Of Human Accomplishment

The New Criterion, February, 2004

Denis Dutton


Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950, by Charles Murray; HarperCollins, 668 pages, $29.95.

Readers familiar with Charles Murray’s work (Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life) know that he is not a man to shy away from controversy or bold opinions. In Human Accomplishment, Murray’s aim is nothing less than to determine the geographic and chronological distribution of creative genius in science and the arts across the whole of the world during twenty-eight centuries, from 800 BC through 1950. It’s a tall order. Murray assembles histories, surveys, and encyclopedias of the arts and sciences, 163 of them, and records their treatment of significant figures. Using an initial cut-off that leaves only individuals who are mentioned in at least 50 percent of his sources, he comes up with a list of 4002 writers, philosophers, mathematicians, musicians, poets, astronomers, painters, physicists, biologists, and innovators in technology. These are then rated in a system devised and refined in order to provide an objective assessment of high achievement across cultures and over the ages.

The leading names are predictable: Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin in the sciences, Beethoven and Bach in music, Shakespeare and Schiller in literature, Michelangelo in painting, Euler in mathematics, and so forth. Murray is at pains to eliminate Eurocentrism in his analysis: there is separate coverage of Chinese and of Indian philosophy to match Western philosophy, Chinese painting, Japanese art, Japanese literature, Arabic literature, and Chinese literature. These include, at a level he views as comparable to Aristotle and Mozart, such names as Gu Kaizhi, Basho, al-Mutanabbi, and Kalidasa. Murray’s goal is not, however, merely to make a list of 4002 all-time greats. He wants to build up a general view of the historical conditions that allow for the flourishing of artistic and scientific innovation and discovery.

One of Murray’s favorite ideas is contained in a quip he credits to his late colleague Richard J. Herrnstein: “It is easy to lie with statistics, but it’s a lot easier to lie without them.” It’s a notion worth remembering in light of the sour reactions to his book from critics who don’t like the idea of quantifying greatness. In The New York Post, Sam Munson wrote that “there is something disturbingly petty about creating indexes, tables, and rates of human accomplishment.” Murray’s “page-counting,” Judith Shulevitz sniffed in The New York Times, seems the kind of thing that normally “would interest only those who find that sort of thing interesting,” were it not for the fact that his conclusions seem as “fantastical” as something out of Borges. Along with other critics, Shulevitz tends to find the book typical of old-time social science: when it’s right, it’s bleeding obvious; when it’s not obvious, it’s wrong.

Charles Murray
Granted that in some respects Murray’s statistics drive him to conclusions not all that different from those of purely qualitative historians of genius and culture, such as Jacques Barzun and Harold Bloom. And when he does resort to humanistic sermons extolling great men and their masterworks, they come accompanied by tables and statistics lessons that many readers will find too tedious and wearying to study. This is a shame, for they will miss the heart of an impressively well-argued account of magnificent achievements of human history. For all his statistics, Murray does not promise or deliver certainty on the conditions for human accomplishment. Rather, he supplies data on which informed opinions, by him or by his critics, might be based.

Murray’s method for identifying eminence by reputation follows a form set by Francis Galton’s 1869 Hereditary Genius, which also used biographical literature quantitatively, as a platform for research. But the spirit of Murray’s endeavor stretches back farther, to David Hume. In his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), Hume formulated the problem of evaluating artistic achievement. There is “a species of opinion,” Hume observed, which holds that taste is subjective, beauty in the eye of the beholder, and that there can be no point in searching for standards in the arts. Many people find this an easy opinion to adopt, Hume writes, until someone forces it to its conclusion, declaring (say) that John Ogilby is as great a poet as John Milton. “The principle of the natural equality of tastes,” Hume remarks, “is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions, where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.”

Hume recognized works of art that pass what he called the Test of Time, works with the capacity to engage deep, permanent features of the human personality and are thus to be appreciated over the ages. (So the same Homer who pleased “at Athens and at Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London.”) This shows, for Hume as for Murray, that objective achievements in the arts are demonstrable — and if they can be historically established for the arts, then they are even more clearly identifiable for the sciences. These two spheres of human endeavor represent two kinds of potential objectivity: there is as little chance of the human race giving up Homer or the Beethoven symphonies as there is that it will give up the notion that the earth is a sphere. Over time, achievement in the arts and the sciences is seen as not merely an invention of scholarship, a product of fickle fashion, or a general social construction. It is an objective fact about the real world.

Nevertheless, Murray does not glibly assume the reality of lasting values: he argues for them, scrappily, provocatively, with energy and conviction. In his introduction, he quotes St. Augustine in City of God, sounding, as Murray remarks, like a Victorian triumphalist: “What varieties has man found out in buildings, attires, husbandry, navigation, sculpture, and painting! … What million of invention has he [in] arms, engines, stratagems, and the like! … How large is the capacity of man!” The idea of progress, the notion that each generation builds a better world — by its own invention and discovery, standing on the shoulders of its forebears — is old indeed. It was prevalent for the last 600 years and has only recently fallen out of fashion among postmodernist intellectuals.

Intellectuals who dismiss progress — or who find attractive the idea of the Noble Savage, a person uncorrupted by civilization who lives a more deeply creative or authentic life than we can understand — have Murray’s contempt. Nor has he patience with people who complain about technology and economic growth over their cellphones on the way to the airport. A little question does the trick for him on the issue of whether there is progress in science and technology: “Would you be willing to live your life at any time before the invention of antibiotics?”

Murray is more patient with circumspect objections to his argument. Throughout the book, he anticipates plausible objections to show how they can be addressed. For instance, he notes that his index scores for literature suffer from problems of chauvinism: there is a tendency for encyclopedia editors to give too much attention to their own national literatures. Murray overcomes this problem by eliminating from his figures coverage by encyclopedias of the national literatures of the encyclopedist. Shakespeare is at the top of the literary heap only because non-English sources placed him there. Goethe comes in second after eliminating all German sources. Again, a cleverly Humean strategy to counter local bias: “Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator,” Hume said, “but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours.”

Some readers will nonetheless not feel entirely happy with Murray’s derived rankings, which can be odd despite his efforts to correct anomalies. His approach puts Michelangelo at the top of the list for Western art — but Picasso, mirabile dictu, comes in at number two, above Raphael, Leonardo, Titian, Dürer, and Rembrandt. Even Picasso’s most generous admirers would have to see this as an artifact of a reliance of encyclopedias written during Picasso’s age. Murray attributes this absurdly high placement not only to Picasso’s art, but also to his “seminal role in several phases of the break with classicism” that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The anomalous ranking of Picasso highlights a potential source of error that Murray does not adequately acknowledge. Dictionaries of biography and encyclopedias tend to feature entries written by historians of art or science. The academic mindset of such scholars concentrates on historical importance in the arts, but it is also prone to confuse historical importance with aesthetic achievement. This problem shows itself clearly in Murray’s inventory of accomplishment in Western music: Arnold Schoenberg stands above Brahms, Chopin, and Verdi. For good or ill, Schoenberg has affected the course of music just as Picasso has the history of painting, but to place his achievement above Brahms’s makes as much sense as to place Picasso’s above Rembrandt’s. Schoenberg’s nearly exact contemporary Rachmaninoff had no effect whatsoever on music history in the twentieth century; my guess is that his music will be performed much more frequently in the future than Schoenberg’s. So which composer’s “accomplishment” is the greater? Murray’s methodology gives one answer, history will probably supply another.

Nevertheless, readers who tune out of Murray’s analysis because of occasional weirdnesses and anomalies will miss much that is worthwhile. He shows that central Europe for a few hundred years has been the main scene of progress and innovation in the arts and sciences. Whatever their earlier or later contributions, China and India are outliers in the sciences, while the United States’s contributions to both the arts and the sciences is comparatively slight. There are women in the inventories — Sappho, Hypatia, Lady Murasaki, Jane Austen, Madame Curie, and others — but Dead White Males, as Murray likes to call them, do most of the heavy lifting in his specified fields of intellectual accomplishment. (Why? Murray considers the usual roster of arguments — child-bearing, lack of female access to the professions, possible innate biological differences between the sexes.)

There is much for later readers and researchers to ponder in Murray’s data. One arresting aspect of the book is the inclusion of European maps showing achievement in geographical distribution. The big four contributors to progress are Britain, France, Germany, and Italy; together they vastly exceed the combined contributions of all other European countries. Taken together, Murray’s dotted and shaded European maps for science, art, music, and literatures are wonderful to study. The music map 1800– 1950, for example, shows shadings in northern Italy and France, but is dominated by dots and a huge dark glob extending through the German-speaking parts of Europe. The science maps are more uniform, but dark areas in France and especially Britain counterbalance a densely speckled Germany. In the art map and the early science map, Italy makes all other countries literally pale by comparison. There is much to contemplate in these maps, not least of which is the historically variable borders of the land we would today call Germany: the Germans have spread enormous intellectual influence all over Europe at various times, and in the last two centuries significantly into the United States.

With his facts, graphs, and tables as support, Murray tackles the question of the general decline in the arts and sciences. The fall off in the accomplishment rate (significant figures per unit of population) is severe, especially since around 1800. And yet conditions that promote creativity — wealth, cities and their cultural endowments, communication, and political freedom — have not declined but improved in recent centuries. How is this possible? What does ignite the blaze of human creativity and achievement? Why does it die out?

The fundamental principle of human achievement is expressed by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics and accepted by philosophers since, and more recently even by psychologists: that human beings derive pleasure from the just exercise of their skills and capacities. From crossword puzzles and rock climbing to painting, composing music, playing a musical instrument, or solving equations, Murray says, “The pursuit of excellence is as natural as the pursuit of happiness.” For the creative geniuses who are the subject of his book, I prefer to say that achieved excellence simply is happiness.

There are, according to Murray, four conditions for the highest realization of this innate impulse toward excellence. The sources of energy for accomplishment are a sense of (1) purpose and (2) personal autonomy. The sources for what he calls the content of accomplishment are (3) organizing structure and (4) transcendental goods. Here Murray moves, by his own admission, into an area beyond statistical demonstration; his data are relevant, and he thinks supportive, of these conclusions, but they are not decisive.

Purpose. Accomplishment “is fostered in a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.” Murray calls people who doubt or deny that life has a purpose “nihilists.” Since accomplishment at the level Murray specifies requires enormous levels of work, nihilists are at a disadvantage. They lack a sense of vocation, either in the form of an idea that God has called them to a life of scientific or artistic endeavor, or, if they are not religious, in having a sense that they were put on earth to accomplish great things.

Autonomy. A culture that “encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals” will be best in encouraging human accomplishment. Freedom for the individual and tolerance of nonconformity are positive contributors to a climate of achievement. It is not only formal political control (e.g., dictatorship) that will discourage initiative, but strictures found in familism (which presumably helps explain relatively lower levels of scientific and technical accomplishment in cultures of east Asia and the relative lack of innovation in Asian art). A culture that fosters individualism stands a higher chance of producing significant creative individuals in art and science.

Organizing structure. “The magnitude and content of a stream of accomplishment in a given domain varies according to the richness and age of the organizing structure.” In the sciences, “the structure from the Renaissance onward has been an evolving scientific method.” In the arts, structures present themselves differently: sonata form, haiku, Pointillism, the novel, and the motion picture are all organizing structures. All can be richly elaborated. Some structures are checkers-like in allowing a limited range of elaboration; others are more chess-like in their vast potential. Historical bursts of creative activity are initiated by theories, styles, and techniques (including the development of instruments, such as the spectroscope in physics or the grand piano in music) that open rich research or aesthetic possibilities. The age of an organizing structure is important: they are born, can have a vigorous youth, and then enter senescence, losing their potential to yield insights.

Transcendental goods. Accomplishment requires “a well-articulated vision of, and use of, the transcendental good relevant to that domain.” These values are the true, the good, and the beautiful — the first central to science, the last to art, and the second to both science and art. Without a coherent sense of these values to underpin them, science and art may rise to “the highest rungs of craft,” but they will not achieve exalted heights. A culture without a sense that science can reveal truth will never develop a stream of scientific accomplishment; a culture without a sense that beauty is real will never enjoy a great epoch of art, literature, or music: such artistic cultures are likely, as Murray puts it, to be “arid and ephemeral.”

Of these four conditions, Murray places the most weight on the last. Taking into statistical account (1) the tendency of everyone to overrate more recent accomplishments, and (2) the worldwide rise in skilled, educated populations that might produce great scientists and artists, Murray finds it inescapable that accomplishment has been slumping since around the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this respect, anyway, he resembles such gloomy cultural observ- ers as Nietzsche, Spengler, and Toynbee. Though he does not accept their versions of laws of history, he does present us with one last grand generalization. This idea is so important to him that it preoccupies him up to the last page of the book’s main text (before the nearly 200 pages of tables, appendices, and notes). “Human beings,” he claims, “have been most magnificently productive and reached their highest cultural peaks in the times and places where humans have thought most deeply about their place in the universe and been most convinced they have one.” This for Murray helps explain the preponderance of achievement in the arts and sciences in Europe during the centuries when Christianity was regnant.

Truth, regarded as a goal guiding inquiry, may be considered a transcendental value for science. Art faces a different challenge. An ironic, detached culture in which artists have lost faith in ultimate values is not likely to rival the greatness of the past. In terms of freedom, wealth, creature comforts, and health, Murray says, we may be doing better than our forebears, but that does not mean that our artists will achieve more than “shiny, craftsmanlike entertainments.” He quotes Gibbon’s observation that even at the apex of their empire, the Romans, who looked back at the achievements of old Greece much as we do of old Europe, were “a race of pygmies.”

Religion, Murray argues, “is indispensable for igniting great accomplishment in the arts.” Religious believers and philosophers of a traditionally idealist stamp may find comfort in this, especially since it comes from an avowed agnostic such as Murray. I am personally not convinced. In particular, it seems to me that Murray seriously underestimates the role of organizing structures in creating conditions for high achievement.

Murray is right to stress the importance of meaning it — of commitment in the arts. He tells of the stonemasons who sculpted gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals. They worked with passionate devotion, even when their handiwork would be invisible from the ground: God would see it. I discovered a similar aesthetic psychology in my own fieldwork in New Guinea, where serious artists view a carving created for a dead ancestor differently from one knocked off for tourists. Much of our own art and entertainment is shallow and flashy, made neither for God nor ancestors, but for a market.

But, accepting this does not mean that transcendental values form a principle necessary to explain high achievement in the arts. Consider the history of music. Murray makes it clear that the invention of polyphony led to more complex structures that, along with improved instrumentation, continued through the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth. The Himalayan heights of music were reached 150 years later, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. If there is progress in this period, it is the progress of artists who responded to the problems and potentialities inherent in musical tonality. New instruments, developing popular audiences, a sense of formal experimentation, and above all the maturing of tonality were the driving forces for the great flowering of music through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was, in other words, the birth, flourishing, and exhaustion of organizing structures, not transcendental values, that provided the most important motor for music development.

Murray argues that the greatest artists have “a vision of perfection” stirring them to greater achievements. This is true for some artists. But it slights the role of solving formal artistic problems — an important motive force even in so spiritually committed an artist as Bach. Think of Impressionism in painting; think of the rise of the novel from Cervantes and Richardson to Jane Austen. And there is nothing, by the way, nihilistic in the artistry of Jane Austen.

“Realized capacities are pleasing not only when they are exercised,” Murray observes, “but also when they are seen to be realized.” Right he is. We take pleasure in watching an athlete break a record, hearing a soprano in full flight, or reading a philosopher of depth and insight. Human accomplishment is the ultimate spectator sport. Apply as much historical analysis to it as we wish, and we’ll not unlock all its mysteries. The continuous capacity of genius to surpass understanding remains a human constant.

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