Great Books of the Western World

posted Oct 28, 2010, 3:18 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Oct 29, 2013, 12:40 AM ]
The revival of Burckhardt at the end of the Second World War meshed very well with the trend in some leading American universities to base undergraduate education on the reading of Great Books.  Best of all, Burckhardt's claim that modern liberal Western civilization originated in early modern Italy was welcomed by post-war Americans, who were grateful to learn that the nasty Germans played little part in the cultural evolution of the West, the asymptotic end point being American democracy.

The most ambitious expression of this post-war project to create the American Renaissance Man was the brainchild of the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977) and his co-worker Mortimer Adler (1902-2001).  Hutchins believed that truly educated people were taking part in The Great Conversation and to help them along he created the extraordinary publishing venture called "Great Books of the Western World", made up of 54 volumes including 443 works by 74 white men.

Have a look at these wonderful photographs of Mortimer Adler at work.  Those boxes on his desk are the little slips of paper that made up the
Syntopicon, Part I and Part II, that crazy index of all the Great Ideas of the Western World!  My favourite is the photo of Mortimer Adler and his adoring secretary.  At the bottom, you can see all 54 volumes displayed, with Adler and Hutchins in the background.


click to enlarge