The War Of The Great Books


Adler’s Syntopicon sprang from the central philosophical belief that there has been through the millennia of Western culture an ongoing discussion of the primary issues that face all humanity. This “Great Conversation,” the title of Hutchins’s introductory volume to the GBWW, “began in the dawn of history and … continues to the present day.” No other civilization, claimed Hutchins, has had the sort of on-going dialogue concerning truth, beauty, justice, and other cherished values that Western civilization has. “Imagine the greatest minds of all times gathered around a table,” a GBWW sales brochure proposed, “Homer, Plato and Aristotle … and on through the ages to Shakespeare, Gibbon, Darwin, and Freud.”

But producing this “Baedeker to 30 centuries of Western thought,” as Time called it, proved to be a task of far greater magnitude than Adler expected. He won approval from Benton and the Britannica officers in 1943 for a sixty-thousand-dollar budget over a two-year span.

Ultimately the project consumed two million dollars and took eight years. Deciding on the essential ideas of Western thought took two years in itself. These were finally reduced to 102, with further subheadings for all of them. At that point the staff of more than thirty, consisting largely of University of Chicago and St. John’s students (including an aspiring writer named Saul Bellow), pored through 443 works, compiling references to each idea. Before personal computers this meant thousands of index cards laboriously handwritten and then typed by a large secretarial pool.

The entire project very nearly stopped dead in the water. Financial constraints at Encyclopaedia Britannica forced a drastic trimming of the indexing staff for the last two years. Then, as the fifty-four-volume set was finally ready for printing, Britannica decided it could not afford the cost. In desperation Hutchins and Adler appealed to a thousand wealthy individuals to become patrons of the GBWW by purchasing a special founders’ edition of the set for five hundred dollars each. Gentle arm twisting and appeals to join the ranks of Alexander the Great and the Earl of Shaftesbury as patrons of learning had their effect. The needed five hundred sets were sold, and in 1952 the Great Books of the Western World, with its thirty-two thousand pages and more than twenty-five million words, came off the press.

Presentation of the founders’ sets came at a gala dinner in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in April of that year. The patrons, including Alfred Vanderbilt, Nelson and David Rockefeller, Conrad Hilton, John Mott, and Father Theodore Hesburgh, heard eloquent testimonials to the cultural promise of the Great Books. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain commended the “pioneering spirit of America” for seeking to restore to its rightful honor the “notion of tradition.” Hutchins advised that “the fate of our country, and hence of the world, depends on the degree to which the American people achieve liberal education.” The GBWW represented the “placing in the hands of the American people the means of continuing and revitalizing Western civilization....”

For Adler, Hutchins, and their fellow believers, the greatest danger facing America was not international communism but a seriously eroded commitment to the ideal of a liberally educated citizenry. America’s position of leadership in the free world—a responsibility acutely felt and endlessly discussed during the early Cold War years—required our attention to such ageless questions as “What is the good life?” “What is a good state?” “Is there a God?” “What is the nature and destiny of man?” Individuals reflecting on such quesstions were not simply furthering their own education but also building up a store of national wisdom sufficient for any challenge the country might face. Britannica organized a community acquisition plan, persuading wealthy individuals to make sets available to local schools and libraries. The “great conversation,” limited to a few in Periclean Athens, would become in America a broadly based democratic exchange of ideas.


The GBWW’s long-awaited appearance stirred much comment. Most reviewers were sympathetic to the goal of adult liberal education and to the effort involved in producing the set. Jacques Barzun hailed the Syntopicon as a “stupendous achievement.” The distinguished British philosopher C. E. M. Joad introduced a Saturday Review symposium on the GBWW with an endorsement of the humanistic faith with which Hutchins had infused the project. Inevitably scholars quibbled over authors in their areas of expertise who were missing. Barzun was disappointed by the relatively small quantity of imaginative literature, which in his mind betrayed a “high-minded axe-grinding in the direction of intellectualism.” Scientific selections evoked many puzzled responses. The historian of science I. Bernard Cohen thought the science collection only of “archeological value.” In such a dynamic field, he asked, how could the editors believe that Galen and Hippocrates remain standard scientific texts?