Friday, August 26, 2016

The Great Conversation: Preface

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

The Editors do not believe that any of the social and political changes that have taken place in the last fifty years, or any that now seem imminent, have invalidated or can invalidate the tradition or make it irrelevant for modern men. On the contrary, they are convinced that the West needs to recapture and re-emphasize and bring to bear upon its present problems the wisdom that lies in the works of its greatest thinkers and in the discussion that they have carried on. 

This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples. We have not thought of providing our readers with hours of relaxation or with an escape from the dreadful cares that are the lot of every man in the second half of the twentieth century after Christ. We are as concerned as anybody else at 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. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could. We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now. 


We believe that in the passage of time the neglect of these books in the twentieth century will be regarded as an aberration, and not, as it is sometimes called today, a sign of progress. We think that progress, and progress in education in particular, depends on the incorporation of the ideas and images included in this set in the daily lives of all of us, from childhood through old age. In this view the disappearance of great books from education and from the reading of adults constitutes a calamity. In this view education in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in material comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone. 

We do not think that these books will solve all our problems. We do not think that they are the only books worth reading. We think that these books shed some light on all our basic problems, and that it is folly to do without any light we can get. We think that these books show the origins of many of our most serious difficulties. We think that the spirit they represent and the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before. We think that the reader who does his best to understand these books will find himself led to read and helped to understand other books. We think that reading and understanding great books will give him a standard by which to judge all other books. 

We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled. The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall a prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves. 

Great books alone will not do the trick; for the people must have the information on which to base a judgment as well as the ability to make one. In order to understand inflation, for example, and to have an intelligent opinion as to what can be done about it, the economic facts in a given country at a given time have to be available. Great books cannot help us there. But they can help us to that grasp of history, politics, morals, and economics and to that habit of mind which are needed to form a valid judgment on the issue. Great books may even help us to know what information we should demand. If we knew what information to demand we might have a better chance of getting it. 

Though we do not recommend great books as a panacea for our ills, we must admit that we have an exceedingly high opinion of them as an educational instrument. We think of them as the best educationaHrmniment for young people and adults today. By this we do not mean that this particular set is the last word that can be said on the subject. We may have made errors of selection. We hope that this collection may some day be revised in the light of the criticism it will receive. But the idea that liberal education is the education that everybody ought to have, and that the best way to a liberal education in the West is through the greatest works the West has produced, is still, in our view, the best educational idea there is. 

The elements of novelty in the present-day presentation of this idea are accounted for by the changes of the past fifty years. For reasons that will be later described, great books have disappeared, or almost disappeared, from American education. Since we take American education as the prototype of education in any highly developed industrial democracy, we predict their disappearance everywhere in the West. As I have said, we regard this disappearance as an aberration, and not as an indication of progress. We do not look upon this disappearance as a benefit to be thankful for, but as an error that should be corrected. The element of novelty that results from the disappearance of the books we take to be novelty only in the most superficial sense. We see this set as continuing a tradition that has been only momentarily interrupted. 

A second element of novelty in the presentation of these books at this time is found in the proposition that democracy requires liberal education for all. We believe that this proposition is true. We concede that it has not been ' 'scientifically" proved. We call upon our fellow citizens to test it. We think they will agree that, if this is the ideal, we should struggle to reach it and not content ourselves with inferior substitutes until we are satisfied that the goal cannot be attained. 

The third element of novelty in the effort to restore these books to education is found in the conception of adult education that we wish to advance. Until very recently the education of adults the world over was regarded as compensatory; opportunity for adult study was offered those whose economic, social, or political position had deprived them, in ways often regarded as unjust, of the amount of formal education usual among the "superior" classes. 

I am referring here, of course, only to general nonvocational education. Many other kinds of educational activities for adults have traveled under other banners: labor unions have wanted to train their members in industrial bargaining; individuals have wanted to prepare themselves for better jobs. When a man had made up for the deficiencies of his formal schooling, his obligation, and usually his desire, to educate himself naturally disappeared. He had reached the goal he had set for himself. I think it fair to say that in most countries of the world today the notion that a man who had "had" in childhood and youth the best institutional education the country had to offer should go on educating himself all his life would be regarded as fantastic. 

Yet we believe that the obligation rests on all of us, uneducated, miseducated, and educated alike, to do just that. We do not depreciate the possibiliites of these books as a means of educating young people. We think the sooner the young are introduced to the Great Conversation the better. They will not be able to understand it very well; but they should be introduced to it in the hope that they will continue to take part in it and eventually understand it. But we confess that we have had principally in mind the needs of the adult population, who, in America at least, have as a result of the changes of the last fifty years the leisure to become educated men and women. They now have the chance to understand themselves through understanding their tradition. Our principal aim in putting these books together was to offer them the means of doing so. 

The members of the Advisory Board, in addition to long experience as teachers of young people, had all devoted a large part of their lives to the education of adults. They had all sought to use great books for the purpose of educating adults. They determined to try to offer the means of liberal education in a coherent program. This set of books was the result. 

The Board asked itself whether an individual book contributed in an important way to the Great Conversation. The members drew upon their experience in teaching as a guide. They do not claim that all the great books of the West are here. They would not be embarrassed at the suggestion that they had omitted a book, or several books, greater than any they had included. They would be disturbed if they thought they had omitted books essential to a liberal education or had included any that had little bearing upon it. 

The discussions of the Board revealed few differences of opinion about the overwhelming majority of the books in the list. The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it. There is not much doubt about which are the most important voices in the Great Conversation. Of marginal cases there are a few. Many readers will be disappointed to find one, at least, of their favorite works missing. Many readers will be sur- prised to find some author of whom they had a low opinion given a place of honor. The final decision on the list was made by me. I do not pretend that my prejudices played no part; I would like to claim that I sought, obtained, and usually accepted excellent advice. 

Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unneces- sary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already. References to the Bible are, however, included in both the King James and the Douai versions under the appropriate topics in the Syntopicon. 

The Editors felt that the chronological order was the most appropriate organizing principle for the volumes of this set. Since they conceived of this collection of books as repro- ducing a conversation among its authors, it was a natural decision to make the successive volumes of the set present, so far as possible, the authors in the temporal sequence in which they took part in that conversation. 

Examining the chronological structure of the set, the reader will also note that the Great Conversation covers more than twenty-five centuries. But he may wonder at its apparent termination with the end of the nineteenth century. With the exception of some of Freud's writings, all the other works here assembled were written or published before 1900; and some of Freud's important works were published before that date. 

The Editors do not think that the Great Conversation came to an end before the twentieth century began. On the contrary, they know that the Great Conversation has been going on during the first half of this century, and they hope it will continue to go on during the rest of this century and the centuries to follow. They are confident that great books have been written since 1900 and that the twentieth century will contribute many new voices to the Great Conversation. 

The reason, then, for the omission of authors and works after 1900 is simply that the Editors did not feel that they or anyone else could accurately judge the merits of contemporary writings. During the editorial deliberations about the contents of the set, more difficult problems were encountered in the case of nineteenth-century authors and titles than with regard to those of any preceding century. The cause of these difficulties the proximity of these authors and works to our own day and our consequent lack of perspective with regard to them would make it far more difficult to make a selection of twentieth-century authors. If the reader is interested in knowing some of the possible candidates for inclusion from the twentieth century, he will find their names in the Bibliography of Additional Readings, which is appended to the Syntopicon (in Volume 3, pp. 1143-1117). The Additional Readings that come at the end of each of the Syntopicons loz chapters on the great ideas try to make an adequate representation of works written in this century; and in doing so, they name books that may prove themselves great, as other great books have done, by submission with the passage of time to the general judgment of mankind. 

The Editors did not seek to assemble a set of books representative of various periods or countries. Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and modern times, are included in proportion as the great writers of these epochs contributed to the deepening, extension, or enrichment of the tradition of the West. It is worth noting that, though the period from 1500 to 1900 represents less than one-sixth of the total extent of the literary record of the Western tradition, the last four hundred years is represented in this set by more than one-half the volumes of Great Books of the Western World. 

The Editors did not, in short, allot a certain space to a certain epoch in terms of the amount of time in human history that it consumed. Nor did we arbitrarily allot a certain space to a certain country. We tried to find the most important voices in the Conversation, without regard to the language they spoke. We did encounter some difficulties with language that we thought insurmountable. Where the excellence of a book depended principally on the excellence of its language, and where no adequate translation could be found or made, we were constrained reluctantly to omit it. 

We thought it no part of our duty to emphasize national contributions, even those of our own country. I omitted Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain, all very great writers, because I felt that, important as they were, they did not measure up to the other books in the set. They carried forward the Great Conversation, but not in such a way as to be indispensable to the comprehension of it. Obviously in a set made up of a limited number of volumes only the writers that seemed indispensable could be included. 

Some writers have made an important contribution to the Great Conversation, but in a way that makes it impossible to include it in a set like this. These are writers, of whom Leibnitz, Voltaire, and Balzac are notable examples, whose contribution lies in the total volume of their work, rather than in a few great works, and whose total volume is too large to be included or whose single works do not come up to the standard of the other books in this set. What we wanted first of all, of course, was to make these books available. In many cases, all or some of an author's works included in this set were unavailable. They were either inaccessible or prohibitively expensive. This is true of works by Aristotle, Galen, Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Nicomachus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Plotinus, Aquinas, Gilbert, Harvey, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Kant, Lavoisier, Fourier, Faraday, and Freud. 

We attach importance to making whole works, as distinguished from excerpts, available; and in all but three cases, Aquinas, Kepler, and Fourier, the 443 works of the 74 authors in this set are printed complete. One of the policies upon which the Advisory Board insisted most strongly was that the great writers should be allowed to speak for themselves. They should speak with their full voice and not be digested or mutilated by editorial decisions. Undoubtedly this policy makes reading more difficult; for the reader becomes to this extent his own editor. No one will deny that many arid stretches are contained in the works of the great writers. But we believed that it would be presumptuous for us to do the reader's skipping for him. When Hermann Hesse referred to the present as "the Age of the Digest," he did not intend to say anything complimentary. 

Since the set was conceived of as a great conversation, it is obvious that the books could not have been chosen with any dogma or even with any point of view in mind. In a conversation that has gone on for twenty-five centuries, all dogmas and points of view appear. Here are the great errors as well as the great truths. The reader has to determine which are the errors and which the truths. The task of interpretation and conclusion is his. This is the machinery and life of the Western tradition in the hands of free men. 

The title of this set is Great Books of the Western World. I shall have more to say later about great books of the Eastern world and merely wish to remark here that in omitting them from this collection we do not intend to depreciate them. The conversation presented in this set is peculiar to the West. We believe that everybody, Westerners and Easterners, should understand it, not because it is better than anything the East can show, but because it is important to understand the West. We hope that editors who understand the tradition of the East will do for that part of the world what we have attempted for our own tradition in Great Books tf the Western World &nd the Syntopicon. With that task accomplished for both the West and the East, it should be possible co put together the common elements in the traditions and :o present Great Books of the World. Few things could do is much to advance the unity of mankind. 

Some readers may feel that we have been too hard on them in insisting that the great works of science are a part of the conversation and that a man who has not read them has not icquired a liberal education. Others, who concede the importance of science to understanding the world today, may aise the question of whether it is possible to understand nodern science and its contribution to the modern world rhrough the medium of books of the past. They may feel that, whereas philosophy, history, and literature can proluce works that are always fresh and new, natural science is progressive and is rapidly outdated. Why read Copernicus or Faraday if scientists now know everything that they blew, and much more besides? 

It is interesting to note that, some years after the books had been selected for this set, President James B. Conant of Harvard, a distinguished chemist, proposed to make the kind of Dooks selected central in a reform of scientific education for the layman. He said: "What I propose is the establishment of one or more courses at the college level on the Tactics and Strategy of Science. The objective would be to give a greater iegree of understanding of science by the close study of a elatively few historical examples of the development of science. I suggest courses at the college level, for I do not believe they could be understood earlier in a student's education; but there is no reason why they could not become important parts of programs of adult education. Indeed such courses might well prove particularly suitable for older groups of men and women. . . . The greatest hindrance to the widespread use of case histories in teaching science is the lack of suitable case material. ... I am hopeful that if a sufficient number of teachers become interested in the approach suggested in the following pages a co-operative enterprise might be launched which would go far to overcome the difficulties now presented by the paucity of printed material available for student use. . . . Together they might plan for the translation, editing, and publishing in suitable form of extracts from the history of science which would be of importance to the college teacher. It is no small undertaking, but one of the first importance. When it is remembered that two of the most significant works in the history of science, the De Revolutionibus of Copernicus and the De Fabrica of Vesalius, have never been published in English translation to say nothing of the vast amount of untranslated writings of Kepler, Galileo, Lavoisier, Galvani, and a host of others it is evident how much remains to be accomplished." The De Revolutionibus of Copernicus and writings of Kepler, Galileo, and Lavoisier appear in this set. So also do the mathematical and scientific works of nineteen others Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Nicomachus, Ptolemy, Gilbert, Harvey, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Huygens, Fourier, Faraday, Darwin, James, and Freud. 

It is true that scientific works are often omitted from lists of important books on the assumption that such works lack the educational significance of the great poems, the great histories, and the great philosophies and are somehow not part of our "culture"; or that they cannot be read except by a few specialists; or that science, unlike poetry, has somehow "advanccd" in modern times in such fashion as to rob the great steps in that advance of any but antiquarian value. 

But the Editors do not agree that the great poets of every time are to be walked with and talked with, but not those who brought deep insight into the mystery of number and magnitude or the natural phenomena they observed about them. 

We do not agree that better means of observation or more precise instruments of measurement invalidate the thinking of great scientists of the past, even where such means cause us to correct the hypotheses of these scientists. 

We lament the man who, properly desiring to wrestle at first hand with the problems that the great poets and philosophers have raised, yet contents himself with the "results" and ' 'findings' ' of modern science. 

We believe that it is a gratuitous assumption that anybody can read poetry but very few can read mathematics. In view of the countless engineers and technicians in our society we should expect many of our readers to find the mathematical and scientific masterpieces more understandable than many other works. As Stringfellow Barr has said, the world is rapidly dividing into technicians who cannot tell the difference between a good poem and sentimental doggerel and "cultured" people who know nothing about electricity except that you push a button when you want it. In a society that is highly technological the sooner the citizens understand the basic ideas of mathematics and natural science the better. 

Poor books in science deal with specialties that serve the technician and pride themselves on juggling jargon. But the best books get their power from the refinement and precise use of the common language. As far as the medium of communication is concerned, they are products of the most elegant literary style, saying precisely what is meant. Like literary books, they have beginnings, middles, and ends that move from familiar situations through complications to unravelings and recognitions. They sometimes end in the revelation of familiar mysteries. 

The atmosphere we breathe today, because of the universal use of gadgets and machines, because the word "scientific" is employed in a magical sense, and because of the half-hidden technological fabric of our lives, is full of the images and myths of science. The minds of men are full of shadows and reflections of things that they cannot grasp. As Scott Buchanan has said, "Popular science has made every man his own quack; he needs some of the doctor's medicine." 

Much of this is the result of the mystery that modern man has made of mathematics. It is supposed that the scientist or engineer can understand great scientific works because he understands mathematics, which nobody but a scientist or engineer can understand. This is the reason why a fairly continuous series of great books in mathematics is contained in this set. The Editors believe that mathematical truth will set us free from the superstitious awe that surrounds the scientific enterprise today. 

The reader will be able to decide for himself whether the mathematical and scientific works should have been excluded from this set on the score of their difficulty for the ordinary reader by comparing the difficulty, for such a reader, of Dante's Divine Comedy and that most difficult of all scientific works, Newton's Principia. There is a cult of scholarship surrounding Dante's masterpiece that is almost as formidable as the cult of mathematics. Most of this work is in philology, metaphysics, and history. The ordinary reader, who has heard of this apparatus but never used it, is surprised to find that he understands Dante without it. 

Both the cult of learning around Dante and the cult of ignorance around Newton are phenomena of the vicious specialization of scholarship. Much of the background of Dante is in Euclid and in Ptolemy's astronomy; the structure of both the poem and the world it describes is mathematical. Almost all of Newton by his express intention is Euclidean in its arithmetic as well as its geometry. Dante no more delivers his whole message without benefit of some mathematics than does Newton. Both are enhanced by the presence of the scientific voice in the conversation of which they are parts. 

The Advisory Board recommended that no scholarly apparatus should be included in the set. No "introductions" giving the Editors' views of the authors should appear. The books should speak for themselves, and the reader should decide for himself. Great books contain their own aids to reading; that is one reason why they are great. Since we hold that these works are intelligible to the ordinary man, we see no reason to interpose ourselves or anybody else between the author and the reader. 

The Syntopicon[*], which began as an index and then turned into a means of helping the reader find paths through the books, has ended, in addition to making these contributions as a tool for reference, research, and study, as a preliminary summation of the issues around which the Great Conversation has revolved, together with indications of the course of the debate at this moment. Once again, the Syntopicon argues no case and presents no point of view. It will not interpret any book to the reader; it will not tell him which author is right and which wrong on any question. It simply supplies him with suggestions as to how he may conveniently pursue the study of any important topic through the range of Western intellectual history. It shows him how to find what great [*]For a more elaborate description of the structure and uses of the Syntoptcon, sec the Possible Approaches to This Set in this volume (pp. 85-89) and the Preface to the Syntopicon (Vol. II, pp. xi-xxxi). men have had to say about the greatest issues and what is being said about these issues today. 

But I would do less than justice to Mr. Adler's achievement if I left the matter there. The Syntopicon is, in addition to all this, and in addition to being a monument to the industry, devotion, and intelligence of Mr. Adler and his staff, a step forward in the thought of the West. It indicates where we are: where the agreements and disagreements lie; where the problems are; where the work has to be done. It thus helps to keep us from wasting our time through misunderstanding and points to the issues that must be attacked. When the history of the intellectual life of this century is written, the Syntopicon will be regarded as one of the landmarks in it. 

The Editors must record their gratitude to the Advisory Board and to their Editorial Consultants in the British Empire. 

The Advisory Board consisted of Stringfellow Barr, Professor of History in the University of Virginia, and formerly President of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland; Scott Buchanan, philosopher, and formerly Dean of St. John's College; John Erskine, novelist, and formerly Professor of English in Columbia University; Clarence Faust, President of the Fund for the Advancement of Education and formerly Dean of the Humanities and Sciences in Leland Stanford University; Alexander Meiklejohn, philosopher, and formerly Chairman of the School for Social Studies in San Francisco; Joseph Schwab, scientist, and Professor in the College of the University of Chicago; and Mark Van Doren, poet, and Professor of English in Columbia University. 

The Editorial Consultants were A. F. B. Clark, Professor of French Literature in the University of British Columbia, Canada; F. L. Lucas, Fellow and Lecturer of King's College, Cambridge, England; and Walter Murdoch, Professor of English Literature in the University of Western Australia. 

The Editors would also express their gratitude to Rudolph Ruzicka, designer and typographer, who planned the format of this set of books and designed the typography of its individual works in the light of his reading of them. 

The Editors wish especially to mention their debt to the late John Erskine, whoever thirty years ago began the movement to reintroduce the study of great books into American education, and who labored long and arduously on the preparation of this set. Their other special obligation is to Senator William Benton, who as a member of a discussion group in Great Books proposed the publication of this collection, and who as Publisher and Chairman of the Board of Encyclopedia Britannica has followed and fostered it and finally brought it out. 

 ROBERT M. HUTCHINS December 1, 1951 


The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins