Human accomplishment and the English

Robert Henderson

In  his  book  “Human  Accomplishment”   the  American  Charles  Murray
calculates  the  contribution  to  civilisation  made  by   individuals
throughout  history  up until 1950.  To give his calculations  as  much
objectivity  as possible he measures  the amount of attention given  to
an  individual   by  specialists in their  field in   sources  such  as
biographical  dictionaries – put crudely, the greater the frequency  of
mention and the larger the space devoted to an individual,  the  higher
they score.

Murray  quantifies   achievements  under  the  headings  of   astronomy
(Galileo  and  Kepler  tied  for  first  place),  biology  (Darwin  and
Aristotle),  chemistry (Lavoisier),  earth sciences  (Lyell),   physics
(Newton  and  Einstein),   mathematics  (Euler),   medicine   (Pasteur,
Hippocrates  and  Koch),   technology  (Edison  and  Watt),    combined
scientific (Newton), Chinese philosophy (Confucious), Indian philosophy
(Sankara), Western philosophy (Aristotle), Western music (Beethoven and
Mozart),  Chinese  painting  (Gu  Kaizhi  and  Zhao  Mengfu),  Japanese
painting  (Sesshu,  Sotatsu and Korin),   Western  art  (Michelangelo),
Arabic  literature,  (al-Mutanabbi) Chinese literature (Du Fu),  Indian
literature  (Kalidasa),   Japanese  literature  (Basho  and  Chikamatsu
Monzaemon), Western literature (Shakespeare).  

Objections have been made to Murray’s methodology such as the fact that
many  of the great achievements of the past,  especially in  the  arts,
have  been anonymous,  which give it a bias towards the modern  period,
and    fears that it has a built-in Western bias –  the  representation
of  non-Western  figures in the science  and technology  categories  is
minimal.   Nothing can be done about anonymity – it is  worth  pointing
out  that the majority of those heading the categories lived  at  least
several  centuries  ago  – but  Murray  substantially   guards  against
pro-Western  bias with the breadth and number of his sources and it  is
simply  a fact that science and advanced technology arose only  in  the
past few centuries and that both are essentially Western  achievements.
It  is  also noteworthy that Murray’s  method only places  one  of  his
fellow   countrymen  at  number  one  in  any  category    (Edison   in
technology).  If  any bias exists it is unlikely to  be  conscious.  At
worst,  Murray’s  findings  can be seem as a fair  rating   of  Western

The list of those heading the various categories (see second  paragraph
above)   suggests  that  Murray’s method is pretty  sound  despite  any
possible methodological  shortcomings,  because those who come top  are
all men of extreme achievement.  There might be arguments over  whether
Aristotle should take precedence over Plato or Kant,   but no one could
honestly argue that Aristotle was an obviously unworthy winner of first
place in the philosophy category.

Of the 13 categories which  can include Westerners (they are  obviously
excluded  from  non-European  literature  and  art),   Englishmen   are
undisputed firsts or share  first place with one other in four: biology
Darwin   with  Aristotle;   Physics  Newton  with  Einstein;   combined
scientific  Newton  alone;  Western literature Shakespeare  alone.   No
other  nation  has  more  than two representatives  at  the  top  of  a
category.  The thirteen Western including categories have a total of 18
people in  sole or joint first place.  England  has nearly a quarter of
those  in first place and more than a quarter of the 15 who  are  drawn
from the modern period, say 1500 AD onwards.   

Apart  from those coming first,   the English show strongly in most  of
the Western qualifying categories (especially in physics – 9 out of the
top 20, technology – 8 out of the top twenty – and Western literature).
The  major  exceptions  are   Western art  and   music,  where  English
representation  is mediocre.   I think most people who think about  the
matter  at  all  would feel those  cultural  strengths  and  weaknesses
represent the reality of English history and society.     

The fact that England shows so strongly in Murray’s exercise  gives the
lie  to  the common representation of the  English  as  unintellectual.
Moreover,  there is much more to human intellectual accomplishment than
the fields covered by Murray,  most notably the writing of  history and
the social sciences,  areas in which England has  been at the forefront
throughout the modern period: think Gibbon,  Macaulay,  Herbert Spencer
and Keynes. 

English intellectual history is a long one.  It can reasonably be  said
to  begin  in  the early eighth  century   with  Bede’s  Ecclesiastical
History of the English,  which amongst other things firmly  establishes
the  English  as  a people before England as  a  kingdom  existed  (“At
present  there  are  in Britain…five languages  and  four  nations  –
English, British, Irish and Picts…” Book One).  

In the late ninth century comes Alfred the Great,  a  king  whose reign
was  one  of  constant struggle against the Danes,   but   who  thought
enough of learning to teach himself to read as an adult and then engage
in  translations  into Old English of  devotional works  such  as  Pope
Gregory’s Pastoral Care,   Bede’s Ecclesiastical History  and Boethius’
The Consolation of Philosophy.

From Alfred’s reign  comes the Anglo-Saxon Journal (ASJ),  a work  also
written in Old English.  (There are nine  surviving versions written at
different  places,  eight of which are in Old English with the odd  man
out being in  Old English with a Latin translation).   The journal   is
a  history/myth  of  Britain and a narrative  of   the  settlement   of
Anglo-Saxons  within it  until the time of Alfred and then  a  putative
record of and commentary on the great events  of English life from  the
time  of  Alfred until the middle of the 12th century  (like  all  such
medieval works the veracity of the ASJ is questionable, but at worst it
gives a flavour of the mentality of those living at the time). The work
is  unique  in  medieval Europe for  its scope  and  longevity  and  is
particularly  noteworthy  for  the  fact that it  was  written  in  the
vernacular throughout the three centuries or so of its existence,  this
at  a time when the normal language for  writing in Western Europe  was

The    Norman   Conquest   subordinated   the   English    politically,
linguistically  and socially  for the better part of three   centuries,
but  it  did  not kill English  intellectual  endeavour.   Those  three
centuries  of oppression saw the emergence of  many of the ideas  which
were later to produce the modern world.  John of Salisbury   produced a
work  on politics (Policraticus 1159)  which was “the first attempt  in
the  Middle Ages at an extended and systematic treatment  of  political
philosophy”  (G  H Sabine A History of Political Theory p246)  and  one
which  argued  for  a form of limited monarchy  and  the  overthrow  of
tyrants,  views  given  practical English  expression  in  Magna  Carta
(1215). The period was also noteworthy for the strong showing of annals
and histories,  most notably those of Eadmer (Historia Novorum  or  The
History of Recent Events – it covered the  period 950-1109),  Henry  of
Huntingdon (Historia Anglorum or  History of the English 5BC-1129)  and
Matthew  Paris (Chronica Majora).   In addition,   the Common  Law  was
formed,   English  became  once  more  a  literary  language  (Chaucer,
Langland),   John  Wycliffe  laid  the  intellectual  roots   of    the
Reformation and,  perhaps  most impressively, ideas which were later to
provide the basis for a true  science emerged.    England was the mother of the modern world.

To have produced Shakespeare,  Newton and  Darwin alone would have been
a  great  thing for any nation,  but  for England they are  merely  the
cherries  on the top of a very substantial intellectual  cake.  Beneath
them  sit dozens of others of serious human consequence:  the likes  of
Ockham,  Chaucer,  Wycliffe, Francis Bacon, Marlowe,   Halley,  Hobbes,
Locke, Gibbon, Priestly, Cavendish, Newcomen, Faraday, Austen, Dickens,
Keynes, Turing… ‘Nuff said.

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