Many people are aware that Mortimer Adler was the principal editor of the Great Books of the Western World set of 60 volumes published by Encyclopaedia Britannica. Few know he also published a shorter list of the great books he found most influential in his life. I think it worth presenting them here, for those who haven’t the time to engage in broader reading of the Great Books.

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
From the Dialogues by Plato: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Meno, Protagoras, Symposium
Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics
Plutarch’s Lives
Augustine’s Confessions
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Montaigne’s Essays
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Lear, MacBeth, Othello
Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
John Stuart Mill’s essays On Liberty and Representative Government
The Federalist Papers by Hamilton and Madison
Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Adler made a similarly reduced list of the 103 Great Ideas about which he had written so much:

Ideas about fundamental, over-arching human values:
Truth, Goodness, Beauty
Ideas about values men have sought and fought to maximize:
Liberty, Equality, Justice
Ideas that deal with problems of our society:
Law, Constitution, Government
Ideas indispensable to understanding ourselves and our place in the universe:
Man, God, Nature, World
Ideas involved in the successful conduct of our lives:
Love, Virtue, Happiness

Adler wrote that the educated person –a status not attainable until many years of study and reflection – besides reading great books and reflecting assiduously on the great ideas, also required discussing the books and ideas, and having years of enlarging experiences, including suffering, and travel.

-Patrick S.J. Carmack

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