Dead White European Males are objectively best, according to Charles Murrayby David Herman / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: Human Accomplishment Author: Charles Murray Price: HarperCollins, ?16.35
There is something wrong with Charles Murray’s huge book on the history of human intellectual achievement. It is not its ambition, which is admirable, nor the writing, which is mostly clear and lucid. It is not even the book’s arguments, which although predictable are at times stimulating. But there is, running right through this book, a set of misconceptions about art and criticism which render the whole project almost completely worthless.
The book is actually two books in one. It starts out with a thoroughly readable history of human civilisation from 800BC to 1950 ending in an interesting evocation of three cities: 2nd-century Rome, medieval Hangzhou and Georgian London. It is not quite clear what these opening 50 pages have to do with the rest of the book, but it is marvellous storytelling, full of vivid detail.
After this enjoyable false start, we get to the real centre of Human Accomplishment, which comprises the great figures and breakthroughs in the arts and sciences of the past 2,000 years. This can be separated out into two main propositions. First, the story of human achievement is essentially about a small number of geniuses – mostly western men from northwest Europe. Second, their achievements – whether King Lear or Newtonian physics – are a matter of fact, not opinion: “It is possible to distinguish the important from the trivial, the fine from the coarse, the credible from the meretricious, and the elegant from the vulgar.” In short, says Murray, “a realm of objective knowledge about excellence exists.”
There are a number of other subsidiary arguments. Murray tries to demonstrate why certain civilisations rise and fall, what factors create the conditions for human genius and whether human achievement is still on the march or whether we’re living through a period of decline. Throughout the book, but concentrated in over 160 pages of notes and appendices at the back, there are pages of detailed statistical analysis that “prove” Murray’s assertions about the nature of human achievement. It is a book of enormous ambition and serious intent.
Context, Murray argues, is all. Geniuses don’t just appear from nowhere. A culture that values autonomy and purpose, and what he calls “transcendental goods,” produces more great figures than one that doesn’t. Peace is relatively unimportant. Here Murray sides with Harry Lime: it’s Renaissance Italy with its civil wars…