Human Accomplishment
AEI Newsletter

Bradley Fellow Charles Murray delivered the seventh of AEI’s 1997-1998 Bradley Lectures on March 9, 1998. Edited excerpts follow.

Last summer I completed the prospectus for a book with the working title An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Human Accomplishment. Here are some of the topics I plan to cover. (In none of these cases am I proposing to deal with the topic de novo.)

  • The different shapes of human accomplishments--the differences between accomplishment in the arts, which seems to move in waves, and accomplishment in philosophy and religion, which seems to occur in spikes, and accomplishment in science and technology, which seems to be cumulative.
  • The raw materials for accomplishment. What did Michelangelo have that we don’t? What did Jane Austen have? What did Gauss have? Sheer intelligence is important. But what have the students of genius learned about the other raw materials?
  • The triggers of accomplishment. The raw materials explain only part of what makes some people accomplish great things. What separates a Michelangelo from dozens of other painters and sculptors throughout history who surely must have possessed comparable visuospatial and technical skills?
  • Accomplishment and gender. There are all sorts of interesting questions to explore with regard to accomplishment and gender--ones involving arenas, places, and times in which women are unusually well represented, as well as ones in which they are underrepresented.
  • The curious relationship between political and economic vitality and human accomplishment. Human accomplishment seems to flourish in countries that are doing well as political entities. Why?

The Idea of Progress

To celebrate human accomplishment is to embrace the Idea of Progress--you should visualize that phrase in capital letters. I am joining with the view expressed once in these words:

What varieties has man found out in buildings, attires, husbandry, navigation, sculpture, and painting! What millions of inventions has he [in] arms, engines, stratagems, and the like! What thousands of medi-cines for the health, of eloquent phrases to delight, of verses for pleasure, of musical inventions and instruments! How large is the capacity of man, if we should dwell upon particulars! (Augustine, City of God)

Robert Nisbet, one of the century’s foremost conservative intellectuals, wrote a book called History of the Idea of Progress in which he supported five “crucial premises” of the idea of progress. To write Human Accomplishment honestly requires that one accept those five premises. I say “requires” because there is no way to write the book that does not implicitly support them. Let me take each of these premises seriatim.

Belief in the value of the past. The accumulated wisdom of mankind speaks to us today, whether it is in classic texts or in institutions and traditions that embody wisdom that we cannot recover if we try to reinvent ourselves or our institutions.

  • Nisbet’s second premise refers to one’s conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization. It should be possible for me to develop a clear statement of the criteria by which the West may be said to dominate human accomplishment and the criteria by which it does not.
  • Nisbet’s third “crucial premise” is acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth. Can you think of any earlier moment in history in which you would prefer to live your life? For someone like me, the America of the founding era seems attractive until I start to think about it. Forget the big stuff like life span--what about just dentistry, or plumbing?
  • Nisbet’s fourth crucial premise refers to faith in reason and in the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone. It has never been more obvious than it is in our time that technological growth is underwritten by ruthlessly severe logic. A good computer program is a monument to Aristotelian logic, a tower of “if-thens.” If just one of them is wrong, that flaw disrupts the whole program.
  • The last of Nisbet’s five premises is belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth, of life on this earth. That insight has been shared broadly among those who have surveyed the course of mankind’s slow, wending way.

For the Eye of God

Years ago, I came across a bit of history that captured my imagination. It seems that when the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe were built, some of the gargoyles and other ornaments were carved high on the cathedral walls and behind cornices in places that could not be seen from the ground. It was said of the stonemasons who made those hidden gargoyles that they carved for the eye of God. The story of human accomplishment is a magnificent story, a story of mankind carving for the eye of God.

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