Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Western Civilization: It's Not Just a Great Idea

I just read the most delightful book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam (Public Affairs Press, 2008). It's the often-funny story of Robert Maynard Hutchins' and Mortimer Adler's Great Books of the Western World.

It's not easy to think of anything more politically incorrect than promoting "great" (a hierarchical concept) books of the Western (a Eurocentric concept) world, but the Great Books project was basically a noble attempt to bring culture and world-historical ideas to the masses. The snooty jerks at The New Yorker published not one but two articles deriding it as "the Book of the Millenium Club." When a publicity photo appeared showing Adler with the index cards for his Syntopicon, an index of the 102 Great Ideas (click to enlarge) Marshall McLuhan said that the signs on the boxes of cards looked like little tombstones where dead ideas had been buried.

The Great Books came and went, and both Adler and Hutchinson died believing that their lives had basically been failures (a sentiment that Adler's son agreed with).

It's easy to make fun of the project (Beam mercifully avoids taking the obvious cheap shots) but I have a lot of sympathy for what these people were trying to do. I even like the idea of -- in some way or other -- isolating Western ideas and books for special treatment.

I think of Western Civilization as consisting of four (okay, let's capitalize it) Great Ideas: 1) scientific method, 2) multiparty democracy, 3) the rule of law, and 4) competitive markets.

One feature all four of these ideas have in common: all refer to processes, not results. Western civ is mad about methods. This leads to a couple of other crucial features.

Being all about process makes it very freedom-friendly. This sort of culture doesn't tell you what result you have to come up with, it only constrains the means by which you can come up with whatever result you prefer. Do you want to devote your life to the worship of Otho, the God of Flashlight Batteries and After-Dinner Comments? Fine! Just don't do it in a way that interferes with these four processes. But, you say, these ideas prevent me from forcing Otho-worship on others! That's too bad! You can't do it!

Another result of being all about process: because they are relatively free of content, the Four Ideas are pretty easy to carry from one culture to another. It is actually rather misleading to call it "Western" civilization any longer. It is Western only in the sense that the West is where it began. Today, one of the most successful countries in using the Big Four is India. Japan has done pretty well with them too.

Other cultures have been gentler, more beautiful, or more poetic and sensitive. None has been more powerful. No other culture has been able to send vehicles to Mars and Titan, or cure tuberculosis, or (to be honest) vaporize a million human beings at the press of a button.

So what does this world-conquering culture have to do with Adler and Hutchins' set of books? Everything! The Wealth of Nations, The Second Treatise of Government, The Origin of Species. The basis of these ideas is in those books. Spreading awareness of these books sounds like a Great Idea to me.


Max Weismann said...

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)

Lester Hunt said...

One thing in the book that left a bad taste was the portrait of Adler, which was entirely negative. I didn't know the man, but it's hard to see how that could have been fair.

On the other hand, I thought his account of the Great Books discussion groups was rather nice -- and could actually make someone want to do one of them. He does a pretty good job of conveying how fun and interesting about such an activity is. (I do Liberty Fund colloquia, which are apparently very similar.)

Anonymous said...

GREAT post, Lester! These four principles are huge - I try to imagine what Somalia or Zimbabwe might be like today, if these principles were in effect there. Nature doesn't care whether we humans suffer or not, only we humans care. We have bootstrapped ourselves, via these principles, to an amazing level of comfort, knowledge and prosperity, compared to what might have been.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. All true.

Anonymous said...

Insightful, but I'd add one more Western characteristic: Christianity, in all its forms. Western civilization is not Islamic, Buddhist or Confucian. This fact's implications could fill books. For one, the invention of the printing press, WC's crowning achievement, was motivated by Christianity's desire to mass produce Bibles.

Lester Hunt said...


Christianity has clearly been a huge influence, but somehow it doesn't seem to belong on this list. If we make it essential to being Western then it would no longer be true that India, Japan, So. Korea, etc. have mastered Western ways. Also, it is result, not process. Of course, someone could say that my list is all wrong.

Skip said...

How come when you write about The Great Books, Weismann addresses your post. When I do so, he leaves what is essentially an ad in my comments?

As someone who owns The Great Books series, I agree with your sentiments about the merits of the ideas in the books. But I think it's a real shame that readers aren't given context and that we're expected to muddle through old translations or the English language as it was 500 years ago and actually understand everything. The 10 volume introductory series is much more user friendly.

Lester Hunt said...


You've identified all the shortcomings of the GBotWW. I have a partial set, collected over the years in used book stores. I also have a complete Harvard Classics, which does have some advantages over the GB.

I suppose the annoying no-footnotes-or-commentary feature is part of the hyper-democratic idea that if you just put plain folk face to face with a great text, without the priesthood of the commentator intervening, something will happen. (Maybe we should call it "literary protestantism"!)

Nonetheless, factual explanatory footnotes would have helped a lot. Also better translations, rather than those cheap, public domain ones that they generally used.

Anonymous said...

I like your four points of Western Civilization.

I prefer editorial apparatus: cultural setting, footnotes, and maps. While the newest translations into English are not necessarily better, for my favorites of the Great Books I've gone on to find editions more useful to me.

That said, I first encountered some favorites via the Great Books. And that may be where I first grasped the scope of the Western idea itself.

Lester Hunt said...

I too rather like some of those old translations. The GBWW translation of Plutarch's Lives is by John Dryden, and it is a classic in itself. For one thing, when Plutarch quotes poetry, as he often does, Dryden translates it into something that actually scans properly and works as poetry.

James said...

Your commentary is right on! In addition to understanding the basis of Western Civilization these books help you become a better reader. Plus some of the authors like Darwin and Gibbon are actually fun to read.

Lester Hunt said...

Yes -- Especially Gibbon, who is surprisingly entertaining. Another one of these books that's a hoot to read is Boswell's Life of Johnson, esp, the reports of the conversations between the two men (which of course it the bulk of the book).

Johnson is the opposite of me in almost every respect, but as Boswell presents him he is gloriously, perfectly what he is.

momwrite said...

Agree with the argument. Western civilization is a large part of world civilization, already overpowering others, which should be studied and understood at school. I think everything will be accepted proportionally if we could strike a balance among great civilizations.