Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Dutton on Murray on Human Accomplishment

Denis Dutton reviews Murray's new book Human Accomplishment. One of Murray's ideas Dutton boils down thus:
The fundamental principle of human achievement is expressed by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics and accepted by philosophers since, and more recently even by psychologists: that human beings derive pleasure from the just exercise of their skills and capacities. From crossword puzzles and rock climbing to painting, composing music, playing a musical instrument, or solving equations, Murray says, “The pursuit of excellence is as natural as the pursuit of happiness.” For the creative geniuses who are the subject of his book, I prefer to say that achieved excellence simply is happiness.
“Human beings,” he claims, “have been most magnificently productive and reached their highest cultural peaks in the times and places where humans have thought most deeply about their place in the universe and been most convinced they have one.” This for Murray helps explain the preponderance of achievement in the arts and sciences in Europe during the centuries when Christianity was regnant.
Truth, regarded as a goal guiding inquiry, may be considered a transcendental value for science. Art faces a different challenge. An ironic, detached culture in which artists have lost faith in ultimate values is not likely to rival the greatness of the past. In terms of freedom, wealth, creature comforts, and health, Murray says, we may be doing better than our forebears, but that does not mean that our artists will achieve more than “shiny, craftsmanlike entertainments.” He quotes Gibbon’s observation that even at the apex of their empire, the Romans, who looked back at the achievements of old Greece much as we do of old Europe, were “a race of pygmies.”

Religion, Murray argues, “is indispensable for igniting great accomplishment in the arts.” Religious believers and philosophers of a traditionally idealist stamp may find comfort in this, especially since it comes from an avowed agnostic such as Murray. I am personally not convinced. In particular, it seems to me that Murray seriously underestimates the role of organizing structures in creating conditions for high achievement.

Review here. Book here.