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A Guide to Reading the Great Books

by Mortimer J. Adler


The Great Books

As I noted in the Preface, it was necessary to revise this chapter to make it fit the new Appendix to this edition of How to Read a Book. However, the chapter is not as radically revised as it might have been. Let me explain why.

This chapter was originally intended to introduce the recommended great books that were listed in the Appendix. It discussed the character of great books in general, and set forth the criteria by which we can tell whether a book is truly great. It went on to show, by the use of examples, how these books take part in a great conversation—how they are interwoven in the fabric of our thought. The revised chapter still does that, except that I have changed the examples to fit the books and authors listed in the new Appendix.

Since I wrote the original chapter, however, remarkable advances have occurred in the reading and the discussion of great books. I have called attention to these changes in the Preface to this edition. The publication and distribution of Great Books of the Western World and of Gateway to the Great Books is largely responsible tor them. The existence of these sets, and particularly the existence of the Syntopicon, has also radically altered the context of this chapter, in two ways.

Volume i of Great Books of the Western World contains as essay by Robert M. Hutchins, titled "The Great Conversation." Here Mr. Hutchins says, at greater length and with much more force and eloquence, everything that I said about the character of great books in my original Chapter 16, and he describes the interplay of these books with one another better than I could ever hope to do. From one point of view, therefore, I need not really revise this chapter at all. The essay that I would like it to be has been written by Mr. Hutchins.

The existence of the Syntopicon is an even more important reason why I have not attempted to revise this chapter more than superficially. The Syntopicon, with its vast number of references to the great books, by idea, topic, and subtopic, makes' it possible to read them in an entirely new way. In the Preface to the Syntopicon (pages xi-xxxi of Volume 2 in Great Books of the Western World), I describe this new way of reading, which I call "syntopical reading," and which consists of "reading in" the whole set of great books as contrasted with "reading through" a single work. Hence I would only have repeated here, with less space at my disposal, what I said there.

Finally, I have discovered on reading this chapter again after many years, that its discussion of how to read great books without the Syntopicon is revealing about the Syntopicon itself. Twenty-five years ago, I could not even hope that the kind of reading that the Syntopicon makes possible would ever be available. (I had dreamed of the Syntopicon, but I did not then think it would ever be a reality.) Now, looking back, I see even more clearly how useful and powerful a tool the Syntopicon is. Reading great books without its help is an intellectual experience hardly to be equaled in the world of thought. But reading them with it as a guide is even more rewarding. I hope the reader will see this when he peruses this chapter, and will forgive me, too, for leaving it to stand as an obvious anachronism—for the sake of his education.

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there is no end to the making of books. Nor does there seem to be any end to the making of book lists. The one is the cause of the other. There have always been more books than anyone could read. And as they have multiplied at an ever increasing rate through the centuries, more and more blue-ribbon lists have had to be made.

It is just as important to know what to read as how to read. When you have learned to read, you will still have, I hope, a long life to spend in reading. But, at best, you will be able to read only a few books of all that have been written, and the few you do read should include the best. You can rejoice in the fact that there are not too many great books to read. There are fifty-four volumes in Great Books of the Western World—tern hundred and forty-five works by seventy-tour authors.

The listing of the best books is as old as reading and writing. The teachers and librarians of ancient Alexandria did it. Their book lists were the backbone of an educational curriculum. Quintilian did it for Roman education, selecting, as he said, both ancient and modern classics. It was done again and again in the Middle Ages by Mohammedans, Jews, and Christians, and for a similar purpose. In the Renaissance, such leaders of the revival of learning as Montaigne and Erasmus made lists of the books they read. They offered themselves as models of gentlemanly literacy. Humanistic education was built on a foundation of "humane letters," as the phrase went. The reading prescribed was primarily in the great works of Roman literature—its poetry, biography, and history, and its moralistic essays.

In the nineteenth century, there were still other book lists. If you want to know the books which went into the making of a leading liberal of his day, look at John Stuart Mill's Autobiography. Perhaps the most famous book list made in the last century was Auguste Comte's. Comte was the French thinker who epitomized the nineteenth century's devotion to science and to progress through science.

It is to be expected, of course, that the selection of "best books" will change with the times. Yet there is a surprising uniformity in the lists that represent the best choices of any period. In^very age, both b.c. and a.d., the list makers include both ancient and modern books in their selections, and they always wonder whether the modems are up to the great books of the past. The changes which each later age makes are mainly additions rather than substitutions. Naturally, the list of great books grows in the course of time, but its roots and outlines remain the same.

The reason for this is that the famous lists are genuinely many-sided. They try to include all that is great in the human tradition. A bad selection would be one motivated by a sectarian bias, directed by some kind of special pleading. There have been lists of this sort, which picked only the books that would prove a certain point. The European tradition cannot be boxed that way. It includes much that must necessarily appear false or misguided when judged from any particular point of view. Wherever one finds the truth, there will always be great errors in its company. To list the great books adequately, one must include all that have made a difference, not simply those one agrees with or approves of.

Until sixty or seventy years ago, a college course was built around a set of required readings. Under the impact of the elective system and other educational changes, the requirements in this country were gradually relaxed to a point where the bachelor's degree no longer meant general literacy. The great books still appeared here and there, in  this course and that, but they were seldom read in relation to one another. Frequently they were made supplementary to the textbooks which dominated the curriculum.

Things were at their worst when I entered college at the start o£ the twenties. As I have already reported, I also saw the upward turn begin. John Erskine had persuaded the Columbia faculty to institute an Honors course, devoted to the reading of great books. The list, which he was largely instrumental in composing, included between sixty and seventy authors, representing all fields of learning and all kinds of poetry. It differed from other current selections by having a higher standard of choice, and also by trying to include every great book, not only those of a certain period or a certain kind.

The Erskine list has been modified and revised many times since its inception. Mr. Hutchins and I have used it with some alterations at the University of Chicago. The four-year program of reading at St. John's College is substantially the same list, though it has been enriched by additions from the fields of mathematics and natural science. A similar list, though somewhat shorter, is being used at many colleges now in courses required tor all students. And the list of Great Books of the Western World, supplemented by Gateway to the Great Books, is a fairly accurate expression of what anyone would name as the great works of Western culture.

I had one experience which gave me insight into this business of listing the great books. I acted as secretary tor the faculty which taught the Honors course at Columbia during the years when the original list was being revised. Various members of the faculty had expressed dissatisfaction. They wanted to drop some authors and include others. To settle matters, we constructed a master list of about three hundred books, many more than anyone would wish included, but long enough to contain any author anyone might name.

We then proceeded to vote, gradually excluding the books or authors which the voting indicated as not generally agreed on. After many ballots, we obtained a list which satisfied everyone. It had eighty items on it, only about fifteen more than Erskine's enumeration. It contained almost all the titles on the original list. From those two years of revision, I learned the extent to which there is unanimity of judgment about the great books. It became clear that it would be difficult to make a list much longer than a hundred authors about whom such universal agreement could be obtained. When you get beyond that, you would be catering to the interests of specialists in this period or that subject matter. Our experience was similar when we constructed the list of Great Books of the Western World.

Strictly speaking, a catalogue is not something to read. It is for reference purposes. That is why I have listed the contents of Great Books and of Gateway in the Appendix. In this chapter, I am going to try to make that list come to life by talking about the books.

I shall try, therefore, to collect the great books into smaller groups, each group participating in a conversation about some particular problem in which you may be already interested. In some cases, the conversations will overlap, as the problems do. In other cases, conversation about one problem will lead to another. Thus, instead of lying side by side in a graveyard row, the books may appear to you as they should—the lively actors in a living tradition. I will not name all the books in this chapter, but I shall be able to bring enough of them into conversation with one another, so that you can imagine the job completed. If you are induced to join in the conversation by reading some of these books, they will take care of the rest.

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Before I begin, however, it may be wise to say a little more about what a great book is. I have used the phrase again and again, hoping that what I said in Chapter Four a-bout great books as original communications would suffice for the time. In Chapter Eight, I suggested that among poetical works there was a parallel distinction. Just as great expository books are those which, more than others, can increase our understanding, so the great works of imaginative literature elevate our spirit and deepen our humanity.

In the course of other chapters, I may have mentioned other qualities which the great books possess. But now I want to bring together in one place all the signs by which the great books can be recognized—repeating some, adding new ones. These are the signs which everyone uses in making lists or selections.

(1) I used to say jocularly that the great books were those everybody recommends and nobody reads, or those everyone says he intends to read and never does. The joke (it is Mark Twain's, really) may have its point for some of our contemporaries, but the remark is false for the most part. In fact, the great books are probably the most widely read. They are not best sellers for a year or two. They are enduring best sellers. James Bond has had relatively few readers compared to Don Quixote or the plays of Shakespeare. It would be reasonable to estimate, as a recent writer did, that Homer's Iliad has been read by at least 25,000,000 people in the last 3,000 years. When you realize the number of languages into which these books have been translated, and the number of years during which they have been read, you will not think that a number of readers running high into the millions is exaggerated.

It does not follow, of course, that every book which reaches a tremendous audience ranks as a classic by reason of that fact alone. Three Weeks, Quo Vadis, and Ben-Hur, to mention only fiction, are cases in point. Nor do I mean that a great book need be a best seller in its own day. It may take time for it to accumulate its ultimate audience. The astronomer Kepler, whose work on the planetary motions is now a classic, is reported to have said of his book that "it may wait a century for a reader, as God has waited 6,000 years for an observer."

(2) The great books are popular, not pedantic. They are not written by specialists about specialties for specialists. Whether they be philosophy or science, or history or poetry, they treat of human, not academic, problems. They are written for men, not professors. When I say they are popular, I do not mean they are popularizations in the sense of simplifying what can be found in other books. I mean they were initially written for a popular audience. They were intended for beginners. This, as I pointed out earlier, is a consequence of their being original communications. With respect to what these books have to say, most men are beginners.

To read a textbook for advanced students, you have to read an elementary textbook first. But the great books arc all elementary. They treat the elements of any subject matter. They are not related to one another as a series o£ textbooks, graded in difficulty or in the technicality o£ the problems with which they deal. That is what I meant by saying that they are all for beginners, even though they do not all begin at the same place in the tradition of thought. There is one kind of prior reading, however, which does help you to read a great book, and that is the other great books the author himself read. If you begin where he began, you are better prepared tor the new departure he is going to make. This is the point I suggested before, when I said that even the mathematical and scientific books can be read without special instruction.

Let me illustrate this point by taking Euclid's Elements of Geometry and Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Euclid requires no prior study of mathematics. His book is genuinely an introduction to geometry, and to basic arithmetic as well. The same cannot be said for Newton, because Newton uses mathematics in the solution of physical problems. The reader must be able to follow his mathematical reasoning in order to understand how it interprets his observations. Newton had mastered Euclid. His mathematical style shows how deeply he was influenced by Euclid's treatment of ratio and proportions. His book is, therefore, not readily intelligible, even to competent scientists, unless Euclid has been read before. But with Euclid as a guide, the effort to read Newton, or Galileo, ceases to be fruitless.

I am not saying that these great scientific books can be read without effort. I am saying that it they are read in an historical order, the effort is rewarded. Just as Euclid illuminates Newton and Galileo, so they in turn help to make Faraday and Einstein intelligible. The point is not limited to mathematical and scientific works. It applies to philosophical books as well. Their authors tell you what you should have read before you come to them: Dewey wants you to have read Mill and Hume; Whitehead wants you to have read Descartes and Plato.

(3) The great books are always contemporary. In contrast, the books we call "contemporary," because they are currently popular, last only for a year or two, or ten at the most. They soon become antiquated. You probably cannot recall the names of the best sellers of the fifties. If they were recalled for you, you probably would not be interested in reading them. Especially in the field of nonfiction books, you want the latest "contemporary" product. But the great books are never outmoded by the movement of thought or the shitting winds of doctrine and opinion. On the contrary, one great book tends to intensify the significance of others about the same subject. Thus, Marx's Capital and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations illuminate each other, and so do works as far apart as Claude Bernard's Introduction to Experimental Medicine and the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen.

Schopenhauer said this clearly. "Looking over a huge catalogue of new books," he said, "one might weep at thinking that, when ten years have passed, not one of them will be heard of." His further explanation is worth following:

There are at all times two literatures in progress, running side by side, but little known to each other; the one real, the other only apparent. The former grows into permanent literature; it is pursued by those who live for science or poetry; its course is sober and quiet, but extremely slow;

and it produces in Europe scarcely a dozen works in a century; these, however, are permanent. The other kind is pursued by persons who live on science and poetry. It goes at a gallop, with much noise and shouting of partisans. Every twelve-month it puts a thousand works on the market. But after a few years one asks. Where are they? Where is the glory which came so soon and made so much clamor? This kind may be called fleeting, and the other, permanent literature.

"Permanent" and "fleeting" are good words to name the persistently contemporary great books and the soon antiquated current ones.

Because they are contemporary, and should be read as such, the word "classic" must be avoided. Mark Twain, you will recall, defined a classic as "something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read." I am afraid not even that is true for most people any longer. "Classic" has come to mean an ancient and antiquated book. People regard the classics as the great has-beens, the great books of their times. "But our times are different," they say. From this point of view, the only motive for reading the classics is an historical or philological interest. It is like poking about among the somewhat moldy monuments of a past culture. The classics, thus viewed, cannot offer instruction to a modern man, except, of course, about the peculiarities of his ancestors.

But the great books are not faded glories. They are not dusty remains for scholars to investigate. They are not a record of dead civilizations. They are rather the most potent civilizing forces in the world today.

Of course, there is progress in some things. There is progress in all the utilities which man can invent to make the motions of life easier and more efficient. There is progress in social affairs, of the sort signalized by the advent of democracy in modern times. And there is progress in knowledge and the clarification of problems and ideas.

But there is not progress in everything. The fundamental human problems remain the same in all ages. Anyone who reads Plutarch and Cicero, or, if you prefer, the essays of Bacon and Montaigne, will find how constant is the preoccupation of men with happiness and justice, with virtue and truth, and even with stability and change itself. We may succeed in accelerating the motions of life, but we cannot seem to change the routes that are available to its ends.

It is not only in moral or political matters that progress is relatively superficial. Even in theoretic knowledge, even in science and philosophy, where knowledge increases and understanding may be deepened, the advances made by every epoch are laid upon a traditional foundation. Civilization grows like an onion, layer upon layer. To understand Einstein, you must, as he tells you himself, understand Galileo and Newton. To understand Whitehead, you must, as he also tells you, know Descartes and Plato. It any contemporary books are great because they deal with fundamental matters, then all the great books are contemporary because they are involved in the same discussion.

(4) The great books are the most readable. I have said this before. It means several things. If the rules of skilled reading are somehow related to the rules of skillful writing, then these are the best-written books. If a good reader is proficient in the liberal arts, how much more so is a great writer a master of them! These books are masterpieces of liberal art. In saying this, I refer primarily to expository works. The greatest works of poetry or fiction are masterpieces of fine art. In both cases, language is mastered by the writer for the sake of the reader, whether the end be instruction or delight.

To say that the great books are most readable is to say that they will not let you down it you try to read them well. You can follow the rules of reading to your utmost ability and they, unlike poorer works, will not stop paying dividends. But it is equally true to say that there is actually more in them to read. It is not merely how they are written, but what they have to say. They have more ideas per page than most books have in their entirety. That is why you can read a great book over and over again and never exhaust its contents, and probably never read skillfully enough to master it completely. The most readable books are infinitely readable.

They are rereadable for another reason. They can be read at many different levels of understanding, as well as with a great diversity of interpretation. The most obvious examples of many levels of reading are found in such books as Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and The Odyssey. Children can read them with enjoyment, but fail to find therein all the beauty and significance which delight an adult mind.

(5) I have also said before that the great books are the

most instructive, the most enlightening. This follows, in a sense, from the tact that they are original communications, that they contain what cannot be found in other books. Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with their doctrines, these are the primary teachers of mankind, because they have made the basic contributions to human learning and thought. Insofar as they have solved important problems, wholly or partially, the principles to be found in them are the leading principles of human knowledge. And^the conclusions their authors reached are the major achievements of human thought.

It is almost unnecessary to add that the great books are the most influential books. In the tradition of learning, they have been most discussed by readers who have also been writers. These are the books about which there are many other books. Countless and, for the most part, forgotten are the books which have been written about them —the commentaries, digests, or popularizations.

(6) Finally, the great books deal with the persistently unsolved problems of human life. It is not enough to say of them that they have solved important problems, in whole or in part—that is only one aspect of their achievement. There are genuine mysteries in the world that mark the limits of human knowing and thinking. Inquiry not only begins with wonder, but usually ends with it also.

Great minds do not, like shallower ones, despise mysteries or run away from them. They acknowledge them honestly and try to define them by the clearest statement of ultimately imponderable alternatives. Wisdom is fortified, not destroyed, by understanding its limitations. Ignorance does not make a fool as surely as self-deception.

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You can see now how these six criteria hang together, how they follow from and support one another. You can see why, if these are the qualifications, the exclusive society of great authors has fewer than four hundred members.

Perhaps you can also see why you should read the great books rather than books about them or books which try to distill them for you. "Some books," says Francis Bacon, "may be read by deputy, and extracts made o£ them by others. But that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort o£ books." With respect to the others, "distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things." The same reason which sends men to the concert hall and the art gallery should send them to the great books rather than to imperfect reproductions. The firsthand witness is always preferred to garbled hearsay. A good story can be spoiled by a bad raconteur.

The only excuse which men have ever given tor reading books about these books does not hold here any more than it would in the case of canned music or cheap replicas of painting and sculpture. They know that it is easier, as well as better, to meet the fine artist in his own work rather than in its imitations. But they believe that the great teachers cannot be met in their own works. They think they are too difficult, too far above them, and hence they console themselves with substitutes. This, as I have tried to show, is not the case. I repeat: the great books are the most readable tor anyone who knows how to read. Skill in reading is the only condition for entry into this good company.

Please do not look at the list of great books as another of those lists which men make up tor the lonely island on which they are going to be shipwrecked. You do not need the idyllic solitude, which modern men can dream of only as the benefit of disaster, in order to read the great books. If you have any leisure at all, you can use it to read in. But do not make the mistake of the businessman who devotes every energy to making his pile first, and supposes that he will know how to use his spare time when he retires. Leisure and work should be components of every week, not divisions of (he span of life.

The pursuit of learning and enlightenment through the great books can relieve the tedium of toil and the monotony of business as much as music and the other fine arts. But the leisure must be genuinely leisure. It must be time free from the children and from television, as well as un-'pccupied by money grubbing. Not only is the widely advertised fifteen minutes a day ridiculously insufficient—would anyone interested in golf or bridge think that fifteen minutes are long enough even to warm up and get started?— but the time spent in reading must not be shared with bouncing Teddy on your knee, answering Mary's questions, or watching the cops catch the robbers.

There is one point, however, in the selection of books men make for a possible shipwreck. When they are faced with having to choose a very small number, they tend to pick the best. We forget that the total amount of leisure we can rescue from our busy lives is probably no longer than a few years on a desert island. If we realized that, we might make up a list of reading for the rest of our lives as carefully as we would for a desert island. We cannot count on eternity. The bell will ring soon enough. School will be out, and unless we have laid our plans well and followed them, we are likely to find, when reading time is over, that we might just as well have played golf or bridge, for all the good it did our minds.

The list of Great Books in the Appendix is a suggestion for those who can take the hint. It is neither too long for the average man's leisure nor too short for those who can manage to find more time. However much of it you do, I am sure of one thing: no time will be wasted. Whether your economy be one of abundance or scarcity, you will find every item on this list a profitable investment of hours and energy.

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I said before that I was going to make smaller groupings of books according as their authors appeared to be talking about the same problems and conversing with one another. Let's begin at once. The easiest way to begin is with the themes that dominate our daily conversation. The newspapers and television will not let us forget about the world crisis and our national role in it. We talk at table and in the evening, and even during office hours, about war and peace, about democracy against the totalitarian regimes, about planned economies, about civil rights and Communism, about the next national election, and hence about the Constitution, which both parties are going to use as a platform and as a plank with which to hit the other fellow over the head.

It we do more than look at the newspapers or watch television, we may have been induced to look at the Constitution itself. It the political problems with which current books deal interest us, there is more reading for us to do in relation to them and the Constitution. These contemporary authors probably read some of the great books, and the men who wrote the Constitution certainly did. All we have to do is to follow the lead, and the trail will unwind by itself.

First, let us go to the other writings of the men who drafted the Constitution. Most obvious of all is the collection of pieces, arguing for the ratification of the Constitution, published weekly in The Independent Journal and elsewhere by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. To understand The Federalist, you should read not only the Articles of Confederation, which the Constitution was intended to supplant, but also the writings of the Federalists' major opponent on many issues, Thomas Jefferson.

George Washington, Edmund Burke, and Tom Paine ^ were other great participants in the argument. Washington saw the Constitution as in some sense the leading hope of mankind. Burke, an Englishman, supported our Revolution and attacked the one in France in 1789. And Paine's works throw light on the issues of the day and the ideologies that controlled the opponents.

These writers, because they were readers as well, lead us to the books which influenced them. They are using ideas whose more extended and disinterested exposition is to be found elsewhere. The pages of The Federalist, and the writings of Jefferson, Burke, and Paine refer us to the great political thinkers of the eighteenth and late seventeenth centuries in Europe. We should read Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws, Locke's essay Concerning Civil Government, Rousseau's Social Contract. To savor the rationalism of this Age of Reason, we must also read here and there in the voluminous papers of Voltaire.

You may suppose that the laissez-faire individualism of Adam Smith also belongs in our revolutionary background, but remember that The Wealth of Nations was first published in 1776. The founding fathers were influenced, in their ideas about property, agrarianism, and free trade, by John Locke and the French economists against whom Adam Smith subsequently wrote.

Our founding fathers were well read in ancient history. They drew upon the annals of Greece and Rome tor many of their political examples. They had read Plutarch's Lives and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War—the war between Sparta and Athens and their allies. They followed the fortunes of the various Greek federations for what light they might throw on the enterprise they were about to undertake. They were not only learned in history and political thought, but they went to school with the ancient orators. As a result, their political propaganda is not only magnificently turned, but amazingly effective even today. With the exception of Lincoln (who had read a few great books very well), American statesmen of a later day neither speak nor write so well.

The trail leads further. The writers of the eighteenth century had been influenced in turn by their immediate forebears in political thought. The Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and the political tracts of Spinoza deal with the same problems of government—the formation of society by contract, the justifications of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, the right of rebellion against tyranny. Locke, Spinoza, and Hobbes are, in a sense, involved in a conversation with one another. Locke and Spinoza had read Hobbes. Spinoza, moreover, had read Machiavelli's The Prince, and Locke everywhere refers to and quotes "the judicious Hooker," the Richard Hooker who wrote a book about ecclesiastical government at the end of the sixteenth century, and of whom Izaak Walton, the fisherman, wrote a life.

I mention Hooker—even though he is not in either Great Books or Gateway— because he, more than the men of a later generation, had read the ancients well, especially the Ethics and Politics of Aristotle. He had certainly read them better than Thomas Hobbes, if we can judge^by the references in the latter's work. Hooker's influence on Locke partly accounts tor the difference between Locke and Hobbes on many political questions.

Like Locke, Hooker opposed the theory of the divine right of kings. Madison and Jefferson were acquainted with his arguments. Through him, still other books entered the picture. Hooker reflected the great medieval works on political theory, especially the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was an upholder of popular sovereignty and the natural rights of man.

The conversation about current political issues thus enlarges itself to take in the whole of European political thought. If we go back to the Constitution and the writings of '76, we are inevitably led further, as each writer reveals himself to be a reader in turn. Little has been left out. If we add Plato's Republic and Laws which Aristotle read and answered, and Cicero's Republic and Laws which were read by Roman jurists, and through them influenced the development of law throughout medieval Europe, almost all the great political books have been drawn in.

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That is not quite true. By returning to the original conversation, and taking a fresh start, we may discover the few major omissions. Suppose there is an ex-Nazi in our midst, and he quotes Mein Kampf to us. Since it is not clear that Hitler ever read the great books, the political utterances of Mussolini might be more productive of leads. We may remember that Mussolini was once a socialist. If we pursue these lines in all their ramifications, other books inevitably find their way into the conversation.

There would be Hegel's Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right. Here we would find the justifications of state absolutism, the deification o£ the state. There would also be writings of Carlyle, especially such books as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Here we would find the theory of the superman as above the canons of right and wrong, the theory of a successful use of might as its own ultimate justification. And behind Hegel on the one hand, and Carlyle on the other—in the latter case through the influence of Schopenhauer—would be the greatest of German thinkers, Immanuel Kant. Anyone who reads Kant's Science of Right will see that he cannot be held responsible for the positions of certain of his followers.

There might also be a Communist at our table, either Khrushchevist or Stalinist. Both sorts swear by the same book. The conversation would not get very tar without Karl Marx being mentioned. His great work, Capital, would also be mentioned, even though no one had read it, not even the Communist. But if anyone had read Capital, and other literature of revolution, he would have found a trail which led, on the one hand, to Hegel again —a starting point for both Communism and Fascism—and, on the other hand, to the great economic and social theorists of England and France: to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, to Malthus's essay on Population, and to Guizot's History of Civilization in Europe.

A lawyer present might turn the discussion away from economic theory by turning it to the problems of government, and especially those of a democracy. He may have just recently read Walter Lippmann's The Public Philosophy. Or he might raise questions about the role of the UN in current crises abroad, and refer to Arnold Toyn-bee's Civilization on Trial. These books would bring others in their train.

Becoming interested in the problems of democracy, and of our own democratic government in particular, we might go from Lippmann to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and to Calhoun's Disquisition on Government. The issues both of these books raise about the possible tyranny of majority rule and the protection of the rights of minorities would lead us to John Stuart Mill's essay on Representative Government and to his essay On Liberty. The latter, in turn, especially its magnificent chapter on freedom of thought and discussion, would send us to Milton's Areopagitica. Mill's two essays, by the way, are being paraphrased every day, with approval or disapproval, by men who have not read them, so much have they become a part of the contemporary controversy between liberals and conservatives.

The discussion of Toynbee's views about war and peace and about the role of international or supranational organizations in the prevention of war might turn our attention to the failure of the league of the ancient Greek cities to prevent the Peloponnesian War. Toynbee tells us how much his own views were influenced by reading Thucyd-ides' tragic account of that war. The whole subject of war, and especially the distinction between the hot war of bombs and battles and the cold war of diplomats, propaganda agencies, and spies would probably open up another line of reading for us, beginning with von Clausewitz's On War, and going back through Kant's little treatise on Perpetual Peace and Rousseau's essay on A Lasting Peace Through the Federation of Europe to Dante's thirteenth-century vision o£ world peace through world government, set forth with unassailable logic in the opening book of his De Monarchia.

Discussions of democracy and government, on the one hand, or of international affairs and war and peace, on the other, have a way of getting into thorny questions about the intrinsic defects of human nature, and about the intricacies of semantic clarification. The question about man's aggressiveness might suggest the reading of Freud's little essay Why War? And it we started on that, the whole history of psychology might unfold in another list of books, including Pavlov's work Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes, William James's Principles of Psychology, Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, Descartes' work on The Passions of the Soul, and so on. Since we started out by considering the psychological aspects of politics and of war, Machiavelli's The Prince would also become relevant, tor it raises the fundamental question about the benevolence or malice o£ men in relation to their fellow men.

The problem of the meaning of words, and especially the problem of their tricky ambiguity, would, of course, lead someone to refer to current books by linguistic philosophers of one school or another. All this current literature—and there is a spate of it—has deep roots in the tradition of Western thought, from the very beginning in the dialogues of Plato and in the treatises of Aristotle, wherein hardly a step is taken without attention being paid to the multiple meanings of the critical terms of the discussion. If we pursue this interest in the meanings of words and their uses in thought, all the great works in the liberal arts would eventually have to be rediscovered.

A list of required readings would include Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, especially Book III on language; Hobbes's Leviathan, especially the first book, and his Rhetoric, which closely follows Aristotle's Rhetoric. It would also include Plato's dialogues about language and oratory (the Cratylus, Gorgias, and Phaedrus, especially), and two great medieval works on teaching and being taught—one by St. Augustine and one by St. Thomas, both called Of the Teacher. I dare not start on logical works, because the list might be too long, but John Stuart Mill's System of Logic, Bacon's Novum Organum, and Aristotle's Or-ganon must be mentioned.

One other direction is possible. The consideration of political and economic issues tends to raise the basic ethical problems about pleasure and virtue, about happiness, the ends of life, and the means thereto. Someone may have read Jacques Maritain's Moral Philosophy and noticed what this living-follower of Aristotle and Aquinas had to say about contemporary problems, especially the moral aspects of current political and economic issues. That would not only lead us back to the great moral treatises of the past—Aristotle's Ethics and the second part of Aquinas's Summa Theologica—but it might also get us into a many-sided dispute. To see it through, we would have to consult Mill's Utilitarianism, Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, and Spinoza's Ethics. We might even return to the Roman Stoics and Epicureans, to the Meditations of Marcus Au-relius, and Lucretius's On the Nature of Things.

 - 6 -

You should have observed a number of things in this ramification of conversation or reflection about current problems. Not only does one book lead to another, but each contains implicitly a large diversity of leads. Our conversation or thought can branch out in many directions. and each time it does another group of books seems to be drawn in. Notice, furthermore, that the same authors are often represented in different connections, tor they have usually written about many of these related topics, sometimes in different books, but often in the same work.

Nor is it surprising that, as one goes back to the medieval and ancient worlds, the same names are repeated many times. Aristotle and Plato, Cicero and Aquinas, for instance, stand at the fountainhead. They have been read and discussed, agreed with and disagreed with by the writers of modern times. And when they have not been read, their doctrines have filtered down in many indirect -ways, through such men as Hooker.

So tar we have dealt mainly with practical matters-politics, economics, morals—although you probably observed a tendency to become theoretical. We turned to psychology by way of Freud's influence on the lawyers. If the ethical controversy had been followed a bit further, we would soon have been in metaphysics. In fact, we were, with Maritain's discussion of free will and with Spinoza's Ethics. Kant's Critique of Practical Reason might have led us to his Critique of Pure Reason, and all the theoretic questions about the nature of knowledge and experience.

Suppose we consider briefly some theoretic questions. We have been concerned with education throughout this book. Someone who had read Mr. Hutchins' book. The Higher Learning in America, might raise a question about metaphysics and its place in higher education. That usually starts a discussion about what metaphysics is. And usually someone says there is no such thing. We would probably be referred to John Dewey's Democracy and Education and his Quest for Certainty to see that all valid knowledge is scientific or experimental. It all the leads therein were followed, we might soon find ourselves back to the source of the current anti-metaphysical trend:

Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and perhaps even Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

Someone who had read books such as Whitehead's Process and Reality and Science and the Modern World, or Santayana's Realm of Essence and Realm of Matter, or Maritain's Degrees of Knowledge, might object to the dismissal of metaphysics. The 'protagonist might defend the claims of theoretic philosophy to give us knowledge about the nature of things, of a different sort and apart from science. It he had read those books well, he would have been led back to the great speculative works of modem and ancient times; to Descartes' Principles of Philosophy; to Aquinas's little work on Being and Essence; to Aristotle's Metaphysics, and to Plato's dialogues, the Timaeus, the Parmenides, and the Sophist.

Or let us suppose that our theoretic interests turn to the natural sciences rather than to philosophy. I have already mentioned Freud and Pavlov. The problems'of human behavior and human nature open into a lot of other questions. Not only man's nature but his place in nature would concern us. All these roads lead to Darwin's Origin of Species and thence, on bypaths, to Lyell's Antiquity of Man and Malthus's essay on Population.

Recently there have been a lot of books about the practice of medicine, and a few about the theory of it. Man's normal hypochondria makes him abnormally interested in doctors, health, and the functioning of his own body. Here there are many routes in reading, but they would all probably go through Claude Bernard's Introduction to Experimental Medicine and Harvey's book on The Motion of the Heart, all the way back to Galen's Natural Faculties and Hippocrates' amazing formulations of Greek medicine.

Einstein and Infeld's The Evolution of Physics refers us to the great milestones in the development of man's experimental knowledge. Here our reading would be deepened if we looked into Poincare's Foundations of Science and Clifford's Common Sense of the Exact Sciences. They, in turn, would take us to such works as Faraday's Experimental Researches into Electricity and Mendeleev's Periodic Law of the Chemical Elements; perhaps even to Newton's Optics, and Galileo's Two New Sciences.

The most exact sciences are not only the most experimental but also the most mathematical ones. If we are interested in physics, we cannot avoid considering mathematics. Here, too, there have been many recent books, but I think none so good as a little masterpiece by Whitehead called An Introduction to Mathematics. Bertrand Russell's various writings on the meaning of mathematics are also worthy of consideration.

If we read these works, we might turn to Forsyth's Mathematics, in Life and Thought. From it, we could not help returning to the starting points of modern mathematics in Descartes' Geometry and the mathematical works of Newton. Modern commentaries, like those of Hogben, Dantzig, and Kasner and Newman, would be extremely helpful, but I think we would also find it necessary to see the whole of modern mathematics in the light of its contrast with the Greek accomplishment, especially Euclid's Elements of Geometry, Nicomachus's Introduction to Arithmetic, and Apollonius's Treatise on Conic Sections.

The connection of the great books and the versatility of their authors may now appear even more plainly than before. Descartes and Whitehead were both mathematicians and metaphysicians. Malthus's essay on Population was not only a work in social science, but also influenced Darwin's notions about the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Newton was not only a great experimental physicist but also a great mathematician. Leonardo's Notebooks contain both his theory of perspective in painting and the record of his mechanical investigations and inventions.

 - 7 -

I am going to take one step further. Even though we have been primarily concerned with expository works, a recitation of the great books would be sorely deficient if the masterpieces of belles-lettres were not mentioned. Here, too, contemporary works might generate an interest in their forebears. The modern novel has a varied history which opens up when we go back from D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Mann, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, to the forms of narration they have tried to modify. These four, along with Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, and Isaac Singer, lead us to Flaubert, Maupassant, and Balzac, and to the great Russians Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Nor will we forget our own Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Henry James; or Hardy, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott. Behind all these lie the great eighteenth-century novels of Defoe and Fielding. Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones would remind us of many others, including Swift's Gulliver. Our travels would not be complete, of course, until we came to Cervantes' Don Quixote and Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel.

The plays, both pleasant and unpleasant, by Shaw and other moderns follow an even longer tradition of dramatic writing. There would be not only the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov, who influenced Shaw considerably, and the earlier comedies of Sheridan and Moliere; but behind the tragedies of Synge and O'Neill, as well as the plays of Shakespeare and other Elizabethans, there lie the Greek comedies of Aristophanes and the great tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus.

Finally, there are the long narrative poems, the great epics: Goethe's Faust, Milton's Paradise Lost, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dante's Divine Comedy, Virgil's Aeneid, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

I have not mentioned all the books and authors in Great Books of the Western World and in Gateway to the Great Books, but I have referred to a large number of them as they might group themselves in the course of conversation, or in the pursuit of interests aroused by contemporary issues or current books. There are no fixed barriers between these groups. They flow into one another at every turn.

This is not only true of such obviously related subject matters as politics and ethics, ethics and metaphysics, metaphysics and mathematics, mathematics and natural science. It appears in more remote connections. The writers of The Federalist refer to Euclid's axioms as a model for political principles. A reader of Montaigne and Machia-velli, as well as, of course, of Plutarch, will find their sentiments and stories, even their language, in the plays of Shakespeare. The Divine Comedy reflects the Summa The-ologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle's Ethics, and Ptolemy's astronomy. And we know how frequently Plato and Aristotle refer to Homer and the great tragic poets.

 - 8 -

Perhaps you see now why I have said so often that the great books should be read in relation to one another and in the most varied sorts of connection. Thus read, they support each other, illuminate each other, intensify each other's significance. And, of course, they make one another more readable. In reciting their names and tracing their connections, I have gone backward from contemporary books, taking each step in terms of the books an author himself read. That has shown you how the whole tradition of the great books is involved in our life today.

But if you wish to use one great book to help you read another, it would be better to read from the past into the present, rather than the other way around. It you first read the books an author read, you will understand him better. Your mind has grown as his did, and therefore you are better able to come to terms with him, to know and understand him.

To proceed in the other direction is sometimes more exciting. It is more like doing detective work, or playing hare and hounds. Even when you get this excitement out of reading the books backwards, you will nevertheless have to understand them in the forward direction. That is the way they happened, and they can be completely understood in no other way.

Our wanderings among the great books help me to make another point. It is difficult to say of any contemporary book that it is great. We are too near it to make a sober judgment. Sometimes we can be relatively sure, as in the case of Einstein's work, the novels o£ Proust and Joyce, or the philosophy of Dewey, Whitehead, and Maritain. But, for the most part, we must refrain from such elections. The hall of fame is too august a place for us to send our twentieth-century candidates, without enclosing return postage.

But current books can certainly be good, even if we cannot be sure they are great. The best sign I know that a current book is good, and that it may even be judged great some day, is the obviousness of its connection with the great books. Such books are drawn, and draw us, into the conversation which the great books have had. Necessarily their authors are well read. They belong to the tradition, whatever they think of it, or however much they seem to revolt from it.

Let me state one further conclusion. We suffer today not only from political nationalism but cultural provincialism. We have developed the cult of the present moment. We read only current books for the most part, it we read any at all. Not only shall we fail to read the good books of this year well, if we read them only, but our failure to read the great books isolates us from the world of man, just as much as unqualified allegiance to the hammer and sickle makes one a Russian or Chinese first, and a man later—if ever. It is our most sacred human privilege to be men first, and citizens or nationals second. This is just as true in the cultural sphere as the political. We are not pledged to our country or our century.

It is our privilege, in fact, I would say it is our duty, to belong to the larger brotherhood of man which recognizes no national boundaries or any local or tribal fetishes. I do not know how to escape from the straitjacket of political nationalism, but I do know how we can become citizens of the world of letters, friends of the human spirit in all its manifestations, regardless of time and place.

You can guess the answer. It is by reading the great books. Thus the human mind, wherever it is located, can be freed from current emergencies and local prejudices, through being elevated to the universal plane of communication. There it grasps the general truths, to which the whole human tradition bears witness.

Those who can read well can think critically. To this extent, they have become free minds. If they have read the great books—and I mean really read them—they will have the freedom to move anywhere in the human world. Only they can fully lead the life of reason who, though living in a time and place, are yet not wholly of it.


Author's Preface ] 1. To the Average Reader ] 2. The Reading of "Reading" ] 3. Reading is Learning ] 4. Teachers, Dead or Alive ] 5. The Defeat of the Schools ] 6. On Selfhelp ] 7. From Many Rules to One Habit ] 8. Catching on From the Title ] 9. Seeing the Skeleton ] 10. Coming to Terms ] 11. What's the Proposition and Why ] 12. The Etiquette of Talking Back ] 13. The Things the Reader Can Say ] 14. And Still More Rules ] 15. The Other half ] [ 16. The Great Books ] 17. Free Minds and Free Men ] Appendix ]

 ] Table of Contents ] Author's Preface ] PART I. ] PART II. ] PART III. ] Appendix ] Index ] About the Author... ] Mindmap (How2R) ]

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