War and Human Accomplishment.
Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment from 2003 has already achieved a well-deserved status as a modern classic. In this work, Murray not only ranks individual achievements and contributions in the arts and sciences; he also attempts to analyze some of the variables involved in rates of accomplishment, such as religion, political system and wars.
There is no doubt that the chaos, death and disruption caused by major wars can potentially limit human accomplishment. Among the most extreme cases in point would be the two great wars in Europe from 1914 to 1945, which caused an orgy of bloodletting and ideological radicalization and disrupted the very fabric of European civilization. Yet this does not imply that wars always have to have a similarly negative impact.
The conflicts between Catholics and Protestants during of the Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the modern, sovereign European state. This fighting caused great devastation within the Holy Roman Empire, particularly in the mini-states of what we now call Germany. Yet from the late 1600s on, Johann Sebastian Bach spent his life in Germany between Weimar and Leipzig, and the eighteenth century in German-speaking Central Europe eventually turned out to be one of the most impressive periods in the history of music.
The first Persian invasion of mainland Greece ended with Athenian victory in a battle fought on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in 490 BC. According to legend, a soldier ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory, a distance of roughly 42 kilometers. This consequently became the length of the long-distance footrace we now call marathon.
The Greco-Persian Wars continued with the ultimately unsuccessful attempts of Xerxes and his vast armies to invade Greece. They were slowed down with the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC and repulsed by the outnumbered forces of the Greek city-states against Persian galleys at the Battle of Salamis that same year. Socrates was born just a few years later. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) ended with defeat for Athens against Sparta and its allies.
Yet despite all of this, plus a plague after 430 BC that killed the statesman Pericles, Athens during this century and a half witnessed a great cultural flowering, the Athenian Golden Age. It included the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the sculptors Praxiteles and Phidias, the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius and above all the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The city attracted talents from other parts of the Greek-speaking world, for instance the astronomer Eudoxus.
Renaissance Italy wasn’t too peaceful, either. Florence was in a chronic state of civil strife or threat of invasion during its greatest years. As Murray notes, the Dutch Golden Age gathered strength in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War and ended in 1648 with a treaty with Spain:
“Only four years later, the first of three Anglo-Dutch wars broke out, ending in 1654 the with Netherlands’ defeat. Rembrandt was 48 that year, Vermeer 22, Huygens 25. A decade later came the second Anglo-Dutch war, bloody but effectively a draw. Five years after that the French invade and the Dutch were forced to breach the dikes to save Amsterdam from conquest. The third Anglo-Dutch war broke out the same year, ending in 1674. The Dutch golden age was not a peaceful one. Of the most famous golden ages, only France’s La Belle Époque, dated in various ways between 1870 to 1914, was a time of peace.
Even in this case, France was on a downhill slide politically. Just as Athens’ most intense period of great work began after defeat, Paris’s Belle Époque began in the aftermath of France’s humiliating capitulation in the Franco-Prussian war, and it continued during a period when France’s international standing eroded. To say that (with the French exception) golden ages were punctuated by war doesn’t tell us much because every European age from 1400-1950, golden or not, was punctuated by war.”
He analyses different political systems such as absolute monarchy, parliamentary monarchy (for instance England after the Glorious Revolution in 1688), republics, liberal democracies and modern totalitarian states. What we can see clearly is that totalitarian states and very brutal absolute monarchies – that is, despotic states – greatly inhibit human accomplishment, with the partial exception of the military realm.
Examples of the former would be the Soviet Union, of the latter the Ottoman Empire. It was hard for the Christian subjects of the Ottomans to achieve great things when their children were taken away from them and taught to hate their own kind. They constantly lived in fear of a sword raised above their heads and enjoyed very weak property rights. This latter problem applied in Tsarist Russia as well.
The differences between less repressive monarchies and liberal democracies are not quite as pronounced, though, if we look at what the author calls freedom of action – the de facto freedom of maneuver an individual has at a given time, regardless of ruling system. This can be the result of custom, a tolerant ruler or the fact that you can move to a different location and political atmosphere.
This might have been possible in Europe for top scholars or artists. Many great cultural achievements have been made within aristocratic environments, and the potential for censorship of certain ideas unfortunately exists in liberal democracies, too.