Great Books

From a typewritten manuscript by Jacques Maritain, with the author's handwritten revisions, taken from an envelope dated 14 April 1952.


I am particularly honored to participate in the celebration of the intellectual event which brings us together tonight, the Formal Presentation of the Founders' Edition of the Great Books of the Western World.

I should like to avail myself of this of this opportunity to express the admiration and intense interest with which I have followed for twenty years the outstanding work accomplished by Dr. Hutchins on behalf of metaphysics and the humanities, and of the spiritual dignity, integrity and liberty of the mind; - and the educational experiment conducted at St. John's College with the Great Books program; - and the steadily developing activity of the Great Books clubs; - and, more particularly, the effort that Mr. Adler, in conjunction with Dr. Hutchins, has pursued with such clear vision in preparing that grand cultural task, the edition of the Great Books of the Western World, which has now been completed thanks to the generous and enlightened support of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its publisher Mr. Benton, to whom I wish to convey our common gratitude.


In looking at the program of this monumental publication, and in reading the first two volumes, the Syntopicon, one cannot help being struck by the fact that a number of the most representative works of the European heritage have been collected here by the diligent care of the American mind and the American zeal for the advance of civilization. This is the first observation I feel prompted to make. You will allow me, as a European, to stress the significance of that great testimony to the gratitude and faithful attention of this country to the European tradition it has inherited.

It seems remarkable to me that the notion of tradition, in its living and genuine sense, is now being rehabilitated, and the task of saving and promoting the best of this very tradition taken over by the pioneering spirit itself of America. This is a sign, I think, of the historic process which causes the most decisive phases in the intellectual and spiritual struggle on which the destinies of the world depend to shift to this country.

Yet this intellectual and spiritual struggle remains universal in nature, and the European mind is involved in it as deeply as the American mind. As a matter of fact, the Atlantic is now becoming that which the Mediterranean was for thirty centuries, - the domestic sea of Western civilization. It is in the order of the mind and of culture, it is with respect to the perennial search of the spirit for truth and beauty, knowledge, freedom and wisdom that the Atlantic community has its most basic historical significance.


My second observation deals with the Syntopicon, and both the novelty and the intrinsic value of this systematic inventory of the thought of the Occident. The Syntopicon, which is intended to help people in the actual use and reading of the Great Books, is the first instance of a great collective task, involving a large team of workers, which in the field of philosophy and human sciences may be compared with the collective tasks accomplished by physicists or biologists in their laboratories. To be sure, in philosophy and art still more perhaps than in science, creation will always require individual, even solitary work. But there is a large preparatory field, dealing with informative research, factual inquiry or dialectical reflection, in which collective work can open new and invaluable possibilities.

The Syntopicon, with its 102 introductory essays on the great ideas and its systematically arranged references, provides research workers with an exceptinoally useful instrument of work. But it is much more, in my opinion, than an instrument for scholarly research. It is also an instrument for, and a harbinger of, that new endeavor of critical examination and creative synthesis through which alone the tradition of the Western world can survive, and advance.

The Syntopicon appears in this regard as a starting point. Let us hope that the next step will be a summing up - what Mr. Adler calls a Summa Dialectica - if not of principles and theoretical certainties unanimously agreed upon by the Western intellect, at least of the crucial issues with which we are faced and of the conflicting answers which have been or may be offered. Such an articulate summing up would not only clarify the problems and approaches, but would perhaps reveal also a larger area of unformulated theoretical agreement, concealed in the very variety of doctrines, than is usually thought, as well as a number of practical points on which the Western tradition keeps practical unanimity despite the irreconcilable antagonism of doctrines and theoretical positions.

Of course it is necessary to go further, if the question for us is not simly to preserve the tradition of the Western world in a kind of museum, but to take part in its very workings in order to strive to purify it of any principle of self-destruction. For in the tradition of the Western world there have been not only treasurable and sacred truths, and unconquerable germs of life, but also tragic errors or illusions, and powerful germs of death. Otherwise how could we understand the present crisis of civilization?

The great thing is to set free the truths that error has held captive, those maddened truths of which Chesterton spoke, and to make the tradition of the Western world consistent with its own vital inspiration in bringing out the true principles and objectively valid ideas which alone set it on solid ground.

Yet such a work, if it is to have a sufficiently large cultural impact, and to penetrate common consciousness in an efficacious manner, needs an appropriate preparation. Considering the problem in sociological terms, the prerequired condition for the Western man to heal his wounds is first to know his own tradition with its inner conflicting trends, and to perceive clearly the meaning of these trends and the inner logic they obey. There is a kind of healing virtue in knowledge and awareness. A first significant step would be made, and a great service done to Western culture, if one managed to reach at least a well established common agreement on the nature and extent of the disagreements which divide our world.

At the core of the work undertaken in publishing the Great Books of the Western World, there is an abiding faith in the dignity of the mind and the virtue of knowledge. Such a work is inspired by what might be called humanist generosity. Those who struggle for the liberties of the human mind have first to believe in the dignity of the human mind, and to trust the natural energies of the human mind.