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A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas

A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas


A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas (1952) is a two-volume index, published as volumes 2 and 3 of
Encyclopdia Britannicas collection Great Books of the Western World. Compiled by Mortimer Adler, an
American philosopher, under the guidance of Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, the volumes
were billed as a collection of the 102 great ideas of the western canon. The term syntopicon was coined specifically
for this undertaking, meaning a collection of topics.[1] The volumes catalogued what Adler and his team deemed to
be the fundamental ideas contained in the works of the Great Books of the Western World, which stretched
chronologically from Homer to Freud. The Syntopicon lists, under each idea, where every occurrence of the concept
can be located in the collections famous works.

History
The Syntopicon was created to set the Great Books collection apart from previously published sets (such as Harvard
Classics). Robert Hutchins, at the time, in addition to being the president of the University of Chicago, also served as
Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopdia Britannica. Hutchins and Adler were recruited by the
encyclopedias publisher for a special idea [2] which would increase the collections marketability.[3]
With this mission, Adler undertook a project that would consume over a decade of his life: identifying and indexing
the western worlds Great Ideas. In the end, the Syntopicon would require over 400,000 man-hours of reading[4] and
cost over two million dollars.[5] Britannica publisher Senator William Benton joked at the Great Books presentation
dinner that the Syntopicon is said to be the most expensive two volumes editorially in all publishing history. How
Hutchins and Adler achieved that unique distinction, the publisher is still trying to figure out. (Clifton Fadiman)
assured me some day the story will be told. Id like it whenever I can get it.[6]
The process of cataloging each appearance of one of the Great Ideas in all 431 works by 71 authors in the
collection was so arduous that the Syntopicon nearly did not make it to print. Before it even came time to print, the
budget had topped a million dollars and there was not even a penny for paper left.[7] Adler persevered, however,
having spent the previous eight years of his life on the project. He single-handedly raised funds by selling more
expensive Founders Editions of the sets, and disobeyed the order to fire his entire staff. There were times, during
the process when he admitted: the question was could we sell the plates for junk! Could we dispose of the plates as
old metal?[7]
Adler felt, through it all, that he was creating something completely new. The Syntopicon, he felt, would be
revolutionary, its release on par with such events as the creation of the first dictionary. It would do for ideas what
previous reference books had done for words and facts. He worked with a team of over 100 readers who met twice a
week for years to discuss the readings and the ideas within them. Among his editorial team was a young Saul
Bellow.
In the end, he produced two volumes, which listed the 102 Great Ideas of the western world, from Angel to World.
The set was released with much fanfare, including an honorary gifting of the first two editions to U.S. President
Harry S. Truman and Elizabeth II. An internal memo from Encyclopdia Britannica, regarding a release party,
reads:
The projected sequences of events is: (1) Mr. Hutchins kicks off the conference with a discussion of the Great
Books movement, and the universitys and Britannicas interest in the set; (2) Mr. Adler tells in detail of the contents
of the set and the significance of the Syntopicon; (3) Cocktails.[8]

A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas

Purpose
In addition to being a special idea that would set Great Books of the Western World apart, the Syntopicon serves
four other purposes, outlined in its preface. The Syntopicon can serve as a reference book, as a book to be read, as an
instrument of liberal education, and as an instrument of discovery and research.[9]
Above all, however, the Syntopicon was created to unite the western worlds canon. It was created to solve what
Adler saw as a fundamental problem, that different authors say the same thing in different ways, or use the same
words to say quite different things.[10] By cataloging the things the great authors were saying in a more scientific
manner, Adler hoped to show the underlying unity that ultimately existed in the collected works.
For Hutchins, a chief proponent of classical education, the creation of the Syntopicon held even greater implications.
Hutchins felt that the ideas being discussed and cross-listed in the Syntopicon might be "powerful enough to save the
world from self-destruction."[11]

Content
The Syntopicon consists of 102 chapters on the 102 Great Ideas. Each chapter is broken down into five distinct
sections: the introduction, an outline of topics, references, cross-references, and additional readings. Adler penned all
102 introductions himself, giving a brief essay on the idea and its connection with the western canon. The outline of
topics broke each idea down further, into as many as 15 sub-ideas. For instance, the first idea Angel is broken
down into Inferior deities or demi-gods in polytheistic religion, the philosophical consideration of pure
intelligences, spiritual substances, supra-human persons and seven other subtopics.[12] After this is the references
section (for instance, inferior deities or demi-gods in polytheistic religion can be found in Homer, Sophocles,
Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Locke, Hegel, Goethe and more). Cross-references follow, where similar ideas are
listed. Last is the additional readings, in which one could seek out more on the subject of Angel.
The list of 102 ideas is broken between the two volumes, as follows:
Volume I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen,
Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education,
Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit,
Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor,
Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love.
Volume II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind,
Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition,[13] Philosophy,
Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity,
Reasoning, Relation,[14] Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin,
Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular,
Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World.

Reactions
The release of the Syntopicon and the Great Books of the Western World was covered in the New York Herald, the
New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and local papers across the country.
Full page ads for Time magazine appeared in newspapers across the country, saying What and Why is a
Syntopicon?[15] Time published an article about the new, pivotal piece of reference material, and Adler wrote them
back in thanks, saying that I think the piece is both thoroughly accurate and very lively, which, considering the
subject matter, is quite a feat.[16]
Look magazine ran a feature on the Syntopicon, displaying behind-the-scene photos of the indexs staff at work. In
one picture, editor Joe Roddy is shown weighing the number of entries about love on a scale. Discussions of love by

A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas


great authors, the caption reads, outweigh sin and eternity.[16]
Despite the extensive press coverage and cross-country speeches, however, sales of the Syntopicon and the Great
Books of the Western World were slow. Experienced encyclopedia salesmen had to be brought in to move the
product, despite Hutchins dislike of this solution.
The Syntopicons list was arbitrary, as even Adler admitted.[16] The press and others also found problems with the
Syntopicon, and despite Adlers predictions (we predict that, as dictionaries are indispensable in the realm of words,
and encyclopaedias in the realm of facts, so the Syntopicon will become indispensable in the realm of ideas[5] ) the
Syntopicon has fallen into relative obscurity. At the time of its release, the New York Times Book Review declared:
Its defects are on the surface. One is the implication that great books are concerned only with ideas which can be
logically analyzedwhereas many masterpieces of literature live in realms partially or wholly outside the realm of
logic. Another is the conception that the chief purpose of reading a book is to crack its shell and reach its kernelthe
form itself being unimportant decoration.[17]

Subsequent books
In a succeeding book, Adler expressed his regret that the civil rights concept of Equality had not been selected. He
attempted to rectify the omission with Six Great Ideas: Truth-Goodness-Beauty-Liberty-Equality-Justice (1981).
Adler attempted another index, in one volume, the Propaedia for the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopdia
Britannica. A traditional two-volume alphabetical index has since been produced for the more recent versions of the
fifteenth edition, in addition to Propaedia.

Notes
[1] Adler, Mortimer J.. Syntopicon Booklet Draft, Box 4, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
[2] Allen, J. S. (1983). The romance of commerce and culture: Capitalism, modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen crusade for reform. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
[3] Stevens, Anne H. "The Philosophy of General Education and Its Contradictions: the Influence of Hutchins." The Journal of General
Education 50 (2001): 165191
[4] Adler, Mortimer J. Syntopicon Booklet Draft, Box 4, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
[5] Mortimer, Adler J. Letter to J. Loy Maloney. 11 Apr. 1950. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, Chicago, IL.
[6] Benton, William. "Great Books of the Western World." Encyclopdia Britannica. Presentation Dinner. Waldorf Astoria, New York City. 15
Apr. 1952.
[7] Adler, Mortimer J. Untitled Letter, Box 4, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
[8] Colvin, James. Letter to C. Scott Fletcher. 12 Apr. 1950. Encyclopdia Britannica Inter Office Correspondence. Special Collections Research
Center, University of Chicago Library, Chicago, IL.
[9] Adler, Mortimer J. "Syntopicon I Preface." Great Books of the Western World. 1st ed. 54 vols. Chicago, IL: Encyclopdia Britannica, 1952.
[10] Adler, Mortimer J. Syntopicon Booklet Draft, Box 4, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
[11] "There are Only 102 Great Ideas." Look. Jan. 1948: 5861.
[12] "Syntopicon I." Great Books of the Western World. 1st ed. 54 vols. Chicago, IL: Encyclopdia Britannica, 1952. p. 9.
[13] that which deals with the quality of sets of words that are opposite
[14] that which deals with what is "relative" to another object
[15] "TIME Magazine." Advertisement. Chicago Daily News 20 Apr. 1950.
[16] Mortimer, Adler J. Letter to Bruce Barton. 22 Apr. 1950. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, Chicago, IL.
[17] Highet, Gilbert. "The Great Ideas of the Western World." Rev. of Great Books of the Western World, by Mortimer J. Adler. New York Times
Book Review 14 Sept. 1952.

A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas

External links
Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (http://www.thegreatideas.org/syntopicon.html)

Article Sources and Contributors

Article Sources and Contributors


A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?oldid=548489126 Contributors: 2of13, Ancheta Wis, ArglebargleIV, BD2412, Blathnaid, Brianjd,
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