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 Bank—bank, 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.
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.)
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.