Why the Syntopicon?

December 18, 2015

In the Preface to Genius, literary critic and professor Harold Bloom asserts the existence of and need for a discussion of genius. In the book, Bloom describes one hundred different voices in which he finds an element of genius, of creation. He writes, “Talent cannot originate, genius must.” These authors are considered geniuses because they created something where nothing existed before. Vergil, for example, ordered the Roman world, which adhered to the ideas presented in the Aeneid for centuries (and it still informs our worldview). Shakespeare used bits of foundational texts and contexts (like the Bible) to weave an actual, physical, present character of humanity in a way that no one before (or since) has. These are creators.

Bloom believes that these authors live for us because they have created something unmatched, something that pulls at us in an important and vital way. He writes, “We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces.... It is worth knowing that our word 'character' still possesses as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word's likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or mark of the stylus's incisions. Our modern word 'character' also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.” Bloom readily admits that these are not the world's only geniuses. And in organizing them into a list, he has created a sort of literary canon. Harold Bloom is a man who thinks seriously about serious literature and therefore, his list is not to be taken lightly. These types of lists often offer insight into the authors that deserve a long-standing place among human tradition. The importance and relevance of this type of list cannot be overstated.

Every human functions within a context. This context enables us to navigate a world of endless possibilities and create meaning from it. It is very difficult for the mind to create meaning from chaos. Present within chaos are strands of importance and strands of distraction. In the Preface, Bloom explains that he chose these literary giants because they have important, meaningful messages that discuss the path of humanity. They deserve our time and study. He writes, “The study of mediocrity, whatever its origins, breeds mediocrity. Thomas Mann, descendant of furniture manufacturers, prophesied that his Joseph-tetralogy would last because it was well-made. We do not accept tables and chairs whose legs fall off, no matter who carpentered them, but we urge the young to study mediocre writings, with no legs to sustain them.” In other words, some literature may benefit us more than others and it is an important, valid discussion to ensure that we are discussing the important texts.

Everyone would probably agree with this statement, yet it is difficult to get everyone to agree on any exact list. Of course, literature serves many purposes. There are light books, enjoyable reads, difficult texts, terminology-laded texts and varieties of genres from science-fiction to romance. Everything may serve a purpose and may fit a specific moment. However, if we are talking about the path of human intelligence, then there are works that require more thought and understanding and, for this reason, deserve more of our time.

Harrison MIddleton University chose to study The Great Books, another example of a canon, because it incorporates so many ideas across so many genres. These canons are simply attempts by serious men and women to maintain a list of what is important to human history. Dissent is understandable: so many legitimate voices arguing for so many legitimate pieces of literature. As with Bloom's Genius, the Syntopicon's Introduction tells us that 102 ideas is just about as much as can logically be held together and distributed, but should not be considered a sum total of all ideas. It is possible that both Bloom and Mortimer Adler had similar ideas when creating their canons (many of which overlap): that their scholarship might lead to more enlightened scholarship in decades and centuries to come. Of course, this is always the hope.

At Harrison Middleton University, we pursue the Great Books and great ideas because we too want to understand major arguments. We delve deeply into texts, we discuss these texts and we gain immeasurable results. Adler's 102 ideas form a foundation from which we leap, enabled by many voices, both ancient and new. We embrace conversation and study with purpose and energy.

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