Great Books of the Western World

The Great Books (second edition)
For the Learning Channel's Great Books series, see The Learning Channel's Great Books.

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 54-volume set.

The original editors had three criteria for including a book in the series: the book must be relevant to contemporary matters, and not only important in its historical context; it must be rewarding to re-read; 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. The books were not chosen on the basis of ethnic and cultural inclusiveness, historical influence, or the editors' agreement with the views expressed by the authors.[1]

Initial sales were poor, so the sales strategy switched to a door-to-door operation which was much more successful.

A second edition was published in 1990 in 60 volumes. Some translations were updated, some works were removed, and there were significant additions from the 20th century.


The project for the Great Books of the Western World began at the University of Chicago, where the president, Robert Hutchins, collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course — generally aimed at businesspeople — for the purpose of filling the gaps in their liberal education; to render the reader as an intellectually rounded man or woman familiar with the Great Books of the Western canon, and knowledgeable of the great ideas developed in the course of three millennia. An original student of the project was William Benton (later a U.S. senator, and then chief executive officer of the Encyclopædia Britannica publishing company) who proposed selecting the greatest books of the Western canon, and that Hutchins and Adler produce unabridged editions for publication, by Encyclopædia Britannica. Yet, Hutchins was wary of such a business endeavour, fearing that the books would be sold as a product, thereby devaluing them as cultural artefacts; nevertheless, he agreed to the business deal, and was paid $60,000 for the project.

After deciding what subjects and authors to include, and how to present the materials, the project was begun, with a budget of $2,000,000. On April 15, 1952, the Great Books of the Western World were presented at a publication party in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York City. 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 of books were given to Elizabeth II, Queen of the U.K., and to Harry S. Truman, the incumbent U.S. President.

The initial sales of the book sets were poor, with only 1,863 sets sold in 1952, and less than one-tenth of that number of book sets were sold in 1953. A financial debacle loomed until Encyclopædia Britannica altered the sales strategy, and sold the book set through experienced door-to-door encyclopædia-salesmen, as Hutchins had feared; but, through that method, 50,000 sets were sold in 1961. In 1963 the editors published Gateway to the Great Books, a ten-volume set of readings meant to introduce the authors and the subjects of the Great Books. Each year, from 1961 to 1998, the editors published The Great Ideas Today, an annual updating about the applicability of the Great Books to contemporary life.[2][3] The Internet and the E-book reader have made available some of the Great Books of the Western World in an on-line format.[4]

On March 9, 1976, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission entered an opinion and order enjoining Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., from using: a) deceptive advertising practices in recruiting sales agents and obtaining sales leads, and b) deceptive sales practices in the door-to-door presentations of its sales agents.[5]


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. Four colors identify each volume by subject area—Imaginative Literature, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences, History and Social Science, and Philosophy and Theology. 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

The second edition of Great Books of the Western World, 1990, saw an increase from 54 to 60 volumes, with updated translations. The six new volumes concerned the 20th century, an era of which the first edition's sole representative was Freud. Some of the other volumes were re-arranged, with even more pre-20th century material added but with four texts deleted: 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.[6]

The added pre-20th century texts appear in these volumes (some of the accompanying content of these volumes differs from the first edition volume of that number):

Volume 20

Volume 23

Volume 31

Volume 34

Volume 43

Volume 44

Volume 45

Volume 46

Volume 47

Volume 48

Volume 52

The contents of the six volumes of added 20th-century material:

Volume 55

Volume 56

Volume 57

Volume 58

Volume 59

Volume 60

Criticisms and responses


The choice of authors has come under attack, with some dismissing the project as a celebration of dead European males, ignoring contributions of women and non-European authors.[7][8] The criticism swelled in tandem with the feminist and civil rights movements.[9] Similarly, 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.[10]


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.[11]


The scientific and mathematical selections 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.[12]


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.[13]

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.[14]

Response to criticisms

The editors responded 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.[15]

See also


  1. "Selecting Works for the 1990 Edition of the Great Books of the Western World", Dr. Mortimer Adler
  2. Milton Meyer (1993). "Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir". University of California Press. Retrieved 2007-05-30. This biography of Robert M. Hutchins contains an extensive discussion of the Great Books project.
  3. 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.
  4. "Great Books of the Western World (eBooks @ University of Adelaide)". University of Adelaide. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  5. "In the Matter of Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. et al., pp.421-541" (PDF).
  6. Venant, Elizabeth (3 December 1990). "A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground". The Los Angeles Times.
  7. Sabrina Walters (2001-07-01). "Great Books won Adler fame, scorn". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2007-07-01.
  8. 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.
  9. John Berlau (August 2001). "What Happened to the Great Ideas? – Mortimer J. Adler's Great Books programs". Insight Magazine Insight on the News. 17 (32): 16. Retrieved March 2014. 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.' Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  10. 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.
  11. Mortimer J. Adler (1990). "Bibliography of Additional Readings". The Syntopicon: II. Great Books of the Western World, vol. 1-2 (2nd ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. pp. 909–996. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.
  12. Robert M. Hutchins (1952). "Chapter VI: Education for All". The Great Conversation. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. p. 44.
  13. Dwight Macdonald. "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club". 29 November 1952 with later appendix. 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?
  14. Mortimer J. Adler (1990). The Great Conversation (2nd 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.
  15. Mortimer J. Adler (1990). "Section 1: The Great Books and the Great Ideas". The Great Conversation (2nd ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. p. 27. ISBN 0-85229-531-6.

External links

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