The Syntopicon was created to set the Great Books collection apart from previously published sets (such as Harvard Classics). Robert Hutchins, at the time, in addition to being the president of the University of Chicago, also served as Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Hutchins and Adler were recruited by the encyclopedia’s publisher for a “special idea” which would increase the collection’s marketability.
With this mission, Adler undertook a project that would consume over a decade of his life: identifying and indexing the western world’s Great Ideas. In the end, the Syntopicon would require over 400,000 man-hours of reading and cost over two million dollars. Britannica publisher Senator William Benton joked at the Great Books presentation dinner that “the Syntopicon is said to be the most expensive two volumes editorially in all publishing history. How Hutchins and Adler achieved that unique distinction, the publisher is still trying to figure out. (Clifton Fadiman) assured me some day the story will be told. I’d like it whenever I can get it.”
The process of cataloging each appearance of one of the “Great Ideas” in all 431 works by 71 authors in the collection was so arduous that the Syntopicon nearly did not make it to print. Before it even came time to print, the budget had topped a million dollars and there was not even “a penny for paper” left. Adler persevered, however, having spent the previous eight years of his life on the project. He single-handedly raised funds by selling more expensive “Founders Editions” of the sets, and disobeyed the order to fire his entire staff. There were times, during the process when he admitted: “the question was could we sell the plates for junk! Could we dispose of the plates as old metal?”
Adler felt, through it all, that he was creating something completely new. The Syntopicon, he felt, would be revolutionary, its release on par with such events as the creation of the first dictionary. It would do for ideas what previous reference books had done for words and facts. He worked with a team of over 100 readers who met twice a week for years to discuss the readings and the ideas within them. Among his editorial team was a young Saul Bellow.
In the end, he produced two volumes, which listed the 102 Great Ideas of the western world, from Angel to World. The set was released with much fanfare, including an honorary gifting of the first two editions to U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Elizabeth II. An internal memo from Encyclopædia Britannica, regarding a release party, reads:
“The projected sequences of events is: (1) Mr. Hutchins kicks off the conference with a discussion of the Great Books movement, and the university’s and Britannica’s interest in the set; (2) Mr. Adler tells in detail of the contents of the set and the significance of the Syntopicon; (3) Cocktails.”
In addition to being a “special idea” that would set Great Books of the Western World apart, the Syntopicon serves four other purposes, outlined in its preface. The Syntopicon can serve as a reference book, as a book to be read, as an “instrument of liberal education,” and as “an instrument of discovery and research.”
Above all, however, the Syntopicon was created to unite the western world’s canon. It was created to solve what Adler saw as a fundamental problem, that “different authors say the same thing in different ways, or use the same words to say quite different things.” By cataloging the things the great authors were saying in a more scientific manner, Adler hoped to show the underlying unity that ultimately existed in the collected works.
For Hutchins, a chief proponent of classical education, the creation of the Syntopicon held even greater implications. Hutchins felt that the ideas being discussed and cross-listed in the Syntopicon might be "powerful enough to save the world from self-destruction."
The Syntopicon consists of 102 chapters on the 102 Great Ideas. Each chapter is broken down into five distinct sections: the introduction, an outline of topics, references, cross-references, and additional readings. Adler penned all 102 introductions himself, giving a brief essay on the idea and its connection with the western canon. The outline of topics broke each idea down further, into as many as 15 sub-ideas. For instance, the first idea “Angel” is broken down into “Inferior deities or demi-gods in polytheistic religion,” “the philosophical consideration of pure intelligences, spiritual substances, supra-human persons” and seven other subtopics. After this is the references section (for instance, “inferior deities or demi-gods in polytheistic religion” can be found in Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Locke, Hegel, Goethe and more). Cross-references follow, where similar ideas are listed. Last is the additional readings, in which one could seek out more on the subject of “Angel.”
The list of 102 ideas is broken between the two volumes, as follows:
Volume I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love.
Volume II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World.
The release of the Syntopicon and the Great Books of the Western World was covered in the New York Herald, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and local papers across the United States.
Full page ads for Time magazine appeared in newspapers across the country, saying “What and Why is a Syntopicon?” Time published an article about the new, pivotal piece of reference material, and Adler wrote them back in thanks, saying that “I think the piece is both thoroughly accurate and very lively, which, considering the subject matter, is quite a feat.”
Look magazine ran a feature on the Syntopicon, displaying behind-the-scene photos of the index’s staff at work. In one picture, editor Joe Roddy is shown weighing the number of entries about love on a scale. “Discussions of love by great authors,” the caption reads, “outweigh sin and eternity.”
Despite the extensive press coverage and cross-country speeches, however, sales of the Syntopicon and the Great Books of the Western World were slow. Experienced encyclopedia salesmen had to be brought in to move the product, despite Hutchins’ dislike of this solution.
The Syntopicon's list was "arbitrary", as even Adler admitted. The press and others also found problems with the Syntopicon, and despite Adler’s predictions (“we predict that, as dictionaries are indispensable in the realm of words, and encyclopaedias in the realm of facts, so the Syntopicon will become indispensable in the realm of ideas” ) the Syntopicon has fallen into relative obscurity. At the time of its release, the New York Times Book Review declared: “Its defects are on the surface. One is the implication that great books are concerned only with ideas which can be logically analyzed—whereas many masterpieces of literature live in realms partially or wholly outside the realm of logic. Another is the conception that the chief purpose of reading a book is to crack its shell and reach its kernel—the form itself being unimportant decoration.”
In a succeeding book, Adler expressed his regret that the civil rights concept of Equality had not been selected. He attempted to rectify the omission with Six Great Ideas: Truth-Goodness-Beauty-Liberty-Equality-Justice (1981).
Adler attempted another index, in one volume, the Propaedia for the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. A traditional two-volume alphabetical index has since been produced for the more recent versions of the fifteenth edition, in addition to Propaedia.