Great Books of the Western World

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search
The Great Books (second edition)

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 western canon in a single package of 54 volumes. The series is now in its second edition and contains 60 volumes. The list of Great Books is maintained by the Great Books Foundation, and is part of the Great Books curriculum.


[edit] History

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 US 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 volumes would be presented to Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom 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 salespeople. 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.[1][2]

[edit] The works

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::

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

Volume 5

Volume 6

Volume 7

Volume 8

Volume 9

Volume 10

Volume 11

Volume 12

Volume 13

Volume 14

Volume 15

Volume 16

Volume 17

Volume 18

Volume 19

Volume 20

Volume 21

Volume 22

Volume 23

Volume 24

Volume 25

Volume 26

Volume 27

Volume 28

Volume 29

Volume 30

Volume 31

Volume 32

Volume 33

Volume 34

Volume 35

Volume 36

Volume 37

Volume 38

Volume 39

Volume 40

Volume 41

Volume 42

Volume 43

Volume 44

Volume 45

Volume 46

Volume 47

Volume 48

Volume 49

Volume 50

Volume 51

Volume 52

Volume 53

Volume 54

[edit] Second edition

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 Qur'an. He addressed criticisms that the set was too heavily Western European and did not adequately represent women and minority authors.[3]

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[4] for the second edition):

Volume 20

Volume 23

Volume 31

Volume 34

Volume 43

Volume 44

Volume 45

Volume 46

Volume 47

Volume 48

Volume 52

The six volumes of 20th century material consisted of the following:

Volume 55

Volume 56

Volume 57

Volume 58

Volume 59

Volume 60

[edit] Criticisms and responses

[edit] Criticisms of the authors selected

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 the work of white males celebrating the work of other dead white males, while ignoring contributions of women and non-white authors.[5][6] The criticism swelled in tandem with the feminist and civil rights movements.[7]

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.[3]

Also, writers such as Harold Bloom refer to such arguments as the "school of resentment." Bloom doubts that just because women and minorities "resent" being ignored in the past, that this means we should try to hide or obscure the overwhelming importance of white European males throughout history.

[edit] 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 (even less notable ones) rather than a wider selection of authors and representative works (for instance, all of Shakespeare's plays are included, but no works by Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson). Defenders of the set have pointed out that any reasonable number of volumes cannot possibly represent all authors or works that some readers might find desirable, and that any selection of authors and works is bound to be controversial to some extent. The second edition of the set already contained 130 authors and 517 individual works. Indeed, the inclusion of so many writers and so much material has led to complaints of cramped typography. The editors point out that the guides to additional reading for each topic in the Syntopicon refer the interested reader to many more authors (including, incidentally, Marlowe and Jonson).[8]

[edit] 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.[9]

[edit] Style over Substance

Yet another criticism was that the series was in reality more for show than for substance. Many dismissed Adler's Syntopicon as unwieldy and useless. Since the great majority of the works were still in print, some critics noted that the company could have saved 2 million dollars and simply written a list. Encyclopædia Britannica's aggressive promotion produced solid sales, but the fraction that were actually read appeared to be rather small. Some argued that their main use was to create the illusion of culture without any real substance behind it. Furthermore the inexpensive but dated, mostly public domain translations used were generally seen to be poor. Dense formatting also did not help readability.[10]

The second edition selected translations that were generally considered an improvement, though the cramped typography remained. As for the charge that many sets go unread, the same can be said for many of the other books on buyers' bookshelves. Through reading plans and the Syntopicon, the editors have attempted to guide readers through the set.[11]

[edit] Criticism of the ideas

Robert M. Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has his main character Phædrus criticize the Great Books project radically for misestimating the value of the books:

"He came to hate them vehemently, and to assail them with every kind of invective he could think of, not because they were irrelevant but for exactly the opposite reason. The more he studied, the more convinced he became that no one had yet told the damage to this world that had resulted from our unconscious acceptance of their thought."

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.[12]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Mialton Meyer (1993). "Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir". University of California Press. Retrieved on 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.
  2. ^ Carrie Golus (2002-07-11). "Special Collections tells the story of a cornerstone of American education". The University of Chicago Chronicle. Retrieved on 2007-05-30. 
  3. ^ a b Mortimer Adler (September 1997). "Selecting works for the 1990 edition of Great Books of the Western World". Great Books Index. Retrieved on 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." 
  4. ^ Robert Teeter (2005-01-04). "Great Books of the Western World (2nd ed., 1990)". Retrieved on 2007-05-30. 
  5. ^ {{cite web|url=|author=Sabrina Walters|title=Great Books won Adler fame, scorn|publisher=Chicago Sun-Times|date=2001-07-01|accessdate=2007-07-01}}
  6. ^ Peter Temes (2001-07-03). "Death of a Great Reader and Philosopher". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved on 2007-07-11. 
  7. ^ John Berlau (2001-08-27). "What Happened to the Great Ideas? - Mortimer J. Adler's Great Books programs". Insight on the News. Retrieved on 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.'" 
  8. ^ 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.  The lists of recommended works by Jonson and Marlowe are on p.952 and p.964, respectively.
  9. ^ Robert M. Hutchins (1952). "Chapter VI: Education for All". The Great Conversation. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.. p. 44. 
  10. ^ Dwight Macdonald (1952-11-29 with later appendix). "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club". The New Yorker. Retrieved on 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?" 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ 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. 

[edit] External links

Personal tools