Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950

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9780060192471: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950

A sweeping cultural survey reminiscent of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.

"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things. Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them.'

So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that have rarely been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences—a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence.

The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: on the giants in the arts and what sets them apart from the merely great; on the differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences; on the meta-inventions, 14 crucial leaps in human capacity to create great art and science; and on the patterns and trajectories of accomplishment across time and geography.

Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions. Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? Among men? Since 1400? He presents evidence that the rate of great accomplishment has been declining in the last century, asks what it means, and offers a rich framework for thinking about the conditions under which the human spirit has expressed itself most gloriously. Eye-opening and humbling, Human Accomplishment is a fascinating work that describes what humans at their best can achieve, provides tools for exploring its wellsprings, and celebrates the continuing common quest of humans everywhere to discover truths, create beauty, and apprehend the good.

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About the Author:

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of seven other books, including Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, with Richard J. Herrnstein.

From The Washington Post:

Consider this claim: that the greatest human accomplishments require mastery of rigorous constraints first achieved almost exclusively by white Western European males. One might guess that it would be Charles Murray making such an argument. In his latest book, Human Accomplishment, Murray steps back up to the plate after Losing Ground and The Bell Curve with a thesis sure to irritate most of America's thinking class.

Yet the book is, more often than not, brilliant. In lucid prose, Murray methodically addresses and refutes most of the predictable counterarguments to his thesis. Taking local biases into account, he assesses various regions' contributions to human accomplishment by tabulating how many figures from a specific part of the world are cited in 50 percent or more of standard encyclopedic compendia, including Islamic and Far Eastern sources.

Murray begins his survey at 800 B.C., arguing that innovation before then had been more species-wide than individual, and had tended largely to evanesce rather than become established, other than in China. Summarizing the work of Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs and Steel fame), he shows that serious innovation requires advanced civilizations of the sort that geography helped bring about earlier in the Middle East and elsewhere than, for example, in Africa. Murray argues that, with the leisure and specialization that agricultural surpluses allowed, China and the Islamic world gave the West a run for its money at first but that ultimately an efflorescence in a few Western European countries after 1400 turned the world upside down. Linear perspective, polyphonic music, the novel, mathematical proof and the scientific method are largely the product of the Dead White Males whom we are taught to assume have been celebrated at the expense of subalterns written out of the history books.

This is no survey of the lives and works themselves à la Jacques Barzun's masterful From Dawn to Decadence; Murray spends more than half of the book justifying his epistemology. But that he must do this is a sign of our times, when reflexive relativism exerts such a hold on so many and qualifies as responsible scholarship. While I find it sobering that none of his milestones springs from Togo or New Guinea, I also share Murray's lack of enthusiasm for the critics who respond to such omissions by questioning the very value of Western technology; he is correct in his skeptical view of those who would make that disparagement while talking on their cell phones on the way to the airport. Nevertheless, he has to craft his argumentation to the terms of present-day cultural debate, and this makes the book something of a trudge. Hundreds of pages of throat-clearing lead to final chapters adopting the Weberian argument that Protestantism encourages individuality and a sense of purpose in secular life, qualities that spur innovation. That point is, after all, hardly new.

Nor, however, is it chauvinistic, as opposed to simply a product of historical contingency. As Murray has it, "highly familistic, consensual cultures have been the norm throughout history and the world. Modern Europe has been the oddball." Where he does display bias is in his 1950 cutoff. Ostensibly stopping here because expert consensus has yet to jell, Murray elsewhere pronounces that "it is hard to imagine that the last half-century will be seen as producing an abundance of timeless work." Murray believes that the 20th century witnessed a decline in artistic accomplishment, as artists and intellectuals rejected religious conviction and Western norms. But will two centuries of sifting really leave "La Dolce Vita," "Raging Bull," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Sweeney Todd," Mama Day and Herzog on the same scrapheap as the works of Thackeray? There is more awesome craft and inspiration in such works than Murray, with his classical leanings, appears willing to seek.

He also has an idealistic sense of how most human beings process accomplishment. Murray makes the surprising assumption that humans are universally awed by complexity, so that the fashion must eventually swing back to all thinking people's readily acknowledging that the Venus de Milo exceeds in sophistication the carving of an indigenous tribesman. When he charges that to equate "How Much is That Doggy in the Window?" with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is to make "a sweeping judgment of the capacity of the human mind to assess information," he considers it a deft point, supposedly revealing a stark qualitative distinction that few would contest.

But for more than a few readers, the distinction Murray draws between sentimental response and critical assessment will be not only counterintuitive but offputting. Few people have trouble with the extremes -- one can like hot dogs without considering them the equal of high Thai cuisine. But many intelligent people today do not spontaneously revere Renee Fleming over Aretha Franklin even though Fleming's art is more complex and based on more training, or regard Bach's achievement as greater than Radiohead's. "Funk" and "attitude" reign as pillars of artistic evaluation, and for more people than Murray seems to be aware of, just why we put "Stairway to Heaven" in quotes and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in italics wound not, I suspect, be readily clear.

The reason for this has less to do with lapsed faith in higher ideals than in how more complex artistic forms, such as the novel and classical music, are products of technological developments such as writing, which allow art forms much longer, more intricate and memory-unfriendly than those humans have evolved to appreciate intuitively. All humans have music, for example, but indigenous peoples need no music-appreciation training to embrace their unwritten songs and dance accompaniments. Beethoven's Seventh, with its several instruments sustaining precise melodies and harmonies through complex developments over 30-plus minutes and not based on cyclic repetition or easy remembering, could not exist without writing, and many require tutelage to appreciate it.

Time was that familiarity with classical music was tied to education and middle-class membership, but the hold it exerted was always fragile. Today, recording technology combines with the multiculturalist imperative to allow constant access to forms that are more immediately appealing. Unsurprisingly, both creators and listeners now hearken more to those forms. Murray attempts to cut through relativism by designating worthiest those accomplishments that elicit the response "How could a human being have done that?" But more than a few today are sincerely moved to ask that question of Sting's latest album.

Murray's cultural predilections leave him unable to address that frame of mind conclusively. And thus, for all of its cogency, Human Accomplishment will never reach readers who recoil at any claim that "The Marriage of Figaro" occupies a higher plane than The Who's "Tommy."

Reviewed by John McWhorter


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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