One of the most intriguing books I have read in the past few year has been Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. In 600 plus pages, Murray sets out to determine which human beings have accomplished the greatest things. “What can homo sapiens brag about as a species?” he asks. Or, to put it another way, “What can human beings put on a résumé?”
Since, we are thinking job interview, Murray does not examine acts of compassion (nice, he says, but too personal for a résumé). Likewise, he does not consider efforts to create prosperous and free societies, which are akin to paying the rent and putting food on the table. Military accomplishments are out too, because, well, “putting ‘Defeated Hitler’ on the human résumé is too much like putting ‘Beat my drug habit’ on a personal one” (Introdcution, xv).
What is left are accomplishments in the arts and sciences. Through a complex system of research and statistical analysis, Murray determines the roster of significant figures in twenty-one different categories. Whatever one might think about his approach to ranking human accomplishment–one reviewer described the book as “comprehensively wrong-headed”–Murray’s results sound plausible. For example, Galileo and Kepler top the list for astronomy, Newton and Einstein in physics, Edison and Watt in technology, Confucius in Chinese philosophy, Sankara in Indian philosophy, Beethoven and Mozart in Western music, Michelangelo in Western art, Basho in Japanese literature, and Shakespeare in Western literature.
Genius and Christianity
Human Accomplishment is fascinating and controversial. Murray not only asks “Who has achieved the greatest feats in human history?” but “Why?” As we might guess, population, peace, and prosperity have a lot do with it. But, if Murray is correct, so does Christianity.
What makes this thesis all the more interesting is that Charles Murray–author and academic–is not a Christian. His older children were raised Buddhist by their mother, his younger children Quaker by their mother, while Murray himself (though Presbyterian in up-bringing) is a self-professed agnostic.
When a friend of his predicted a the outset of the project that he would find Christianity’s role in Western human accomplishment to be pivotal, Murray had his doubts. After five years of research and writing, however, he came to see the crucial role Christianity has played in giving humans a sense of purpose and autonomy.
Murray’s conclusions are worth quoting.
“At the opening of the 21C, religion is an especially fraught topic in American life, with predominantly religious middle and working class alongside creative elites that are not only overwhelmingly secular but often aggressively so. Introducing Christianity as an important causal variable into an account of human accomplishment will engender more misunderstanding that I can possibly forestall, but let me try anyway.
“With regard to purpose, my position does not require that the secular life be a life without purpose. Rather, I argue that it is harder to find that purpose if one is an atheist or agnostic than if one is a believer. It is harder still to maintain attention to that purpose over years of effort. Devotion to a human cause, whether social justice, the environment, the search for truth, or an abstract humanism, is by its nature less compelling than devotion to God. Here, Christianity has its most potent advantage. The incentives of forgiveness of sin and eternal life are just about as powerful as incentives get. The nonbeliever has to make do with comparably tepid alternatives.
“With regard to autonomy, I do not see Christianity as its only source. It is easily possible to believe in one’s efficacy as an autonomous actor by holding the secular Greek ideal of the human….Possible–but, as in the case of purpose, harder if one is not a believing Christian. For evidence, look around at today’s intellectual climate in both Europe and the United States. “Unique,” “free,” “rational,” “powers of observation,” “critical inquiry”–every one of those words and phrases is problematic in today’s postmodern intellectual milieu. It is much easier to use them with confidence if one is a Christian, or still clings to the Christian/humanistic synthesis of early modernity.
“Finally my position is not at odds with the obvious fact that great human accomplishment has been produced outside Christian cultures and, for that matter, in cultures where the creative elites are secular. I am treating Christian religious belief as one of the variables that help to explain how human accomplishment in the arts and sciences has been ignited. I am arguing that Christianity is an important variable, one of the most important in the story of modern accomplishment. I am not arguing that it explains everything–just as, for that matter, purpose and autonomy do not explain everything. But they do explain a lot (407-408).”
Maybe Christianity is not as mind-numbing and culture-degrading after all. Perhaps, with all its faults and abuses, Christianity over the past two thousand years has managed once in awhile to be salt and light in a fallen world.
Genius and Gender
In an attempt to leave no stone unturned, Murray is bold enough (or foolish enough) to consider why so few woman populate his rankings. Legal and educational inequalities throughout much of history provide part of the answer. So do societal pressures and limited opportunities. But Murray offers one more explanation: motherhood. His argument has an interesting twist to it.
“Exceptions exist, but, as a rule, the experience of pregnancy and birth appears to be a more profoundly life-altering experience for women than becoming a father is for men. So closely is giving birth linked to the fundamental human goal of giving meaning to one’s life that is had been argued that, ultimately, it is not so much that motherhood keeps women from doing great things outside the home as it is men’s inability to give birth that forces them to look for substitutes” (287, emphasis mine).”
Read that last line two or three times. It is a bold argument. Could it be that motherhood, instead of preventing women from achieving some great purpose, is actually the accomplishment of something great already? It is a thought worth pondering.
Cheer up guys, at least one of your child’s parent is a genius.