What Does "The Great Conversation" Mean?
Or: An Index of Human Curiosity

By Gabriel Blanchard

In fairness to Alice, judging by our recently-concluded tour of the wonder-land of ideas, we must concede that the books generally do lack pictures. Conversations, however ...

When people want to discuss our intellectual tradition, there are a few stock metaphors they tend to reach for. We evoke one in the name we used for our passage resource list, which also serves as a high school version of the Western canon, i.e. the Author Bankbank, as in vault or treasury. The metaphor is so common, it often goes unnoticed, even though it fits into a larger pattern of talking about the riches of our tradition, or the wealth of learning that a given scholar possesses. Another favorite metaphor is that of a meal. This appears to be at least as old as Plato, whose dialogue The Symposium is literally set in a sümposion [συμπόσιον], a type of drinking party that was popular in classical Athens. Many centuries later, Dante’s uncompleted encyclopedia makes a comparable allusion in its title, Il Convivio, or “The Banquet”; artist Judy Chicago employed a similar motif in her installation The Dinner Party, featuring place settings for important women throughout history, each tailored to the experiences and work of its ostensible occupant.

The late Professor Mortimer Adler (who died in 2001 at the ripe old age of ninety-eight) spent his adult life advocating, and helping his own students pursue, a humane education that engages with our whole tradition. He helped assemble the Great Books of the Western World series, a widely-known “take” on the Western canon, and one that I have the pleasure of housing on my own shelves. This was an inspiration for the CLT Author Bank in several ways—not only the idea of a great books list or, in many cases, the particular authors the series selected, but its interest in profound and lasting ideas, its variety of subject matter, and its preference for going back to primary sources over relying on textbooks or commentaries. The volumes in the GBWW are arranged roughly chronologically (with a few exceptions), and color-coded for the reader’s convenience: red for theological and philosophic works, green for mathematics and the sciences, etc.; but all the way at the front are three grey volumes—two bulky ones and, in the front of the front, a slender one. This first little book introduces the whole library in terms of Adler’s favorite metaphor, which we also purloined for a series title here at the Journal: The Great Conversation.

His choice of this analogy rather than others, e.g. those of a treasure or a feast, highlights two important things about—well, about the Great Conversation. The metaphor of riches falls short in certain respects, because, with some important exceptions and qualifiers, riches are a mutually exclusive good. Two people cannot own the same fifty-dollar bill at the same time; if they propose to spend it equally on the both of them but they do not want the same things, they can do so only by dividing it.

The Great Conversation does not work like this. Knowledge and wisdom are highly un-mathematical, for they are multiplied when they are distributed equally to different people. The credit for first coming up with an idea can only go to one or a few people, perhaps—but the idea in itself (if it is any good) can be apprehended and used by a number of people as high as you please, day after year after century, without being any the worse for wear.

Turning to the picture of a grand intellectual feast, it may do us good to take a moment and recognize that this metaphor rightly connects thought with pleasure. The utilitarian motive for education as a qualification for work, and the high-minded motive for education as an exercise in spiritual ennoblement, are all very well; but neither does full justice to the human spirit at its human work. To know, to understand, is a pleasure, quite as much as eating is. Moreover, this pleasure draws us to learn both before we have grasped the value of the lower or higher goals of education, and after the lower and higher goals have, for practical purposes, run their courses.

But. It is also worth noting that at a banquet, we come in, sit in our designated place, and eat a meal prepared in advance. Banquets are not known for encouraging guests to participate in (or even to directly observe) the cooking. The Great Conversation, by contrast, is built to have exactly that “low barrier of entry” we build our kitchens not to have. Without pretending that everyone is equally well-informed, the by-laws of the Great Conversation insist that once a human mind desires truth and has been armed with the appropriate tools to find it, it is of the same high rank as all the other minds here; and while there is such a thing as legitimate deference to expertise, this is the only kind of superior dignity that the Great Conversation recognizes in its participants, and such deference is the only courtesy it permits them either. The qualifying examination for entering in the Great Conversation is being a human, for All men by nature desire knowledge. We do not here enter a marketplace, ruled by competition in the name of profit, any more than we enter a banquet ruled by a hereditary coronet in the name of impressing us. No: here we enter the republic of ideas, ruled by the law in the name of the common good.

All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; ... some peeces are translated by age, some by sicknesse, some by warre, some by justice; but Gods hand is in every translation; and his hand shall binde up all our scattered leaves againe, for that Librarie where every booke shall lie open to one another ...

But returning to Adler and his three grey books! That first little volume is an introduction to the concept of the Great Conversation. The second and third are a two-volume index of sorts, which he titled the Syntopicon. The point of this index was to give readers a guide to the themes that have recurred over the centuries in this Conversation—who has contributed to a given theme, what they have said and in what circumstances, how later authors have built upon earlier ones, redactions and expansions and re-imaginations. Accordingly, the Syntopicon contains a list of what Adler took to be the principal great ideas: each one is briefly explained, and the various places it is addressed throughout the Great Books of the Western World set are listed thereafter.

Our Great Conversation series, which concluded last month, was to the Syntopicon more or less what our Author Bank is to the GBWW. This is true in more than inspiration—our list dropped or combined concepts that Adler’s list distinguished, and we added several ideas he passed over or discussed only as sub-topics. We ended up with a grand total of one hundred and four great ideas! (Which is the sort of total that makes one reconsider things. You know what, let’s have that coronet guy back in—we’re never going to be able to afford the coffee bill for that much thought without some noblesse oblige.)

These ideas are listed in the three columns below: each idea’s name is also a link to our post about that idea here at the Journal, and a handful of important sources from the Author Bank are listed beneath them. (Each of our Great Conversation posts also includes its own brief “suggested reading” list at the end, drawn in part from the CLT Author Bank, introducing the idea in question in greater depth. Ideas we added to Adler’s list in the Syntopicon are in italics.)

Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed
Lewis, Perelandra

Aristotle, History of Animals
Darwin, Origin of Species

Hobbes, Leviathan
Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Men

Aristotle, Poetics
Lewis, A Preface to “Paradise Lost”

Morrison, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn

Galileo, The Starry Messenger
Einstein, The Special and General Theory of Relativity

Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary
Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Plato, Symposium
Dante, Purgatorio
Kant, Critique of Judgment

Aristotle, Metaphysics
Leibniz, Monadology

Lucretius, The Nature of Things
Keynes, Treatise on Probability

Montaigne, Essays, “Of Idleness”
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Cicero, De Legibus
More, Utopia

Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Magna Carta
Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa

Custom & Convention
Montaigne, Essays, “Of Cannibals”
Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Cooper, A Voice From the South

Augustine, On Christian Teaching
Lewis, Studies in Words

Plutarch, Lives, “Themistocles”
Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Epictetus, Enchiridion
Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

Abelard, Yes and No
Marx, Capital

Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

Hugh, Didascalicon
Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”

Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist
Lavoisier, Reflections on Phlogiston

The Pearl
Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Darwin, The Descent of Man
Mendel, Experiments in Plant Hybridization

Teresa, The Way of Perfection
Wiesel, Night

Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Æschylus, The Danaïds
Eliot, Middlemarch
Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon

Sophocles, Oedipus
Virgil, The Æneid

Plato, The Republic
Averroës, The Incoherence of “The Incoherence”

Pascal, Pensées
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Euripides, The Bacchæ
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ
Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Camus, The Plague

Good & Evil
Confucius, Analects
Tertullian, Apologeticus
Julian, Revelation of Divine Love

Wells, The Red Record
Tolkien, Unfinished Tales

Cicero, Speeches Against Catiline
Montesquieu, The Spirit of Law
Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Brontë, Jane Eyre

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Augustine, The City of God

Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World

Cicero, De Officiis
De France, Lays, “Bisclavret”

Sayers, Gaudy Night

Homer, The Odyssey
Tolkien, The Hobbit

Donne, “A Defense of Women’s Inconstancy”
Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Bacon, Novum Organum
Descartes, Discourse on the Method

Augustine, Against the Skeptics
Hegel, The Science of Logic

Ovid, Metamorphoses
Nyssen, Life of Moses

Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”

Aristotle, Topics
Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Newton, Analysis by Infinite Series
Borges, The Book of Sand

Euripides, The Bacchæ
Newman, Grammar of Assent

Avicenna, The Book of Healing
Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Plutarch, Lives, “Tiberius Gracchus”
Gandhi, “The Iniquities of the Indenture System”

Confucius, Analects
Lewis, God in the Dock

Anselm, Why God Became Man
Las Casas, “The Treasures of Peru”

Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Life & Death
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Plato, Phaedo
Sir Gawayn and the Grene Knyght

Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Borges, “Three Versions of Judas”

Aristotle, Organon
Euclid, Elements

Cicero, Laelius on Friendship
Héloïse, Letters to Abelard
Boccaccio, Decameron
Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word
The Thousand and One Nights
Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”

Euripides, Alcestis
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”
Lewis, Prince Caspian

Archimedes, The Sand Reckoner
Einstein, “The Field Equations of Gravitation”

Hippocrates, The Nature of Man
Lavoisier, Physical and Chemical Essays

Maimonides, Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes
Pasteur, Treatment of Rabies

Memory & Imagination
Cavendish, The Blazing World
Lewis, The Discarded Image

Averroës, Long Commentary on Aristotle’s “On the Soul”
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Dante, On Monarchy
Shakespeare, Macbeth

Hildegard, Causes and Cures
Darwin, The Origin of Species

Necessity & Contingency
Avicenna, Salvation From the Ocean of Error
Anselm, Proslogion

Tacitus, Histories
Gibbon, Decline and Fall

One & Many
Plato, Parmenides
Mill, Representative Government

Plato, Theætetus
Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

Æschylus, The Oresteia
O’Connor, “Parker’s Back”

Aristotle, Metaphysics
À Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Newton, Principia Mathematica
Einstein, Ideas and Problems of Relativity Theory

Pleasure & Pain
Lucretius, The Nature of Things
Dante, Purgatorio

Hesiod, Works and Days
Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Virgil, Eclogues
Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”

Tertullian, Against Praxeas
Hildegard, Know the Ways

Maimonides, The Book of Commandments
Pascal, Provincial Letters

Julian, Revelation of Divine Love
Steinbeck, East of Eden

Seneca, On Mercy
Newton, Optics

Archimedes, The Sphere and the Cylinder
Pascal, New Experiments With the Vacuum

Aristotle, Categories
Sayers, “Creative Mind”

Aquinas, Summary Against the Gentiles
Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration

Kant, Religion Within the Bounds of Bare Reason
Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Cæsar, Commentaries on the Civil War
Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution

Aristotle, Rhetoric
Cicero, On the Orator

Same & Other
Aristotle, Metaphysics
Locke, Concerning Human Understanding

Aristotle, Posterior Analytics
Galileo, The Two Chief World Systems

Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication

Origen, Commentary on John
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah

Aquinas, On Truth
Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

Sign & Symbol
Virgil, The Æneid
Bede, A Book of Epigrams
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Lewis, The Silver Chair

Augustine, Confessions
The Nibelungenlied

Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Plato, Phaedo
Hume, Treatise of Human Nature

Euclid, Elements
Einstein, The Special and General Theory of Relativity

Aquinas, On Kingship: To the King of Cyprus
Rousseau, The Social Contract

Confucius, Analects
Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”

Galileo, On Mechanics
Shelley, Frankenstein

Montaigne, “Of Experience”
Mill, On Liberty

Averroës, The Incoherence of “The Incoherence”
Abelard, Yes and No
Sayers, The Mind of the Maker

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Bacon, Of Truth
Kafka, The Trial

Æschylus, Agamemnon
Tacitus, The Annals

Universal & Particular
Plato, Phaedo
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Virtue & Vice
Plato, Protagoras
Augustine, Nature and Grace
Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
Kierkegaard, Either/Or

War & Peace
Homer, The Iliad
Herodotus, The Histories
De Pizan, Feats of Arms and Chivalry
Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
Gandhi, “Statement at the Great Trial, 1922”

Dante, Inferno
Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Marx, Wage Labor and Capital

Epictetus, Enchiridion
Luther, Bondage of the Will

Plato, The Apologia of Socrates
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Gregory, The Book of Pastoral Care
The Thousand and One Nights
Sayers, Gaudy Night

Augustine, On the City of God
Lewis, Studies in Words


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He holds a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and lives in Baltimore.

Thank you for reading the Journal. If you’ve enjoyed our trek through the history of ideas, you may also enjoy our upcoming series on the interrelated disciplines of history, geography, anthropology, archæology, and historiography—Journaling our way from the history of ideas to the idea of history, as it were. And be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored, or our ongoing seminar series, the Journey Through the Author Bank. Have a great weekend.

Published on 15th December, 2023. Page image of the Abbey Library of St. Gall (source), a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site; the collection is one of the oldest libraries in the world, dating originally to 937, and is located in Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, formerly a Carolingian-era Benedictine monastery.

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