The Great Books
of the World’s Wisdom Traditions


This is a two unit course that meets by phone for 90-minutes every two months. It counts as a core course in the Mystical Traditions and can be taken for four units over two years.


At the heart of the world wisdom traditions are books that distill the essence of the teachings of the masters down through the ages. Many have no authors, some are compilations over long periods of time, others reflect teachings of masters who themselves never wrote a word. Socrates and Jesus never wrote any books, for instance, but Plato wrote his Dialogues recalling his memory of what Socrates said and the Gospels recount the life of Jesus many decades after Jesus had gone. Other books like the Tao Te Ching and Bhagavad Gita have legendary authors but appear to be compilations heavily redacted over many centuries. Some books are considered “God’s word” such as the Bible or the Koran and have endured for millennia inspiring countless millions of believers. Others, like the Zohar, remain obscure. Still others, like Black Elk Speaks, express the essence of a tribal tradition on the brink of extinction and are valued for what is on the verge of being lost. Great books continue to be written by individuals alive today.

Jim Garrison has been studying the great books since childhood as the son of a missionary to China and Taiwan where he was able to delve into eastern spirituality, particularly Buddhism and Taoism. His double Masters degree in the History of Religion and Christology at Harvard and his doctorate on a Jungian analysis of ancient Judeo-Christian apocalyptic literature at Cambridge enabled him to study the great books across the spectrum of Axial religions and wisdom traditions, both ancient and modern, particularly those of the Greco-Roman civilization and western intellectual thought.

His course on the Great Books will develop over the next several years. Each year, he will select six books that he considers “great” and will examine each one, sometimes in dialogue with a specialist in the book at hand.

The list for 2013 will be comprised of the following:

February: Plato, Symposium

April: Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (with Ken Wilber)

JuneThe Bhagavad Gita

August: John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (with Will Taegel)

OctoberTao Te Ching

December: T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

Other great books that will be discussed over time include:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Bible (Wisdom books: Gospel of John, Lamentations, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon)

Meister Eckhardt, Sermons

Hildegard de Bingen, Scivias

Confucius, Analects


Emily Dickinson, Collected Poems

Epic of Gilgamesh

Epictetus, Enchiridion

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Mahatma Gandhi, My Experiments with Truth

Stan Grof, Beyond the Brain

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

I Ching

Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Koran (early Suras)

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems

Plato, Republic and Socratic Trilogy (Apology, Crito, Phaedo)

Rabia, Collected Poems

Jalal udin Rumi, Selected Works by Coleman Barks

Machaelle Small Wright, Co-Creative Science

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle

Tibetan Book of the Dead

Evelyn Underhill, On Mysticism




This list is not to be taken as exhaustive or exclusive but rather representational of the range and caliber of the books from which Dr. Garrison will choose. As it is possible, Dr. Garrison will invite specialists to join him who have a particular expertise in the selected book.

Course Requirements

Each year six books will be discussed, one every two months: February, April, June, August, October, and December. Students signing up for the course will be required to read each one of the books and prepare a five to seven page post paper on each book.

Course Objectives

  • examine the question of what makes a great book
  • recover a sense of the importance of distilled wisdom
  • read and digest the first six books, ranging from Plato to T.S. Eliot
  • relate these books to your academic concentrations
  • steep yourselves in the wisdom of these masters
  • build your own wisdom foundation as you translate the books into a way of life


Teleseries: every other month, starting February 5

Dates: Feb 5, April 2, June 4, August 6, October 1, December 3 (with additional free intro call on January 29.)

Time: noon PST

Faculty: Jim Garrison, Ph.D., with other guest specialists

Credit: 2 credits
Fulfills the Core Course Requirement for Mystics/The Mystical Traditions


Faculty Bios

Jim Garrison received his BA, magna cum laude, in World History from the University of Santa Clara in 1973; his MTS from Harvard Divinity School in Christology and the History of World Religions in 1975; and his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in Philosophical Theology in 1982. His doctoral dissertation was on the theme “Hiroshima, Apocalyptic and the Antinomial Nature of God.”

Garrison has developed this theme in all his published writings beginning with his first book in 1980, called The Plutonium Culture (SCM). This was followed by The Darkness of God: Theology After Hiroshima (SCM/1982); The Russian Threat: Myths and Realities (Gateway Books/1983); The New Diplomats (Resurgence Press/1984); Civilization and the Transformation of Power (Paraview Press/2000); and America As Empire (Barrett Koehler/2004).

Garrison became president of Wisdom University in 2005. Before coming to the university, Garrison served as president of the State of the World Forum, which he founded in 1995 in partnership with President Mikhail Gorbachev and Senator Alan Cranston. He founded the Radiation and Health Information Service in 1978; co-founded the Christic Institute in 1980; was Executive Director of the Esalen Institute Soviet-American Exchange Program from 1985–1990; and founded the International Foreign Policy Institute in partnership with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretary George Shultz in 1991. Garrison founded the Gorbachev Foundation/USA in 1992 with Mr. Gorbachev as founding chairman.

Great Books Introduction

In this lecture, Dr. Garrison explores what makes a great book great. Great books endure over time, speak to noble and lofty themes, and change lives. Great books are arguably among the most powerful movers of the human heart and human history, which is why it is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Books such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Analects have shaped entire civilizations. Others, such as Black Elk Speaks, have given voice to civilizations on the brink of extinction. Great books are like rare jewels. They may be hard to recognize, encrusted with traditions, but once found and read, they emerge as stars to illuminate the soul.

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