Compiled by Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher, under the guidance of Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, the volumes were billed as a collection of the 102 great ideas of the western canon. The term “syntopicon” was coined specifically for this undertaking, meaning “a collection of topics.” The volumes catalogued what Adler and his team deemed to be the fundamental ideas contained in the works of the Great Books of the Western World, which stretched chronologically from Homer to Freud. The Syntopicon lists, under each idea, where every occurrence of the concept can be located in the collection’s famous works…The first volumes were given to U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Queen Elizabeth II. It did not sell well.
…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…”
Adler himself was famed as being one of the leading Catholic apologists of his age, having honed his skills by his study of the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is remarkable because he was a non-observant Jew, calling himself a modern pagan, and only was brought into the Church at the age of 97. The reason for his reticence, he claimed, was due to moral and not theological problems, possibly due to his favoring of the philosophers of classical liberalism.