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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Great Books refers primarily to a group of books that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a synonymous designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; "This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest." * the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.



It came about as the result of a discussion among American academics and educators, starting in the 1920s and 1930s and begun by Prof. John Erskine of Columbia University, about how to improve the higher education system by returning it to the western liberal arts tradition of broad cross-disciplinary learning. These academics and educators included Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Alexander Meiklejohn. The view among them was that the emphasis on narrow specialization in American colleges had harmed the quality of higher education by failing to expose students to the important products of Western civilization and thought.

They were at odds both with much of the existing educational establishment and with contemporary educational theory. Educational theorists like Sidney Hook and John Dewey (see pragmatism) disagreed with the premise that there was crossover in education (e.g. that a study of philosophy, formal logic, or rhetoric could be of use in medicine or economics).

Great Books started out as a list of 100 essential primary source texts considered to constitute the Western canon. This list was always intended to be tentative, although some consider it presumptuous to nominate 100 Great Books to the exclusion of all others.


The Great Books Program is a curriculum that makes use of this list of texts. As much as possible, students rely on primary sources. The emphasis is on open discussion with limited guidance by a professor, facilitator or tutor. Students are also expected to write papers.

In 1919, Professor Erskine taught the first course based on the "great books" program, titled "General Honors," at Columbia University. Erskine left for the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and helped mold its core curriculum. It initially failed, however, shortly after its introduction due to fallings-out between the instructors over the best ways to conduct classes and due to concerns about the rigor of the courses. Survivors, however, include Columbia's Core Curriculum and the Common Core at Chicago, both heavily focused on the "great books" of the Western canon.

A university or college Great Books Program is a program inspired by the Great Books movement begun in the United States in the 1920s. The aim of such programs is a return to the Western Liberal Arts tradition in education, as a corrective to the extreme disciplinary specialisation common within the academy. The essential component of such programs is a high degree of engagement with whole primary texts, called the Great Books. The curricula of Great Books programs often follow a canon of texts considered more or less essential to a student's education, such as Plato's Republic, or Dante's Divine Comedy. Such programs often focus exclusively on Western culture. Their employment of primary texts dictates an interdisciplinary approach, as most of the Great Books do not fall neatly under the prerogative of a single contemporary academic discipline. Great Books programs often include designated discussion groups as well as lectures, and have small class sizes. In general students in such programs receive an abnormally high degree of attention from their professors, as part of the overall aim of fostering a community of learning.

There are only a few true "Great Books Programs" still in operation. These schools focus almost exclusively on the Great Books Curriculum throughout enrollment and do not offer classes analogous to those commonly offered at other colleges. The first and best known of these schools is St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe (program established in 1937); it was followed by Shimer College in Chicago, and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. More recent schools with this type of curriculum include Harrison Middleton University in Tempe, Arizona (est. 1998), Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming (est. 2005), and Imago Dei College in Oak Glen, California (est. 2010).

Several schools maintain some version of a Great Books Program as an option for students. Some of the most prominent schools are the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, Boston University ("Core Curriculum"), Pepperdine University, Baylor University ("Great Texts"), University of San Francisco, Mercer University, University of Dallas, Gutenberg College, New Saint Andrews College, the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, Saint Anselm College, the Integral Liberal Arts program at Saint Mary's College of California (Moraga), the Hutchins School at Sonoma State University, the Great Conversation, American Conversations, Asian Conversations, and Science Conversation programs at St. Olaf College, The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Louisiana Scholars' College at Northwestern State University (Natchitoches). In Canada Great Books programs exist at the College of the Humanities at Carleton University, at the University of King's College (the Foundation Year Programme), at Tyndale University College in Toronto, at the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University, and at St. Thomas University (New Brunswick).

The Center for the Study of the Great Ideas advances the Great Conversation found in the Great Books by providing Dr. Adler's vision, guidance, and resource materials through both live and on-line seminars, educational and philosophical consultation, international presence on the Internet, access to the Center's library collection of books, essays, articles, journals and audio/video programs. Center programs are unique in that they do not replicate other existing programs either started or developed by Dr. Adler.


The Great Books curriculum was drawn into the popular debate about multiculturalism, traditional education, the "culture war," and the role of the intellectual in American life. Much of this debate centered on reactions to the publication of The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 by Allan Bloom.


The Great Books of the Western World is a hardcover 60-volume collection (originally 54 volumes) of the books on the Great Books list. Many of the books in the collection were translated into English for the first time. A prominent feature of the collection is a two-volume Syntopicon that includes essays written by Mortimer Adler on 102 "great ideas." Following each essay is an extensive outline of the idea with page references to relevant passages throughout the collection. Familiar to many Americans, the collection is available from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., which owns the copyright.

Shortly after Adler retired from the Great Books Foundation in 1989, a second edition (1990) of the Great Books of the Western World was published; it included more Hispanic and female authors and, for the first time, works by African American authors.

/We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process ... we chose the great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the "Syntopicon". Here readers will find many twentieth-century female authors, black authors, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the Great Books.

Reading lists

The following is an example list, in chronological order, compiled from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler (1940), and How to Read a Book, 2nd ed. by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972):

Ancient (before AD 500) :

  1. HomerIliad; Odyssey
  2. The Old Testament
  3. Aeschylus – Tragedies
  4. Sophocles – Tragedies
  5. HerodotusHistories
  6. Euripides – Tragedies
  7. ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War
  8. Hippocrates – Medical Writings
  9. Aristophanes – Comedies
  10. Plato – Dialogues
  11. Aristotle – Works
  12. Epicurus – "Letter to Herodotus"; "Letter to Menoecus"
  13. EuclidElements
  14. Archimedes – Works
  15. ApolloniusConics
  16. Cicero – Works (esp. Orations; On Friendship; On Old Age; Republic; Laws; Tusculan Disputations; Offices)
  17. LucretiusOn the Nature of Things
  18. Virgil – Works (esp. Aeneid)
  19. Horace – Works (esp. Odes and Epodes; The Art of Poetry)
  20. LivyHistory of Rome
  21. Ovid – Works (esp. Metamorphoses)
  22. QuintilianInstitutes of Oratory
  23. PlutarchParallel Lives; Moralia
  24. TacitusHistories; Annals; Agricola; Germania; Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Oratory)
  25. Nicomachus of GerasaIntroduction to Arithmetic
  26. EpictetusDiscourses; Enchiridion
  27. PtolemyAlmagest
  28. Lucian – Works (esp. The Way to Write History; The True History; The Sale of Creeds; Alexander the Oracle Monger; Charon; The Sale of Lives; The Fisherman; Dialogue of the Gods; Dialogues of the Sea-Gods; Dialogues of the Dead)
  29. Marcus AureliusMeditations
  30. GalenOn the Natural Faculties
  31. The New Testament
  32. PlotinusThe Enneads
  33. St. Augustine – "On the Teacher"; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine

Medieval (AD 500—1450) :

  1. The Volsungs Saga or Nibelungenlied
  2. The Song of Roland
  3. The Saga of Burnt Njál
  4. MaimonidesThe Guide for the Perplexed
  5. St. Thomas AquinasOf Being and Essence; Summa Contra Gentiles; Of the Governance of Rulers; Summa Theologica
  6. Dante AlighieriThe New Life (La Vita Nuova); "On Monarchy"; Divine Comedy
  7. Giovanni Boccaccio - The Decameron
  8. Geoffrey ChaucerTroilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
  9. Thomas à KempisThe Imitation of Christ

Modern (after AD 1450) :

  1. Leonardo da VinciNotebooks
  2. Niccolò MachiavelliThe Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
  3. Desiderius ErasmusThe Praise of Folly; Colloquies
  4. Nicolaus CopernicusOn the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
  5. Thomas MoreUtopia
  6. Martin LutherTable Talk; Three Treatises
  7. François RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel
  8. John CalvinInstitutes of the Christian Religion
  9. Michel de MontaigneEssays
  10. William GilbertOn the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies
  11. Miguel de CervantesDon Quixote
  12. Edmund SpenserProthalamion; The Faerie Queene
  13. Francis BaconEssays; The Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum; New Atlantis
  14. William Shakespeare – Poetry and Plays
  15. Galileo GalileiStarry Messenger; Two New Sciences
  16. Johannes KeplerThe Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Harmonices Mundi
  17. William HarveyOn the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; Generation of Animals
  18. GrotiusThe Law of War and Peace
  19. Thomas HobbesLeviathan; Elements of Philosophy
  20. René DescartesRules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on the Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy; Principles of Philosophy; The Passions of the Soul
  21. Corneille – Tragedies (esp. The Cid, Cinna)
  22. John Milton – Works (esp. the minor poems; Areopagitica; Paradise Lost; Samson Agonistes)
  23. Molière – Comedies (esp. The Miser; The School for Wives; The Misanthrope; The Doctor in Spite of Himself; Tartuffe; The Tradesman Turned Gentleman; The Imaginary Invalid; The Affected Ladies)
  24. Blaise PascalThe Provincial Letters; Pensées; Scientific Treatises
  25. John Bunyan - The Pilgrim's Progress
  26. BoyleThe Sceptical Chymist
  27. Christiaan HuygensTreatise on Light
  28. Benedict de SpinozaPolitical Treatises; Ethics
  29. John LockeA Letter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Some Thoughts Concerning Education
  30. Jean Baptiste Racine – Tragedies (esp. Andromache; Phaedra; Athalie (Athaliah))
  31. Isaac NewtonMathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Opticks
  32. Gottfried Wilhelm LeibnizDiscourse on Metaphysics; New Essays on Human Understanding; Monadology
  33. Daniel DefoeRobinson Crusoe; Moll Flanders
  34. Jonathan SwiftThe Battle of the Books; A Tale of a Tub; A Journal to Stella; Gulliver's Travels; A Modest Proposal
  35. William CongreveThe Way of the World
  36. George BerkeleyA New Theory of Vision; A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
  37. Alexander PopeAn Essay on Criticism; The Rape of the Lock; An Essay on Man
  38. Charles de Secondat, baron de MontesquieuPersian Letters; The Spirit of the Laws
  39. VoltaireLetters on the English; Candide; Philosophical Dictionary
  40. Henry FieldingJoseph Andrews; Tom Jones
  41. Samuel JohnsonThe Vanity of Human Wishes; Dictionary; Rasselas; Lives of the Poets
  42. David HumeA Treatise of Human Nature; Essays Moral and Political; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; History of England
  43. Jean-Jacques RousseauDiscourse on Inequality; On Political Economy; Emile: or, On Education; The Social Contract; Confessions
  44. Laurence SterneTristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy
  45. Adam SmithThe Theory of Moral Sentiments; The Wealth of Nations
  46. William BlackstoneCommentaries on the Laws of England
  47. Immanuel KantCritique of Pure Reason; Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals; Critique of Practical Reason; Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
  48. Edward GibbonThe History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
  49. James BoswellJournal; The Life of Samuel Johnson
  50. Antoine Laurent LavoisierTraité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
  51. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James MadisonFederalist Papers (together with the Articles of Confederation; United States Constitution and United States Declaration of Independence)
  52. Jeremy BenthamComment on the Commentaries; Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
  53. Johann Wolfgang GoetheFaust; Poetry and Truth
  54. Thomas Robert MalthusAn Essay on the Principle of Population
  55. John DaltonA New System of Chemical Philosophy
  56. Jean Baptiste Joseph FourierAnalytical Theory of Heat
  57. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelThe Phenomenology of Spirit; Science of Logic; Elements of the Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
  58. William Wordsworth – Poems (esp. Lyrical Ballads; Lucy poems; sonnets; The Prelude)
  59. Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Poems (esp. Kubla Khan; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ); Biographia Literaria
  60. David RicardoOn the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation
  61. Jane AustenPride and Prejudice; Emma
  62. Carl von ClausewitzOn War
  63. StendhalThe Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
  64. François GuizotHistory of Civilization in France
  65. Lord ByronDon Juan
  66. Arthur SchopenhauerStudies in Pessimism
  67. Michael FaradayThe Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
  68. Nikolai LobachevskyGeometrical Researches on the Theory of Parallels
  69. Charles LyellPrinciples of Geology
  70. Auguste ComteThe Positive Philosophy
  71. Honoré Balzac – Works (esp. Le Père Goriot; Le Cousin Pons; Eugénie Grandet; Cousin Bette; César Birotteau)
  72. Ralph Waldo EmersonRepresentative Men; Essays; Journal
  73. Victor Hugo - Les Misérables
  74. Nathaniel HawthorneThe Scarlet Letter
  75. Alexis de TocquevilleDemocracy in America
  76. John Stuart MillA System of Logic; Principles of Political Economy; On Liberty; Considerations on Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
  77. Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
  78. William Makepeace Thackeray – Works (esp. Vanity Fair; The History of Henry Esmond; The Virginians; Pendennis)
  79. Charles Dickens – Works (esp. Pickwick Papers; Our Mutual Friend; David Copperfield; Dombey and Son; Oliver Twist; A Tale of Two Cities; Hard Times)
  80. Claude BernardIntroduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
  81. George BooleThe Laws of Thought
  82. Henry David ThoreauCivil Disobedience; Walden
  83. Karl Marx and Friedrich EngelsDas Kapital (Capital); The Communist Manifesto
  84. George EliotAdam Bede; Middlemarch
  85. Herman MelvilleTypee; Moby-Dick; Billy Budd
  86. Fyodor DostoyevskyCrime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
  87. Gustave FlaubertMadame Bovary; Three Stories
  88. Henry Thomas BuckleA History of Civilization in England
  89. Francis GaltonInquiries into Human Faculties and Its Development
  90. Bernhard RiemannThe Hypotheses of Geometry
  91. Henrik Ibsen – Plays (esp. Peer Gynt; Brand; Hedda Gabler; Emperor and Galilean; A Doll's House; The Wild Duck; The Master Builder)
  92. Leo TolstoyWar and Peace; Anna Karenina; "What Is Art?"; Twenty-Three Tales
  93. Richard DedekindTheory of Numbers
  94. Wilhelm WundtPhysiological Psychology; Outline of Psychology
  95. Mark TwainThe Innocents Abroad; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The Mysterious Stranger
  96. Henry AdamsHistory of the United States; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; The Education of Henry Adams; Degradation of Democratic Dogma
  97. Charles PeirceChance, Love, and Logic; Collected Papers
  98. William SumnerFolkways
  99. Oliver Wendell HolmesThe Common Law; Collected Legal Papers
  100. William JamesThe Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; A Pluralistic Universe; Essays in Radical Empiricism
  101. Henry JamesThe American; The Ambassadors
  102. Friedrich Wilhelm NietzscheThus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; On the Genealogy of Morality; The Will to Power; Twilight of the Idols; The Antichrist
  103. Georg CantorTransfinite Numbers
  104. Jules Henri PoincaréScience and Hypothesis; Science and Method; The Foundations of Science
  105. Sigmund FreudThe Interpretation of Dreams; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality; Introduction to Psychoanalysis; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; The Ego and the Id; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
  106. George Bernard Shaw – Plays and Prefaces
  107. Max PlanckOrigin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
  108. Henri BergsonTime and Free Will; Matter and Memory; Creative Evolution; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
  109. John DeweyHow We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; The Quest for Certainty; Logic – The Theory of Inquiry
  110. Alfred North WhiteheadA Treatise on Universal Algebra; An Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; Process and Reality; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
  111. George SantayanaThe Life of Reason; Scepticism and Animal Faith; The Realms of Being (which discusses the Realms of Essence, Matter and Truth); Persons and Places
  112. Vladimir LeninImperialism; The State and Revolution
  113. Marcel ProustIn Search of Lost Time (formerly translated as Remembrance of Things Past)
  114. Bertrand RussellPrinciples of Mathematics; The Problems of Philosophy; Principia Mathematica; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
  115. Thomas MannThe Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
  116. Albert EinsteinThe Theory of Relativity; Sidelights on Relativity; The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
  117. James Joyce"The Dead" in Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses
  118. Jacques MaritainArt and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; Freedom and the Modern World; A Preface to Metaphysics; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
  119. Franz KafkaThe Trial; The Castle
  120. Arnold J. ToynbeeA Study of History; Civilization on Trial
  121. Jean-Paul SartreNausea; No Exit; Being and Nothingness
  122. Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe First Circle; Cancer Ward

The original edition of How to Read a Book contained a separate "contemporary list" because "Here one's judgment must be tentative". All but the following authors were incorporated into the single list of the revised edition:

  1. Ivan PavlovConditioned Reflexes
  2. Thorstein VeblenThe Theory of the Leisure Class; The Higher Learning in America; The Place of Science in Modern Civilization; Vested Interests and the State of Industrial Arts; Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times
  3. Franz BoasThe Mind of Primitive Man; Anthropology and Modern Life
  4. Leon TrotskyThe History of the Russian Revolution


In 1954 Dr. Mortimer Adler hosted a live weekly television series in San Francisco, comprising 52 half-hour programs entitled The Great Ideas. These programs were produced by the Institute for Philosophical Research and were carried as a public service by the American Broadcasting Company, presented by (NET) National Educational Television, the precursor to what is now PBS. Dr. Adler bequeathed these films to the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas.

In 1993 and 1994, The Learning Channel created a series of one hour programs, discussing many of the great books of history and their impact on the world. It was narrated by Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman, amongst others.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Great books" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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