Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
A panoramic survey of human excellence.
"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 rarely have 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, humbling, and fascinating, Human Accomplishment is a brilliant 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.
point A to point B and then assemble them into structures. Up to a certain weight of rock, these constructions do not require a high level of engineering sophistication. Abundant manpower plus some basic knowledge of ropes and levers suffice. But how does one use manpower to maneuver and assemble much heavier blocks? Egyptian structures pose some interesting problems in this regard, but at least with Egypt we are dealing with a society known to possess sophisticated technology. The walls at
the core of the Confucian ethic was the quality called ren, the 42 • H U M A N AC C O M P L I S H M E N T supreme virtue in man—a quality that combines elements of goodness, benevolence, and love. This ethic was most essential for those with the most power: “He who is magnanimous wins the multitude,” Confucius taught. “He who is diligent attains his objective, and he who is kind can get service from the people.”45 Indeed, to be a gentleman—another key concept in Confucian thought — required
religion, politics, and the arts. My first objection to this stance is that being nonjudgmental is internally contradictory and an impossibility. Return to the extreme cases: If you refuse to accept that there are any objective differences, expressible as continua from negative to positive, between the nude painted on black velvet and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, between a Harlequin romance and Pride and Prej- 72 • H U M A N AC C O M P L I S H M E N T udice, between How Much Is That Doggy in
publication of Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius, an early document in the field that would become known as historiometry.21 Galton was the first to hypothesize, and then support with data, that reputation is a useful measure of a person’s importance. “By reputation,” he wrote, “I mean the opinion of contemporaries revised by posterity—the favorable result of a critical analysis of each man’s character, by many biographers.”22 He obtained his classifications by examining a biographical
inventory, but index scores are computed only for authors who flourished before the end of 18C, for the same reasons described for the Chinese art inventory. Li Bo 87 140 • H U M A N AC C O M P L I S H M E N T INDIAN LITERATURE Significant figures: 43 Kalidasa 100 Index reliability: .91 The Indian literature inventory is overwhelmingly domiValmiki 72 nated by just three figures: Kalidasa, the great poet and Asvaghosa 30 dramatist, and Valmiki and Bhartrhari 27 Vyasa, the putative