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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Great Books refers primarily to a group of books that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a synonymous designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; "This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest." * the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.



It came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University, about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Alexander Meiklejohn. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.

They were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey (see pragmatism) disagreed with the premise that there was crossover in education (e.g. that a study of philosophy, formal logic, or rhetoric could be of use in medicine or economics).

Great Books started out as a list of 100 essential primary source texts considered to constitute the Western canon. This list was always intended to be tentative, although some consider it presumptuous to nominate 100 Great Books to the exclusion of all others.


The Great Books Program is a curriculum that makes use of this list of texts. As much as possible, students rely on primary sources. The emphasis is on open discussion with limited guidance by a professor, facilitator or tutor. Students are also expected to write papers.

In 1919, Professor Erskine taught the first course based on the "great books" program, titled "General Honors," at Columbia University. Erskine left for the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and helped mold its core curriculum. It initially failed, however, shortly after its introduction due to fallings-out between the instructors over the best ways to conduct classes and due to concerns about the rigor of the courses. Survivors, however, include Columbia's Core Curriculum and the Common Core at Chicago, both heavily focused on the "great books" of the Western canon.

A university or college Great Books Program is a program inspired by the Great Books movement begun in the United States in the 1920s. The aim of such programs is a return to the Western Liberal Arts tradition in education, as a corrective to the extreme disciplinary specialisation common within the academy. The essential component of such programs is a high degree of engagement with whole primary texts, called the Great Books. The curricula of Great Books programs often follow a canon of texts considered more or less essential to a student's education, such as Plato's Republic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. Such programs often focus exclusively on Western culture. Their employment of primary texts dictates an interdisciplinary approach, as most of the Great Books do not fall neatly under the prerogative of a single contemporary academic discipline. Great Books programs often include designated discussion groups as well as lectures, and have small class sizes. In general students in such programs receive an abnormally high degree of attention from their professors, as part of the overall aim of fostering a community of learning.

There are only a few true "Great Books Programs" still in operation. These schools focus almost exclusively on the Great Books Curriculum throughout enrollment and do not offer classes analogous to those commonly offered at other colleges. The first and best known of these schools is St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe (program established in 1937); it was followed by Shimer College in Chicago, and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. More recent schools with this type of curriculum include Harrison Middleton University in Tempe, Arizona (est. 1998), Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming (est. 2005), and Imago Dei College in Oak Glen, California (est. 2010).

Several schools maintain some version of a Great Books Program as an option for students. Some of the most prominent schools are the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, Boston University ("Core Curriculum"), Pepperdine University, Baylor University ("Great Texts"), University of San Francisco, Mercer University, University of Dallas, Gutenberg College, New Saint Andrews College, the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, Saint Anselm College, the Integral Liberal Arts program at Saint Mary's College of California (Moraga), the Hutchins School at Sonoma State University, the Great Conversation, American Conversations, Asian Conversations, and Science Conversation programs at St. Olaf College, The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Louisiana Scholars' College at Northwestern State University (Natchitoches). In Canada Great Books programs exist at the College of the Humanities at Carleton University, at the University of King's College (the Foundation Year Programme), at Tyndale University College in Toronto, at the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University, and at St. Thomas University (New Brunswick).

The Center for the Study of the Great Ideas advances the Great Conversation found in the Great Books by providing Dr. Adler's vision, guidance, and resource materials through both live and on-line seminars, educational and philosophical consultation, international presence on the Internet, access to the Center's library collection of books, essays, articles, journals and audio/video programs. Center programs are unique in that they do not replicate other existing programs either started or developed by Dr. Adler.


The Great Books curriculum was drawn into the popular debate about multiculturalism, traditional education, the "culture war," and the role of the intellectual in American life. Much of this debate centered on reactions to the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 by Allan Bloom.


The Great Books of the Western World is a hardcover 60-volume collection (originally 54 volumes) of the books on the Great Books list. Many of the books in the collection were translated into English for the first time. A prominent feature of the collection is a two-volume Syntopicon that includes essays written by Mortimer Adler on 102 "great ideas." Following each essay is an extensive outline of the idea with page references to relevant passages throughout the collection. Familiar to many Americans, the collection is available from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., which owns the copyright.

Shortly after Adler retired from the Great Books Foundation in 1989, a second edition (1990) of the Great Books of the Western World was published; it included more Hispanic and female authors and, for the first time, works by African American authors.


Sample list

Any recommended set of great books is expected to change with the times, as reflected in the following statement by Robert Hutchins:

"In the course of history ... new books have been written that have won their place in the list. Books once thought entitled to belong to it have been superseded; and this process of change will continue as long as men can think and write. It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation."

The following is an example list compiled from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler (1940), and from How to Read a Book, 2nd ed. by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren(1972):

  1. Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey
  2. The Old Testament
  3. Aeschylus: Tragedies
  4. Sophocles: Tragedies
  5. Herodotus: Histories
  6. Euripides: Tragedies
  7. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
  8. Hippocrates: Medical Writings
  9. Aristophanes: Comedies
  10. Plato: Dialogues
  11. Aristotle: Works
  12. Epicurus: "Letter to Herodotus", "Letter to Menoecus"
  13. Euclid: The Elements
  14. Archimedes: Works
  15. Apollonius: The Conic Sections
  16. Cicero: Works (esp. Orations, On Friendship, On Old Age, Republic, Laws, Tusculan Disputations, Offices)
  17. Lucretius: On the Nature of Things
  18. Virgil: Works (esp. Aeneid)
  19. Horace: Works (esp. Odes and Epodes, The Art of Poetry)
  20. Livy: The History of Rome
  21. Ovid: Works (esp. Metamorphoses)
  22. Quintilian: Institutes of Oratory
  23. Plutarch: Parallel Lives; Moralia
  24. Tacitus: Histories; Annals; Agricola; Germania; Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Oratory)
  25. Nicomachus of Gerasa: Introduction to Arithmetic
  26. Epictetus: Discourses; Enchiridion
  27. Ptolemy: Almagest
  28. Lucian: Works (esp. The Way to Write History, The True History, The Sale of Creeds, Alexander the Oracle Monger, Charon, The Sale of Lives, The Fisherman, Dialogue of the Gods, Dialogues of the Sea-Gods, Dialogues of the Dead)
  29. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
  30. Galen: On the Natural Faculties
  31. The New Testament
  32. Plotinus: The Enneads
  33. St. Augustine: "On the Teacher"; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
  34. The Volsungs Saga or Nibelungenlied
  35. The Song of Roland
  36. The Saga of Burnt Njál
  37. Maimonides: Guide for the Perplexed
  38. St. Thomas Aquinas: Of Being and Essence, Summa Contra Gentiles, Of the Governance of Rulers, Summa Theologica
  39. Dante Alighieri: The New Life (La Vita Nuova); "On Monarchy"; The Divine Comedy
  40. Geoffrey Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
  41. Thomas a Kempis: Imitation of Christ
  42. Leonardo da Vinci: Notebooks
  43. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
  44. Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly, Colloquies'
  45. Nicolaus Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
  46. Thomas More: Utopia
  47. Martin Luther: Table Talk; Three Treatises
  48. François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel
  49. John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
  50. Michel de Montaigne: Essays
  51. William Gilbert: On the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies
  52. Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
  53. Edmund Spenser: Prothalamion; The Faerie Queene
  54. Francis Bacon: Essays; The Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum; The New Atlantis
  55. William Shakespeare: Poetry and Plays
  56. Galileo Galilei: Starry Messenger; Two New Sciences
  57. Johannes Kepler: The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Harmonices Mundi
  58. William Harvey: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; On the Generation of Animals
  59. Grotius: The Law of War and Peace
  60. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, Elements of Philsophy
  61. René Descartes: Rules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy, Principles of Philosophy, The Passions of the Soul
  62. Corneille: Tragedies (esp. The Cid, Cinna)
  63. John Milton: Works (esp. the minor poems; Areopagitica; Paradise Lost; Samson Agonistes)
  64. Molière: Comedies (esp. The Miser; The School for Wives; The Misanthrope; The Doctor in Spite of Himself; Tartuffe; The Tradesman Turned Gentleman; The Imaginary Invalid; The Affected Ladies)
  65. Blaise Pascal: The Provincial Letters; Pensées; Scientific Treatises
  66. Boyle: The Skeptical Chemist
  67. Christiaan Huygens: Treatise on Light
  68. Benedict de Spinoza: Political Treatises; Ethics
  69. John Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Some Thoughts Concerning Education
  70. Jean Baptiste Racine: Tragedies (esp. Andromache; Phaedra; Athaliah)
  71. Isaac Newton: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Opticks
  72. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics; New Essays Concerning Human Understanding; "Monadology"
  73. Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe; Moll Flanders
  74. Jonathan Swift: "Battle of the Books"; "A Tale of a Tub"; A Journal to Stella; Gulliver's Travels; "A Modest Proposal"
  75. William Congreve: The Way of the World
  76. George Berkeley: A New Theory of Vision; Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
  77. Alexander Pope: "Essay on Criticism"; "The Rape of the Lock"; "Essay on Man"
  78. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu: Persian Letters, Spirit of the Laws
  79. Voltaire: Letters on the English, Candide, Philosophical Dictionary; Toleration
  80. Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones
  81. Samuel Johnson: "The Vanity of Human Wishes", Dictionary, Rasselas, Lives of the Poets
  82. David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature, Essays Moral and Political, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding; History of England
  83. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, On Political Economy, Emile, The Social Contract; Confessions
  84. Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
  85. Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Wealth of Nations
  86. Blackstone: Commentaries on the Laws of England
  87. Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Critique of Practical Reason; Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
  88. Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
  89. James Boswell: Journal; The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
  90. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier: Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
  91. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison: The Federalist Papers(together with the Articles of Confederation; The Constitution of the United States; The Declaration of Independence)
  92. Jeremy Bentham: Comment on the Commentaries; Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
  93. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust; Poetry and Truth
  94. Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population
  95. Dalton: A New System of Chemical Philosophy
  96. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier: Analytical Theory of Heat
  97. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit; Science of Logic; The Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
  98. William Wordsworth: Poems (esp. Lyrical Ballads; Lucy poems; sonnets; The Prelude)
  99. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems (esp. Kubla Khan; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ); Biographia Literaria
  100. Ricardo: The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
  101. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice; Emma
  102. Carl von Clausewitz: On War
  103. Stendhal: The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
  104. Guizot: History of Civilization in France
  105. Lord Byron: Don Juan
  106. Arthur Schopenhauer: Studies in Pessimism
  107. Michael Faraday: The Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
  108. Lobachevski: Geometrical Researches on the Theory of Parallels
  109. Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology
  110. Auguste Comte: The Positive Philosophy
  111. Honoré de Balzac: Works (esp.Le Père Goriot; Cousin Pons; Eugénie Grandet; Cousin Betty; Cesar Birotteau)
  112. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Men, Essays, Journal
  113. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
  114. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America
  115. John Stuart Mill: A System of Logic; Principles of Political Econoomy; On Liberty; Considerations on Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
  116. Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
  117. Thackeray: Works (esp.Vanity Fair; Henry Esmond; The Virginians; Pendennis)
  118. Charles Dickens: Works (esp.Pickwick Papers; Our Mutual Friend; David Copperfield; Dombey and Son; Oliver Twist; A Tale of Two Cities; Hard Times)
  119. Claude Bernard: Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
  120. Boole: Laws of Thought
  121. Henry David Thoreau: "Civil Disobedience"; Walden
  122. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Capital; The Communist Manifesto
  123. George Eliot: Adam Bede; Middlemarch
  124. Herman Melville: Typee; Moby-Dick; Billy Budd
  125. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
  126. Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary; Three Stories
  127. Henry Thomas Buckle: A History of Civilization in England
  128. Galton: Inquiries into Human Faculties and Its Development
  129. Riemann: The Hypotheses of Geometry
  130. Henrik Ibsen: Plays (esp.Peer Gynt; Brand; Hedda Gabler; Emperor and Galilean; A Doll's House; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder)
  131. Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace; Anna Karenina; What is Art?; Twenty-Three Tales
  132. Richard Dedekind: Theory of Numbers
  133. Wundt: Physiological Psychology; Outline of Psychology
  134. Mark Twain: Innocents Abroad; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The Mysterious Stranger
  135. Henry Adams: History of the United States; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; The Education of Henry Adams; Degradation of Democratic Dogma
  136. Charles Peirce: Chance, Love, and Logic; Collected Papers
  137. William Sumner: Folkways
  138. Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Common Law; Collected Legal Papers
  139. William James: The Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; A Pluralistic Universe; Essays in Radical Empiricism
  140. Henry James: The American; The Ambassadors
  141. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; The Genealogy of Morals; The Will to Power; Twilight of the Idols; The Antichrist
  142. Georg Cantor: Transfinite Numbers
  143. Jules Henri Poincaré: Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method; The Foundations of Science
  144. Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams; Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; The Ego and the Id; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
  145. George Bernard Shaw: Plays and Prefaces
  146. Max Planck: Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
  147. Henri Bergson: Time and Free Will; Matter and Memory; Creative Evolution; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
  148. John Dewey: How We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; The Quest for Certainty; Logic: The Theory of Inquiry
  149. Alfred North Whitehead: A Treatise on Universal Algebra; An Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; Process and Reality; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
  150. George Santayana: The Life of Reason; Skepticism and Animal Faith; Realm of Essence; Realm of Matter; Realm of Truth; Persons and Places
  151. Lenin: Imperialism; The State and Revolution
  152. Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (the revised translation is In Search of Lost Time)
  153. Bertrand Russell: Principles of Mathematics; The Problems of Philosophy; Principia Mathematica; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
  154. Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
  155. Albert Einstein: The Theory of Relativity; Sidelights on Relativity; The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
  156. James Joyce: "The Dead" in Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses
  157. Jacques Maritain: Art and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; Freedom and the Modern World; A Preface to Metaphysics; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
  158. Franz Kafka: The Trial; The Castle
  159. Arnold J. Toynbee: A Study of History; Civilization on Trial
  160. Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea; No Exit; Being and Nothingness
  161. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle; Cancer Ward

The original edition of How to Read a Book contained a separate "contemporary list" because "Here one's judgment must be tentative"

All but the following authors were incorporated into the single list of the revised edition:

  1. Pavlov: Conditioned Reflexes
  2. Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class; The Higher Learning in America; The Place of Science in Modern Civilization; Vested Interests and the State of Industrial Arts; Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times
  3. Boas: The Mind of Primitive Man; Anthropology and Modern Life
  4. Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution;


In 1954 Dr. Mortimer Adler hosted a live weekly television series in San Francisco, comprising 52 half-hour programs entitled The Great Ideas. These programs were produced by the Institute for Philosophical Research and were carried as a public service by the American Broadcasting Company, presented by (NET) National Educational Television, the precursor to what is now PBS. Dr. Adler bequeathed these films to the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas.

In 1993 and 1994, The Learning Channel created a series of one hour programs, discussing many of the great books of history and their impact on the world. It was narrated by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman, amongst others.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Great books" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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