The Syntopicon and Chronological Snobbery

Every day, 2700 books are published in the United States alone.

That's more than most people will read in a lifetime. And it doesn't even include the thousands of blog posts, online essays, and scientific papers that are also being published on a daily basis.

Whatever else we can say about the modern age, we are not lacking for new information.

This explosion of new books is a one symptom of our obsession with the “next big thing”. Perhaps because of our success in the fields of technology, science, and medicine, we assume that new ideas are the key to progress in every area of life.

We tend to overestimate the value of these new ideas and underestimate the value of old ones. But when it comes to the most fundamental questions and problems, this is a serious error.

In his introduction to one of his favorite old books, C.S. Lewis describes the problem like this:

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."

This outside perspective is crucial for helping us avoid the dangers of what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery", the fallacy of thinking that something is better just because it's new or irrelevant just because it's old.

He continues:

"Lewis continues: “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books... The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."

For this reason and others, we need the wisdom of dead mentors. We need to hear the echo of ancient truths. We need to be reminded that we are not the first people in the history of the world to think deeply about ideas like truth, justice, beauty, and goodness.

Where do we get this outside perspective? Where do we turn to for the remedy to our blindness?

Lewis would tell us to read old books. But, of course, that's only part of the answer.

The follow-up questions is an obvious one: Which books?

To answer this question, you don't really want to ask just one person, and you don't want randomly selected works. It's a unique challenge.

And it's a challenge that is uniquely answered by the Syntopicon.

What is the Syntopicon?

Put simply, the Syntopicon is a collection of topics. It is an index of ideas.

The Syntopicon was originally published as the two-volume index to The Great Books of the Western World, an Encyclopedia Britannica collection that included a chronological list of works that started with Homer and stretched all the way into the 20th century.

An American philosopher named Mortimer Adler provided the originally inspiration for the Syntopicon, and he was given the task of cataloguing and indexing the ideas. It was a massive undertaking that took more time and money than anyone expected. Before it was completed, the Syntopicon would take 10 years, 2 million dollars, and 400,000 hours from a team of over 100 readers.

It was originally published as the two-volume index to The Great Books of the Western World, an Encyclopedia Britannica collection that included a chronological list of works that started with Homer and stretched all the way into the 20th century.

The Syntopicon contains almost 3,000 topics organized under 102 ideas. Together, they trace the fundamental problems and questions that human beings have wrestled with for centuries.

Adler and his team believed the Syntopicon contained the fundamental ideas found in the Great Books. Ideas like Beauty, Education, Good and Evil, Justice, Love, Religion, Science, and Wisdom. These ideas address the questions that every one of us ask in the course of our lives.

The Syntopicon is not a concordance. It doesn't list every time these words are used in the Great Books and analyze them like a computer. Instead, it serves as a guide for tracing how people have discussed these ideas, sometimes using different language and often coming to very different conclusions.

For those involved in the project, the Syntopicon was created as an introduction to what has been called the "great conversation".
In the Syntopicon, each of these great ideas is given its own section that includes an outline of topics and a list of relevant works. But the centerpiece of each section is an essay written by Adler.

With his unique and impartial style, Adler uses these essays to introduce us to the key points of view on each of these great ideas.

Then, at the end of each essay, he provides an outline of topics, references, cross-references, and additional readings.

So essentially, the Syntopicon invites us to listen in on the great conversation and then join in ourselves.

The Fresh Breeze of the Centuries

The fresh breeze of the centuries blows through these great ideas. For those seeking a remedy for chronological snobbery, the great ideas are a great place to start.

In this context, think of an "idea" as a universal, transcendent concept.

In theology and philosophy, these ideas tap into what is called the logos. Plato called them forms.

These ideas are present across languages, cultures, and generations. They tap into the image of God in man, and they are the ideas that move armies, publish books, spark revolutions, and inspire art.

When you read about these ideas in the great conversation, you are getting perspective that you will not get in the silos of the information age. These ideas cannot be communicated in 7-minute media newsbytes.

So go and read. Breathe in the fresh air of ancient truths. But prepare yourself. This breeze sometimes has an edge. Be prepared. Your "dead mentors" will challenge assumptions that you didn't even know you had.

Further Reading

  1. Get Info on the Syntopicon Anti-Book Club (in progress).
  2. Read more about the Syntopicon Ideas

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