieved 2007-05-29. "Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates blasted the Great Books for showing 'profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color – red, brown or yellow.'"
- Mortimer J. Adler (1990). "Bibliography of Additional Readings". The Syntopicon: II. Great Books of the Western World, vol. 1-2 (2nd edition ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. pp. 909–996. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.
- Robert M. Hutchins (1952). "Chapter VI: Education for All". The Great Conversation. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. p. 44.
- Dwight Macdonald (1952-11-29 with later appendix). "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2007-05-29. "I also wonder how many of the over 100,000 customers who have by now caved in under the pressure of Mr. Harden and his banner-bearing colleagues are doing much browsing in these upland pastures?"
- Mortimer J. Adler (1990). The Great Conversation (2nd edition ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. pp. 33–34 for discussion of new translations, pp.74–98 for reading plans and guides. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.
- Mortimer J. Adler (1990). "Section 1: The Great Books and the Great Ideas". The Great Conversation (2nd edition ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. p. 27. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.
- Official Britannica web page for the Great Books
- Center for the Study of the Great Ideas Mortimer Adler web pages with extensive discussion of the Great Books
- The Great Conversation: Confessions of an Eavesdropper – a blog detailing the experiences of reading through the great books of the Western World.