A Brief Guide to the Syntopicon

When Hutchinson, Adler, and the team at Britannica undertook the work of compiling and publishing their 54 volume Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) set in 1952, they embarked on an ambitious and probably expensive undertaking to write the Syntopicon. Occupying volumes II and III of the commercially successful set of classic books, the Syntopicon stands apart with the Introduction to the Great Books (vol. I) as the only original works in the GBWW. While the GBWW were a tremendous success, I doubt most buyers paid much attention to the Syntopicon at first, or perhaps ever. Most saw the set as a fairly economical investment in a reasonably quality library of timeless works. The Syntopicon, a collection of 102 core ideas to the western world, draws from the many philosophers, theologians, scientists, and authors, to summarize the highlights of western thought on each idea. Each of the 102 ideas, arranged alphabetically, are explained in terms of their development through the various authors sampled in the GBWW set with precise references to sources.

What Syntopicon Means

The name Syntopicon is derived from the pseudo-word syntopical (which is not found in most dictionaries), which refers to a type of comprehensive analysis in which works are compared and contrasted. Its parts, the Greek prefix syn means “together” or “with”, and adding this to the familiar noun topic or adjective topical gives us a general sense of what the compound Syntopical means. Hence, the Syntopicon is an invented name to convey the work’s aim to compare and contrast the topics, or ideas, found throughout the great books.

The Aim of the Syntopicon

According to Adler, the Syntopicon ” lays down the lines along which a syntopical reading of the great books can be done, and shows why and how it should be done. The various uses of the Syntopicon … all derive from its primary purpose – to serve as a guide to the reading of the Great Books of the Western World as a unified whole.”

Expanding further on the continuity highlighted by the Syntopicon, Adler writes, “The lines along which a syntopical reading of the great books can and should be done are the main lines of the continuous discussion that runs through the thirty centuries of western civilization. This great conversation across the ages is a living organism whose structure the Syntopicon tries to articulate. It tries to show the many strands of this conversation between the greatest minds of western civilization on the themes which have concerned men in every epoch, and which cover the whole range of man’s speculative inquiries and practical interests. To the extent that is succeeds, it reveals the unity and continuity of the western tradition.”


Each chapter consists of five parts: 1) Introduction, 2) an Outline of Topics, 3) References, 4) Cross-References, and 5) Additional Readings. The introductions generally comment on the various meanings of each idea and the problems and controversies it has raised throughout the history of the west. The Outline of Topics section states the major themes to be found in the great books on the chapter’s idea. It describes the topics derived from the idea in relation to each other. There are approximately 3000 topics in the Syntopicon, averaging about 30 per chapter, though the number varies from a low of six to a high of 76. Each topic provides a statement of the scope and variety of subjects with which the great books deal in a substantial and significant fashion.

How to Use the Syntopicon

Though I’ve encountered some who have read through the Syntopicon like any other book, it is not generally a book that is read cover-to-cover. The Syntopicon, as described by its authors, may be used in four ways: 1) as a reference book, 2) as a book to be read, 3) as an instrument of a liberal education, and 4) as an instrument of discovery and research.

1) As a reference book. The Syntopicon answers the primary question What do the great books have to say on this subject?  It is not necessarily a reflection of what is true, but of what past writers have thought to be true. In this vein of thought, the Syntopicon is unique in its likelihood to raise more questions than it answers for the reader regarding questions about the great ideas. “…the Syntopicon helps the reader to discover the answer for himself by a syntopical reading of the great books in the light of the topics and guided by the references assembled under them. This fact distinguishes the Syntopicon from all other familiar reference books, which contain within themselves the answers to the questions on which they are consulted. The Syntopicon does not contain the answers, but only a guide to where the answers can be found in the pages of the great books.”

Further, the Syntopicon serves as a type of ideological map – a guide to a syntopical reading of the great books. In this function, the work transforms the great books into “a new kind of encyclopaedic whole – a new kind of reference library…in the realm of thought and opinion”.

The Syntopicon is not merely an encyclopedia of ideas. The authors point out that although the dictionary concerns “the sphere of language” and the general encyclopedia concerns “the sphere of fact”, the Syntopicon concerns “the sphere of ideas, comprehending the wisdom and understanding accumulated thus far in all major fields of inquiry.” Such three works together then form a triad of basic references on may employ in their libraries.

While the Syntopicon mainly anwers the question 1) What do the great books have to say on this subject?, it also answers at least four additional questions 2) What themes have been discussed in the tradition of western thought under this idea?, 3) What books other than those published in this set contain important discussions of this idea? and 4) What is the history of the idea, its various meanings, and the problems or controversies it has raised?

2) As a book to be read. In its most simplistic function, the Syntopicon can be thought of as 102 essays, to be read in any order desired by the reader as each essay is an independent work. While such an approach to the Syntopicon is uncommon, I have heard of those who read through it in just this way, albeit with mixed reports on the fruitfulness of such reading.

3) As an instrument of liberal education. Thirdly, the Syntopicon may be used as a tool for education. It is an “intellectual instrument” that may be used in  a course of study on a particular subject, which may involve several of the 102 ideas. In this way, the Syntopicon serves as an obvious choice in the study of each idea, or in the history of ideas, or in a more general study of the development of the western world, particularly its intellectual movements.

4) As an instrument of discovery and research. Lastly, the Syntopicon may be used as an instrument for discovery and research. With the Syntopicon as a guide, the astute researcher may trace the trajectories of ideas, pulling at the threads that have woven the rich intellectual fabric of the western world. Given the nature of research, the Syntopicon will likely not alone yield answers to yet unanswered questions, but will instead serve as a launching point to steer the researcher in a profitable direction within the great books, both those within the GBWW set and those outside of it.


The Syntopicon, deserving much more notoriety than it yet holds, is a useful oddity on any modern library shelf. Beyond its four functions described, it is a testament to the incredible work of the Hutchinson, Adler, and the entire Britannica team who spent countless hours in tedious study of the great books.

Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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