Last summer I completed the prospectus for a book with the working title, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Human Accomplishment, and showed it to Chris DeMuth. A few days later he called to say he liked it and would I give a Bradley lecture on it next spring?
It was a ridiculous request. I had just finished the prospectus. But of course Chris knew that, and also knew precisely what he was doing. The prospect of having to give a Bradley lecture in six months is not altogether unlike the prospect of being hanged. It concentrated my mind wonderfully. So Chris ensured that I did not spend the first six months doing what writers often do at the beginning of books, which is to sharpen pencils a lot.
Tonight I have two purposes. The first is to encourage you to regain, as I have, a sense of wonder and curiosity about us human animals and what we have accomplished on this earth over the last few thousand years. Wonder, because there is so much to wonder at, and curiosity, because it is not at all obvious how the thing has been done. I cannot yet tell you anything about the main conclusions of the book. That should go without saying. I have hypotheses, of course, but they are pedestrian, and it will be a great disappointment if I am not surprised in the course of the research.
But while I cannot tell you what the main themes of the book will be, it is oddly true that I can already tell you what the main themes of the reviews of the book will be. Even to want to celebrate human accomplishment runs headlong into the postmodern orthodoxy. I think it reveals much about our times to spell out why that extraordinary statement is true, and that is my second purpose this evening. In the course of that, I want to give you a preliminary sense of how vulnerable that orthodoxy has become by walling itself off from the empirical record.
Only ten thousand years ago—a flicker of an eyelash in geological perspective—humans were physiologically pretty much as we are now. We were shorter, largely a function of nutrition, and probably more of us were at the low end of the bell curve of IQ, also largely a function of nutrition. But it’s doubtful that much was different at the high end of the bell curve, on any measure of ability. Each of us in this room had our counterparts in that world—people every bit as smart, handsome, aesthetically alert, industrious, with senses of humor as witty or ribald. And yet they lived a daily life only marginally different from that of the animals they hunted. They had managed to build shelters for themselves, to use fire, to make a few kinds of tools. But they had done those things millennia earlier—let me repeat, millennia earlier. And nothing much had changed. Daily life still consisted of a struggle to avoid dying—not to avoid dying some years down the road, but to avoid dying that day or a few days hence. Ten thousand years later, look at the world around us. World-sub-now minus world-sub-then equals what I mean by human accomplishment.
Think of human accomplishment as the resumé of our species. Our personal resumés leave out a lot. They leave out how generous we have been, how kind, how reverent. They leave out the things we shouldn’t have had to do in the first place. "Stopped beating my spouse" does not get included on a personal resumé. And so it is with the resumé of our species. It does not record our spiritual progress. It does not include "Defeated Hitler," or much of any other kind of military accomplishment, for, sadly, military accomplishment is seldom something we can be proud of without also being ashamed of whatever led to it. Our human resumé does include things like the cathedral at Chartres, the Razumovsky Quartet, champagne, the water wheel, chopsticks, and the Declaration of Independence.
Human accomplishment consists of doing something new or better than others have done—an easy thing to say, not so easy actually to achieve. Let me try on you a thought that recently struck me. Almost everyone here has a wrist watch. Look at it for a moment if you would. Look, let’s say, at the casing. Perhaps focus on where the crystal joins with the case. Now, imagine someone has told you to go out and join two pieces of material together with that precision, finish, fit. Perhaps a few of you who have home workshops know from first-hand experience what must go into that kind of join, but most of us don’t have a clue. Now imagine someone says, that’s all right, take five years and study everything there is to know, and we’ll provide you with all the necessary machinery. Perhaps at that point we think we could do it. Perhaps. But then we are told: What this will do is get you to the step just before the level of fineness of fit that you see. You will have the advantage of access to everything known up to that level. Take it the next step.
We can always shrug off an example like this by saying that we aren’t mechanically inclined; that’s not what we’re good at, and so forth. We can say, well, that’s just an industrial process that people have figured out how to do. That’s right. That people have figured out how to do. The range and sophistication of the world around us, the ingenuity and the dogged persistence and flights of inspiration that have gone into the world we inhabit is, when we stop to think about it, stupefying. And mind you, I have made the point by using the casing of the watch as the example. Shall we talk about what’s going on inside that casing? It is bad enough to try to understand how anyone could have devised clockwork. But hardly a person in this room has a watch with clockwork. We have watches with vibrating quartz crystals. Anyone want to volunteer to explain to the rest of us how that’s done?
Now imagine that we can take the range of human accomplishment from the Cathedral at Chartres to the industrial process that lets crystal be joined to the casing of a watch and assemble a large sample of such events, so large that the things we have left out cannot change the picture. Imagine each of these discrete accomplishments as a line in a database. On the line we have what the accomplishment consists of, when it happened, and who did it and where. Then we add to that line a number of other variables about the context in which it occurred—the prevailing political system, level of wealth, population; the education, age, gender, parentage, of the person or people who were responsible for the accomplishment. Suppose then that we have assembled the many thousands of lines in our database and use them to survey the contours of human accomplishment over time and geography. Think of all the fascinating questions we could ask of such a database, and all the pathways it could take us down.
They are questions to be asked in conjunction with the qualitative record. One of the things that social science needs to learn to do better, in my opinion, is to use numbers and traditional qualitative analysis in tandem, switching from one to another in the same narrative, freely acknowledging when numbers are no longer useful—but also freely using numbers to illuminate issues that do not lend themselves to hard-and-fast proofs.
The task I’m taking on is not quite as impossible as it sounds, for I must not do it from scratch. Many excellent chronologies and historical atlases have been compiled for almost every field of human endeavor. The task is theoretically within reason, even if you can see why, six months into it, I am not in a position to report conclusions. I will add parenthetically that I am happy to discuss the methodological issues that are apparent in this approach. How does one reconcile the quantitative nature of the work with the qualitative judgments that must be imposed? How does one decide where to draw any number of lines involving what constitutes a "human accomplishment"? These are fascinating issues for people who are fascinated by social science methodology. This does not include everyone. Rather than launch into a discussion of methodology in the lecture itself, I will talk about these issues in the discussion period as much as anyone wishes to ask about them.
What will the book include? A lot. As I go through the list, let me reiterate that in none of these cases am I proposing to deal with these topics de novo. Each of the issues has been the subject of a large literature. I am repeating the goal of The Bell Curve, to make the specialists’ literature accessible to interested laymen. With that in mind, here are some of the topics.
The different shapes of human accomplishments—the differences between accomplishment in the arts, which seems to move in waves, and accomplishments in philosophy and religion, which seems to occur in spikes, and accomplishment in science and technology, which seems to be cumulative.
The raw materials for accomplishment. What did Michelangelo have that we don’t? What did Austen have? What did Gauss have? Just to list theses three names suggests how different the gifts must be. Sheer intelligence is important (psychometricians infer that Gauss must have had one of the highest IQs in history). But what have the students of genius learned about the other raw materials? What do we know about that elusive construct, "creativity"?
The triggers of accomplishment. The raw materials explain only part of what makes some people accomplish great things. What separates a Michelangelo from dozens of other painters and sculptors throughout history who surely must have possessed the same visuospatial and technical skills? Part of the answer is drive and motivation, surely. But what produces this kind of motivation? Are happy childhoods a plus or a minus? Better to be born to privilege or have to struggle up from the bottom? Better for your art to be starving in a garret or blessed with a rich patron? What is the role of a religious sensibility?
Accomplishment and gender. Well, why not? In Harold Bloom’s recent book, The Western Canon, he divides the literary canon into four eras. Here’s a curiosity from the third, "the democratic era," of the 19th century. 164 authors are represented. Of these, 14 are women. The curiosity is that 13 of those 14 are from England or the United States. There are all sorts of interesting questions to explore with regard to accomplishment and gender—ones involving arenas, places, and times, in which women are unusually well represented as well as ones in which they are underrepresented.
The curious relationship between political and economic vitality and human accomplishment. Human accomplishment seems to flourish in countries that are doing well as political entities. This is an empirical observation in search of an explanation. To see that the relationship exists, try to think of any era of great literature or art that has occurred in a place that was not also politically vital at that time. It can be done, but the exceptions only serve to make the general rule more provocative. Generally speaking, great things in the cultural and scientific realms are done in the midst of political and economic success. Why?
If you have doubts about what my attempt to answer these questions will look like, I hope you can at least agree with me that they are fascinating questions. The prospect of being able to spend the next several years dealing with them makes me realize how fortunate I am.
There is another side to all this, however, which brings me to the second topic for this evening’s discussion: The ways in which the book runs headlong into postmodernism. By that I refer to a constellation of views that political philosopher Allan Bloom attacked in Closing of the American Mind and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb attacked in On Looking into the Abyss, to mention just two of the best of many such critiques. They are the views that come to mind when one hears the words "multicultural," "gender," "deconstruct," "politically correct," "Dead White Males," and "Eurocentric." I use the term in perhaps a somewhat broader sense than the purely intellectual, encompassing as well the New Age paganism exemplified by the deification of the environment and the neo-Luddite aversion to technology. All of these aspects of postmodernism spill over in practice, though perhaps they can be distinguished in theory.
There are many specific ways in which celebrating human accomplishment is to the postmodernist like fingernails scraping across a blackboard, but most of them fit under one umbrella: To celebrate human accomplishment is to embrace the "Idea of Progress." I am joining with the view expressed once in these words:
What varieties has man found out in buildings, attires, husbandry, navigation, sculpture, and painting! . . . What millions of inventions has he [in] arms, engines, stratagems, and the like! What thousands of medicines for the health, . . . of eloquent phrases to delight, of verses for pleasure, of musical inventions and instruments! . . . How large is the capacity of man, if we should dwell upon particulars!
The writer is not some Victorian triumphalist talking about the glories of the Industrial Revolution. It is Augustine, writing in City of God in the early fifth century. The Idea of Progress—you should visualize that phrase in capital letters—has, in the West, been a linchpin of intellectual discourse for centuries. Do societies and technologies evolve toward some better future? Is mankind moving upward and onward? Does history have a direction?
For very long time indeed, thinkers in the West thought so. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, this broad conviction was given political expression in ideologies, with the ideologies of the American Revolution and Marxism being vivid examples. The apogee of the Idea of Progress was the century from Waterloo to World War I, with its spectacular economic growth, wave after wave of advance in every science and technology, and a diplomatic system that seemed to have done away with major wars. Then came the catastrophe of World War I, and contemporaneous intellectual developments ranging from Freudianism to relativity, all of which seemed to deny the rationality of man and confidence in a benevolent Providence. By the middle of the 20th century, to believe in man’s potential even for improvement, let alone perfectability, seemed naive. So did the concept of purpose and direction in human history. It was more common to think that mankind was about to plunge itself back into the Dark Ages than to think that we were wending our way ever upward.
Since mid-century, the objective reasons for pessimism have faded. The threat of nuclear war is hardly even a topic any more. It is clear that the world is not about to run out of energy or food. We still have atrocities, but they are in places like Bosnia and Rwanda instead of Germany and the Soviet Union, and, if we are to be cold-blooded about it, they are on a historically normal scale—even a modest scale.
And yet during this same half century the Idea of Progress not only has not been restored; the quality of the discussion about it has deteriorated. In the first half of the century, at least the critics were literate. At least they engaged The Idea of Progress with rigor and intellectual nuance. In the last few decades, we have seen the debate descend to a mindless attraction toward things non-Western, non-technological, extra-logical, and profane.
Robert Nisbet, one of the century’s foremost conservative intellectuals, wrote a book late in his career called History of the Idea of Progress in which he surveyed the discarding of the Idea and suggested that we pause and think again.1 He was hardly an unabashed fan of Progress. But with reservations, he supported five "crucial premises" of the idea of progress. They were: "belief in the value of the past; conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization; acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth; faith in reason and in the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone; and finally, belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth." I ally myself with Nisbet’s five premises. I too have reservations. But to write Human Accomplishment honestly requires that one accept those five premises. "Requires," because there is no way to write the book that does not implicitly support them.
Let me take each of these premises seriatim.
Belief in the value of the past. This is a classic conservative sentiment—also, I will say parenthetically, Hayekian. The accumulated wisdom of mankind speaks to us today, whether it is in classic texts or in institutions and traditions that embody wisdom that we cannot recover if we try to reinvent ourselves or our institutions. Now suppose you are in my position, and are setting out to assemble a database of human accomplishment in the fields of, let us say, philosophy, governance, and understanding of human nature. Suppose further that you have no ideological ax to grind, but are simply putting together those sources that have standing among scholars in those fields. Here are a few of the accomplishments that must be in your inventory: the Socratic dialogues, Aristotle’s Ethics, City of God, The Prince, Leviathan, the Second Treatise, Spinoza’s Ethics, Critique of Pure Reason, Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Federalist Papers—I could go on and on.
The most recent of the titles I just listed dates from the late 1700s. Now let us contemplate the items in the inventory that date from the 20th century. I have not begun this inventory yet, but it is clearly going to be a curious mix of books and a few seminal journal articles. Some good work has been done, no doubt about it. Scientifically, the behavioral sciences have permitted us to assign some structural specificity, occasionally even numbers, to concepts that formerly were wholly descriptive.
But what is it that we have learned that is truly new about human nature in the 20th century? I submit that the body of even the best work consists overwhelmingly of commentary on insights first expressed centuries ago. Indeed, if I were to characterize the role of the behavioral sciences in the 20th century—and please take this as a provisional and sweeping statement that needs a lot of work—it would be as follows: The first three-quarters of the 20th century were spent largely trying to make observed human behavior compatible with theoretical schemes that ultimately didn’t work. The last quarter of the 20th century marks the beginning of a painful, slow reconciliation of what modern behavioral science tells us empirically with what the ancients told us, and an even more painful repudiation of the 20th century’s favorite conceits. Where does Freudianism, its intellectual position so commanding fifty years ago, stand today? Remnants are left, but only remnants. I shouldn’t even mention Marxism; it is too easy a target. But the fact remains: For decades, it was the leading intellectual paradigm on the Continent and had huge influence among broad elements of the American intelligentsia. What is left of Marx? Not as a governing ideology, but as a work of social science that still has validity? Virtually nothing.
Perhaps I am being too dismissive of the 20th century’s contributions. But it is at least safe to say this: I cannot write a book on human accomplishment in philosophy and the social and behavioral sciences without giving a larger place to the past and its wisdom than the postmodernists would like.
Nisbet’s second premise refers to one’s conviction of the nobility, even superiority , of Western civilization. Here is a touchy one. I have to confess that I am instinctively uncomfortable with the word "superiority." It is perhaps appropriate to introduce as a personal note that I spent six of the most formative years of my adult life living in Asia, that my two oldest children are half-Asian, and I still prefer some aspects of Asian culture.
Having said that, the second premise is still hard to argue with. Begin with science and technology. As of this week, my inventory of first-time accomplishments in technology and the hard sciences stands at about 4,000 items. It is still a work in progress with much adding, pruning and refining yet to be done. But when one has a list of 4,000 first-time accomplishments in science and technology, one already has a database that includes such things as the publication of a classification of Iberian flowers (1576, Charles de l’Écuse) and the invention of the first dental chair (James Snell, 1832). There are not a whole lot of big-ticket items left to add.
Among those 4,000 is a stunning array of accomplishments from East Asia, overwhelmingly from China—stunning both for their importance and for the dates at which they occurred. Magnetic compasses were in use in China in 500 BC. The first reference to their use in Europe: 1180 AD. China invented the sternpost rudder, a crucial development in naval architecture, in about 200 BC. Europe figured that one out more than 1,400 years later. Gunpowder? For China, 250 AD. Europe, a thousand years later. The first stirrup, first observation of sunspots, first block printing, first crank, first porcelain, first eyeglasses—all in China, all antedating their discovery in the West by centuries. And often their "discovery" in the West really consisted of adaptation, having finally heard about the Chinese version at second- or third-hand, usually through Arabia.
It is not just that the Chinese got there first. We sometimes tend to condescend toward the first discoveries by the Chinese by assuming they didn’t do anything with them: "They discovered gunpowder, yes, but they just used it for fireworks." So let us ponder for a moment the 15th century and one of the West’s momentous achievements in exploration, Columbus’s discovery of the New World. On that first voyage, Columbus had three ships. No plans or pictures survive, but the best estimate is that the flagship, the Santa Maria, was on the order of 85 feet long-you’ve seen private sailing yachts bigger than that. The Pinta and Niña were even smaller. The entire expedition numbered 90 men and boys. They left in August 1492 and were back in March of 1493. "So ended," Samuel Eliot Morison writes, "224 days after it began, the greatest recorded voyage in history."2
Well, perhaps it was the greatest in terms of consequences. But if we wish to examine the state of the art in shipbuilding, navigation, and logistics, we need to go back 60 years earlier when, in 1431–33, the Chinese concluded a series of naval expeditions to show the flag in foreign waters. The last of this series of voyages carried 27,550 officers and men in 317 ships. The largest of these ships was 444 feet long and a beam of 180 feet—in other words, it was twice as broad as the Santa Maria was long. The smallest of the 317 ships was about twice the size of the Santa Maria. The Chinese expedition traveled from China down to Java, then west all the way to Saudi Arabia. It traveled far down the east coast of Africa. Total distance sailed was in the neighborhood of 20,000 miles, total time at sea was more than two years.
The scope of this undertaking is breathtaking even today—it’s World-War-II-scale stuff. I list these statistics to make a simple point: China was not some backwater that had stumbled onto some lucky discoveries and then languished. It was a society of enormous capacity and sophistication that in many ways surpassed anything seen in Europe until well into the Renaissance.
All that is true, and will find an admiring description in the book. And yet it is also true that among the 4,000 items in the science and technology inventory, only two percent come out of East Asia. Only six percent come from anywhere Europe and North America. Of that six percent, almost all represent events that happened in antiquity. Suppose I limit the inventory to events occurring during the last millennium. In that case 98.7 percent of the events come from Europe and North America, and 1.3 percent from everywhere else.
This situation is not to be changed by expanding the scope of the search. On the contrary, the more that I try to expand the cultural diversity of the inventory by relaxing the requirements for getting into it, the greater the dominance of the West becomes—for every additional accomplishment that is admitted from a non-Western culture, a dozen new ones qualify from the West.
Does this vindicate the "nobility, even superiority" of Western civilization? Not by itself. But the example of science and technology has an obvious counterpart in the body of accomplishment relating the philosophy, governance, and the understanding of human nature. A few moments ago, talking about the importance of the past, I listed a series of accomplishments that had to be in any such inventory. All of them came from the West. Of course that list must also include the Analects of Confucius and the works of Lao-Tze and Mencius. If I were talking about religion, I would of course add the core works of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam to those of Judaism, and Christianity. But if we are talking about the secular study of man, society, and government, it is the same old story: China got there first, or at least very early, regarding some profound truths about governance and human nature. But then came a sprawling edifice of additional important work—and it came from the West. Not most. Virtually all.
One of the great ironies of today’s left, which is so dismissive of Western civilization, is that it relies on values that were made possible by Western civilization. Shall we struggle against racism? It was only in the West that racism became an evil. Shall we promote respect for other cultures on their own terms? Yes, but it was in the West that respect for the values of other cultures became a virtue. Shall we fight for the voice of the people against the elites? Yes, as long as we remember that the native tongues of democracy are ancient Greek and modern English.
I began by saying that I am still skittish about using the word "superiority" to describe Western Civilization, but I had in mind some specific social aspects of Asian culture that I miss. If we are to use the word civilization, there is this question to ponder: On what dimension can one make a good empirical case that Western civilization is not superior?
I say this recognizing that many learned books appear annually telling us that the apparent dominance of the West is an illusion in some respects and an accident of history in others—Western culture is not superior, it just happened to win geopolitically.
In the book, my attitude toward these approaches will be "Isn’t this interesting?" rather than an attempt to refute them, because I think this is the best way to show how naked this particular emperor is. Do the Aborigines (to take one example from one recent book) have people who hold the role of "intellectuals" in their tribal structure? I am willing to take the author’s account that they do at face value, and say to my readers: "This is what Aboriginal intellectuals do," and let readers ponder the implications for themselves.
At the end of it all, it should be possible for me to develop a clear statement of the criteria by which the West may be said to dominate human accomplishment and the criteria by which it does not. That being said, it is also true that in most areas of accomplishment, the criteria by which the West dominates are going to be those which reasonable people (including those not from the West) are likely to consider to be crucial. This is no more controversial than saying that most reasonable people of all cultures will, given a serious illness, prefer a Western physician to, say, an Amazonian herbal practitioner.
The other attack on the superiority of Western civilization consists of the attempt to claim that black Africa really is the source of Western civilization. It has considerably less empirical foundation than the creationist critique of evolution.
Nisbet’s third "crucial premise" is acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth. Every author has his crotchets and prejudices which make it hard for him to take seriously people who disagree with him on certain topics, and I’m afraid we’ve just come to one of mine. I cannot rid myself of the gut belief that 99 percent of the moaning and groaning about economic and technological growth is hypocritical cant. The work of Julian Simon, whom we so sadly lost a few weeks ago, more or less sums up my position: On every measurable dimension of human well-being, the last three centuries have brought sensational improvement. Another way of thinking about this problem is to ask oneself this question: Can you think of any earlier moment in history in which you would prefer to live your life? At first blush the answer may be yes. For someone like me, the America of the founding era seems attractive. Until I start to think about it. Forget the big stuff like life span—what about just dentistry? Plumbing?
I am happy to engage in serious discussion with those who accept that technology and affluence are a net plus, but who worry about the troubling side-effects that they carry with them. But spare me the sensitive souls who deplore technological advance and economic growth, but whose idea of the simple life comes from an Eddie Bauer catalog. Do technology and economic growth create problems? Sure. But as Maurice Chevalier said about the disadvantages of growing old, consider the alternative. The confrontation between Human Accomplishment and this aspect of the postmodern orthodoxy is going to be direct and unsubtle.
Nisbet’s fourth crucial premise refers to faith in reason and in the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone. We live in a contradictory time. It has never been more obvious that technological growth is underwritten by ruthlessly severe logic. Logic and reason have always played this role in technological development, of course, but the bare bones of it have seldom been so close to the surface of our everyday experience. A good computer program is a monument to Aristotelian logic, a tower of "if-thens." If just one of them is wrong, that flaw will be exposed. That’s what the little bomb on your computer screen means: Logic has broken down.
Every engineer and hard scientist knows this, and almost all of them revere reason and the scientific process. I sometimes wonder where their voices are—how can we have so many highly capable, important people whose opinion seems to have so little effect on the culture? But "little effect" is right. The national dialogue seems dominated by intellectuals and journalists who use those computers, made possible by logic and reason, to trash the value of logic and reason or, worse, have no idea what rigorous logic really means. I offer as examples environmentalism as widely practiced, deconstructionism in the humanities, multiculturalism in the soft sciences, and the editorial pages of our major newspapers.
Human Accomplishment will run up against this mindset most obviously in its discussion of scientific accomplishments. I will emphasize that they were made possible only by reason and by the human intelligence through which reason is made possible, and that must raise hackles. To celebrate reason in today’s New Age is to put oneself on the side of the nerds, the engineers, and, most horrifying of all, with people who are out of touch with their feelings. I can testify from personal experience that much of the hostility to The Bell Curve reflected outright hostility to the idea that intelligence, manifested in the capacity for rational thought, is mankind’s unique excellence. But I think Nisbet’s fourth premise will have its most intriguing application to the discussion of accomplishment in music, the visual arts, and literature.
In compiling inventories of human accomplishment in the arts, the methodological problems are obviously huge. Take, for example, Bach. Does every cantata, every mass, every orchestral suite, every fugue get a separate line in the inventory? No. Even Bach churned out a few things that weren’t up to snuff. On the other hand, you don’t want a situation where you have one line for Bach and one line for Aaron Copland. There’s a little weighting problem to be dealt with. These are the kinds of technical issues that I mentioned earlier in the lecture and that probably lead some of you to wonder whether quantitative analysis has any place in this venture. These problems are in fact fun, at least for someone who enjoys that sort of thing, and, ultimately, solvable. But that’s not the kind of problem I have in mind that brings Nisbet’s fourth premise into play.
Why am I so sure that there is a weighting problem when it comes to Bach and Copland? What is the basis for my confidence that Bach is "better" than Copland at all? For that matter, why is Bach better than the Beatles? The same may be asked of Rembrandt versus Andy Warhol or Tolstoy versus Danielle Steele.
If these comparisons seem too simple, let me offer you a tougher one, the curious story of the Apollo Belvedere.
It is the marble copy of a bronze statue of Apollo, circa 4th century BC, unearthed in the late 15th century. For 350 years thereafter, it was said to be the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. Michelangelo borrowed from it. So did Bernini. A long list of other major artists and art critics considered it the apotheosis of artistic expression in sculpture. It was as famous and revered among the public as the Mona Lisa is today. As a young man, Goethe, for example, declared that the Apollo Belvedere "swept me off my feet" more powerfully than anything else he saw in Rome.3
Today, the Apollo Belvedere stands in obscurity in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. It is as if two centuries from now the Mona Lisa were to be consigned to a second-echelon museum, visited by the occasional art history student. So when we talk about the elusiveness of artistic judgment, we do not have to cope just with those who would have us believe that the Beatles are as great as Bach. We also have to cope with the most erudite and perceptive critics of the past, whose judgments were just as different from today’s in their own way.
Indeed, the story of the Apollo Belvedere seems to suggest that we cannot impose any standards at all on our inventory. If taste—if the very "way of seeing" as Gertrude Stein called it—changes so drastically from era to era, aren’t we left with no firm ground on which to judge any work of art as qualifying as an "accomplishment" to the exclusion of any other work of art?
And yet there is something within me, and I suspect within you, that remains convinced that all art is not created equal. Isn’t there anything we can say with confidence about this topic?
Which brings me back to Nisbet’s fourth premise about the centrality of reason and of scholarship, classically construed. In the Ethics, especially in the discussion of pleasure in Book X, Aristotle picks his way around a complex thought that he never quite articulated in one place but which emerges unmistakably from his discussion as a whole. John Rawls synthesized these related thoughts into what he called the "Aristotelian Principle." It goes as follows: "Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities . . . and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity."
The Aristotelian Principle lends itself to empirical investigation. Let me give you a simple example via a thought experiment.
Suppose we take a random sample of 1,000 adults and give them two novels to read: The Golden Bowl and The Bridges of Madison County. We ask them to state their preference—not which book is "better" in an abstract sense, but which they prefer as a reading experience, in terms that simple. We record the results, so that we have 1,000 paired comparisons.
Now we take the same 1,000 adults and we give them two SAT tests. One is the SAT verbal, which most of you know from first hand experience—remember those analogies and vocabulary questions? The other is the SAT achievement test in literature, which essentially measures how much you’ve read and whether you remember it.
We now have three garden-variety data sets of the kind that social scientists use all the time. Our next step is to divide the test subjects into deciles of 100 persons each. The bottom decile consists of those who had very low scores on both of the SATs; the top decile consists of those with very high scores on both SATs. For each decile, we compute the percentage of persons who preferred The Golden Bowl to Bridges of Madison County.
Do you have any predictions at all about what the nature of the results will be? From everything we know about the reading habits of people at different levels of literary sophistication, it seems certain that the results will show a fairly regular trendline, with the proportion of persons preferring The Golden Bowl starting at near zero in the bottom decile and increasing to the highest proportion among those in the top decile of knowledge and ability about literature. What would such a result prove?
It would not prove that The Golden Bowl is objectively superior to Bridges of Madison County. Those who preferred Bridges will still be able to say with as much justification as ever that Bridges made them feel joy, sorrow, nostalgia; made them think about the meaning of love, fidelity, and the purpose of life; made them cry; whereas The Golden Bowl was boring. But we will have proved an empirical relationship between capacity and preferences. That relationship is the statistical outcropping of the Aristotelian Principle at work. "Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities . . . and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity."
Let me stop and pose a subsidiary hypotheses about this relationship: It depends on an interaction between ability and knowledge. It is highly plausible to me that people with a high level of verbal skills but who haven’t read widely in the great novels, or people who have read a lot of literature but aren’t very smart verbally, will both have substantially less attraction to The Golden Bowl than people who are high on both tests.
I used literature for the example. It could be extended to almost any field. The 1812 Overture sounds great when the talented young musician first learns about classical music; the Bach fugue may seem simple and boring. Later, he sees in the fugue an absorbing mathematical and musical elegance while the 1812 Overture sounds overblown and obvious. The young chess prodigy revels in the slapdash attack. As he learns more about the game, he begins to relish subtle positional strategies.
We may argue about what the relationship between knowledgeability and preferences means. But whether it exists is an empirical question, and one that I believe is fairly easily demonstrated. Embedded in that relationship is a subversive truth. That subversive truth is that a symphony, painting, sculpture, drama, novel—any artistic work—engages our intelligence as well as our emotions. Indeed, if it engages our most profound emotions, it does not do so just viscerally, sometimes not even viscerally, but through emotional responses mediated by our reasoned appreciation of what we are hearing, seeing, or reading.
Why subversive? Because so much of the contemporary mindset tells us that feelings are the most important thing, that all feelings have equal validity, that what matters is what you feel, not some arbitrary standards. I’m saying, fine, I won’t argue with that. It just so happens that it is not a random walk. It varies systematically by one’s ability and expertise. It is an embarrassing relationship. To go back to my running example: I suppose Bridges of Madison County is taught in any number of chic courses on popular culture, and some of these are taught by professors who actually know a lot about, and appreciate, good literature. And I am also willing to bet that as they read it over in preparation for the next day’s class, some part of their brain knows that it is meretricious junk, however unwilling they will be to say so in front of their students. I propose that even if those who are experts in their fields try to argue with the implications of the Aristotelian Principle, they know it is true in their own lives.
The last of Nisbet’s five premises is belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth. As Nisbet wrote the words, they seem to be unexceptional. Indeed, it is in vogue to say that one cherishes life of all kinds—without differentiation. The squirrel, the owl, the tree, the human being—all are equally part of Mother Earth. That’s not quite what Nisbet had in mind. Let me slightly alter the wording: belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of living a human life on this earth. And here we push into territory about which I am still so uncertain that it is hardly worthwhile for me to try to say anything at this point. My colleague Michael Novak has already told me that the deeper I dig into the nature of human accomplishment, the more inextricably I will find it bound up with man’s belief in the transcendent, and more specifically bound up with the Judeo-Christian understanding of man’s place on this earth and his relationship with God. I am instinctively inclined to believe anything that Michael Novak tells me—to take it on faith, as it were—and in addition to that I am aware of how broadly this insight has been shared among those who have surveyed the course of mankind’s slow, wending way.
Michael Novak gave me another piece of advice as well, not to fall prey to the sin of hubris, and to keep an active sense of how little human beings have accomplished, in the grand cosmic scheme of things. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. As I spend day after day retracing the contributions that men and women have made to the human resumé, I very seldom get a sense of mankind triumphant, bestriding the narrow world like any sort of colossus. On the contrary, I have a much more vivid sense of mankind as a quiet craftsman sitting at his bench, struggling to get it right. Even with the greatest. I don’t think Rembrandt spent his days thinking he was turning out timeless masterpieces, but rather hoping he that he was getting the nose right, fretting that he wasn’t. And doing it over again.
What the postmodernists don’t understand is how magnificent that is, whether it is Rembrandt working on a nose or Gauss proving the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra or James Snell inventing his dental chair. Years ago, I came across a bit of trivia that captured my imagination. It has been something of a talisman for me ever since. It seems that when they built the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, some of the gargoyles and other ornaments were carved high on the cathedral walls and behind cornices in places that could not be seen from the ground. It was said of the stonemasons who made those hidden gargoyles that they carved for the eye of God.
It is hard to think of anything in more dramatic opposition to the postmodernist mentality. The literary critic Stanley Fish famously said of deconstructionism that it "relieves me of the obligation to be right . . . and demands only that I be interesting." What an incredibly silly thing for a grown man to say. And it is that staggering myopia will bring the postmodernists down. Gertrude Himmelfarb once recalled the aphorism that no man is a hero to his valet and pointed out that Hegel had amplified that aphorism to read "No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet—is a valet."4 Himmelfarb—rather mischievously, I think—proceeded to reflect upon the valet mentality of the postmoderns, "valets," she wrote, "who recognize no heroes whether of good or evil, who recognize no greatness of any kind: no momentous events in history, no superior works of art, literature, or philosophy, no essential distinction between the trivial and the important."5
Valets don’t like the idea that magnificence exists, that transcendence exists, and that is why Human Accomplishment need not be about the postmoderns to arouse their anger. For the story of human accomplishment is a magnificent story, a story of mankind carving for the eye of God. Against that truth, no competing falsehood can long be even interesting.
Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p.427.
Quoted in Joseph Alsop, The Rare Art Traditions (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 3.
Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 180.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Knopf, 1994), p. June 1991, pp. 27, 49.