The great dictators
The great dictators
Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins thought they could preserve democracy by prescribing a heavy dose of culture for the common man. Matthew Price reads a wry new history of the Great Books.

A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
Alex Beam - The National (Abu Dhabi) - 12/26/2008 - original
Like many cultural conventions, the canon of great books is one part myth, another part wishful-thinking. At once self-limiting and ever expanding, the western literary and philosophical tradition has grown by means organic and totally artificial. Classics, after all, were once new; but only posterity decides which works survive to be handed down from generation to generation, and which vanish into obscurity.

Few would deny that the likes of Aristotle, Cervantes and Shakespeare are central figures in the western canon. But what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of literary greatness? The very notion is enshrouded in a kind of hoary mysticism. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote of “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” but that only takes us so far. There is a cloudy, if universal agreement – a convenient fiction, really – that such an elevated category exists, but there are not, and never will be, fixed criteria for determining those books that are entitled to the sobriquet “great”.

Greatness may be bestowed by a kind of collective acclaim, in the accretion of hundreds of years of opinion from critics, academics, writers and thinkers. And it is ultimately the authority of cultural elites that forms the boundaries of what we keep in the canon – by reading it, teaching it, writing about it – and what falls by the wayside. Taking this measure – the wisdom of crowds, if you will – one could define the canon of great books in an expansive sense: it includes those works that have, over time, been esteemed as great. This was the approach taken in 2006 by the New York Times, which polled “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” in an attempt to crown the best American novel of the last quarter-century. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the winner.) In this conception, the canon is a fluid, living thing: its boundaries ebb and flow as new works emerge and older books fall out of favour.

But this descriptive approach strikes a certain kind of mandarin as far too permissive – and there remains always a temptation to prescribe a list instead: to pin down, once and for all, a definitive and precise list of imperishable works that speak to all ages and eras, monuments of aesthetic accomplishment; not just those books we do still read, but what we should read.

This was precisely the mandate of one of the most famous attempts at canon construction – the making and selling of The Great Books of the Western World, a 54-volume set assembled by a team of scholars determined to fix the canon in stone and deliver it to the masses. Led by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the wunderkind president of the University of Chicago, the project culminated in an encyclopaedic gathering of classic works of philosophy, science, literature and political, aesthetic and social thought, which collected some 433 representative figures – Plato and Homer; Milton and Chaucer; John Locke and David Hume, among many others.

The 54 volumes of the Great Books landed with a heavy thud in 1952 (A second edition was published in 1990, and is still available from – it’s yours for only $995). Heavily advertised and flogged by an army of door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen, the sets miraculously achieved sales in excess of one million by the end of the Sixties. Many books are bought but never read, but the Great Books phenomena remains headscratchingly quaint, if not downright puzzling. Hutchins and his partners wanted to package high culture for a mass audiences, but everything about the series militated against not only commercial success, but the very possibility of reading with any sort of pleasure. Enjoyment, it turns out, was irrelevant: these great books were meant to serve as a dose of cultural medicine.

As Alex Beam writes in his entertaining if superficial history of the project, A Great Idea at the Time, “The Great Books of the Western World were in fact icons of unreadability – 32,000 pages of tiny, double-column, eye-straining type... the translations of the great works were not particularly modern. There were no footnotes to mitigate the reader’s ignorance, or gratify his curiosity.” In contrast to these forbiddingly solemn volumes, Beam’s book is playful and flippant, a light treatment of a quixotic endeavour, but it dodges the larger cultural questions: he gently twits the project, but in the end he offers only the slightest criticism.

From the start, The Great Books of the Western World project was a paradoxical undertaking. Hutchins and his evangelising colleague Mortimer Adler were elitists on a democratic mission, popularisers who made few concessions to popular taste. The texts came unadorned with any historical or biographical materials to situate the reader, but such orientation was besides the point: Hutchins wanted the reader to confront the texts of Aristotle, Dante and Aeschylus naked, as it were, without any guidance or forethought. As he intoned in his preface, “Great books contain their own aids to reading; that is one reason 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.”

Hutchins’s perverse reasoning perfectly encapsulates his particular brand of highbrow populism. Hutchins wanted to reform the modern university curriculum, which he believed to be an anarchic free-for-all – since students picked their own courses – and ground it in a solid foundation of classical learning. In the early 1930s Hutchins, along with Adler, began teaching a select group of University of Chicago undergraduates “General Honors Course 110 – Readings in the classics of Western Europe literature.” They put the Socratic method into action; the class was a rigorous and demanding back and forth between teacher and students, who were often cowed into silence.

If there is something slightly authoritarian about Hutchins’s methods, he was driven by his belief that the great books – and their study – were vital to the survival of democratic culture. Great books courses and discussion groups popped up all over Chicago in the Thirties and Forties – and beyond. (“Plato-for-the-Masses’ Drive to Bring Classics to the Public,” ran one newspaper headline.) For Hutchins, here were the seeds of civic renewal in a century wracked by war and totalitarianism. Hutchins’s beliefs were almost touching in their grandiosity: “An interminable liberal education,” was necessary for “effective citizenship in a democracy,” he mused. Just as Matthew Arnold felt that culture – “the best that has been thought and known” – “seeks to do away with classes... to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light”, Hutchins believed the great books could help “revive the great tradition of liberal human thought” and bring about “a world republic of law and justice.”

As with any canon, Hutchins’s and Adler’s had many quirks and idiosyncrasies. According to Adler, who laid out the criterion by which the committee should make its selections, a great book should, by definition, “be important in itself and without reference to any other; that is, it must be seminal and radical in its treatment of basic ideas or problems.” Homer, Plato, Thucydides and other major Greeks were in, as were Montaigne, Rabelais, Shakespeare and Spinoza. But as Hutchins’s team of academics approached the 18th and 19th century, there was hardly any unanimity about the selections. There was neither Dickens nor Jane Austen, both of whom are practically bywords for the canon of English literature today. A heated debate erupted over Moličre. The poet and critic Mark Van Doren declared “Moličre will go out over my bruised body. He is the perfect comedian, the classic comedian, and he is also universally delightful”; Hutchins thought the French playwright was “trash... and nothing else.”

There was an undue representation of dated scientific work, technically daunting treatises that had once been critical milestones in understanding the natural world but were baffling to the modern lay reader. Beam breezes through all this with a slight smirk. He laughs at Hutchins and Adler, but he gives them a pass. The unreadable format of the texts themselves, and Adler’s own risible contribution, the Synopticon, an absurd index to 102 “great ideas” that filled 2,248 pages and two entire volumes of the set, are treated as the eccentric pursuits of a pair of wayward but loveable uncles.

Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe, not a cultural theorist. He correctly locates the Great Books among other middle class diversions like the Saturday Review of Literature and the Book of the Month Club. Newly affluent Americans wanted the trappings of learning – and the faux-leather volumes of the Great Books of the Western World fit the bill. But beyond this, Beam doesn’t give much consideration to Hutchins’s brand of cultural uplift.

Does establishing a canon of cultural greatness aid the preservation or defence of democracy? It’s not an easy question to answer, and Hutchins – the self-styled guardian of culture – can seem misguided, unaware that there was some irony in a defence of democratic virtues mounted by a tiny committee of elitists. (“I am not saying,” he stated, “that reading and discussing the Great Books will save humanity from itself, but I don’t know anything else that will.”)

For Hutchins’s most trenchant detractor, there was something more sinister at work. In an infamous 1952 New Yorker polemic called The Book of the Millennium Club, Dwight Macdonald accused Hutchins of outright betrayal: the books were “a typical expression of the religion of culture that appeals to the American academic mentality. And the claims its creators make are a typical expression of the American advertising psyche.”

For Macdonald, the Great Books of the Western World represented the apotheosis of middlebrow gimmickry: “The way to put over a two-million-dollar cultural project is, it seems, to make it appear as pompous as possible” – a giant put-on that was not only pretentious, but a sinister ploy. “Its aim,” Macdonald thundered, “is hieratic rather than practical – not to make the books accessible to the public... but to fix the canon of the Sacred Texts by printing them in a special edition.” He had even less use for the Synopticon, which he ridiculed as the “Handy Key to Kulture”.

To Macdonald, Adler and Hutchins were not intellectuals; they were hucksters who practised a kind of cultural voodoo. They treated the great books like any consumer product, to be foisted on the masses with false promises of moral improvement: they were not scholars, they were salesmen.

Macdonald was a contrary sort of leftist, but he was no less an elitist, committed in his own way to protecting the integrity of high culture from the contaminating effects of efforts at popularisation. But his objections could not stop the spread of high culture: in the years after the Second World War, programmes like the GI Bill spurred a surge in college enrolment; Americans hankered after the trappings of culture and education – or at least the illusion of them. Hutchins and Adler, for a time, were travelling with the prevailing current. Great Books clubs were not foisted on a supine public, and the eager joiners who attended responded deeply to Hutchins’s message – and didn’t give a darn about Dwight Macdonald.

Today you can still find old sets of The Great Books collecting dust in used bookstores. But the moment Adler and Hutchins embodied has long passed, and there’s little evidence that we’re better off for it.

Matthew Price, a frequent contributor to The Review, has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and the Financial Times.