[O]bjective achievements in the arts are demonstrable?and if they can be historically established for the arts, then they are even more clearly identifiable for the sciences. These two spheres of human endeavor represent two kinds of potential objectivity: there is as little chance of the human race giving up Homer or the Beethoven symphonies as there is that it will give up the notion that the earth is a sphere. Over time, achievement in the arts and the sciences is seen as not merely an invention of scholarship, a product of fickle fashion, or a general social construction….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.
–Dennis Dutton reviews Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment –Of Human Accomplishment (New Criterion)
Hmm… achievement for achievement’s sake is dangerously close to “art for art’s sake”. I suppose Murray at some point had to define what he means by “excellence”. To excel in cruelty or to escape punishment for a crime is a kind of excellence; I suppose some people might excel at doing nothing. But that’s probably straying too far from the book’s subject area (which is, after all, about accomplishment, not destruction or avoidance).
Okay… a quick glance at the article reveals that Murray specifies “Transcendental goods” as one of the four qualities for human accomplishment, so that neatly handles my objection. As Dutton puts it, “These values are the true, the good, and the beautiful—the first central to science, the last to art, and the second to both science and art.”