The 2-volume “Syntopicon” of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, providing a survey and a concordance of the Great Ideas treated in the remaining 51 volumes of the set, is itself one of the most important works of the 20th century.
One of the criticisms I’ve read of the Great Books series is that it is little more than a “reading list” of important works of literature. That criticism might have some justification, if it were not for the Syntopicon, which orients the reader to the content of the Great Books, breaking down the entire set into its 102 component “Great Ideas”—the key topics addressed by Western literature as a whole since its inception.
As Robert Maynard Hutchins was editor in chief of the Great Books series as a whole, Mortimer J. Adler was editor in chief of The Great Ideas, the 2-volume Syntopicon. During the preparation of the series, Adler worked with a staff of up to 72 people, combing through the Great Books to identify and locate the main ideas contained in them, and distilling the result into a final list of Great Ideas, listed alphabetically from Angel to World.
Each of the Great Ideas forms a chapter of the 2-volume Syntopicon, and each chapter is structured identically: it begins with an introductory essay by Adler, providing an overview of how that idea has been understood and discussed in the tradition of the Great Books, followed by an outline of topics, which breaks down the discussion into its component aspects. For example, in Chapter 10, “Change”, some of the topics are: “1. The nature and reality of change or motion”; “2. The unchanging principle of change”, which is broken further into the subtopics “2a. The constituents of the changing thing” and “2b. The factor of opposites or contraries in change”. Altogether, “Change” is broken into 15 topics, 9 of which are broken down further into subtopics.
Next, each chapter contains the crucial References section, which lists the topics again, but now each followed by the specific references within the Great Books where the discussion may be found. In that same chapter on “Change”, the references run to 14 pages. The first set of references, under the first topic of “The nature and reality of change or motion”, is from Volume 7 of the set, Plato, and contains specific page references from 12 of Plato’s works, such as Cratylus, Phaedrus, and so on. Then there’s a set of references from Volume 8, Aristotle; Volume 9, Aristotle; Volume 10, Galen; Volume 11, Nicomachus; and so on up to Volume 53, James. Then references to the next topic are listed.
After the References in each chapter come the Cross-References: pointers to where aspects of the Idea are given additional treatment in other chapters of the Syntopicon. Finally there is a section of Additional Readings, listing other works in the Western tradition that also treat the Idea in question. These works are broken down into those by authors who are part of the Great Books series, and those by other authors. Many of these additional readings also include chapter references of their own, to help the reader find the material.
In addition, the Syntopicon contains detailed essays explaining exactly how the Great Books set and its Syntopicon were developed. The processes by which the books were chosen and the Great Ideas identified are explained in detail. (The editor in chief Hutchins also explains, in Volume 1, why it is a set of “Western” books, not Eastern or “World”.)
In my opinion, the Syntopicon, along with the Great Books, is an unparalleled gift to humanity. In terms of the project’s vision, its importance, and the quantity and quality of effort it represents, it is a stupendous achievement, and cheap at any price.
The Syntopicon provides what amounts to a survey course of the Great Ideas of the Western tradition. The Great Books themselves then provide the detailed courses. A “syntopical” reading is just this: a reading by topic. And this is the unique strength of the Britannica Great Books series.
The main thing I have learned from reading the Syntopicon is that I am not educated. Whatever I’ve learned up until now, at age 52, does not constitute a true liberal education. Now, thanks to the efforts of these people, I am getting one, and I warmly encourage you to take advantage of the remainder of your life to do the same.