“Great Ideas” are recurring themes that appear throughout writing and literature as each author plays off of his predecessor and adds his own thoughts to the “Great Conversation.”
Mortimer Adler called themes that turn up regularly in literature and thought “Great Ideas.” In the 1950s, he indexed his collection of classics, the Great Books, listing the “great ideas” that each dealt with. Adler said that anyone should feel comfortable engaging with the Great Books and their philosophy. In two large volumes called the Syntopicon, Adler listed his 102 recurring themes, or Great Ideas. They include topics such as Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Justice, Time, Language, Emotion, Infinity, Being, and on.
The Great Conversation
The great conversation is the age-old conversation carried on by thinkers and writers as they build on, respond to, and refine their predecessors’ great ideas. It happens when Aristotle reads Plato and disagrees, a Roman reads Aristotle and adds to him, an early Christian like Augustine uses one of their ideas to explain a Christian doctrine, a medieval monk systematised it, a reformer reforms it, an early moderns discusses it. And now we have the conversation in the form of classic texts and it’s our turn to learn from and add to it. Dealing with ideas in the great conversation has proved for centuries to develop critical thinking skills, imagination, logic, and rhetoric.