Steve Allen and the Great Minds of History

When I was child I was fascinated by Steve Allen’s’ show Meeting of Minds where Steve would have a round table discussion with brilliant and intriguing personalities from history.   Steve’s guests included: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, Marie Antoinette, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Paine, Francis Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire and Charles Darwin.

It was delicious fun to watch these historical figures engage in conversation with each other on philosophy, politics, and history.  The illusion was made believable by having the characters use dialog as close as possible to their actual quotes. The result was a lively debate, a talk show for philosophy geeks with history’s “A” team.

Steve’s show is long gone and with it any chance for more Great Conversations with history’s great minds.

Or is it. Yesterday in the mail I received my 50th birthday present from my parents in the form of three heavy boxes. Inside was a complete set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. The hard cover set includes contains 517 works from 130 of the most renowned minds throughout history in a 54 volume set.

Great Books just taken out of the box and laying on my living room floor.
Great Books just taken out of the box and laying on my living room floor.

The roots of the Great Books series goes back to the late 1940’s as an eight year project of a team of scholars lead by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. The works selected include the most influential writings of Western Thought on Philosophy, Science, Mathematics, History and Theology.   The Great Books collection includes writers as diverse in time and thought as Aristotle and Marx, Plato and Freud, Copernicus and Ptolemy, Homer and Melville, Hippocrates and Darwin, Virgil and Cervantes, Plutarch and Gibbon, Euclid and Faraday. It represents, in the words of a Greek Philosopher in the movie Agora: “The Memory of Man.”

Putting a collection of individual books similar to the Great Works isn’t any more difficult than researching Amazon and Barnes and Noble and ordering paperback copies. However, the stunning scope of the Great Book’s collection of works and authors is not what makes this set unique.  What makes this set indispensable is an unusual, almost forgotten concept created just for the Great Books series: The Syntopicon.

The Syntopicon, in two volumes of the set, organizes thirty centuries of thought into 102 Great Ideas, subsequently divided into topics and subtopics to effectively explore the different viewpoints over time. It’s much more than a simple index but a tool to engage in your own “Meeting of the Minds”. Want to know what the great story tellers, philosophers, historians and scientists of history thought about say Punishment, Justice, Mathematics, Nature, God, or Astronomy? Then open up the Syntopicon to that topic.  There you will find a list of authors who addressed that idea and the Syntopicon will point you the Great Books volumes and pages to go to read that author’s own thoughts on that topic. With just a little effort, you can recreate on your own Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds as you go from topic to topic and hear the great minds themselves speak in their own words.

So why now? What place does the Great Books fit into our advanced society sixty-two years after Hutchins and Adler conceived of the series? In the spirit of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds I will let them speak for themselves writing from 1952 when the series was first published:

“…This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit.  We have not seen as our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples. …We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.  We want them to be heard again, not because we want to go back to antiquity, or to the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the 18th Century.  We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any time if we could.  We want the voices of the Great Conversation heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live a better now...”

Amen gentlemen…

Post Script: Volume one of this series: The Great Conversation, serves as the preface and introduction. In it Alder and Hutchins propose a 10 year reading plan for the entire series! It sounds daunting until you remember that a Liberal Arts education is not only for everyone but is also a lifetime vocation. The truth is, no one could ever say they have finished the Great Conversation.

Britannica’s Great Books series is out of print with the last editions released about 1972. Sets for sale still pop up on Amazon and Ebay so while a good set is not uncommon it is not unattainable.

I want to thank my Mom and Dad and my Uncle Tom for teaming up to make this wonderful gift possible.  I knew exactly what it was as soon as I ripped open the first of the three heavy boxes. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.  I can’t think of a better feeling to have when you turn 50.

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