Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part I): General Observations and Remarks

(attention: Please note that there are about a dozen works (a few more so in the Harvard Classics than the Great Books of the Western World) within each collection that I have not read, and I will do my best to note which those are.  There are a few works, like Summa Theologica, of which I have read a portion through abridged editions or numerous excerpts, but I do feel competent, even in such a partial reading of these few texts, to comment upon their having been selected.  Additionally, I have only read half of the books in the Gateway to the Great Books collections, and the same is true of the Harvard Classics’ shelf of fiction.  Therefore, I will not comment on either of these.)

For an anecdotal preface, click here.

There is a major and obvious dichotomy between the Harvard Classics (HC) and the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW), and it can be summed up thus: philosophy and science (GBWW) versus liberal arts (HC).   In so saying, it should be assumed by the reader that I have a natural inclination to favor the GBWW, but it is not that simple.  Furthermore, I will do my best to keep my reasoning out in the open, so that my taste stands in contradistinction to my reasons, where applicable.

That the GBWW are thoroughly laced with philosophy, even in the fiction chosen, should not surprise.  The editor, Mortimer Adler, was a philosopher and historian of philosophy, and he wrote many highly accessible books, such as Aristotle for Everyone.

Let’s take stock of a few differences between the collections.  (Please note that the graphs are based on numbers by pieces selected.  I may, in one of the later parts, reproduce these graphs by number of pages, which would be more interesting.  I do not do so, here, because of the labors involved in so meticulous a metric.  Also, please hold any quibbles about where I categorized certain works, as I have tried to be fair.  However, many might not like that I count Machiavelli’s Prince among political works, rather than counting it as philosophy or double counting such works, which I expressly avoided; no works have been double counted in the following data.):

For graphs, click here.

The bar graphs note the abovementioned point, that there is a proportional disparity between the philosophy and science/mathematics in the GBWW versus the number in the HC.  The additional pointed meted out by the bar graphs is that the GBWW put quite a bit of emphasis on theatre, though, I must interject, that these are largely Greek plays, which are philosophical.  One finds no similar disposition to include non-Greek plays.  The pie graphs are very telling, too. The balance of the HC is to be noted.  It is also worth pointing out that GBWW’s science (9%), philosophy (27%), and mathematics (5%) makes up 51% of the selections for the collection, whereas these categories only comprise 21% of the HC.  If you look at fiction, theatre, poetry, and essays —the finer arts— HC’s 50% composition by selection trumps GBWW’s 42%.

The following is a list of overlaps between the Harvard Classics and the Great Books of the Western World.  Coup d’oeil, the list may appear significant, but, in reality, the overlap between the editions is miniscule.

  • Odyssey by Homer
  • The Oresteia (3 plays) by Aeschylus
  • Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
  • Hippolytus by Euripides
  • The Bacchae by Euripides
  • Frogs by Aristophanes
  • Histories (excerpt in HC) by Herodotus
  • Apology by Plato
  • Phaedo by Plato
  • Crito by Plato
  • The Oath of Hippocrates by Hippocrates
  • The Golden Sayings by Epictetus
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Aneid by Virgil
  • Lives by Plutarch
  • The Histories is Germany of Tacitus
  • The Confessions by Augustine
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  • The Prince by Machiavelli
  • Leviathan (excerpt only in HC) by Hobbes
  • Essays (partial overlap) by Montaigne
  • Hamlet by Shakespeare
  • Macbeth by Shakespeare
  • The Tempest by Shakespeare
  • King Lear by Shakespeare
  • On the Motion of Heart and Blood in Animals by Harvey
  • Don Quixote (Part 1 only in HC)
  • Essays, Civil and Moral by Bacon
  • New Atlantis by Bacon
  • Discourse on Method by Descartes
  • Areopagitica  by John Milton
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Pensées by Pascal
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by Hume
  • On the Origin of Inequality by Rousseau
  • Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals (excerpt in GBWW) by Kant
  • The Federalist by Hamilton, Jay, and Madison
  • Faust (Part I only in HC) by Goethe
  • The Origin of Species by Darwin
  • Tartuffe by Molière
  • Phèdre by Racine

One of the things I like about the GBWW is that the committee members at Encyclopedia Britannica prided themselves on a project that refused excerpting.  Just as I would say that this is the major advantage of the GBWW, I would say that the converse, the willingness to scrupulously excerpt, is a major advantage of the HC.  Which is better?  That is hard to say.  My personal opinion is that an individual’s education develops a slightly better reading ability in dealing with unabridged texts.  Often times, the editing process takes all of the challenge out of reading difficult works, because, in a sense, they have been processed: the juice (the ideas) is presented, somewhat out of context, ready for consumption.  As we all know, the pulp is as, or more so, important than the juice.  I don’t think one is cutting corners, in reading the abridged versions of texts, so long as that is not the only fare.  On the flipside, we can’t read it all (or so friends try to convince me), which means that sampling works, that we would otherwise not taste, is a rather efficacious component of self-education.  In fact, Mortimer Adler, author of How to Read a Book (highly recommended), says in that book something to the effect: many books are to be tasted, some are to be chewed, a few swallowed, and even fewer digested.  With respect to this sentiment, I have to look upon the intentions in compiling the GBWW and HC —digesting and chewing/swallowing/tasting— with approbation, whatever reservations one may have; and there will always be dissent, when it comes to the particulars of which works are compiled.

The foremost criticism of the HC —and I maintain that there is no greater intellectual or literary crime— is the omission of the Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant.  I consider this to be the single most important work of human imagination, hands down, nothing else even close.  Unfortunately, I have to come at the HC with a second major criticism, that of lacking any serious mathematics.  If we are talking about an Harvard-level undergraduate education, then perhaps the incorporation of reasoning would be a nice addition, however out of ‘vogue’ that might be.  When performing his self-guided study of law, Abraham Lincoln simultaneously studied the Elements of Euclid with his law books, because it helped him develop critical reasoning ability.  Thank goodness that The Origin of Species found its way into the collection!  However, it saddens (even scares me) to think that, had Darwin included something like population statistics, the work may not have been viable for selection —pun intended.  This is an anathema, in my mind.  To give credit where credit is due, the HC did include natural science essays by Kelvin, Faraday, Helmholtz, Newcombe, Geikie, a number of pioneer medical researchers, such as Harvey and Lister, Lyell, Pasteur, and, of course, Darwin’s Origin and Voyage of the Beagle; but this is less than a moral victory, in my eyes.  There are plenty of mathematical treatises that are worthy of a non-mathematician’s education.  Elliot should be glad that Relativity had not been published in 1909, or else he should have received further accosting from me.

With the GBWW, I have no major criticisms in omissions, but there is one thinker that I have in my list of top ten thinkers of all-time, whom I take to be ineffectually represented therein.  The name is Nietzsche, and problem I have is with the singular selection being Beyond Good and Evil.  I don’t get this one bit, and I wish I had some insight as to why it was chosen.  (If you have a thought, or know the answer, please leave a comment.)  As it is, Nietzsche refuses to be understood by the individual who does not partake of deep study of his corpus.  The major reason is that his writings are a physical representation of his philosophy: they require continual self-overcoming, a naïve hope of realizing truth, and passionate suffering.  Walter Kaufmann takes hold of some of Nietzsche most relevant, self-referential terminology, describing the philosopher’s writings as an “anarchy of atoms.”  If that is how one describes Nietzsche’s writings, then wouldn’t an editor seek out the most naturally occurring structure of the corpus?  In my opinion, Thus Spake Zarathustra is the hands down winner, not just in terms of coherence, but also in terms of the likelihood of a neophyte enjoying the work.  I would go further to say that my second choice, if there were room enough, would be to include Human, All Too Human; Daybreak; and The Joyous Wisdom/The Gay Science.  I might even have chosen the third of these three before Beyond Good and Evil.  I just think that there isn’t enough continuity in this work to stand on its own, in a compilation like the GBWW, which leaves me wondering about the choice.  I rarely think of Nietzsche as being offensive, because he was a literary provocateur par excellence, and I have become inured to this superficial and effusive shtick; but maybe Beyond Good and Evil is the least offensive?  I don’t know —you tell me.

The last agitation I have to express about the Harvard Classics is the fact that the second most quoted author of the English language is not included, namely, Samuel Johnson.  Well, if number two got nixed, then maybe Shakespeare was on the chopping block, as well?

In the next installment, I will dig into the fiction of the two collections.

To Be Continued…


Filed under Great Books and Harvard Classics Series, Literature

6 responses to “Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part I): General Observations and Remarks

  1. Pingback: Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part III): Assessing the Philosophy Selections | milliern

  2. Pingback: Review of American Public University | milliern

  3. What is missing, in part, is an analysis of the sets as physical objects. In this category, the HC have a clear and definitive edge. The HC books are an excellent size for reading, and are printed on paper that will stand up to use, highlighting, and note-taking. The GBWW books, however, are more encyclopedia volumes. (This is not surprising, given the fact that they are published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.) The problem with these books is that they are really designed as reference books rather than for reading. They are too large to read comfortably in most settings. The paper is too thin to stand up to regular use (including note-taking, where bleeding is an issue.) And the two-column format is not ideal for regular reading. (And, to the extent that the sets are being analyzed entirely as reading lists rather than as actual books to be read, there is no sense in actually owning either set because better editions of virtually every included work are available.)

  4. I disagree with most of what you said, Jake, but I think it is personal preference. Newspapers and periodicals often come in column format, and that’s probably because it’s easier to read. That’s my opinion. I think the volumes are extremely easy to read, possibly due to the column format. If your setting is a subway, then they might not be ideal to read, since they are full-sized books. However, I had no problem reading them at my home study, the library, or in a coffeehouse. On the point about notes, I don’t do marginalia, so I don’t know whether ink bleeds through, but pencils work fine, as friends have taken notes on the pages that way. I take notes in notebooks corresponding to whole books, and I have them catalogued in my study; so there’s no need for me to write in texts in most cases.

    I’m not a book collector, so if that’s someone’s interest, then the HC set is going to be more interesting for such a person. For my part, the digital formats that these sets are available in, particularly through Noet, eliminate all considerations for me regarding collecting. Collecting material things is not something I do.

  5. Al Newman

    I would like to know more about how you take your notes in notebooks, I would like to do the digitaly.

  6. Hi David,

    I stumbled across this post on Google when I was looking to see what overlap exists between the two sets. I’ve recently bought HC, and am now looking to buy a GBWW set.

    Thank you for your detailed analysis of the differences between the two, it has been really helpful. Have you continued this post with a part 2?


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