The Great Books series was a standout on cable TV in the 1990s – a highly entertaining yet educational survey of great works of world literature.

Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952, by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., to present the Great Books in a 54-volume set.

The original editors had three criteria for including a book in the series: the book must be relevant to contemporary matters, and not only important in its historical context; it must be rewarding to re-read; and it must be a part of “the great conversation about the great ideas”, relevant to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas identified by the editors. The books were not chosen on the basis of ethnic and cultural inclusiveness, historical influence, or the editors’ agreement with the views expressed by the authors.

Initial sales were poor, so the sales strategy switched to a door-to-door operation which was much more successful.

A second edition was published in 1990 in 60 volumes. Some translations were updated, some works were removed, and there were significant additions from the 20th century.


The project for the Great Books of the Western World began at the University of Chicago, where the president, Robert Hutchins, collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course—generally aimed at businesspeople—for the purpose of filling the gaps in their liberal education; to render the reader as an intellectually rounded man or woman familiar with the Great Books of the Western canon, and knowledgeable of the great ideas developed in the course of three millennia. An original student of the project was William Benton (later a U.S. senator, and then chief executive officer of the Encyclopædia Britannica publishing company) who proposed selecting the greatest books of the Western canon, and that Hutchins and Adler produce unabridged editions for publication, by Encyclopædia Britannica. Yet, Hutchins was wary of such a business endeavour, fearing that the books would be sold as a product, thereby devaluing them as cultural artefacts; nevertheless, he agreed to the business deal, and was paid $60,000 for the project.

After deciding what subjects and authors to include, and how to present the materials, the project was begun, with a budget of $2,000,000. On April 15, 1952, the Great Books of the Western World were presented at a publication party in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in New York City. In his speech, Hutchins said, “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” The first two sets of books were given to Elizabeth II, Queen of the U.K., and to Harry S. Truman, the incumbent U.S. President.

The initial sales of the book sets were poor, with only 1,863 sets sold in 1952, and less than one-tenth of that number of book sets were sold in 1953. A financial debacle loomed until Encyclopædia Britannica altered the sales strategy, and sold the book set through experienced door-to-door encyclopædia-salesmen, as Hutchins had feared; but, through that method, 50,000 sets were sold in 1961. In 1963 the editors published Gateway to the Great Books, a ten-volume set of readings meant to introduce the authors and the subjects of the Great Books. Each year, from 1961 to 1998, the editors published The Great Ideas Today, an annual updating about the applicability of the Great Books to contemporary life.[2][3] The Internet and the E-book reader have made available some of the Great Books of the Western World in an on-line format.[4]


Originally published in 54 volumes, The Great Books of the Western World covers categories including fiction, history, poetry, natural science, mathematics, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics. Hutchins wrote the first volume, titled The Great Conversation, as an introduction and discourse on liberal education. Adler sponsored the next two volumes, “The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon”, as a way of emphasizing the unity of the set and, by extension, of Western thought in general. A team of indexers spent months compiling references to such topics as “Man’s freedom in relation to the will of God” and “The denial of void or vacuum in favor of a plenum”. They grouped the topics into 102 chapters, for which Adler wrote 102 introductions. Four colors identify each volume by subject area—Imaginative Literature, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences, History and Social Science, and Philosophy and Theology. The volumes contained the following works:

Volume 1

The Great Conversation

Volume 2

Syntopicon 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 3

Syntopicon II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World

Volume 4

Homer (rendered into English prose by Samuel Butler)
The Iliad
The Odyssey

Volume 5

Aeschylus (translated into English verse by G.M. Cookson)
The Suppliant Maidens
The Persians
Seven Against Thebes
Prometheus Bound
The Oresteia
The Eumenides
Sophocles (translated into English prose by Sir Richard C. Jebb)
The Oedipus Cycle
Oedipus the King
Oedipus at Colonus
The Trachiniae
Euripides (translated into English prose by Edward P. Coleridge)
The Suppliants
Trojan Women
Heracles Mad
Phoenician Women
Iphigeneia in Tauris
Iphigeneia at Aulis
Aristophanes (translated into English verse by Benjamin Bickley Rogers)
The Acharnians
The Knights
The Clouds
The Wasps
The Birds
The Frogs

Volume 6

The History (translated by George Rawlinson)
History of the Peloponnesian War (translated by Richard Crawley and revised by R. Feetham)

Volume 7

The Dialogues (translated by Benjamin Jowett)
The Republic
The Seventh Letter (translated by J. Harward)

Volume 8

On Interpretation
Prior Analytics
Posterior Analytics
Sophistical Refutations
On the Heavens
On Generation and Corruption
On the Soul
Minor biological works

Volume 9

History of Animals
Parts of Animals
On the Motion of Animals
On the Gait of Animals
On the Generation of Animals
Nicomachean Ethics
The Athenian Constitution

Volume 10

On the Natural Faculties

Volume 11

The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements
On the Sphere and Cylinder
Measurement of a Circle
On Conoids and Spheroids
On Spirals
On the Equilibrium of Planes
The Sand Reckoner
The Quadrature of the Parabola
On Floating Bodies
Book of Lemmas
The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems
Apollonius of Perga
On Conic Sections
Nicomachus of Gerasa
Introduction to Arithmetic

Volume 12

On the Nature of Things (translated by H.A.J. Munro)
The Discourses (translated by George Long)
Marcus Aurelius
The Meditations (translated by George Long)

Volume 13

Virgil (translated into English verse by James Rhoades)

Volume 14

The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (translated by John Dryden)
Volume 15

P. Cornelius Tacitus (translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb)
The Annals
The Histories

Volume 16

Almagest, (translated by R. Catesby Taliaferro)
Nicolaus Copernicus
On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (translated by Charles Glenn Wallis)
Johannes Kepler (translated by Charles Glenn Wallis)
Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (Books IV–V)
The Harmonies of the World (Book V)

Volume 17

The Six Enneads (translated by Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page)

Volume 18

Augustine of Hippo
The Confessions
The City of God
On Christian Doctrine

Volume 19

Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica (First part complete, selections from second part, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province and revised by Daniel J. Sullivan)

Volume 20

Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica (Selections from second and third parts and supplement, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province and revised by Daniel J. Sullivan)

Volume 21

Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy (Translated by Charles Eliot Norton)

Volume 22

Geoffrey Chaucer
Troilus and Criseyde
The Canterbury Tales

Volume 23

Niccolò Machiavelli
The Prince
Thomas Hobbes

Volume 24

François Rabelais
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Volume 25

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Volume 26

William Shakespeare
The First Part of King Henry the Sixth
The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth
The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth
The Tragedy of Richard the Third
The Comedy of Errors
Titus Andronicus
The Taming of the Shrew
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Romeo and Juliet
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Life and Death of King John
The Merchant of Venice
The First Part of King Henry the Fourth
The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth
Much Ado About Nothing
The Life of King Henry the Fifth
Julius Caesar
As You Like It

Volume 27

William Shakespeare
Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Troilus and Cressida
All’s Well That Ends Well
Measure for Measure
Othello, the Moor of Venice
King Lear
Antony and Cleopatra
Timon of Athens
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Winter’s Tale
The Tempest
The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth

Volume 28

William Gilbert
On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
Galileo Galilei
Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences
William Harvey
On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals
On the Circulation of Blood
On the Generation of Animals

Volume 29

Miguel de Cervantes
The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha
Volume 30

Sir Francis Bacon
The Advancement of Learning
Novum Organum
New Atlantis

Volume 31

René Descartes
Rules for the Direction of the Mind
Discourse on the Method
Meditations on First Philosophy
Objections Against the Meditations and Replies
The Geometry
Benedict de Spinoza

Volume 32

John Milton
English Minor Poems
Paradise Lost
Samson Agonistes

Volume 33

Blaise Pascal
The Provincial Letters
Scientific and mathematical essays

Volume 34

Sir Isaac Newton
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
Christian Huygens
Treatise on Light

Volume 35

John Locke
A Letter Concerning Toleration
Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
George Berkeley
The Principles of Human Knowledge
David Hume
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Volume 36

Jonathan Swift
Gulliver’s Travels
Laurence Sterne
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Volume 37

Henry Fielding
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Volume 38

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu
The Spirit of the Laws
Jean Jacques Rousseau
A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
A Discourse on Political Economy
The Social Contract

Volume 39

Adam Smith
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Volume 40

Edward Gibbon
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Part 1)

Volume 41

Edward Gibbon
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Part 2)

Volume 42

Immanuel Kant
Critique of Pure Reason
Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
Critique of Practical Reason
Excerpts from The Metaphysics of Morals
Preface and Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics with a note on Conscience
General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals
The Science of Right
The Critique of Judgement
Volume 43

American State Papers
Declaration of Independence
Articles of Confederation
The Constitution of the United States of America
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
The Federalist
John Stuart Mill
On Liberty
Considerations on Representative Government

Volume 44

James Boswell
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Volume 45

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
Elements of Chemistry
Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier
Analytical Theory of Heat
Michael Faraday
Experimental Researches in Electricity

Volume 46

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
The Philosophy of Right
The Philosophy of History

Volume 47

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Volume 48

Herman Melville
Moby Dick; or, The Whale

Volume 49

Charles Darwin
The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

Volume 50

Karl Marx
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Manifesto of the Communist Party

Volume 51

Count Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace

Volume 52

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov

Volume 53

William James
The Principles of Psychology

Volume 54

Sigmund Freud
The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis
Selected Papers on Hysteria
The Sexual Enlightenment of Children
The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy
Observations on “Wild” Psycho-Analysis
The Interpretation of Dreams
On Narcissism
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes
The Unconscious
A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
The Ego and the Id
Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety
Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
Civilization and Its Discontents
New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis
Second edition[edit]
The second edition of Great Books of the Western World, 1990, saw an increase from 54 to 60 volumes, with updated translations. The six new volumes concerned the 20th century, an era of which the first edition’s sole representative was Freud. Some of the other volumes were re-arranged, with even more pre-20th century material added but with four texts deleted: Apollonius’ On Conic Sections, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Joseph Fourier’s Analytical Theory of Heat. Adler later expressed regret about dropping On Conic Sections and Tom Jones. Adler also voiced disagreement with the addition of Voltaire’s Candide, and said that the Syntopicon should have included references to the Koran. He addressed criticisms that the set was too heavily Western European and did not adequately represent women and minority authors.[5]

The added pre-20th century texts appear in these volumes (some of the accompanying content of these volumes differs from the first edition volume of that number):

Volume 20

John Calvin
Institutes of the Christian Religion (Selections)

Volume 23

The Praise of Folly

Volume 31

The School for Wives
The Critique of the School for Wives
Don Juan
The Miser
The Would-Be Gentleman
The Imaginary Invalid
Jean Racine

Volume 34

Denis Diderot
Rameau’s Nephew

Volume 43

Søren Kierkegaard
Fear and Trembling
Friedrich Nietzsche
Beyond Good and Evil
Volume 44

Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America

Volume 45

Honoré de Balzac
Cousin Bette

Volume 46

Jane Austen
George Eliot
Volume 47

Charles Dickens
Little Dorrit

Volume 48

Mark Twain
Huckleberry Finn

Volume 52

Henrik Ibsen
A Doll’s House
The Wild Duck
Hedda Gabler
The Master Builder
The contents of the six volumes of added 20th-century material:

Volume 55

William James
Henri Bergson
“An Introduction to Metaphysics”
John Dewey
Experience and Education
Alfred North Whitehead
Science and the Modern World
Bertrand Russell
The Problems of Philosophy
Martin Heidegger
What Is Metaphysics?
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Philosophical Investigations
Karl Barth
The Word of God and the Word of Man

Volume 56

Henri Poincaré
Science and Hypothesis
Max Planck
Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
Alfred North Whitehead
An Introduction to Mathematics
Albert Einstein
Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
Arthur Eddington
The Expanding Universe
Niels Bohr
Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (selections)
Discussion with Einstein on Epistemology
G. H. Hardy
A Mathematician’s Apology
Werner Heisenberg
Physics and Philosophy
Erwin Schrödinger
What Is Life?
Theodosius Dobzhansky
Genetics and the Origin of Species
C. H. Waddington
The Nature of Life

Volume 57

Thorstein Veblen
The Theory of the Leisure Class
R. H. Tawney
The Acquisitive Society
John Maynard Keynes
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

Volume 58

Sir James George Frazer
The Golden Bough (selections)
Max Weber
Essays in Sociology (selections)
Johan Huizinga
The Autumn of the Middle Ages
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Structural Anthropology (selections)

Volume 59

Henry James
The Beast in the Jungle
George Bernard Shaw
Saint Joan
Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness
Anton Chekhov
Uncle Vanya
Luigi Pirandello
Six Characters in Search of an Author
Marcel Proust
Remembrance of Things Past: “Swann in Love”
Willa Cather
A Lost Lady
Thomas Mann
Death in Venice
James Joyce
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Volume 60

Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse
Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis
D. H. Lawrence
The Prussian Officer
T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land
Eugene O’Neill
Mourning Becomes Electra
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
William Faulkner
A Rose for Emily
Bertolt Brecht
Mother Courage and Her Children
Ernest Hemingway
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
George Orwell
Animal Farm
Samuel Beckett
Waiting for Godot

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