I’ve been plugging along for several weeks now on this plan to read through the Great Books collection in seven years. By now some people might have noticed that for a series that is supposed to contain the most essential titles in the Western tradition, it’s a bit odd that I haven’t posted any readings from the Bible. In fact, if you’ve looked at the table of contents for the Gateway to the Great Books series (here) and the Great Books of the Western World series (here), you may have noted the absence of the Bible in both sets. Does this mean that the series editors are hostile to religion, or that they think the Bible is not an essential part of the Western literary tradition?
I don’t know the answer to the first question; I have no idea what Mortimer Adler’s or any of the other editors’ religious views were. However, they certainly did consider the Bible to be fundamental to the Western heritage. References to the Bible abound in the two “Syntopicon” volumes in the GBWW series, and in the “graded reading” plan in the first appendix to Volume I of the GGB set, books of the Bible appear alongside Homer, Swift, and other authors in the GBWW set.
Why, then, is the Bible not in either series? In The Great Conversation, the editors offer a very simple explanation: “Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unnecessary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already.”
In the early 1950s, when the GBWW set was first produced, the American literary and cultural milieu was very different from today’s in at least two ways that affected the editors’ thinking. First, editions of many classics were difficult to come by. Some of the scientific works in GBWW appeared there in English translations for the very first time. A major aim of the series editors was to make these books available to American readers. There was no internet to give instant access to almost any work in the public domain. Second, it could be assumed that just about every home containing literate people had at least one Bible. Given the costs of producing the 54-volume set, it made sense not to add to that expense by including the Bible (which, after all, is a really long book). So the absence of the Bible from these series does not stem from any agenda of the editors.
As for my own reading program, if you wonder why I have not included selections from the Bible, it’s because I have my own ongoing Bible study schedule that I track separately from this project. Moreover, there are dozens of reading schedules for the Bible readily available on the web, and I would not really be making any contribution by producing one more.
I strongly encourage everyone to make study of the Bible a key part of immersion in the Western tradition, whether or not one is religious. Put simply, you won’t get the majority of the West’s heritage without an understanding of the Bible.
[This post is part of my seven-year plan to read through the Gateway to the Great Books and Great Books of the Western World sets. The original post describing the plan is here.]