Sunday, January 18, 2009

"The Great Conversation Revisited"- Critique, Pt. 1

“The Great Conversation Revisited” by R.

There are at least two ways that one may look at the books collected into the Great Books of the Western World series. It is possible (and possibly advisable) to consider them as nothing more than attractive and durable set of books that word nerds will no doubt find a use for in the course of their otherwise empty lives. Believe it or not, I’ve actually sat up in bed at 2 AM before and wondered aloud if I had any Aristophanes lying around. So, if your overall anxiety level goes down knowing that you have access to more Montaigne than you know what to do with, the Great Books are definitely your huckleberry. It is my deep suspicion that fewer sets of the GB have been sold to that purpose than say that of, say, ornate bookshelf filler.

Series associate editor, Mortimer J. Adler acknowledges as much in “The Great Conversation Revisited”, his foreword to the second edition of the Great Books collection, but he also goes a great deal further to defend the loftier ideals that went into its compilation. While it may seem odd to begin an exploration of the Great Books and the Conversation they represent with an essay written in response to series’ editor Robert Hutchins’ original defense of the Western canon, “The Great Conversation”, there are pragmatic reasons to do just that. First, while Adler did not pioneer the movement to return the classics to the classroom, it was clearly his initiative that continued to raise the bar on that effort and, in many cases, move it past pedagogical theory into actual practice. Hutchins’ essay, though sweeping in its scope and intensity, spends more time defending the wisdom in obtaining a liberal arts education than it does defending this selection of writing as its representative. Adler, in contrast, is a wonder of evangelistic brevity, meticulous in laying out clearly defined terms for his arguments and then defending them with evidence.

Section One- The Great Books and the Great Ideas

Adler begins his long and winding argument with an analogy, positing that just as there are “goods” (or necessities) of the body (listing food, drink, sleep, clothing, and shelter among their number), so also does the mind require “goods” of its own; information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom. While information and knowledge are widely seen as doubling with each passing moment, few, Adler argues, would say that the world is suffering from an overabundance of wisdom and understanding. Just as removing any one of the goods of the body negates to some extent the efficiency of the others (ie sleeping nude on the ground in the middle of the tundra), so does information/knowledge likewise suffer from a lack of wisdom and understanding as a complement. Put simply, Mortimer Adler believes (and wants you to believe) that the wisdom and understanding in Western culture (in essence, the Great Conversation) had traditionally been and could again be transmitted by the writings contained in this collection.

Before launching into a full-frontal defense of that idea, he lists the criteria that went into selecting the works included and a couple more that were necessarily not included in the process.
These criteria warrant a moment’s consideration as they can as easily serve as at least some of the criteria by which the reader may consider an individual work’s inclusion into the collection as a whole. Adler lists Contemporary Significance as his first criteria, insisting that it must address the concerns common to humanity across the millennia as opposed to the specific concerns of its time. Second, the work must be of adequate profundity and sophistication to warrant not only being read, but being read a number of times in order to extract the fullness of meaning. Last, Great Works must be of extensive relevance to the Great Conversation, whether in addressing several of its core themes or in just a few but to a depth that transforms it into an unforgettable landmark on any journey concerned with understanding a given issue.

Equal consideration should also be given to Adler’s non-criteria as partial clues to the identity of the barbarians he presumes to be massing at the gates of civilization. The influence of a particular work on culture was not considered out of context of its relevance to the Great Conversation. This is one of Adler’s safety hatches for those who would point to a mass of literature from every place in the world that was not Europe or America as worthy of equal consideration. While he acknowledges the possibility that writings from the Far East (and by logical extension, the Near East, the Middle East, Africa, and South America) may be of equal literary merit, he punts the task of indexing exactly how those traditions might relate to the Western canon down the field to future scholars in search of an emerging global human culture. His second non-criteria is that no work is included by virtue of the truth that it supposedly contains. In this sense, he offers the Great Books not as a repository of truth but as a record of the quest to uncover it, acknowledging that “no human work rises to the perfection of being devoid of logical flaws.”

Section Two- The Great Conversation

Adler dedicates the second section of his essay to what Hutchins identifies as the defining characteristic of Western culture, the Great Conversation, and uses the opportunity to articulate and defend the aims of the collection .He presents three editorial additions to the Great Books of the Western World collection as evidence of the Great Conversation’s existence and unique importance in world culture. First, the Syntopicon illustrates that canonical writers are compelled to address the Great Ideas whether by virtue of their common membership in the human race (as Adler would suggest) or participation in a more limited, specifically Western experience. Secondly, he points to the Author-to-Author index as a more visually oriented proof of the influence of tradition that is visible from the earliest Greek dramatic poets up through the 20th century. Finally, the Author-to-Idea index supports Adler’s assertion that “most of the great authors, with the possible exception of a few mathematicians and natural scientists have made significant contribution to the Great Conversation in relation to a large number of great ideas” [30]. I’ll grant that all three features, especially the Syntopicon which represents an enormous amount of information relative to the other two touted, do add to one’s enjoyment of the work. They strike me, however, as less of a proof of an objective phenomenon (ie the Great Conversation) and more the kind of labor of love that dwelling on a particular idea in a number of ways (the liberal arts ideal) is likely to produce.

If the first half of this section is overly pragmatic in its exploration of these editorial contribution, Adler turns didactic in the second. His purpose is two-fold; one, overt and one, implicit. While enunciating the difficulties of folding the 20th century writing into the easy framework otherwise provided by history, Adler cannot resist seizing the opportunity to excoriate 20th century values as intrinsically responsible for this aberrant disjunction with the past. Adler uses his discussion of the Author-to-Idea index to further an argument that the 20th century represents, “a clear break between this century and the twenty-five centuries that precede it in the tradition of Western civilization” [31]. Though he concedes that the 20th century writers, “address themselves to the same set of Great Ideas to which their predecessors contribute,” Adler seems at once irritated and self-impressed that the Syntopicon had to be extensively re-redited to allow for the novelty of 20th century thought and writing. He goes on to describe the timbre of these revisions as necessitated by “the disagreements of the 20th century authors to their predecessors or their departure from the ground covered in early centuries [as well as] the breaking of new ground” [31]. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This digression (mitigated in the Great Conversation collection by Clifton Fadiman’s “The Contributions of the 20th Century” that is viciously sandwiched in between Adler and Hutchin’s dueling screeds against modernity) is noteworthy for reasons fundamental to a full appreciation of Adler’s purpose. The urgency with which both Adler and Hutchins attack the perceived inadequacies of the 20th century is the organizing impulse behind the Great Books program. They find its education ill-considered; its trend towards hyper-specialization intellectually dangerous and its writing, by and large, inadequate to the legacy it bears as its influence. The comprehensive ideal set by the publication of the Great Books of the Western World series, however, insists that its editors swallow the bitter pill of modernity to prevent charges of ethno- and phallocentrism from settling like a dark cloud over their supposedly definitive presentation of the most important writings in the Western tradition. It is an irreconcilable tension that surfaces over and over again throughout the Great Conversation.


  1. perhaps you are a nerd indeed. but litterature is what we all base our beliefs, economy , and even most of our millitary movements on. without the written word theres too much left to be mis-interperated in the spoken word. so for that kodos, fellow nerd

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for your comment. As a musician and a comics writer, I place a lot of value in all of our forms of communication. I'm just concerned, both in my own life and in the culture at large, that the power of these words might be lost; not because they are any less relevant than they have been, in some cases, for thousands of years but due simply to signal to noise ratio of the stunning amount of information we are invited to partake in these days.

    Best, RV