The Great Books Foundation

Mortimer Adler

You probably don’t recognize the man on the Time magazine cover above.  His name is Mortimer J. Adler.  Adler, who was born in New York City in 1902, became a philosopher, educator, and author among other things.  He led a long, productive life, and died at the age of 98.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 to go to work, but soon entered night school to continue his education.  He eventually earned a PhD. in psychology from Columbia University.  Throughout this period of his life he pursued an interest in the great philosophers and their theories – an interest that would always be an important part of his life’s work.

Fortunately for Adler, and for us, he became friends with a rising star in the academic world named Robert Hutchins.  In 1929 Hutchins became President of the University of Chicago, and the following year hired Adler to teach a course on the philosophy of law.  Adler and Hutchins shared a love of learning, and a desire to educate the common folks as well as the students at the University.  Therefore, they came up with a list of works they thought everyone should explore, developed a detailed plan of attack for those works, and ultimately created a set of books that contained those works in its 54 volumes.  The set, which was published by Encyclopædia Britannica in 1952, was called The Great Books of the Western World.

Another project for the common folks that Adler shepherded was the formation of the Great Books Foundation.  The purpose of the Foundation was to produce a series of inexpensive paperback books that contained works that Adler thought were important.  Since the sets were inexpensive, everyone in a book group would be able to buy a set, and then get together to discuss the diverse selections therein.

The groups would have “leaders” rather than “teachers” who would facilitate each discussion.  The distinction between leaders and teachers is extremely important because the leaders were there to ask questions, and to guide the discussions, not to teach the participants the meaning of the works or to answer questions about them.  In fact, a diversity of opinion about the meaning of a work – other than facts stated in the work – was encouraged, and no one was allowed to say that the other participants’ interpretations were wrong.  I liken this to looking at a painting.  Each of us may have a somewhat different interpretation of what the artist is trying to tell us in that work.  Who is right, and who is wrong?  Only the artist can tell us for sure.

Another unique aspect of these discussions is the use of what is called the Socratic Method to facilitate the discussion.  If you have ever read any of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates talks to people, you are familiar with the Socratic Method.  If someone were to say to Socrates, “It’s a beautiful day,” Socrates would probably respond by asking a question such as, “What is beauty?”  That would begin a discussion that might range all over the place, with Socrates never giving his own view of what beauty is.  So a Great Books Discussion Group might study the Declaration of Independence and try to figure out what it all means – or more pointedly, what it meant to the men who created it.  You can take something as simple as “All men are created equal,” and have a long discussion about its meaning.  Here are some of the questions that could be asked about those five words:  What do they mean by “all men”?  Does “men” include women, slaves, or only white males with land or money?  What do they mean by “equal”?  Equal in what way or ways?  In every way?  And what does “created” mean, and why did they choose that particular word?  Does “created” have a religious connotation?

You can see that the Socratic Method could lead to a great diversity of answers to the above questions, and I assure you that in a group of ten to fifteen people (the ideal group size) you will have many different ideas about exactly what the founding fathers meant by those five simple words.  At the end of the discussion there would still be a diversity of opinion, and that’s just the way it should be.  The point of the discussions is not to come to a common agreement concerning the meaning of a work, but to get the participants to think deeply about what they have read, and what they think it means.  Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and the Socratic Method forces us to examine what we believe.  That is unpleasant for some people to do, but for those who want to examine their beliefs, participation in a Great Books Discussion Group is extremely rewarding.

Regardless of where you live, there is probably a Great Books Discussion Group nearby.  Here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana there has been a Group for over 40 years, and I have been in it, off and on, for many of those years.  When our son was in elementary school he was in a Junior Great Books Discussion Group for a while, and my wife was the leader.  You will even find Great Books Discussion Groups in prisons.  A friend of mine led a group at a state prison for a time, and said that the discussions were among the best he ever took part in.

Delve into the Great Books program at their website, and be sure to look at the books they have published for discussion.  Many of the books contain a variety of selections, both fiction and nonfiction, but there are also compilations on subjects such as economics, American democracy, civics, and human rights, and topics in science.  The group I’m in will begin book six in a series called Great Conversations in September.  It contains works of both fiction and nonfiction.  Here are the selections:

  • On Tranquility of Mind by Seneca
  • The New Organon* by Francis Bacon
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • Discourse Seven by Joshua Reynolds
  • The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám/Rabbi Ben Ezra by Edward FitzGerald (trans.)/Robert Browning
  • The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
  • The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  • On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life* by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • The Devil Baby at Hull House by Jane Addams
  • The Man Who Could Work Miracles by H. G. Wells
  • Mario and the Magician by Thomas Mann
  • The Daughters of the Late Colonel by Katherine Mansfield
  • R.U.R. by Karel Čapek
  • My Confession by Mary McCarthy
  • Holy Week by Deborah Eisenberg

*Indicates a selection from a longer work.

The first two selections, “On Tranquility of Mind” by Seneca and selections from The New Organon by Francis Bacon may have you thinking “Wow, I’m not sure I can handle anything like that,” but you can.  It just takes a little mental exercise as well as some concentrated reading.  One of the equalizing factors in each group is that the use of outside sources to explain the meaning of a work are not allowed.  You can only express and/or defend your understanding of the work.  That, to an extent, puts everyone on the same level.

Great Conversations, Volume 6, like all of the books in this series, also contains discussion guides for two novels:

  • Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer by Andreï Makine
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

We will all purchase identical paperback copies of The Age of Innocence and discuss it at one of our meetings.  While you can use your own copy of the novel, having identical copies will insure that we are literally “on the same page” when we discuss interesting passages.

I invite you to look into this wonderful organization, and to join one in your area, or to start one if none exist.  The folks with the Foundation will be happy to assist you.  If you live in my area, you are welcome to join our group.  Just e-mail me at to find out more.

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