Essay on The Great Idea of Man

November 11, 2016

Thanks to Ann Wagner, HMU doctoral student, for today's blog. Her essay introduces the contemporary struggle with the Great Idea of "Man". She offers helpful historical connections regarding the lack of a female voice in the updated version of the Great Idea of "Man". The essay is posted here in its entirety. Enjoy!

According to Adler the primary principle to be experienced by the reader when exploring an idea in The Great Books of the Western World is the conversation that evolves between the authors across the centuries and the awareness that this conversation has meaning today. He proposes the image of the authors sitting around a table — “totally oblivious to the circumstances of their own time and place and their diversity of tongues—confronting each other in agreement, disagreement” (28). This unique conversation across time is a phenomenon that the reader experiences in pursuing many of the topics within the Great Ideas when reading syntopically. Often it is a touchstone moment to witness the synchronicity that exists in the thoughts expressed from the ancient authors down through time to the authors of today.

But the premise of this essay explores a different experience for the syntopical reader when focusing on the subtopic, The Distinctive Characteristics of Men and Women and Their Differences, under the great idea of Man. It is the premise of this essay that the only way to remain open to the thoughts of many of the listed authors within this subtopic is by continually keeping in the forefront of one’s mind the circumstances of the authors’ own time and place. Only when the reader remains aware of the context of the times in which the author is writing and understands the elusive, sometimes insidious nature of social context can there be some bridge between then and now. The following discussion will present the difficulties that are present in studying and reading in the above named subtopic when not taking into consideration the social context of the authors and that without the consideration of social context along with understanding its power and nuances, the expectation of having a conversation over time is not possible. Although the theme of this essay goes against one of Adler’s primary principles in appreciating the authors in the Great Books set, it is the elephant in the room for this subtopic and bears examination.

Adler addresses in The Great Conversation the unexpected awareness he experienced upon updating the list of authors for the second edition of The Great Books of the Western World in 1990—that the continuity of the conversation between the authors over time had been clearly broken with the addition of new authors, especially the 20th century authors. A continuity of thought that had been present for 25 centuries was no longer present between the 19th and 20th centuries (30). With the addition of the new authors, he cites the need for rewriting the introductory essays, adding new topics and altering old topics to “call attention to the disagreements of the 20th century authors with their predecessors, or their departures from the ground that had been covered in earlier centuries, and the breaking of new ground” (31).

This break in the continuity of the conversation among the authors becomes understandable to Adler when he considers the ”revolution in the physical and biological sciences” (31) and the advances in economics that had taken place in the 20th century; his concern to provide the necessary updates to keep the conversation fluid over time in the areas mentioned above is apparent (31). Interestingly he makes no mention of the revolution in the 20th century that addressed women’s issues, the feminist movement, nor any mention of the changes that were needed within the idea of Man and the subtopics that were related specifically to women. And yet with the update, for the first time women were included in the list of authors within the Great Books set; for the first time woman’s voice was added to the conversation. The feminist movement significantly changed women’s place and voice in the world in the 20th century. It leaves one with questions – Why was there no comment from Adler on the impact of this movement as a part of his discussion in The Great Conversation concerning the break in continuity that he discovered with the addition of the new authors (31)? Was the break in the continuity of the conversation regarding the subtopics related to women not so easy to address?

One of the first observations is that there is a difference in definition between the revolution of the physical, natural and economic sciences that Adler does address and revolution as it applies to the feminist movement. The definition for a revolution in the sciences according to Meriam-Webster’s Dictionary refers to a “fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something; a change of paradigm” (1068 ). In this form of revolution what has come before is built upon, it forms a foundation from which to proceed. The feminist movement fits closer to another definition of revolution: over a short period of time in the 20th century the movement brought about a “sudden, radical or complete change” (1068). The feminist movement began to change the way people lived and thought about possibilities in their everyday lives and it changed the way people responded to each other. With this definition of revolution there is not a desire to build on the past; the focus is to bring about change. What came before is challenged on social, moral, and political levels. In the revolution of the sciences there were ideas, laws, facts, past truths to be studied, revised, expanded upon; in the feminist movement there was a social context that was named, proclaimed as wrong and demands were made for change. What is the conversation that can bridge the past with the present across time with a break in continuity such as this? A discussion of social context, of the time and place in which the authors wrote, would at least bring to the conversation that there was not intent to harm by the many authors who wrote about men’s superiority over women, it would bring some understanding to the anger, frustration or complete discounting of the authors’ words that one experiences in reading within this subtopic.

Adler does acknowledge in the introductory essay to the Idea of Man in the Syntopicon that the 20th century brought forward the problem of gender. In the introductory essay the reader is advised that the word “man” signifies both men and women for all the authors included in the great books. (11) Also acknowledged is that almost inclusively the authors from “Aristotle to Nietzsche regard males as superior to females” (11). Clearly Adler is trying to bridge the conversation between the first 25 centuries and the 20th century with these two sentences, but for the subtopic specified this is not very helpful.

While reading in many of the disciplines, translating man to mankind does not present a problem, but reading in the subtopic that addresses the characteristics of men and women and their differences that translation does not work. The authors mentioned in the introductory essay and authors later in time than Nietzsche continue to speak to the superiority of man over woman and many of the arguments for the lesser status of women are presented as scientific fact. Darwin speaks to the process of sexual selection and the law of the deviation from averages as evidence of man’s greater intellectual power (566); William James describes brain development and concludes that although woman’s brain is more instinctive initially, it is “least educated in the end” (691) and the male brain “becomes so much more efficient than the woman’s” (691); Freud, in his lecture on The Psychology of Women, clarifies that “psycho-analysis does not try to describe what women are... it investigates the way in which women develop [sexually] out of children” (855) and that with regard to this investigation his lecture “contains nothing but facts, with hardly any speculative additions” (853). In detailing the sexual development of women he speaks to their frigidity, greater narcissism, passivity, little sense of justice, weaker social interests and a more complex sexual development process that often does not reach mature completion (862-864); but despite the far reaching influence of this factor, “an individual woman may [italics added] be a human being apart from this” (864). Clearly man refers to man and woman is something other in the above discussions. The superiority of man over women is presented in the expertise of the various authors as though it were scientific fact. It becomes difficult after reading authors with these perspectives on women to read the other writings within their specialty areas without wondering to what degree man really does mean male only and to question where woman does fit in the author’s perspective. What does a reader of the 21st century do with this? The only helpful response, again, is for the reader to keep in mind the social context of the author at that time of his writing, but there is not the opportunity to bring the time and place of an author’s writing into the conversation.

Tocqueville is the first among the original authors of the Great Books to bring into the conversation the idea of social context in discussing the inequality between men and women in Democracy In America. In observing the American woman in a young, developing country, Tocqueville observes her in a social context that requires of her and allows her an expanded role, a more equal partnership with man, he observes:

I have shown how democracy destroys or modifies those various Inequalities which are in origin social. [based on the context of the time] But is that the end of the matter? May it not ultimately come to change the great inequality between man and woman which has up till now seemed based on the eternal foundations of nature? [a truth or law of nature]
I think that the same social impetus which brings nearer to the same level father and son, master and servant, and generally every inferior to every superior does raise the status of women and should make them more and more nearly equal to men. (323)


Tocqueville has great praise for the American women, he praises the separate functions that man and woman performed in early America so that by working together and respecting each other’s role they accomplished great work, but he tempers his hope for equality when he clarifies that a woman could never be in charge of the external affairs of the family or interfere in politics or in the authority of the husband. Despite these defined limits on equality, he does take a giant step in changing the conversation from the superiority of man over woman as a truth to a social construct that can be changed and changed for the good of all – but of course with limits (323-325).

The authors added in the second edition of The Great Books continued the movement away from accepting men’s superiority to women as a fact of nature to the discussion of social context as the basis for this belief. Eliot in her novel Middlemarch serves as not only the narrator of her story, but also provides an aside voice that comments on the superior attitude men have towards women and the long standing assumptions (tradition) that make that possible.

A man’s mind—what there is of it—has always the advantage of being masculine—as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm—and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality. Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition. (212)


Another scene from Middlemarch describes the engagement party for Miss Brooke, a bright, religious, pretty in her own way, serious young woman and central character in the story. Two invited male guests have some assessments of Miss Brooke, one is a middle age bachelor, Mr. Chichely, set in his ways, with an Easter egg complexion and a few well arranged hairs across the top of his head: “not my style of woman: I like a woman who lays herself out a little more to please us. . . Ay, to be sure, there should be a little devil in woman, ... And I like them blond, with a certain gait, and a swan neck” (244).

The other gentleman is Mr. Lydgate, the new, young doctor in town: “She is a good creature ... but a little too earnest... It is troublesome to talk to such women. They are always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any questions, and usually fall back on their moral sense to settle things after their own taste.” (246)

Eliot offers her aside comment in which she has no hope for the elder Mr. Chichely to change, but puts out hope for Mr. Lydgate to realize the errors of his thinking; she suggests that a man can recognize the social context of the time and choose to act differently: For Chichely “whose mind was matured, she [Miss Brooke] was altogether a mistake, . . .But Lydgate was less ripe, and might possibly have experience before him which would modify his opinion as to the most excellent things in woman” (246).

Jane Austen did not directly challenge the traditional thinking of the time as did Eliot, but created a female character in her novel, Emma, that spoke words of independence and of having no need of a husband for the sake of standing and security. For a woman to say the words that Jane Austen gives Emma was a definite break from traditional expectations at that time. It presented another way for women to think about themselves.

I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry... Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; ... I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield... a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else ... mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; (36)


Although Austen, Tocqueville and Eliot were bringing social context into the discussion of the superiority of men over women, William James and Freud published works that kept the superiority of men over women in the realm of scientific fact. Austen published Emma in 1815, Eliot, Middlemarch in 1870. Freud wrote his lectures on New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis in 1932. Not much was changing very fast.

It is Shaw who most clearly and completely discusses social context and its power in the Preface to Saint Joan. There are parallels between Shaw’s discussion of social context as it relates to the understanding of Saint Joan and her persecution and his discussion of social context as it relates to the break in the conversation over time with the subtopic, the characteristics between men and women and their differences and the many century’s belief of man’s superiority over woman.

Shaw tells us that for someone to understand Joan, her strength, her sanity, her vitality, they “must be capable of throwing off sex partialities and their romance and regarding women as the female of their species,” (38). In the same vein, for someone, today, to read the early authors’ writings regarding women and their presumed inferiority over the ages, there must be an acknowledgement that the authors in the first edition of The Great Books were not able to throw off sex partialities and their romance and regard women as the female of the species and that although their defining of woman as inferior was presented as fact, it was, in fact, the result of the social context of the time. Why is it so important for the impact of social context to be a part of the conversation? Why can it not remain the quiet elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but cannot mention?

The real problem here is that with so many of the other topics within the great ideas there can be a difference of opinion or some previously perceived truth can be found wrong, but in the process no author in the conversation has their humanity insulted, demeaned or denied. The conversation for most topics and subtopics is about the idea, which is apart and separate from each person’s humanity. This is not the case with the subtopic of the characteristics of men and women and their differences; the conversation here is about human dignity. A women author included in the readings for the concerned subtopic, who would be sitting at the imaginary table in the conversation on this subtopic, or any women reading the list of works under the concerned subtopic, would find themselves demeaned and alone in this conversation, without the means to question the context of any author claiming the superiority of man over woman because context cannot enter the conversation. Each author holding to the superiority of men over women would continue to remain the expert within his field as to how man is superior to woman without having the impact of his time and place of writing brought into the conversation. Is it any wonder there is a break in the continuity of the conversation around this subtopic?

Shaw speaks to the invisible nature of social context, to mankind’s blindness to its effect, “it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period” (59). Saint Joan was burned at the stake in the 15th century and not canonized as a saint until 1920. Shaw postulates that had she not been such an unwomanly figure, so out of context in her time, she may have been canonized sooner. The authors of The Great Books who held men superior to women were certainly geniuses and saw beyond the context of their time to thoughts and ideas that were timeless, but they also lived within a social context and as with all people, they, too, could be blinded by the social context of their time. In relation to this discussion, they were blinded to the possibility of the equality of women. It is important to separate what is their genius and what is their humanness. The only way to bring their humanness into play is to bring to the conversation their time and place in history. And what happens when over a long period of time, centuries, a belief, a supposed truth is held in place by the blindness to social context?

Shaw warns:

unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence. (56)

There was no explosion over the injustices done to Saint Joan for her unwomanly behavior and her audacity to act outside of the context of her time, but there was an explosion in the last part of the 20th century to the long standing assumption of the superiority of man over woman and the rights and privileges that had been denied her. The addition of authors like Eliot, Austen and Shaw to The Great Books indicated some movement in the direction of seeing women as the female of the human species, of changing the conversation as it relates to the subtopic of the characteristics of men and women and their differences, but that was not enough to keep the conversation over time fluid, to make the conversation relevant to the 21st century. The feminist movement was a revolution that wanted, demanded, worked hard for change; women wanted their human dignity, their human equality acknowledged.

Adler accomplished so much with his conceptualization of The Great Books set and the design of the Syntopicon. He made the classics accessible and the browsing among the authors with some sense of order possible for anyone interested in pursuing the classics. To read some of the ancient authors and experience how connected their thoughts are to the concerns and experiences of today is no less mind boggling than to stand in the open amphitheater in Ephesus and realize that one is standing where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians – 21 centuries of history collapses and there is a connection across time. It is important to acknowledge timelessness, the continuation of great ideas over time, but there is an equally important need to acknowledge social context and its importance, to be aware of the harm caused when something that is held to be timeless is really under the influence of social context.

Why did Adler not address what he called the problem of gender, the feminist movement, in his update of the second edition of The Great Books of the Western World? Was he caught in the blindness of social context? Was he too attached to his belief in the timelessness of ideas? As Shaw tells us, “There are no villains . . . It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must do in spite of their intentions” (61) – that is the tragedy of social context.



Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. The Great Conversation Revisited, The Great Conversation. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler et al. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1993. 28-31. Print.

Adler, Mortimer J. “Introduction to Man” The Syntopicon, The Great Books of the Western World. Ed. Mortimer J. Adler et al. Vol 2. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica 2007. 11.

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