Great Books of the Western World  

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

Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952 by Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. in an attempt 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 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 then CEO of the Encyclopædia Britannica. It was he who proposed a series of books presenting the greatest works of the canon, complete and unabridged, to be edited by Hutchins and Adler and published by Encyclopædia Britannica. Hutchins was wary, fearing that the works would be sold and treated as encyclopedias, cheapening the great books they were. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to agree to the project and pay $60,000 for it.

After several debates about what was to be included and how the work was to be presented, and the budget exploding to $2,000,000, the project was ready for publication. It was presented at a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on April 15, 1952. In a speech made that night, 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." It was decided that the first two volumes would be presented to Queen Elizabeth and President 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.

The works

Originally published in 54 volumes, The Great Books of the Western World covers topics including fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics. The first volume, titled The Great Conversation, contains an introduction and discourse on liberal education by Hutchins. The next two volumes, "The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon", were conceived by Adler 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 in all the works 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 were grouped into 102 chapters, for which Adler wrote 102 introductions. The volumes contained the following works:

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

Second edition

In 1990 a second edition of the Great Books of the Western World was published, this time 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 from the set: 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 to the set, and said that the Syntopicon should have been expanded to include 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.

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):

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

Criticisms and responses

The Great Books of the Western World have received their share of criticism from the time of their publication. The stress Hutchins placed on the monumental importance of these works was an easy target for those who dismissed the project as elites in their ivory tower pretending to save the world. Likewise the project has been attacked for further promoting the deification of dead white males, while ignoring contributions of females and minorities to the canon. This mostly emerged later 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 discounted as ad hominem and unfairly discriminatory in themselves. The counter-argument maintains that such criticisms appear to dismiss or diminish 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.<ref name=Adler />

Others thought that while the selected authors were worthy, there was too much emphasis 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 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 contains 130 authors and 517 individual works. Ironically, 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.

The scientific and mathematical selections also came under criticism for being incomprehensible to the average reader, especially absent any sort of critical apparatus. The second edition did drop two scientific works, by Apollonius and Fourier, at least in part because of their perceived difficulty for the average reader. On the other hand, the editors have maintained from the beginning of the project that average readers may be capable of understanding far more than some academic 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.

Yet another criticism was that the series was in reality more for show than for substance. Adler insisted on adding the Syntopicon in order to emphasize the unity of the set and encourage readers, but many dismissed it as unwieldy and useless. As 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. While the sales were good through the aggressive promotion Encyclopædia Britannica put forth, the percentages of those purchased that were actually read to any significant extent, let alone completed, must still be rather small. Some argued that their main use was to create the illusion of being cultured, without any real substance behind it, for only a modest financial investment. Furthermore the translations used were generally seen to be poor, given the scope and aim of the project, which certainly did not encourage readership. In an effort to keep ballooning costs down, the publishers decided to use only translations that were in the public domain, and often quite dated. This combined with the dense formatting did not help its readability.

The second edition obtained translations that were generally considered an improvement, though the problem of cramped typography may be unavoidable in a set that includes so much material. As for the charge that many sets go unread, the same could quite possibly be said for many other books sold every year. Through reading plans and the indexed treatment of subjects in the Syntopicon, the editors have made efforts to provide readers with some guidance on reading in the set.

Robert M. Pirsig, in his autobiographic novel 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."

To which the editors respond that the set contains wide-ranging debates representing many viewpoints on significant issues, not a monolithic presentation of a particular 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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Great Books of the Western World" 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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