The Best and the Brightest--- Human Accomplishment in the Arts and Sciences by Charles Murray

Sy Schechtman


From time to time Charles Murray presents us with a book that upsets or stimulates conventional wisdom to recoil or react. He did this about 20 years ago with Losing Ground, an attack on the existing welfare system, then less then 10 years ago with the Bell Curve, inferring that black intelligence testing scores showed them having lower IQ’s. And now with Human Accomplishment he is reluctantly(?) stating that dead white European males are foremost by far in the ranking of most indexes of achievement in both the world and the West. Since his lists of the differing fields of endeavor ranked end in 1950, he does leave room for more gender and race involvement as time goes by. And while he is appreciative of accelerating female achievement with the continuing liberating effects of the feminist doctrine, and of course freedom from most of the bounds of motherhood, so far they have not altered to any degree the lists he has compiled.

But the lists themselves offer quite a bit of informative material in many aspects of our intellectual, artistic and scientific spheres. Indeed, one might say, without too much hyperbole, all the names delineated testify to an inspiring manifestation of the human spirit throughout the ages. That one may disagree with how these names were elaborated may be the subject for valid conjecture, and more of this a bit later, but the scope of the Murray’s project, and his impressive scholarship in this new field of " historiometry" make up thoughtful and even exciting reading as one discovers favorite names either downgraded, upheld, or even placed exactly right as both the reader’s and Murray’s more scientific placements agree completely. The lists are Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Medicine, Technology, and then Combined Sciences, a lumping together of all the various sciences on a relative basis. Then we have Western Philosophy, Western Music, Western Art, Chinese Painting and Japanese Art--whose names sadly are mostly mystery to me—and several other categories also very much a disturbing mystery in my growing awareness of ever larger gaps of worldly knowledge in what I had previously thought to be a well rounded, sophisticated understanding of the world-- past and present!. To wit Arabic Literature, Chinese Literature, Indian Literature, and Japanese Literature. And the then of all the Significant Events in most of the so called "hard" sciences listed, also, in chronological order from 1500 to the 1950 cutoff, with the ultra important events highlighted in bold print as we peruse this remarkable compendium.

How did Murray go about gathering all this great detail of I believe about 4100 names and then evaluating and ranking them? By consulting the acknowledged standard reference works in the fields in question and statistically evaluating the frequency of the citations and length of each article regarding each person. Murray’s rule of thumb for qualifying—for making the grade as a "signifcant figure" –is mention in at least 50% of his sources. The top rank is set at 100, and in Western art Michelangelo is top scorer with 100, then Picasso 77, Raphael 73 Leonardo 61 titan 61 Durer 56 Rembrandt 56, Giotto 54, Bernini 53, Cezanne 50. (And for the less well ranked eminent painters buy the book or consult your library’s copy!)

Western literature is led by Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante, with no American in sight, not even Mark Twain, and Western music is, course, led by by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Brahms, often celebated as one of the famous "3 B’s" along with Bach and Beethoven, is down to number 10 in the Western music list, trailing Wagner, Haydn, Stravinsky, Debussy, Liszt, Schubert, and Berlioz. And Western philosophy is headed by Aristotle, Plato, and Kant, with Socrates number 12, Nietszche15th and even one modern Bertrand Russell, number 17lth.

In his summing up Charles Murray insists that Western civilization has produced the most impressive record of human accomplishment. He uses the basic profound insight of Aristotle as his main premise. "Other things being equal human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity." A sense of purpose animates western culture, in the believe that human talent and creativity have something that transcends somehow the corporate human body. And an atmosphere of general freedom and encouragement of individual effort beyond a collectivist or group ethic. This can give a sense of vocation, that of a mission to work very hard to realize this talent. And also a sense of the divine, what Murray calls the Transcendentalls, that it is not random that we possess this ability to search for the And incorporates a sense of the divine. Murray spends some time speculating on the "transcendentals"---the true, good and beautiful, which in Thomas Acquinas’s wisdom, were one and the same. And in western thought these became dynamics to impel humanity to reach up and outward, perhaps in the search for God or to understand and aid his fellow man or the universe around him.

Also, a small but significant aside is the Jewish contribution in all this, once Christianity, allowed them to participate in the common culture, starting roughly with the enlightenment, grudgingly, and gradually increasing. He lists the startling disproportion of Jews in the lists he has compiled, far exceeding percentage wise their small numerical size, and regrets the repressing Christian ethic that kept them for so long from being able to contribute to the mainstream ethos.

All in all, this is my kind of book.