This is the fourth in an occasional series of e-mail interviews with writers, scholars, and others who help form the culture in which we live. WORLD hopes that readers, by listening to influential people who do not necessarily share a Christian worldview, will be better equipped for discussion and evangelism, and will be challenged to sharpen their own understanding. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott.)
AT A TIME WHEN MANY IN academia settle for readily controllable mini-projects, Charles Murray continues to try to nail jellyfish to walls. After authoring provocative books such as Losing Ground (about poverty-fighting) and co-authoring The Bell Curve, which controversially looked at intellectual differences among groups, the American Enterprise Institute scholar spent five years boldly going where almost no one would venture: In his new book, Human Accomplishment, he tries to quantify individual genius in the arts and sciences throughout almost all of the past 3,000 years.
Mr. Murray tries to figure out why outstanding accomplishment is not evenly distributed among various cultures. Here are his two general conclusions: "A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.... A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture that encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals."
Mr. Murray argues in Human Accomplishment that Eastern religions, Islam, and early Christianity didn't combine purpose and individuality in a way that pushed creative accomplishment. Not until Aquinas in the 13th century and then the Protestant Reformation did a worldview that emphasized the role of human intelligence come to the forefront. The Murray thesis that Christianity underlies much of human accomplishment instead of stifling it is about as politically incorrect as anything is these days.
But there's more: Mr. Murray says it is harder for an agnostic or an atheist than a Christian to find purpose, because "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 comparatively tepid alternatives." Sounds like Mr. Murray is a Christian, yes? No. He calls himself an agnostic, even though he agrees that if there is not a grand purpose knit into creation by God, all the other things to which we devote our lives are just ways of passing time and trying to find significance.
WORLD: Your ideas have been controversial for a long time, but some of the reaction seems out of proportion to what you've written. Why does your work arouse such ire?
CM: In the case of Losing Ground, I think much of the fury was provoked by the tone of the book. It was obvious (I think) that I cared as much about the plight of the poor as any liberal, and was presenting myself as their advocate. This broke the rule that liberals are supposed to be the compassionate people and conservatives are supposed to be people worried about welfare cheats. How dare I be both a conservative (libertarian, actually, but the left seldom recognizes the difference) and worried about poor people? Parenthetically, the Reagan administration wasn't comfortable with Losing Ground's position either-President Reagan (whom I greatly admire, by the way) was in fact against the welfare cheats, not against the welfare system per se.
Since Losing Ground, I seem to have become a be_te noire of the left for reasons I don't entirely understand. My writing is not at all strident, I assume the good faith of people who disagree with me until proven otherwise, and my conclusions are laced with all sorts of caveats and acknowledgments of complexity. I just seem to get under the skin of people on the left. I don't try; it just works out that way.
WORLD: How did the negative reaction that followed publication of The Bell Curve affect your life? How about your family? Prior to writing The Bell Curve, if you could have foreseen the reaction to it, would you have chosen another topic? Would you have changed anything you wrote?
CM: I was pretty depressed for several months after the book came out. Part of it was caused directly by the reaction to the book, but that interacted with my grief about the death of my co-author, Dick Herrnstein, to whom I had become very close. I kept thinking how much different it would have been if he had still been alive. The reaction to the book would have been the same, but I could have called him on the phone and said, "Did you see what that idiotic so-and-so wrote?" My family was magnificent-especially my wife. She is a completely nonconfrontational person and hates the kind of nastiness that the book aroused, but she was a tiger. I cannot adequately express how much her support meant.
As for choosing another topic or changing anything we wrote: Hell, no.
WORLD: In the 1988 article "What's So Bad About Being Poor?" you conduct a 'thought experiment' about raising your children in an impoverished Thai village. You note that you would like the local priest to teach your children Buddhism. But in your most recent book, Human Accomplishment, you note that Buddhism is weak in giving people a purpose because it teaches nonattachment and that it contributes to the cultural decline of the last century. Have your ideas about the benefits of Buddhist training changed?
CM: Not at all. Buddhism's virtues include creating a wonderful social milieu, which is what I loved about Thailand. If you want to find authentic kindness and generosity widely practiced, you cannot do better than to live in a devoutly Buddhist culture. The point I made in Human Accomplishment is that Buddhism is not good for generating a single-minded, intense focus on achieving great things in this life, and that gets in the way of scientific and artistic accomplishment.
WORLD: Critics of Human Accomplishment are uncomfortable with the idea that you can rank works of art and music by merit. They also cringe at the notion that the West has brought forth the greatest cultural works. Could you explain briefly what drew you to this project and what surprised you about your findings?
CM: I'm fascinated by greatness and by the odd ways in which it emerges in some eras and places and does not emerge in others. The books dealing with such topics have been unsatisfying to me-either they string together mini-biographies of great creators and scientists, or they focus on psychological findings about the creative personality that (to me, anyway) are too abstract to be very interesting. I wanted to read a book that would let me look at the panorama of human accomplishment across time and across cultures. It was literally a case of deciding that if I wanted to read such a book, I'd have to write it.
I was surprised by the degree of concentration of accomplishment in Europe from 1400 to 1950 (the cutoff date for my data). My impressionistic sense before beginning work had been that much more had been done prior to 1400, and in the other great civilizations, than proved to be the case. This is not to say that the great civilizations of Greece, China, India, and the Arab world did not do great things, but that the ocean of accomplishment in Europe from 1400 to 1950 is truly staggering. I was also surprised to find how important religion was in the story of human accomplishment.
WORLD: You've written: "A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose." As an agnostic, what is your purpose in life? What did/do you teach your children about their life purpose? Did you raise them with a specific religion?
CM: I was raised as a Christian (Presbyterian) and have never abandoned-or tried to abandon-the legacy of that upbringing. So I have a strong sense of being obliged to live the best possible human life, with "best" defined in ethical terms that are coordinated with Christian teaching. My two older children were raised in a Buddhist tradition (their mother is Thai), and my two younger children are both members of a nearby Quaker meeting, as is my wife. I attend, but am not formally a member.
WORLD: Following Aristotle you profess that "each person should be treated as an end and not a means." Why? Do you think a universal standard of good behavior (such as treating people as ends rather than means) exists? Do universal standards of beauty and excellence exist? If so, where did they originate?
CM: I believe that objective standards of beauty and excellence exist for Homo sapiens. An alien species on another planet could have similarly objective standards for its nature, and still not respond to Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" as Homo sapiens does. Sticking with the music example, I believe that human beings find certain harmonies aesthetically pleasing for reasons that are ultimately hard-wired in our makeup. Similar comments could be made about aesthetic responses to art and literature. Where that makeup came from is, of course, the ultimate question-and one for which I do not have an answer.
WORLD: Many conservatives have believed that Christianity is socially useful in providing order, purpose, and beauty to life. You seem to be in that camp-but something that is useful is not necessarily true. If Christianity isn't true and God didn't create the world, how do you explain how we got here and where we're headed?
CM: I reject the assumption that religion has produced great accomplishment just by deluding people into certain beliefs and thereby serving a socially useful purpose. As I say in the book, Johann Sebastian Bach does not need to justify his beliefs to us; it is up to us to take his view of the cosmos seriously. Taking them seriously does not mean that one then automatically decides he was right in his view of the cosmos.
WORLD: Looking back over your life, are there things you wish you'd done more of? Less of? Things that were a waste of time?
CM: As I reached the age of 60 some months ago, a fairly momentous dividing line, I was struck by how extraordinarily lucky-blessed?-I have been. I have made mistakes, some of them serious, but by and large I have come much closer than I could have hoped to living the kind of life that is best suited to me.
-Courtney Russell helped to develop questions for Mr. Murray