Friday, February 13, 2004

Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800BC-1950 (Harper Collins, 2003) is an audacious project. The critics that I have read focused on methodological issues (which the author addresses in many of his appendices) and the predictable political ones (which he also addresses). Human accomplishment as surveyed by Murray is, of course, breathtaking. The giants identified in 21 areas (arts and sciences, east and west) and their works are astonishing. As the author suggests: "how can people do that?" There are giants among us.

One has to ask: are these giants of the arts and sciences also the moral giants? Probably not. It is reminiscent of questions over whether culture matters, or whether high culture matters. Twentieth-century Europe offers an answer; the hotbed of Western culture spawned horror and terror on an unprecedented scale. This is the continent that gave us Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Milosovics and many of their ilk -- plus millions of willing and enthusiastic followers. Clearly culture must be enjoyed for its own sake.

Adam Smith clarified the benefits of the market system as well as the "esteem system" (Dan Klein's appellation). The latter refers to the importance of trust in producing valuable market as well as non-market interactions. Both breed prosperity and liberty and more -- and are likely to keep spreading. These,then, are some of the sources of human goodness that we can identify. High culture, on the other hand, appears not to be a bulwark against evil. It is simply there to be savored.