U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From the Cutting Room Floor: The Great Books on Film

Not everything I found or know about the great books idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and his community of discourse made it into the book. We make our selections of books, articles, and archival resources during round one of the storytelling process, and then we refine those choices even further when we’re hit with the existential reality of word or page limits. That last round can get really painful. The selection below was snipped during my final haircut for Palgrave Macmillan. It came from chapter three, titled “Making ‘Seventy-Four Corpses…Pay Off’: The Context and Commerce of the Great Books, 1952-1968.”

I had found a fun promotional film, produced by Britannica, that involved Adler and Robert Hutchins discussing the virtues of The Great Books of the Western World. I think the sepia-toned, grainy film impressed me as much as the on-film conversation. Given that, I felt in the end—despite the tedious work I put into transcribing the dialogue—that the content below was slightly repetitive given what’s in the book. Since my focus in that chapter was the sales and marketing of the set, as well as the reception, this was just another interesting, rather than absolutely essential, part of my story. So it was left on the cutting room floor. I am reproducing it here for fun. – TL

The Great Books on Film

Lacy_Book-Cover_FinalBeginning with a pan of the fifty-four volumes of the Great Books of the Western World, Homer to Freud, on a long table, the camera turned to a seated Hutchins and Adler—the latter smoking a pipe. Hutchins began: “Mr. Adler and I are glad to have a chance to talk with you about the set of books you’ve just seen.” After a brief monologue on the set’s production history, Hutchins displayed some of his legendary wit: “Mr. Adler did the work and I took all the credit.” From here they both turned serious. Hutchins called the great books a “way of life,” but quickly added: “We’re not trying to sell any dogma.” [1] To him the books “reflect a view” that “all intelligent people ought to hold: a view of man as rational and free.” Adler then interjected a correction that goes to the heart of his thinking about the set—and contradicts many late twentieth-century views about his relationship with the great books idea. He said:

Even on that subject they don’t hold it all together. … The most extraordinary thing about the Great Books, it seems to me, is the fact that there is no basic point of view that isn’t contradicted in them. Far from there being any dogma in them, the Great Books represent the variety of, the tremendous diversity of, intellectual positions, points of view, doctrines, ways of looking at things, so that no one could get any single point of view from them. [2]

Being more in tune with the philosophical problems of the endeavor, Adler pointed out the set’s inductive, ground up qualities. Hutchins countered:

The only point of view that you have to hold … [about] these books … is a view of intellectual history and of intellectual progress – that intellectual progress is made by discussion as well as by discovery, and that intellectual history is the history of the great conversation that is embodied in these books. [3]

Here we see, between the two most prominent great books supporters, some tension (contrived or otherwise) about the set’s intellectual basis. Based on Adler’s respect for tradition and ancient philosophy, he no doubt saw less ‘progress’ in Western intellectual history than a continuous battle against error with occasional glimpses of insight—some evident in the greatest books, some not. But the notion of a ‘great conversation’ kept them on common ground.

The rest of the movie centered, in sales-like fashion, on the set’s distinctive qualities. Hutchins described the set as a kind of antidote to modern America’s “frantic” need to “amuse”—a point similar to one made by Clifton Fadiman at the 1952 Waldorf dinner. After pointing out the rarity of some of the set’s works, particularly the astronomers and scientists, Hutchins reiterated that “we did not want to produce and distribute furniture. We want the books read.” Adler then spoke on the Syntopicon’s virtues. Hutchins concluded the film as follows: “The Great Books don’t say it all. They are not the whole of Western thought. They are, however, the basis of Western thought and . . . civilization. They are the indispensable voice in the great conversation. They are the books that give meaning to all other books.” [4] The rhetorical tension between the grandiose and practical is clear.

While the degree of scripting in this movie is unknown, the exchange between Adler and Hutchins does indeed reflect earlier tensions in the rhetoric about the great books. Adler understood, for his part, some of the problems associated with grandiose claims about the set, but he never dissociated himself them. Those assertions became coupled with the great books idea in the minds of critics. Aside from the tension between great books’ claimants, Hutchins’ candid comments also confirm the fact that a particular view of intellectual history—the history of ideas, that is—underpins the set. His linking of the set with the idea of progress also foreshadows criticisms arising in the 1960s of the whole modern age in the United States.



[1] Great Books of the Western World, prod. by Encyclopædia Britannica, 30 min., 1954, videocassette.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thx, Tim. This fragment alone makes the case for the GBs just fine: Establishing a common conceptual meeting ground is good and necessary, that Joe knows what Jim is saying and vice versa, via Jack.

    Agreement is secondary, indeed irrelevant. I think it was Leo Strauss who noted that genuine philosophers get along just fine, regardless of differing conclusions–they have more in common with each other than with those in The Cave who might agree with them on this or that.

    The Great Books paradigm seeks to establish that common ground for the rest of us, I make it here. Indeed what the Great Books have in common is that they are quite aware of the great books that came before them, and thus provide the continuity for the Great Conversation over these thousands [!] of years.

  2. Tom: This may make an okay “case for” the great books idea generally, but I don’t think it makes the case, retrospectively or even on 1952-54 terms, for the set as it was chosen.

    The problem with the history of the great books idea, Britannica’s set, and great books advocates is not that each seeks to establish a common ground. That’s the positive part of my “democratic culture” thrust of my argument. The problem has been *how* advocates and list makers envisioned the composition of the common ground over time. It’s one thing to stand on certain commons, or common grounds, together, and another to know if that ground is silt, sandy loam, quicksand, rock, or some mixture thereof.

    To put it historically, it’s one thing to be aware of how the past feeds into a tradition, and quite another to understand how that past/tradition/conversation connects to the present—how exactly it is relevant to lives and conversations that exist today. It’s on the advocates to make those connections. When they fail, the great books idea suffers. – TL

  3. Yes, Tim, the How Did We Get Here question has been sublimated to the utilitarian Where Do We Go From Here. Unfortunately, without the GBs, it’s a Tower of Babel*.

    My own interest is in “rights” theory. Contemporary “rights talk” is incoherent. There’s a right to everything, a right to not-everything, and everything in between. There is no common ground for discussion.
    *Wherever that is.

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