The Syntopicon as an Instrument of Liberal Education – A

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The Great Books are pre-eminently those which have given the Western tradition its life and light. The unity of the set does not consist merely in the fact that each member of it is a Great Book worth reading. A deeper unity exists in the relation of all the books to one tradition, a unity shown by the continuity of the discussion of common themes and problems. All the works in the Great Books are significantly related to one another and, taken together, they adequately present the ideas and issues, the terms and topics, that have made the Western tradition what it is. More than a collection of books, then, the Great Books are a certain kind of whole that can and should be read as such.

The Great Ideas results from and records such a reading of the Great Books, The aim of this “syntopical reading” was to discover the unity and continuity of Western thought in the discussion of common themes and problems from one end of the tradition to the other. The Syntopicon does not reproduce or present the results of this reading in a digest to save others the trouble of reading the Great Books for themselves. On the contrary, it only lays down the lines along which a syntopical reading of the Great Books can be done, and shows why and how it should be done. The various uses of the Syntopicon all derive from its primary purpose — to serve as a guide to the reading of the Great Books of the Western World as a unified whole.

The lines along which a syntopical reading of the Great Books can and should be done are the main lines of the continuous discussion that runs through the thirty centuries of Western civilization. This great conversation across the ages is a living organism whose structure the Syntopicon tries to articulate. It tries to show the many strands of this conversation between the greatest minds of Western civilization on the themes which have concerned men in every epoch, and which cover the whole range of man’s speculative inquiries and practical interests.

It was with these considerations in mind that the Editors called The Great Ideas, a Syntopicon of the Great Books — literally, a collection of the topics which are the main themes of the conversation to be found in the books. A topic is a subject of discussion. It is a place at which minds meet — to agree or disagree, but at least to communicate with one another about some common concern. Just as a number of minds, or what they have to say, can be related by their relevance to a common theme, so a number of topics can be related by their relevance to a common term — a single concept or category which generates a number of problems or themes for discussion. Hence the Syntopicon is organized, first, by a listing of the ideas that are the important common terms of discussion; and, then, by an enumeration of the topics that are the various particular points about which the discussion of each of these ideas revolves.

The Syntopicon is the product of many minds working together for many years, men and women who labored almost day and night to produce it. It was not their hard work, it was their persistent devotion to a task which many times seemed too difficult to see through, that created the Syntopicon. What is striking about this fact is that it occurred in the sphere of ideas. We are accustomed to such collaboration in the laboratory or in other phases of experimental research. But we tend to think of philosophical inquiry or humanistic study as an individual creative effort.

It is clear that the Syntopicon could not have been produced without collaboration on a grand scale. The Syntopicon’s 163,000 references to the Great Books, assembled under 3,000 topics, represent about 400,000 man-hours of reading. That would be over 70 years of continuous reading, day and night, seven days a week, week in and week out from birth on.

While the Syntopicon demonstrates the possibility and profit of intellectual collaboration in the sphere of the liberal arts, the humanities, and philosophy, it also demonstrates concretely and vividly the reality of the great conversation.

The “great conversation” is a phrase — I do not know whether it was invented by Robert Hutchins or Scott Buchanan — that we have all been using to signify the dramatic character of the intellectual tradition of the West. As Hutchins has pointed out in his essay, The Great Conversation, our civilization is distinctively the civilization of the dialogue. Our tradition is one long multilinear conversation about many connected themes — a conversation in which all the great minds of our civilization have taken part and in which we, too, must participate if we are to become intellectually mature.

“The great conversation” — “The civilization of the dialogue” — these are fine phrases and they call fine images to mind. All of us who have spent much time reading and discussing the Great Books have some sense of their reality. But are they true?

The Syntopicon answers questions simply and plainly by actually recording the great conversation in all its concrete details. As the name suggests, the Syntopicon is a collection of topics. These are the themes or topics of the great conversation about the basic problems and issues that have always confronted mankind.

Hence if we follow, under any one of the 3,000 topics, the references to the Great Books in their chronological order, we will be actually following a line of the great conversation from beginning to end. By reading the passages referred to, we can actually hear the voices in that conversation as they discuss one of its major themes, talking with and often against one another.

By demonstrating the reality of the great conversation, the Syntopicon gives substance to a moving insight into the spirit and process of our cultural tradition. In doing so, it also provides us with the means of acquiring some of the funded wisdom of the West by participating in the great conversation.

I venture to predict that many uses for the Syntopicon will be discovered, which its makers never dreamed of. For example, its use to turn out Ph.D.’s with even less effort or originality than they now take. That isn’t a dream, of course; that’s a nightmare.

There are several uses of the Syntopicon: It enables the beginning reader of the Great Books to open the books and read in them on any subject in which he may be interested — and to do this long before he has read all the books all the way through. It provides what we come to think of as a third basic reference book, serving in the field of thought and opinion as the dictionary serves us in the field of language and as an encyclopedia like Britannica serves us in the field of facts. It gives students and scholars an instrument of research in the history and dialectic of ideas.

These uses you have heard about. I want now to concentrate attention upon two that may not have been so frequently or so widely mentioned — two that are of the deepest concern to all of us as citizens of the republic of letters and of liberty. The first of these can be summarized by saying that the Syntopicon makes an important kind of reading available to everyone — a kind of reading that too few of us now do. That kind of reading is topical reading. It consists in reading in a whole series of books in relation to one another as all together are relevant to a single topic or subject of interest. It thus differs from integral reading, which consists in reading through a single book, in, by, and for itself.

Both kinds of reading are important. Both are necessary. Each is needed to supplement the other. To do either one alone is not to get all out of books that they contain. To know how to read a book is not enough. We must learn how to read two books — or two hundred — together as they are related by their common theme. Most of us do only integral reading. We read, or at least try to read, whole books through. Few of us do much topical reading, if any at all. Such reading has been the privilege and pleasure of scholars.

I might add that lawyers have the experience of topical reading when they read a whole series of cases on a single point of law. And Corpus Juris is the indispensable reference work that enables them to do such reading. Perhaps, then, the most striking way to indicate this value of the Syntopicon is to say that what Corpus Juris does for the legal profession, the Syntopicon will do for everyone. It will make it possible for everyone to do, much more easily than before, topical reading on all the subjects of general human interest and common discourse. It will thus extend the reading power and habits of men.

The other value of the Syntopicon can best be indicated by explaining how the Syntopicon functions as a liberator of the human mind. The Syntopicon liberates the human mind from drudgery. The 400,000 man hours of reading and the more than 400,000 man-hours of work that was done to produce it frees all of us of the necessity of having to scratch, dig, and hunt in order to find what, with the Syntopicon, we can begin at once to read.

The Syntopicon does nobody’s reading or thinking for him. It merely puts him in a better position to do that for himself. This point can be most emphatically made by comparing the Syntopicon as a thinking machine with the great flexible computers. The human mind feeds the computer the data, and the machine does the thinking and returns the answers. The Syntopicon feeds the human mind the data or materials of thought — the positions taken by the best minds on every major question — and leaves the individual free to think about these and to decide for himself where the truth lies.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the eminent French philosopher and scholar, Etienne Gilson, wrote me that he considered the Syntopicon, “a typically ‘American’ Masterpiece.” There was no trace of irony in calling it “American,” he said. “Even metaphysical reflection,” he pointed out, “can be helped in a material way; and if not by means of a calculating machine, then by a machine collecting the data of thought.” The Syntopicon is precisely such a machine.

The Syntopicon helps to liberate its users from partial or partisan views of the Western tradition. Most of us tend to be, in one way or another, particularistic rather than universal in our allegiance to and understanding of our intellectual tradition. We have sectarian or parochial or epochal limitations of vision or interest. We see the part as the whole or regardless of the whole. By keeping the whole always in full view, the Syntopicon may help to cure such intellectual blindness as is represented by modernism or mediaevalism or antiquarianism; or any of countless other isms that are besetting ills of the human mind.

The Syntopicon may liberate the mind from the particular prejudices that infest it with regard to any question, of which it knows only one side. The dogmatism of the closed mind can be cured only by opening it up to other views than its own and exposing it to the range of arguments on the other side. This the Syntopicon can do for its users on most of the major issues that confront us today.

At this moment in our national life, the Syntopicon may help in the fight for freedom of thought and discussion. It is, therefore, singularly appropriate that Senator William Benton should be its publisher. He made a distinguished and noble effort to stem the tide of McCarthyism which, in government and in mass action, threatened freedom of speech and discussion in this country. But even the McCarthy’s of this world cannot choke freedom of thought by lies and intimidation or by the coercive force of fear and mass hysteria. Freedom of thought is an inner, and inviolable freedom. It can be impaired, even destroyed, but only by ignorance, not by fear or force; for we exercise freedom in thinking only when we are in a position to choose among the possible intellectual alternatives. In proportion as we are ignorant of what can be thought on any subject, we are limited in our exercise of freedom of thought about it.

We are ourselves responsible for the degree to which we exercise freedom of thought. We are responsible to ourselves for becoming conversant with the alternative views on any basic question, in order to choose the best among them. Whether because of indolence or indifference or because of the great difficulty of the task itself, most of us pay lip-service of freedom of thought, for we do not make the requisite effort to enjoy its exercise.

Hence even if freedom of speech and discussion were fully restored in this country by the efforts of those who, like Senator Benton, were willing to risk their positions and reputations to fight McCarthyism in all its forms, that by itself would not suffice for the vital substance of free speech consists of the conclusions and decisions reached by free inquiry and with freedom of thought.

The Syntopicon plays its part in the crisis of our times. On the major questions of our day, it will give us perspective on the issues and acquaint us with arguments on various sides. Precisely because it presents us with the full range of intellectual alternatives, it activates the exercise of freedom of thought. It calls upon us to make up our own minds and to decide things for ourselves, not as a matter of prevalent prejudice, but through the free exercise of reason in the light of whatever wisdom is available to us.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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