Great Books of the Western World

[NOTE: This is an edited version of the Wikipedia article. Links for each book have been replaced with links to actual ebooks on this site, not necessarily the same edition used for the Great Books of the Western World series.]

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 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.

After debates about what to include and how to present it, 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."

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.

The remaining volumes contained the following works:

Homer, ca.800BCE
Aeschylus (525 BC - 456 BC)
Sophocles (c. 496-c. 405 BC)
Euripides (480 or 484-406 BC)
Aristophanes (ca. 446 BC - 385 BC)
Herodotus, 485–420BCE
Thucydides, ca.460 BCE
Plato, c.427–c.347 BCE
Aristotle, 384–322 BCE
Hippocrates, 460–377 BCE
  • Works
Galen, 131–201
Euclid ca.300 BCE
  • The Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements
Archimedes, c. 287–212 BCE
  • On the Sphere and Cylinder
  • Measurement of a Circle
  • On Conoids and Spheroids
  • On Spirals
  • On the Equilibrium of Planes
  • The Sand-Reckoner
  • The Quadrature of the Parabola
  • On Floating Bodies
  • Book of Lemmas
  • The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems
Apollonius of Perga, 262 BC–ca. 190 BC
Nicomachus of Gerasa
  • Introduction to Arithmetic
Lucretius, 98?–55 BCE
Epictetus, ca. 55–135
Marcus Aurelius, 121–180
Virgil, 70–19 BCE
Plutarch, 46–120
Cornelius Tacitus, ca.56–ca.120 AD
  • The Almagest
Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473–1543
  • On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres
Johannes Kepler, 1571–1630
  • Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (Books IV - V)
  • The Harmonies of the World (Book V)
Plotinus, 205–270
Augustine of Hippo, 354–430
  • Summa Theologica
Dante, 1265–1321
Geoffrey Chaucer, ca.1343–1400
Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469–1527
Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679
François Rabelais, 1494?–1553?
Michel de Montaigne, 1533–1592
William Shakespeare, 1564–1616
William Gilbert, 1540-1603
  • On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
Galileo Galilei, 1564–1642
William Harvey, 1578–1657
Miguel de Cervantes, 1547–1616
Francis Bacon, 1561–1626
René Descartes, 1596–1650
Benedict de Spinoza, 1632–1677
John Milton, 1608–1674
Blaise Pascal, 1623–1662
Isaac Newton, 1642–1727
  • Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
  • Optics
Christiaan Huygens, 1629–1693
  • Treatise on Light
John Locke, 1632–1704
George Berkeley, 1685–1753
David Hume, 1711–1776
Jonathan Swift, 1667–1745
Laurence Sterne, 1713–1768
Henry Fielding, 1707–1754
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
  • The Spirit of the Laws
Jean–Jacques Rousseau, 1712–1778
Adam Smith, 1723–1790
Edward Gibbon, 1737–1794
Immanuel Kant, 1724–1804
American State Papers
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Articles of Confederation
  • The Constitution of the United States of America
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
  • The Federalist
John Stuart Mill, 1806–1873
James Boswell, 1740–1795
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, 1743–1794
Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier
  • Analytical Theory of Heat
Michael Faraday
  • Experimental Researches in Electricity
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770–1831
  • The Philosophy of Right
  • The Philosophy of History
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749–1832
Herman Melville, 1819–1891
Charles Darwin, 1809–1882
Karl Marx, 1818–1883
  • Capital
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Leo Tolstoy, 1828–1910
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1821–1881
William James, 1842–1910
Sigmund Freud
  • The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis
  • Selected Papers on Hysteria
  • The Sexual Enlightenment of Children
  • The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy
  • Observations on "Wild" Psycho-Analysis
  • The Interpretation of Dreams
  • On Narcissism
  • Instincts and Their Vicissitudes
  • Repression
  • The Unconscious
  • A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis
  • Beyond the Pleasure Principle
  • Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
  • The Ego and the Id
  • Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety
  • Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
  • Civilization and Its Discontents
  • New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

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 Koran. 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.

John Calvin
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion (Selections)
Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1466–1536
Molière, 1622–1673
Jean Racine
  • Bérénice
  • Phèdre
Voltaire, 1694–1778
Denis Diderot
  • Rameau's Nephew
Søren Kierkegaard
  • Fear and Trembling
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844–1900
Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805–1859
Honore de Balzac, 1799–1850
Jane Austen, 1775–1817
George Eliot, 1819–1880
Charles Dickens, 1812–1870
Mark Twain, 1835–1910
Henrik Ibsen, 1828–1906

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

William James, 1842–1910
Henri Bergson
  • An Introduction to Metaphysics
John Dewey
  • Experience and Education
Alfred North Whitehead, 1861–1947
  • Science and the Modern World
Bertrand Russell
  • The Problems of Philosophy
Martin Heidegger
  • What Is Metaphysics?
Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Philosophical Investigations
Karl Barth
  • The Word of God and the Word of Man
Henri Poincaré
  • Science and Hypothesis
Max Planck
  • Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
Alfred North Whitehead, 1861–1947
  • An Introduction to Mathematics
Albert Einstein
  • Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
Arthur Eddington
  • The Expanding Universe
Niels Bohr
  • Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (selections)
  • Discussion with Einstein on Epistemology
G. H. Hardy
  • A Mathematician's Apology
Werner Heisenberg
  • Physics and Philosophy
Erwin Schrödinger
  • What Is Life?
Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1900-1975
  • Genetics and the Origin of Species
C. H. Waddington, 1905–1975
  • The Nature of Life
Thorstein Veblen, 1857–1929
R. H. Tawney, 1880-1962
  • The Acquisitive Society
John Maynard Keynes, 1883–1946
Sir James George Frazer, 1854–1941
Max Weber
  • Essays in Sociology (selections)
Johan Huizinga
  • The Waning of the Middle Ages
Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Structural Anthropology (selections)
Henry James, 1843–1916
George Bernard Shaw, 1856–1950
  • Saint Joan
Joseph Conrad, 1857–1924
Anton Chekhov, 1860–1904
Luigi Pirandello, 1867-1936
  • Six Characters in Search of an Author
Marcel Proust, 1871–1922
Willa Cather, 1873–1947
Thomas Mann, 1875-1955
  • Death in Venice
James Joyce, 1882–1941
Virginia Woolf, 1882–1941
Franz Kafka, 1883–1924
D. H. Lawrence, 1885–1930
T. S. Eliot
  • The Waste Land
Eugene O'Neill, 1888–1953
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896–1940
William Faulkner, 1897-1962
  • A Rose for Emily
Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956
  • Mother Courage and Her Children
Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961
  • The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
George Orwell, 1903–1950
Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989
  • Waiting for Godot

Criticisms and responses

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 a celebration of dead European males, ignoring contributions of women and non-European authors. The criticism swelled in tandem 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 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. However, not even the counter-argument can deny the fact that, the selection having been made exclusively by intellectuals brought up in the anglosphere, it is extremely unlikely they would thoroughly know all the literary traditions they ought to be keen to include in such a selection; that is, that as Norman Davies points out, the overrepresentation of Anglo-Saxon writers is explained because of the nationality or education of the compilers, that ignored, not necessarily deliberately, many other authors just because they weren't familiar enough with their works, or were not able to judge them because they ignored the language, thus biasing the universality of the selection. For example, in France there appeared several criticisms arguing that writers included in the list such as Milton, Harvey, Gilbert or Melville weren't universally as relevant as some other writers such as John Calvin and Voltaire, who were initially excluded, or Calderón de la Barca or Herder, measuring their influence; also, that it excluded many non-British or US authors from the early 20th century who were better known to French readers, such as Musil, Roth or Zweig.

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 Calderón de la Barca 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).

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.

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 two 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.

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.

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 underestimating the harm done by the included works:

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.

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