The Great Books of the Western World: Embarking on a Survey of Western Thought

The Great Books of the Western World is a set of books, collected and curated by a committee, but led in major by renowned professor of literature, Mortimer Adler. The set is a collection of 443 works written by 74 authors, and even those are just a few of the greatest in Western history.

The set was born in the 1950’s to solve a problem. The problem Adler hoped to address was, “…The headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.”[1] That’s a tall order for a set of old books.

The Literary Canon

The set has taken shots from all angles, and has totally fallen out of favor.[2] The concept of any sort of literary canon is disgusting to postmoderns, so this set, which was born out of a distinctly modernist worldview, is now archaic, oppressive, bigoted, etc etc etc.

I’m not here to fight for the concept of a literary canon. All I will say is that the Christian worldview (which is more like modernism than postmodernism) sustains such a concept and actually encourages it. Drawing broad conclusions throughout history is Christian–it’s good. Making generalizations can be dangerous but is worth it. Excluding some for the sake of others isn’t bigotry, it’s sometimes just wisdom. The point: there are those authors who continued the great conversation of history, and I believe this set is a decent representation of them–at least a good starting point.

The goal of the set is various:

  • To better understand society and ourselves.[3]
  • To see the world with eyes of wisdom and genius.[4]
  • To furnish the mind with the great ideas inherent to a liberal education.[5]
  • To equip the reader with the essential disciplines that lead to a successful life.[6]
  • To become a better human being.[7]
  • To teach the discipline of reading.[8]

The point is basic: The Great Books are the beginnings of a great liberal arts education, and that is what historical culture has considered to be the height of a human’s calling. Reading makes you smarter, no doubt, but reading can’t save you.

Faith and Intellectualism

My faith dictates that the goal of my life be to know my God more and more, but, unfortunately, that goal has been held in contrast to this one, as if education were antithetical to the knowledge of God. This anti-intellectualism has crippled the modern American church and led to many errors, and only recently have I come to see its massive implications on the Christian worldview.

Here’s an example–just one implication: How can I know God, the Creator of the universe, if I can’t even read well, or think clearly, or see enough about myself and my worldview to pinpoint what is right in wrong outside me, much less inside me? Why would God give me a brain, then redeem me for a mission in this world, then say, Now, don’t try anything, just step back and let me handle this. Unthinkable. We have an obligation to think God’s thoughts after Him, as much as our puny minds can. He doesn’t (normally/regularly) give us visions; He gave us Truth and a mind.

And so, over the next 9–12 months I will spend a few hours of my reading each day in this set. It’s a daunting task, but I will blog once per week on the book(s) for that week. That sort of accountability should keep me going when I hit the wall of the Greek philosophers. Each post will be tagged “The Great Books,” and you can access all the posts there.

  1. The Great Conversation, pg. xii.  ↩

  2. Here’s an example from the New York Times.  ↩

  3. “These books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it” (pg. 2).  ↩

  4. “We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own” (~Sir Richard Livingstone, pgs. 2–3).  ↩

  5. “The liberally educated man comprehends the ideas that are relevant to the basic problems and that operate in the basic fields of subject matter. He knows what is meant by soul, state, God, beauty, and by the other terms that are basic to the discussion of fundamental issues” (pg. 4).  ↩

  6. “The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, underhand, and think. He learns to reckon, measure, and manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict, produce, and exchange” (pg. 4).  ↩

  7. “Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, underdeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.” (pg. 5).  ↩

  8. “Great books are great teachers; they are showing us every day what ordinary people are capable of… Great books teach people not only how to read them, but also how to read all other books” (pg. 46).  ↩