The Great Books of 2066

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Of the 74 authors included in Great Books of the Western World, only three — Leo Tolstoy, William James and Sigmund Freud — straddle. the line that separates the past from the present century; and of these, Freud more than either Tolstoy or James is truly a 20th Century figure. I would give heavy odds that any literate person in 2066, asked to name the great books of the 20th Century, would put Freud on his list.

Who else would be on it? When the 20th Century is over, and enough time has elapsed to make a sober judgment about this century’s accomplishments, how many of its authors will be elected to join the company of the 70 or more illustrious names that represent the peaks of literature and thought in the long stretch from Homer to the end of the 19th Century?

Fascinated by that question, I recently drew up a list of 50 nominees — 50 candidates who might be considered in 2066. Before I name them and give you my best guess about which of them will survive and flourish in the minds of our descendants, let me tell you my reason for thinking that, when the final tally is in, the number is likely to be not less than 10 and not more than 15, or 20 at the most.

Considering the 74 authors in Great Books of the Western World, I have plotted their distribution in the past and have come up with some figures that serve to guide us in thinking about the present century. One writer — Homer — belongs to the remote past. The 300 years from the Fifth to the Third Century B.C. give us 12 names: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes and Apollonius. In the 600 years from the First Century B.C. to the Fifth Century A.D., we have only 11 comparable figures: Galen, Lucretius, Virgil, Nicomachus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, Tacitus, Ptolemy, Plotinus, Augustine. Then, after a long break, we find 8 great authors in the 400 years that cover the closing days of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times: Dante, Aquinas, Chaucer, Copernicus, Gilbert, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Montaigne.

The 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries taken together account for considerably more than half of the total list. If we regard the present century as the beginning of postmodern times, then the modern epoch, comprising these three centuries, has done better — at least quantitatively — than the 20 or more preceding centuries. The 17th Century, called “the century of genius” by Whitehead, produced 14 authors of great books (Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Huygens, Harvey, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal, Locke); the 18th Century — the age of the enlightenment” — produced 13 greats (Berkeley, Hume, Boswell, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Gibbon, Kant, Lavoisier, and the three collaborating writers of the Federalist Papers here treated as one — Hamilton, Madison and Jay); and the 19th Century produced 12 (Hegel, Goethe, J. S. Mill, Darwin, Marx, Engels, Melville, Fourier, Faraday, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky and William James).

If we plot the curve and dare to extrapolate it on so little evidence, we might conclude that our century would produce only 11. But there are altered circumstances that tend to modify this predication. On the one hand, there are so many more books being written and published in this century than ever before that we might reasonably expect the trend to be reversed. Our times may produce between 15 and 20 great authors — more than any previous century by far. On the other hand, as I will explain presently, the conditions under which intellectual work is done in the 20th Century may lead to the opposite result — a smaller number of great books in spite of the larger number of books published.

I mentioned earlier a list of 50 authors writing in this century who deserved consideration as among the possible greats of our time. This list was presented last spring on the back page of an advertising supplement that appeared in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the publication of Great Books of the Western World. The readers of that supplement were asked to choose the ten that they thought were the most likely candidates for lasting eminence. The response confirmed my belief that people generally like to play this guessing game about the future. (A list of the first 12 authors appears at the end of this article). I hasten to remind PLAYBOY readers that the name of Freud is omitted from this list only because Freud is the one 20th Century author included in Great Books of the Western World.)

Not to deter, but rather to provoke its readers to engage in this parlor sport, PLAYBOY asked Mr. Fadiman and me to draw up our own list of great authors — as seen from the vantage point of 2066. Mr. Fadiman and I decided to divide the task. He took the general area of belles lettres — the domain, as he puts it, of the men of imagination. That left me with everything else — the domain of the men of thought.

It is conceivable that some great contemporary figures might fall into both camps. In fact, however, we found little overlapping — Sartre is the main exception — and so the division of labor worked out well. Mr. Fadiman, therefore, treats the contemporary poets, novelists, dramatists and critics who have written what he thinks will be considered great books in 2066. I deal with the contemporary philosophers, scientists and historians whose works, in my judgment, the human race will continue to return to in the future. (It should be observed here that we agreed to consider only Western authors. The reason for this decision is not good, but it is obvious. Neither of us knows enough about the literature of the Far East to make a responsible judgment.)

Mr. Fadiman and I realize that we are sticking our necks out in making judgments of this sort. Making private guesses about the greats of the present century is one thing — just good, clean fun; but publishing one’s guesses with an air of authority is quite another. Hence I, for one, want to protect myself just a little by hedging, in two ways, the predictions I am about to make. (Mr. Fadiman also can nudge himself under this protective umbrella if he wants to.)

In the first place, the creativity of human beings is unpredictable. Not all the men or women who may produce significant books in this century have yet begun to write. A third of the century remains. The next 30 years may see the production of works that outshine most of the books with which we are at present acquainted. Hence any projection in 1966 of the judgments that will be made in 2066 about this century’s writing must have the inevitable defect of shortsightedness.

In the second place, the contingencies of history itself are unpredictable. This is an era of rapid change, not only in technology, but also in education, in world political alignments and in warfare. It is conceivable, the world being what it is, that a system of education might be imposed on the human race sometime in the next hundred years that would sharply limit the capacity of our descendants to become acquainted with some of the authors on my list of future greats. That would exclude these writers from consideration in 2066, quite apart from the merits of their work. A radical change in world political alignments might have a similar effect. If, for example, Communist China is ruling the world — or what is left of it — in 2066, any list of great books drawn up then in Peking would differ markedly from Mr. Fadiman’s proposals and mine. If another world war deprives man of civilization and all that it entails, it is conceivable that the only book to endure might be a well-thumbed copy of the Army’s survival manual.

With these caveats, I am almost ready to name the 20th Century writers who, in my judgment, stand a good chance of joining the greats of all time. I said “almost ready” because, before doing that, I would like to discuss the criteria for judging whether or not a writer in the domain of thought — a philosopher, a scientist or a historian — deserves to be classed with Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton, Kant, Darwin and Marx — to whom must now be added Freud. What makes the 11 authors I have just named so unquestionably great that the excellences in which they abound can be used as the measure for judging others?

Over the years, trying to answer the question, What makes a very few books truly great books? I have gathered together a set of criteria for selecting that few from all the rest. I formulated some of these 25 years ago when I wrote How to Read a Book; some emerged in the course of the editorial conferences that we held to select the works to be included in Great Books of the Western World; and some I have come upon more recently in explaining the role of the great books in liberal education. In restating them here for the purpose of predicting who are likely to be the great authors of the 20th Century, I am going to put them down in a form that is most applicable to writers who are men of thought rather than men of imagination.

  1. Great books are original communications. Their authors are communicating what they themselves have discovered, not repeating what they have learned by reading the books of other men.

  2. Great books have intellectual amplitude; each draws light from and throws light on a large number and variety of ideas, all of them basic.

  3. Great books are universally relevant and always contemporary; that is, they deal with the common problems of thought and action that confront men in every age and every clime.

  4. Great books are the only books that may be deemed indispensable, every one of them, to a genuine, sound liberal education.

  5. Great books are the only books that never have to be written again — that do so well what they set out to do that they cannot be improved upon. (For this simple but penetrating statement about the nature of a great book, I am grateful to my friend Carl Van Doren.)

  6. Great books are inexhaustible; they are indefinitely reread-able, each time with additional profit; understandable to some degree on the first reading, they continue to deepen our understanding every time we reread them, and we can never exhaust their power to enlighten us; no matter how many times we read them, there is always more for us to understand.

  7. Great books are addressed to human beings, not to some special group of students, scholars or experts; they are seldom written by professors and, if they are, they are never written exclusively for professors.

These seven qualities intrinsic to great books account for two further properties that adhere to them extrinsically: They tend to exert a lasting influence on human life and thought; and they tend to be widely read; seldom if ever best sellers, they are the only perennial sellers.

It should be immediately obvious that very few books in any epoch reach the pinnacle of excellence set by these seven criteria taken together. Some of them are so stringent — especially the fifth and sixth — that if one were to apply them strictly, without the quality of mercy that tempers justice, not even all the works included in Great Books of the Western World would survive the test. Instead of 74 authors, there might be no more than 30, perhaps fewer, who would stand up as the unquestionable greats of the last 25 centuries. In that case, to expect to find as many as 10 in the 20th Century would be an exorbitant demand.

In addition, so far as the sphere of thought is concerned, I am embarrassed by a fact about 20th Century authors that does not apply to the writers being considered by Mr. Fadiman. Most of the important works in the field of science, history and philosophy are written by professors for professors and so, even when they are books instead of monographs or periodical articles, they fall short of being great books by the criteria enumerated above. Hence I will have to relax my criteria somewhat, or apply them with some latitude, in order to select the authors who, in 2066, will be recognized as deserving to rank with Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton, Kant, Darwin, Marx and Freud.

That being said, here they are — a baker’s dozen of names, 13 men of thought who, in my judgment, will stand the test of time: Henri Bergson, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Jacques Maritain, Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Nicolai Lenin, John Maynard Keynes, Arnold Toynbee, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Before the shooting starts, let me try to defend my nominations. I have divided them into four categories: philosophers, natural scientists and mathematicians, historians and social scientists, and what category does Teilhard belong in? More on that in a moment.

In dealing with each category, I will refer to a number of also-rans–authors whom I considered but excluded for reasons that seemed sufficient and that I will try to express briefly but persuasively.

I. Philosophers. Although it is often said that philosophy has reached a dead end in our time, the present century has seen brilliant and memorable philosophical work. The five philosophers I have chosen for enduring eminence are the five who have most markedly addressed themselves to their fellow men, not just to their fellow philosophers. This criterion alone excludes such thinkers as Husserl, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Bertrand Russell has written books intelligible to the layman, but his penchant for being witty rather than wise makes them books we are finished with after the first reading. And while I find many facets of perennial wisdom in the writings of George Santayana, his effort to be timeless not only deprives his books of contemporary relevance but will, I think, also prevent them from enduring. None of these failings pertain to the works of Bergson, Dewey, Whitehead, Maritain and Sartre.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was an Irish Jew who was born in Paris and became a naturalized Frenchman. A member of the Académie francaise from 1918, he did diplomatic work during World War One and won the Nobel Prize in 1927. His greatest works were published around the turn of the century: they include Time and Free Will (1889), Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907). To these we must add a book he wrote late in life — The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932).

John Dewey (1859-1952) was a Vermonter who taught philosophy at several major universities, notably Chicago, where he established the Laboratory School, and at Columbia, with which he was associated from 1904 until his death. It is one of the supreme ironies that American education has been taken over in our time by men who conquered in Dewey’s name but who failed to understand the central insights in his great and revolutionary book about education — Democracy and Education, written in 1916. The titles of his other major contributions reveal the scope of his mind and the importance of the problems with which he grappled, in a way that engages the minds of other thinking men: The Public and Its Problems (1927), The Quest for Certainty (1929), Experience and Nature (1925), Art As Experience (1934), and Logic: the Theory of Inquiry (1938).

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was an Englishman who lectured on mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge University and at the University of London and became a professor of philosophy at Harvard in 1924. Learned in modern mathematics and perceptive of the philosophical significance of the revolutions that have taken place in 20th Century physics and biology, he transformed traditional conceptions to make the wisdom of the past conversant with the science of the present. His philosophical vision, compacted of insight, imagination and historical learning, is best expressed in Science and the Modern World (1925), Religion in the Making (1926), Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927), Process and Reality (1929), The Aims of Education (1929) and Adventures of Ideas (1933).

Jacques Maritain (1882- ) was born in Paris, was educated at the Sorbonne and taught philosophy in France and in this country for 50 years. A student of Bergson, he became a convert to Roman Catholicism and is the leading liberal apologist for that faith. He is a deeply religious philosopher who writes in the ecumenical spirit of John XXIII. While, like Santayana, he writes from the vantage point of perennial wisdom, his thought, as well as his life, is immersed in as well as engaged with the most pressing problems of our day. He was the French ambassador to the Vatican at the time the present Pope was its Secretary of State; and during those years he courageously defended the cause of the Spanish Loyalists. The books of his that I think will live as long as Catholicism remains a puissant force in the world are Art and Scholasticism (1920), The Degrees of Knowledge (1932), Freedom in the Modern World (1933), True Humanism (1934), The Rights of Man and Natural Law (1942), Education at the Crossroads (1943), Existence and the Existent (1948) and, most recently, Moral Philosophy (1960).

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905- ) is the enfont terrible of 20th Century philosophy. A Parisian, he was educated at the École Normale Suprieure, and published, with Albert Camus, an underground newspaper during World War Two. He refused the Nobel Prize in 1964. While not the founder of existentialism, he is the most forceful and eloquent exponent of that form of it which has rationalized the Angst, the despair and even the irrationalism so prevalent in our time. He has written many books on many subjects, philosophical, psychological, political and historical. He is the author of several memorable novels and plays, and has written penetrating criticisms of literature and of painting. His great philosophical work is probably Being and Nothingness (1943).

II. Natural Scientists and Mathematicians. In this, the age of science, the greatest advances so far have been made in mathematical physics. A comparable revolution is just beginning in biology and may produce equally great theoretical advances in the remainder of this century. My four nominations here are, therefore, confined to mathematical physics, and even here I have been compelled to limit my choice to the few, among many outstanding scientists, who have written books of broad theoretical scope. Most of the others have communicated their findings or theories in technical monographs or in the transactions of learned societies. In addition, each of the physicists I have chosen — Planck, Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg — has made the effort to explain his discoveries and theories to the layman in books that express this philosophy of science. It may be these books, rather than their more technical works, that will come to stand alongside the writings of Galileo, Newton, Huygens and Faraday.

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck (1858-1947) was, in a sense, the intellectual father of the other three, for the quantum theory, which he proposed in 1900, formed the basis of the revolutionary work of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg. Planck is sure to survive, for one of the basic physical constants is named after him. His masterpiece in theoretical physics is The Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory (1920); but it is to his more popular writings that men will continue to go for a basic understanding of modern physics: Where Is Science Going (1932), The Philosophy of Physics (1933) and Scientific Autobiography (1949), the last an engaging short book in a genre surprisingly rare.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was born in Germany and became a Swiss citizen in 1900, an American citizen in 1940. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 (Planck won it in 1918). A handful of short papers produced before he was 25 years old generated worldwide fame for him and worldwide discussion of his theory of relativity, even though they were readable only by the very small number who were his peers. Those few pages read by few did as much to change our whole view of nature as anything ever written. Four of his books, in whole or part, are readable by the rest of us: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory; A Popular Exposition (1917), Sidelights on Relativity (1920-1921), The Meaning of Relativity (1922), On the Method of Theoretical Physics (1933).

Niels Henrick David Bohr (1885-1962) was a Dane who headed the Copenhagen Institute for Theoretical Physics from 1920 on. He received the Nobel Prize in 1922 and the Atoms for Peace award in 1957. The two awards indicate his twofold approach to science — both that of a researcher and that of a citizen aware of the dangers inherent in the scientific venture. His major works include The Theory of Spectra and Atomic Constitution (1922), Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (1934) and Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (1962). Here again, the last is a broadly philosophical book intended for the layman.

Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901- ) was born in Wurzburg, Germany, won the Nobel Prize in 1932 and became director of the Max Planck Institute in 1946. His work in quantum theory, and especially his formulation of the uncertainty principle, have had a profound effect on later work in the field. His greatest book — a most difficult theoretical treatise — is The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory (1930). More recently he has written two books of general intelligibility that illumine the ordinary man’s understanding of the world of subatomic particles: Philosophic Problems of Nuclear Science (1952) and Physics and Philosophy (1958).

III. Historians and Social Scientists. Our century has seen a vast efflorescence of writing in this field, but in this great mass of material only a few works stand out. I nominate Lenin, Keynes and Toynbee as the few who have a chance to endure for a hundred years.

Nicolai Lenin (1870-1924) was born Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov in Simbirsk (subsequently named Ulyanovsk) and received his law degree from the University of St. Petersburg (now Leningrad). Along with Trotsky the chief moving force behind the Russian Revolution, he led a minority group which he named the majority (bolsheviki) and by this ruse, in part, gained control of the post-228 revolutionary government. He was both a man of theory and a man of action — a far-ranging political thinker as well as a superb politician. Two or three among his many books are likely to survive even if Communism does not. If, as Khrushchev threatened, Russia buries us, then Lenin will be near the top of any list of great writers drawn up in 2066, and the books will probably be Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), The State and Revolution (1918) and “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder (1920).

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was born in Cambridge, England, where he was also educated. He taught at the university until 1919, when he resigned to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a book as amazingly prophetic in its way as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It predicted that the Treaty of Versailles would inevitably lead to a second world war. Keynes’ most important work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), has profoundly affected subsequent economic theory and practice. It seems to me beyond question that his influence will persist for the next hundred years and, perhaps, beyond.

Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889- ) was born in London and has been associated with its university throughout his adult life. (He was, however, schooled at Oxford.) A Study of History (in ten volumes appearing between 1934 and 1954) is probably the most controversial historical work of this century. Its qualities of scope, imagination and eloquence make it the bane of professionals and the darling of amateurs. Even if the professionals are to some extent right in their criticisms of Toynbee’s scholarship, his Study of History remains, in my judgment, the greatest historical work of our time.

One author remains. I am referring to Teilhard de Chardin whom, as I said earlier, I find difficult to place. He started out as a reputable scientist and later became a poetical and almost mystical spinner of philosophical fancies.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was born in France, educated by the Jesuits and ordained a priest. He was known until his death only for his geological and paleontological studies in East Asia. In 1958 The Phenomenon of Man exploded on the scene, and this extraordinary work has been followed by the posthumous publication of other books and collections of letters and papers. The Phenomenon of Man, which is the only work of Teilhard’s that will endure, is easy to criticize; yet the book has qualities of insight and imagination that shine through all its faults. I am not sure I can say why, but I think people will go on reading — and rereading — it for a long, long time.

In the practice of the Old Religion (called “witchcraft” by its adversaries), the coven or sacramental unit consisted of 13 persons (this is the origin of the modern superstition about that number). One of these, the leader, was sacrificed; and then there were 12. Teilhard is the 13th name on my list. I leave the reader to draw his own conclusions.

There remain but two remarks to make. I wonder, first, what effect lists like this have on the “creation” of classics. Can a reputation be artificially nurtured? Is there — to use another language — a positive feedback between nominations for immortality and immortality itself? Have Mr. Fadiman and I, by naming our candidates and defending our choices, done our part to insure that the authors we have named will be included in that hypothetical set, which I would very much like to live to see — Great Books of the 20 Century?

My answer to these questions is yes and no. Yes, we will have had a small effect; we and others like its may help to carry the freight of a reputation forward. But in a longer view, the answer is emphatically negative. Posterity will be the absolute judge, and against it there will be no appeal. This is as certain as that neither of us will be around in 2066 to object to the inclusion, on the list of great 20th Century authors, of names that are to us, here and now, unattractive, unimpressive or unknown.

The End


The editors of Great Books of the Western World asked readers of The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune to respond to the question “Who Is Writing the Great Books of the 20th Century?” PLAYBOY here presents the first published results of the poll, listing the top 12 authors in order of total votes cast for them. We think you’ll enjoy comparing and contrasting this top dozen with those of experts Clifton Fadiman and Mortimer Adler, in the accompanying articles — and your own candidates for literary permanence.

  1. George Bernard Shaw

  2. Albert Einstein

  3. T. S. Eliot

  4. James Joyce

  5. Jean-Paul Sartre

  6. Ernest Hemingway

  7. Albert Camus

  8. William Faulkner

  9. Eugene O’Neill

  10. Thomas Mann

  11. Arnold Toynbee

  12. Franz Kafka

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