Syntopical Essay Outline

Dwight Macdonald, "The Book-of-the-Millennium Club"

published in The New Yorker, November 29, 1952
FOR $249.50, which is (for all practical purposes) $250, one could buy, in 1952, a hundred pounds of Great Books: four hundred and forty-three works by seventy-six authors, ranging chronologically and in other ways from Homer to Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, the whole forming a mass amounting to thirty-two thousand pages, mostly double-column, containing twenty-five million words squeezed into fifty-four volumes. The publisher of this behemoth, which cost almost two million dollars to produce, is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is jointly owned by Senator William Benton of Connecticut and the University of Chicago. The books were selected by a board headed by Dr. Robert Hutchins, formerly chancellor of the University of Chicago and now an associate director of the Ford Foundation, and Dr. Adler, who used to teach the philosophy of law at the University of Chicago and who now runs the Institute for Philosophical Research, an enterprise largely financed by the Ford Foundation. The novelty of the set and to a large extent its raison d'etre is the Syntopicon, a two-volume index to the Great Ideas in the Great Books. The Syntopicon ("collection of topics'-) was constructed by a task force commanded by Dr. Adler, who also contributes 1,150 pages of extremely dry essays on the Great Ideas, of which, according to his census, there are exactly a hundred and two. It also contains 163,000 page references to the Great Books plus an Inventory of Terms (which includes 1,690 ideas found to be respectable but not Great), plus a Bibliography of Additional Readings (2,603 books that didn't make the grade), plus an eighty-page essay by Dr. Adler on "The Principles and Methods of Syntopical Construction," and it cost the Encyclopaedia just under a million dollars. If these facts and figures have an oppressive, leaden ring, so does this enterprise.

"This set of books," says Dr. Hutchins in "The Great Conversation," a sort of after-dinner speech that has somehow become Volume I of Great Books, "is the result of an attempt to reappraise and re-embody the tradition of the West for our generation." For some, this might take a bit of doing, but Dr. Hutchins makes it sound as easy as falling off a log (with Mark Hopkins on the other end): "The discussions of the Board revealed few differences of opinion about the overwhelming majority of the books in the list. The set is almost self- selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it." But if the criterion of selection really was whether a book amplifies, modifies, or contradicts another book, one wonders how any books at all were eliminated. Actually, the Board seems to have shifted about between three criteria that must have conflicted as often as they coincided: which books were most infuential in the past, which are now, which ought to be now. Cicero and Seneca were more important in the past than Plato and Aeschylus but are less important today; in excluding the former and including the latter, the Board honored the second criterion over the first. On the other hand, devoting two volumes apiece to Aristotle and Aquinas could be justified only by their historical, not their contemporary, interest. The third criterion was involved here, too; these philosophers are important to the Adler-Hutchins school of thought, and the Board doubtless felt that if they are not important in modern thought, they damned well should be. My objection is not to this method of selection -- jockeying back and forth between conflicting criteria is the essence of the anthologist's craft -- but to the bland unawareness of it shown by the impresarios, Dr. Hutchins and Dr. Adler, who write as if the Truth were an easy thing to come by. This doctrinaire smugness blinds them to the real problems of their enterprise by giving them mechanical, ready-made solutions that often don't fill the bill.

THE wisdom of the method varies with the obviousness of the choice, being greatest where there is practically no choice; that is, with the half of the authors -- by no means "the overwhelming majority" -- on which agreement may be presumed to be universal: Homer, the Greek dramatists, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Virgil, Plutarch, Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Milton, Pascal, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Gibbon, Hegel, Kant, Goethe, and Darwin. A large second category seems sound and fairly obvious, though offering plenty of room for discussion: Herodotus, Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Tacitus, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Swift, Montesquieu, Boswell, Mill, Marx, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Freud. The rest of the list depended entirely upon the Board, and in this case the choice seems to be mostly foolish. Only two selections are both daring and sound: Moby Dick and William James' Psychology. The former is, of course, well known but could easily have been passed over; the latter is an extraordinarily rich and imaginative work that has been overshadowed by the Freudian vogue. The Freud volume, with no less than eighteen books and papers in it, gives an excellent conspectus of Freud's work; the Marx volume, on the other hand, contains only the Communist Manifesto and Volume I of Capital (misleadingly titled, so that it suggests it is the whole work), which is barely the ABC of Marx's political thought. This unevenness of editing is prevalent. There is a provincial overemphasis on English literature at the expense of French; we get Boswell, Gulliver, Tristram Shandy, and Tom Jones but no Moliere, Corneille, or Racine, and no Stendhal, Balzac, or Flaubert. This is what might be called an accidental eccentricity, the kind of error any board of fallible mortals might make. But most of the eccentricities are systematic rather than accidental, springing from dogma rather than oversight.

A fifth of the volumes are all but impenetrable to the lay reader, or at least to this lay reader -- the four devoted to Aristotle and Aquinas and the six of scientific treatises, ranging from Hippocrates to Faraday. "There is a sense in which every great book is always over the head of the reader," airily writes Dr. Hutchins. "He can never fully comprehend it. That is why the books in this set are infinitely rereadable." I found these ten volumes infinitely unreadable. There is a difference between not fully comprehending Homer and Shakespeare (in that one is always discovering something new on rereading them) and not even getting to first base with either a writer's terminology or what he is driving at. Aristotle and Aquinas should have been included, I would say, but four volumes is excessive. Furthermore, no expository apparatus is provided, no introduction relating their Weltanschauung to our own, no notes on their very special use of terms and their concepts. Lacking such help, how can one be expected to take an interest in such problems, vivid enough to Aquinas, as "Whether an Inferior Angel Speaks to a Superior Angel?," "Whether We Should Distinguish Irascible and Concupiscible Parts in the Superior Appetite?," "Whether Heavenly Bodies Can Act on Demons?," and "Whether by Virtue of Its Subtlety a Glorified Body Will No Longer Need to Be in a Place Equal to Itself?" In fact, even with help, one's interest might remain moderate. In the case of a philosopher like Plato, essentially a literary man and so speaking a universal human language, the difficulty is far less acute, but Aquinas and Aristotle were engineers and technicians of philosophy, essentially system builders whose concepts and terminology are no longer familiar.

The difficulty is much more urgent in the six volumes of scientific work, so urgent that almost no expository apparatus would suffice. A scientific work differs from a literary, historical, or philosophical work (the three other categories into which the editors sort the Great Books) partly because it is written in a language comprehensible only to the specialist (equations, diagrams, and so on) and partly because its importance is not in itself but in its place in the development of science, since it has often been revised, edited, and even superseded by the work of later scientists. Milton, on the other hand, does not supersede Homer; Gibbon represents no advance over Thucydides. All this is pretty obvious, but in this one instance, the editors of the Great Books exhibit a remarkable capacity for overlooking the obvious. Their dogma states that all major cultural achievements are of timeless, absolute value, and that this value is accessible to the lay reader without expository aids if he will but apply himself diligently. Because science is clearly part of our culture, they have therefore included these six useless volumes without asking themselves what benefit the reader will get from a hundred and sixty double-column pages of Hippocrates ("We must avoid wetting all sorts of ulcers except with wine, unless the ulcer be situated in a joint." "In women, blood collected in the breasts indicates madness." "You should put persons on a course of hellebore who are troubled with a defluction from the head." "Acute disease come [sic] to a crisis in fourteen days") or how he can profit from or even understand Fourier's Analytical Theory of Heat and Huygens' Treatisc on Light without a special knowledge of earlier and later work in these fields

Another drawback is the fetish for Great Writers and complete texts, which results in a lot of the same thing by a few hands instead of a more representative collection. Minor works by major writers are consistently preferred to major works by minor writers. Thus nearly all Shakespeare is here, including even The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but not Marlowe's Dr. Faustus or Webster's Duchess of Malfi or Jonson's Volpone. Nearly all Milton's poetry is here, but no Donne, no Herrick, no Marvell, or, for that matter, any other English poetry except Chaucer and Shakespeare. We get Gibbon in two huge volumes but no Vico, Michelet, or Burckhardt; six hundred pages of Kant but no Nietzsche or Kierkegaard; two volumes of Aquinas but no Calvin or Luther; three hundred pages of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, but no Voltaire or Diderot. Even if in every case the one right author had been elected to the Great Writers' Club, which is not the situation, this principle of selection would give a distorted view of our culture, since it omits so much of the context in which each great writer existed.

SO much for the selection, which, for all its scholastic whimsicality, is the most successful aspect of the enterprise.*(MacDonald's footnote here.) Having caught your goose, you must cook it. But the editors are indifferent cooks. They have failed to overcome the two greatest barriers to a modern reader's understanding and enjoyment of the Great Books -- that their authors were largely foreigners in both place and time.

Only a third of them wrote in English; almost all of them were citizens of strange countries fifty to three thousand years away. Except for a few scientific works, apparently no translations were commissioned for this un- dertaking. The existing translations of prose writers are probably adequate, and some are classic. But just two of the verse translations seem good to me: Rogers' Aristophanes and Priest's Faust. (I speak of reading pleasures not of their fidelity. But I assume, first, that a work of art is intended to give pleasure, and that if it does not, the fault lies either with the writer, a thought too unsettling to be entertained in the case of the Great Books, or with the translator; and, second, that if any writer, Great or not, wrote verse he must have had in mind the effect of verse, in which the unit of form is the rhythmical line rather than the sentence or the paragraph, and that a prose rendering which runs the lines together produces something that is to poetry as marmalade is to oranges.) Rhoades' Virgil and Cookson's Aeschylus are in verse, but they are dull and mediocre, the former smoothly so and the latter clumsily so. Charles Eliot Norton's prose Dante is unbelievably graceless ("In my imagination appeared the vestige of the pitilessness of her who . . ." "While I was going on, my eyes were encountered by one, and I said straightway thus . . ."). Jebb's Sophocles and E. P. Coleridge's Euripides are in that fantastic nineteenthcentury translator's prose ("Yon man . . . Ay me! And once again, Ay mel" "Why weepest thou? Thus stands the matter, be well assured." "In fear of what woe fore shown?"). Homer is in Samuel Butler's translation, the best prose version extant, except for T. E. Lawrence's Odyssey, and far better than the Wardour Street English of Butcher-Lang-Leaf-Myers, but it is still prose, and Homer was a poet. In prose, he reads like a long-winded novel. It is not as if there were no excellent modern verse renderings of the Greeks: Richmond Lattimore's Iliad, published by Dr. Hutchins' own University of Chicago, and the eleven plays by various hands in Dudley Fitts' Greek Plays in Modern Translation, put out by Dial in 1947. At modest expenditure, the editors could have used these translations and commissioned others that would have for the first time made all the Greeks, Virgil, and Dante readable in English. However, since to the editors the classics are not works of art but simply quarries to be worked for Ideas, they chose instead to spend a million dollars in compiling that two-volume index, or Syntopicon.

On principle, they have ignored the other barrier, time. "The Advisory Board," Hutchins writes, "recommended that no scholarly apparatus be included in the set. No 'introductions' giving the editors' views of the authors should appear. The books should speak for themselves, and the reader should decide for himself. Great books contain their own aids to reading; that is one reason why they are great. Since we hold that these works are intelligible to the ordinary man, we see no reason to interpose ourselves or anybody else between the author and the reader.' (The Doctor doesn't explain why scholarly introductions represent an editorial interposition between author and reader while a two- volume Syntopicon does not.) It is true that our age tends to read about the classics instead of reading them, to give such emphasis to the historical background that the actual text is slighted, and the Adler-Hutchins school is quite right in combatting this tendency. But surely, without distracting the reader from the text, a "scholarly apparatus" could have given the essential information about the historical and cultural context in which each work appeared and have translated terms and concepts whose meaning has changed with time. For example, while some of the theories advanced in James's Psychology are still fruitful, others are not -- a fact that the modest and admirably pragmatic James would have been the first to accept -- and the general reader would profit from such an expert discussion of the point as is provided in Margaret Knight's introduction to a recent Pelican anthology of James's writings on psychology. By presenting the complete text with no comment or exposition, the Board of Editors implies it is a "classic," timeless and forever authoritative, which of course is just what they want to suggest. This is not my concept of a classic. Nor do I agree with Dr. Hutchins when he implies that indoctrination ("giving the editors' views") is the only function of an introduction. There is a difference between informing the reader and telling him what to think that seems to escape Dr. Hutchins, possibly because in his case there isn't any difference.

WE now come to the question: Why a set at all? Even if the selection and the presentation were ideal, should the publishers have spent two million dollars to bring out the Great Books, and should the consumer spend $249.50 to own them? Some of the more enthusiastic Great Bookmanites seem to think The Books have been preserved for us only through the vigilance of their leaders. Clifton Fadiman, in the expansive atmosphere of a Waldorf banquet for the founding subscribers, saluted those present as "you who are taking upon yourselves . . . the burden of preserving, as did the monks of early Christendom, through another darkening . . . age the visions, the laughter, the ideas, the deep cries of anguish, the great eurekas of revelation that make up our patent to the title of civilized man" (applause). But with or without the present enterprise, the eurekas and the deep cries of anguish would continue to resound. The publishers themselves state that all but twenty-one of the four hundred and forty-three works are "generally available in bookstores and libraries." Most of the Great Books can be had in inexpensive reprints, and almost all the rest can be bought for less than the five dollars a volume they cost in this set. This presents a dilemma: Those who are truly interested in books probably already have most of these, while those who don't may be presumed not to be ardent readers, and not in a mood to spend two hundred and fifty dollars. Even when need and desire coincide, as in the case of young bookworms (if such there still are), it is more fun -- and cheaper -- to buy the books separately. Not only that, but sets, especially of different authors, are monotonous and depressing; books, like people, look better out of uniform. It bothers me to see Tristram Shandy dressed like the Summa Theologica. Milton should be tall and dignified, with wide margins; Montaigne smaller, graceful, intimate; Adam Smith clear and prosaic; and so on. Mr. Rudolph Ruzicka has done his best, by varying the type faces and the title pages, to give variety and distinction to the set. In this respect, and in the binding, he has made a vast advance over the Harvard Classics (no great feat). But he has put nearly everything into double columns, which I find textbookish and uninviting. (Even the Classics are not doublecolumn.) This was doubtless necessary for the lengthier books, but such slim volumes as Homer, Dante, Hegel, Bacon, and Rabelais get the same treatment. Rabelais looks particularly grotesque in this textbook format. There is, however, one work in the set to which double columns are admirably suited: Dr. Adler's Syntopicon.

WITH this formidable production I shall now grapple. I have already pointed out that insofar as the set has a raison d'etre, the Syntopicon is it. It is, however, a poor substitute for an introductory apparatus. According to Dr. Adler, "this gargantuan enterprise" represents "about 400,000 man-hours of reading . . . over seventy years of continuous reading, day and night, seven days a week, week in and week out from birth on." Since he did not start reading at birth and is not seventy, he had to call in some help; the Syntopicon is "the product of more than one hundred scholars working for seven years," which is to say that a hundred scholars worked on it at one time or another during the seven years of preparation. (The staff fluctuated between twenty and fifty people.)

The first step was to select not some Great Ideas but The Great Ideas. A list of seven hundred was whittled down to a hundred and two, extending from Angel to World and including Art, Beauty, Being, Democracy, Good and Evil, Justice, Logic, Man, Medicine, Prudence, Same and Other, Theology, and Wisdom. *(MacDonald's footnote here.) These were broken down into 2,987 "topics," the top sergeants in this ideological army, the link between the company commanders (the hundred and two Great Ideas) and the privates (the 163,000 page references to the Great Books). Thus the references under "Art" are arranged under twelve topics, such as "3. Art as imitation," "7a. Art as a source of pleasure or delight," "8. Art and emotion: expression, purgation, sublimation." With Dr. Adler as field marshal, coach, and supreme arbiter, the "scholars" (bright young graduate students who needed to pick up a little dough on the side and latched on to this latter-day W.P.A.) dissected the Great Ideas out of the Great Books and, like mail clerks, distributed the fragments among the topical pigeonholes, the upshot being that, in theory, every passage on "Art as a source of pleasure or delight" in the Great Books from Homer to Freud ended up in "Art 7a." Finally, Dr. Adler has prefaced the references under each Great Idea with a syntopical essay that summarizes the Great Conversation of the Great Writers about it and that reads like the Minutes of the Preceding Meeting as recorded by a remarkably matter- of-fact secretary.

The Syntopicon, writes Dr. Adler, is " a unified reference library in the realm of thought and opinion," and he compares it to a dictionary or an encyclopedia. Words and facts, however, can be so ordered because they are definite, concrete, distinguishable entities, and because each one means more or less the same thing to everyone. Looking them up in the dictionary or encyclopedia is not a major problem. But an idea is a misty, vague object that takes on protean shapes, never the same for any two people. There is a strong family resemblance between the dictionaries of Dr. Johnson, Mr. Webster, and Messrs. Funk & Wagnalls, but every man makes his own Syntopicon, God forbid, and this one is Dr. Adler's, not mine or yours. To him, of course, ideas seem to be as objective and distinct as marbles, which can be arranged in definite, logical patterns. He has the classifying mind, which is invaluable for writing a natural history or collecting stamps. Assuming that an index of ideas should be attempted at all, it should have been brief and simple, without pretensions to either completeness or logical structure -- a mere convenience for the reader who wants to compare, say, Plato, Pascal, Dr. Johnson and Freud on love. Instead, we have a fantastically elaborate index whose fatal defect is just what Dr. Adler thinks is its chief virtue: its systematic all-inclusive- ness. (He apologizes because it is not inclusive enough: "It is certainly not claimed for the references under the 3,000 topics that they constitute a full collection of the relevant passages in the great books. But the effort to check errors of omission was diligent enough to permit the claim that the references under each topic constitute an adequate representation of what the great books say on that subject.") This approach is wrong theoretically because the only one of the authors who wrote with Dr. Adler's 2,987 topics in mind was Dr. Adler. And it is wrong practically because the reader's mental compartmentation doesn't correspond to Dr. Adler's, either. Furthermore, one needs the patience of Job and the leisure of Sardanapalus to plow through the plethora of references. Those under Science, which take up twelve and a half pages, begin with four lines of references to Plato, which took me an hour to look up and read. Sometimes, as when one finds sixtytwo references to one author (Aquinas) under one subdivision of one topic under one idea (God), one has the feeling of being caught in a Rube Goldberg contraption. Again, under "Justice 2. The precepts of justice: doing good, harming no one, rendering to each his own, treating equals equally," one is referred to "Chaucer, 22sa- 232a, esp. 231b-232a," which turns out to be the entire "Reeve's Tale,"- a bit of low comedy that one of the mail clerks threw into this pigeonhole apparently because Chaucer stuck on a five-line moral at the end ("esp. 23lb- 232a"). The one method of classification that would have been useful was not employed; there is no attempt to distinguish between major and minor references. An important discussion of justice in Plato has no more weight than an aside by Uncle Toby in "Tristram Shandy," although it is common practice to make such a distinction by using different type faces or by putting the major references first.

"What the Corpus Juris does for the legal profession," Dr. Adler has said, "the Syntopicon will do for everyone." That is, as lawyers follow a single point of law through a series of cases, the reader can follow one topic through the Great Books. The Doctor is simply carrying on his mistaken analogy with the dictionary. The structure of law, although intricate, is a rigid framework within which concepts are so classified and defined that they mean exactly the same thing to everybody. Yet Dr. Adler actually suggests that the best way for the beginning reader, wholly unfamiliar with the Great Books, to get acquainted with them is to follow chosen topics through a series of works whose context he knows nothing about.

It is natural for Dr. Adler to compare his Syntopicon with the Corpus Juris, since he has been a teacher of the philosophy of law and a writer about it, and his mind is essentially a legalistic one. He aspires to be the great codifier and systematizer of Western culture, to write its Code Napoleon. The Syntopicon is merely the first step toward this goal. At his Institute for Philosophical Research, another group of scholars is working with him, using the Syntopicon, to produce "a dialectical summation of Western thought, a synthesis for the twentieth century."*(MacDonald's footnote here.) The most celebrated attempt at such a summation was, of course, the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Adler's guide and inspirer. Aquinas had certain historical advantages over his disciple -- leaving aside the personal ones: the culture he summarized was homogeneous, systematically articulated, and clearly outlined because of the universal acceptance of the Roman Catholic faith as expressed in the Bible and by the Church Fathers. Dr. Adler cannot bring these qualities to and make them a part of twentieth-century thought, but he proceeds as if he could, and he has run up his own homemade substitutes for the sacred writings. Thus the true reason for his set of Great Books becomes apparent. Its aim is hieratic rather than practical -- not to make the books accessible to the public (which they mostly already were) but to fix the canon of the Sacred Texts by printing them in a special edition. Simply issuing a list would have been enough if practicality were the only consideration, but a list can easily be revised, and it lacks the totemistic force of a five-foot, hundredpound array of books. The Syntopicon is partly a concordance to the Sacred Texts, partly the sort of commentary and interpretation of them the Church Fathers made for the Bible.

In its massiveness, its technological elaboration, its fetish of The Great, and its attempt to treat systematically and with scientific precision materials for which the method is inappropriate, Dr. Adler's set of books is a typical expression of the religion of culture that appeals to the American academic mentality. And the claims its creators make are a typical expression of the American advertising psyche. The way to put over a two-million-dollar cultural project is, it seems, to make it appear as pompous as possible. At the Great Bookmanite banquet at the Waldorf, Dr. Hutchins said, "This is more than a set of books. It is a liberal education.... The fate of our country, and hence of the world, depends on the degree to which the American people achieve liberal education. [It is] a process . . . of placing in the hands of the American people the means of continuing and revitalizing Western civilization, for the sake of the West and for the sake of all mankind." This is Madison Avenue cant -- Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War, The Great Books Have Enlisted for the Duration. It is also poppycock. The problem is not placing these already available books in people's hands (at five dollars a volume) but getting people to read them, and the hundred pounds of densely printed, poorly edited reading matter assembled by Drs. Adler and Hutchins is scarcely likely to do that.


In their first year, 1952, Adler & Hutchins (and Benton, of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which put up the original $2,000,000) sold 1,863 sets of their densely printed, poorly edited, over-priced and over-syntopiconized collection. In 1953, they made some kind of record by selling just 138, no zeros omitted, sets. (I like to think the above review was partly responsible.) Three years later, they got in a new sales manager who went to work on what might humorously be called the reading public. The results were sensational. By 1960 sales had risen to over 35,000 sets a year and last year 51,083 sets were sold for a gross return of $22,000,000. The Great Books of the Western World are at this writing most definitely in business.

The story is told in an article entitled "Cashing in on Culture" that appeared in Time of April 20th last. It runs, in part:

The turning point came in 1956 when Benton brought into Great Books the salesman -- stocky, bespectacled Kenneth M. Harden, a veteran of thirty-seven years of encyclopedia selling. [The accompanying photograph shows Mr. Harden and Mr. Adler smiling behind three stacks of Great Books; The Salesman looks about like the Savant except he is several inches higher; stocky is as stocky does, after all.] At the time he took over as national sales manager, recalls Harden, Great Books executives "felt there was a 2% cream on top of our society who were Great Books prospects -- the eggheads." Countered Harden: "Let's go after the mass market -- the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker."

Harden set about building an indefatigable door-to-door sales force. Operating out of Los Angeles, Harden set up a course at which new salesmen learned how to use the Syntopticon [sic throughout the Time report; it seems impossible to get that word right] and to pronounce the names of the authors (reading them is not required).

In the field, Harden's salesmen offered the Great Books (sold in sets costing from $298 to $1,175 depending on binding) for as little as $10 down and $10 a month, and threw in a bookcase and a Bible or dictionary to boot. In chart- studded sales broadsides, they talked earnestly of the importance of a liberal education for children, and displayed Great Books reading lists for youngsters. To help spread the Great Books idea, more than 50,000 adults were signed up in Great Books discussion groups (run by the nonprofit Great Books Foundation).

With this kind of hard sell, Harden increased Great Books sales 400% . . . in the first three years of his regime. Today his salesmen average an annual salary of $9,000, make as much as $30,000, and managers take home much more. Harden insists: "They are not just making money. They are carrying the banner."

Some of Mr. Harden's regional sales managers make $100,000 a year, which is a very pleasant banner to carry. They may not "just" be making money but they are certainly doing so. And one wonders what golden effulgence radiates from the banner Mr. Harden himself bears aloft? Who fished the murex up? What porridge had John Keats?

That the public bought less than 2,000 sets of the Great Books in 1952 and 1953 while last year they bought twentyfive times as many -- this shows that Culture, like any other commodity, must now be "sold" to Americans. The dif- ference was made by Mr. Harden's high-pressure door-to-door sales campaign, which was "backstopped," as we say on Madison Avenue, by lavish magazine advertising with full-color photographs of Men of Distinction -- including Mr. Adlai Stevenson, alas -- who praised The Product as unrestrainedly as so many debutantes endorsing the virtues of Pond's facial cream: He's famous, he's intelligent, he uses the Syntopicon. The operation was designed to work off on the public a massive back inventory of a slow-selling item. It reminds one of those traveling book-agents of the last century who badgered and flattered hundreds of thousands of householders, as ignorant as they were innocent, into investing in the Complete Works of William Ellery Channing. Their sales pitch was the same: Respect for Culture, Keeping up with the Adler-Joneses, and, above all, the Obligation to the Children, who would be forever disadvantaged if their parents failed to Act Now on this Opportunity for a mere $10 down or $10 a month -- which means over two years of paying for the set and puts the Great Books of the Western World in the same class of goods as TV sets and washing machines. "Sorry, lady," says the man from the finance agency as he and his helper stagger out to the truck with one hundred pounds of Western Culture, "we just work here." It is a false position for Drs. Adler and Hutchins to have gotten themselves into, though of course there was that $2,000,000 investment, half of it for the Syntopicon, one of the most expensive toy railroads any philosopher ever was given to play with. Still, I wonder what they really think of stocky, bespectacled Kenneth M. Harden and the effects of the hard sell as applied to Thuycidides and Rabelais? That is, Thoosiddidees and Rabbelay: "new salesmen [learn how] to pronounce the names of the authors; reading them is not required." This last is sensible, since if the salesmen did read the works some of them have been plugging for six years, things might be even more balled up than they are now. And they are all instructed in what is after all the main point, the use of that Syntopicon -- "Please, gentlemen, not Syntopticon" -- in which the Great Writers have at last achieved systematic fulfillment, from Aeschylus (Esskuluss) to Zeno (Zeenoh). I also wonder how many of the over l00,000 customers who have by now caved in under the pressure of Mr. Harden and his banner-bearing colleagues are doing much browsing in these upland pastures? Those nineteenth-century book-agents were persuasive fellows, too, but few of the deckled-edged sets they wedged into the family book case ever emerged again, and the limp-leather Emersons and Carlyles they placed on the sitting- room tables tended to remain there. I don't expect answers to these rhetorical questions from the Doctors, since they didn't reply to my 1952 critique -- unless their employing Mr. Harden was a kind of answer. But I do wonder.


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Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.

The First Steps

Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.


The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of  "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.

Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.

Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.


With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.

With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."

The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.

Putting It All Together

With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:




            A.  Fundraising

                        a.  Original Idea

                        b.  McCain Quote/Bush Quote

                        c.  McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics

            B.  Campaign Contributions

            C.  Ad Expenditure


Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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