If you go to South Lawn and read the names across the front of Butler Library, you may nod in satisfaction. As a Columbia College student, you've read—or at least were supposed to read—Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles. Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes... Demosthenes? Who is Demosthenes?
Well, never mind, don't give it a thought, just move on. Cicero, Vergil, and you continue your contented nodding. But however much College students and tour guides would like to claim that they've read works of all the names on Butler, they're wrong.
The engraved names on Butler wrap around to both the east and west sides as well. Horace, Tacitus, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, and Goethe are all permanently honored on the mammoth structure, though they are most likely only noticed by John Jay and Carman inhabitants who have a side view of the library. But Tacitus, Horace, Voltaire, Milton, and Goethe? While both Butler Library and the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization reading lists claim to bear the names of great thinkers and writers, neither was meant to be a reflection of the other.
The names on Butler were chosen by Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia's president from 1902-1945, who oversaw the Library's construction. Butler chose the names of 18 thinkers to engrave along the façade of the building that now bares his name, as well as the names of 24 American statesmen and authors which are inscribed on the panels under the large front windows.
It seems that the choice of these names was based on nothing more than Butler's whims. At the time, Contemporary Civilization began with Medieval philosophy and primarily used secondary sources. Literature Humanities wasn't instituted until 1937, three years after the Library's construction, although it was preceded by an optional literature course called General Honors, which lasted two years and listed 75 titles.
Tacitus, Milton, Voltaire, and Goethe have all been read at one time or another in Literature Humanities. So why are they off the syllabus now? According to Chair of Literature Humanities Michael Seidel, books in Lit Hum "have been read for, in many instances, 3000 years, and when they work themselves off the consciousness of the human race, then they'll drop off of the humanities list. As long as people are transfixed, perplexed, and in some cases, entertained, these books will remain."
But Seidel acknowledged that the Lit Hum reading list "does adjust slowly to the habits of reading and to the tastes of the culture."
While both Lit Hum and CC are meant to showcase works that have significance in any age, Tacitus is the one author to have lasted very shortly in direct response to the crises of a particular time period. His writings Annals and Germany remained on the Lit Hum syllabus for only three years during World War II, from 1942-1944.
In the 1980s, Lit Hum choices similarly reflected the pressure of a specific era, this time to pay more attention to works by women. Columbia College began accepting women in 1983, and protestors at the time took to heart the supposed significance of Butler Library's engraved names and draped banners bearing the names Sappho, Austen, Woolf, and other female authors beneath.
The Core began to change its syllabus in response, adding Sappho, Madame de Lafayette, and Jane Austen to the Lit Hum syllabus in the mid-1980s.
"Recently, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf have been the major women writers, in the theory that women began to be read in the Renaissance and 17th century, but in the 19th century, they really started to produce great works of literature," Seidel said.
Voltaire has been featured on the Lit Hum syllabus for his works Candide, Zadig, and Micromegas, and on the CC syllabus for his satirical writings against the Church. Professor Pierre Force, who teaches Voltaire in his French Philosophy class, reasoned that Voltaire may no longer be on the syllabus because though "he crystallized the debates of the time, he's not remembered as someone who invented an original system of philosophy or new doctrine."
But Contemporary Civilization Chair Philip Kitcher argued that one could make a case for the reading of Voltaire in CC.
"He's a very good representative and advocate of reason triumphing over faith," said Kitcher, who used to have his students read Candide over winter break.
Goethe, the most recent author dropped from Literature Humanities, might not be permanently gone, according to Seidel. "Some [authors] drop off and then are put back on with the intent to vary the works a bit. There have been 12 different Euripides plays and as many Shakespeare."
And Demosthenes and Horace? As far as can be determined from the backlogs of CC and Lit Hum, these two authors, one a Greek orator and the other a Roman poet, have never been on either of the syllabi.
They were merely favorites of Nicholas Murray Butler. So, if you really want to say that you've "read all of Butler," start cracking the books—you've missed a few.