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PostPosted: Sun Nov 30, 2003 10:46 pm 
A relative of mine passed me along this article which made me shake my head.

The New York Times wrote:
Well, It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time

November 30, 2003

BUT what are the worst accomplishments?" the interviewer
asked. We had been discussing great accomplishments in the
arts and sciences, a subject on which I've written. The
question stopped me cold. Art and science that are simply
bad have no "worst" - all of it is equally unimportant. But
the unintended consequences of great art and science are
another question. Einstein did not have nuclear weapons in
mind when he discovered that E=mc2, and Lenoir did not
envision smog when he invented the internal combustion

So, too, in the arts. A book can be misread, a painting can
arouse prurient thoughts and a Wagner's music can inspire a
Hitler. Since it can happen so easily, the question arises:
What belongs in the hall of fame of unintended outcomes in
the arts and sciences, when a truly wonderful
accomplishment inadvertently contributed to some truly
awful consequences?

The discovery of logic in the fourth century B.C. is one
candidate. It was the unique accomplishment of the Greeks
(no other great civilization came close), with Euclidean
geometry providing the exemplar for the power of deductive
knowledge and Aristotle's "Organon" completing the
application of logic to nonmathematical thought. The
importance of the achievement was monumental. It radically
expanded the ability of Homo sapiens to think about what is
true and not true. If the criterion is magnitude of impact,
the addition of logic to the human cognitive repertoire has
few rivals.

But logic was too dazzlingly compelling for its own good.
After Aristotle, the Greek natural philosophers ("natural"
referring to what we think of as science) fell in love with
the idea that a few elegantly simple premises, combined
with deductive logic, could reveal the truths of the
universe. Empiricism, which previously had maintained a
rough balance with theory, lost ground. Natural philosophy
became a smaller part of the total intellectual enterprise,
overshadowed by moral philosophy.

We can't be sure of the full magnitude of the loss, but it
can be argued that the Greeks at the time of Aristotle were
on the edge of producing the Scientific Revolution then and
there. So the possibility arises that Aristotle, the same
man who did so much to bring science to that edge, also
supplied the tool that distracted his successors from
taking the last little step and deflected science into a
2,000-year cul-de-sac.

Isaac Newton's discovery of the laws of motion and of
universal gravity is another candidate for a supremely
wonderful achievement with consequences run amok. When
Newton published the "Principia" in 1687, the scientific
community was still small, despite the pioneering work that
had already been done. In the broader society, science was
not yet held in especially high regard. The idea that
science might have a role in guiding everyday human affairs
was barely a topic of conversation.

The "Principia" dramatically changed all that. It explained
how nature worked on a universal scale, linking terrestrial
and celestial physics under one set of laws with a
precision that seemed almost magical. Over the next 50
years, reason - meaning scientific reason as we know it
today, in which logic and empirical evidence are joined -
became the reigning intellectual paradigm. Reason's
potential to allow humans to understand the workings of
nature and the cosmos was seen as unlimited.

So far, so good. But the Newton worshipers - it is hard to
exaggerate the incandescence of his reputation on the
Continent as well as in Britain - decided that what could
be known of the motion of bodies could be known as well of
humans. Man could remake the world from scratch by
designing new human institutions through the application of
scientific reason.

Reason was the new faith. Its first political offspring was
the grotesque Jacobin republic set up after the French
Revolution. (In contrast, the American Constitution, though
written by fans of Newton, explicitly allowed for an
intractable and problematic human nature.) The
Utilitarians' ambitions for improving society were part of
the reason project. Half a century later came the Marxist
laws of history, purported to be as scientific as the laws
of motion, with their Leninist and Stalinist applications
to follow.

In less toxic forms, the assumption that scientifically
designed policy interventions can shape social outcomes for
the better was largely unquestioned in the social and
behavioral sciences until the last few decades of the 20th

All these varied forms of confidence in reason to structure
human societies shared a hubris that was first prompted by
the "Principia" three centuries ago.

As a last candidate for monumental achievement combined
with unhappy outcomes, I submit this complaint about Ludwig
van Beethoven: As a contributor to human accomplishment in
the arts, Beethoven is unsurpassed, but what a destructive
example he set.

For the most part, great artists before Beethoven had
behaved like normal human beings, some better, some worse.
True, Michelangelo had been a handful, and the great
artists were more likely than ordinary people to be
colorful characters with large egos. But they also had
vocations, in two senses. First, they had a demanding craft
they were obliged to master. Second, they were trying to
realize aesthetic excellence in their art. The notion that
they were expressing themselves would have seemed odd to
most of them - self-expression was a byproduct of their
work, perhaps, but secondary to the obligations they saw
themselves as fulfilling.

As a practitioner, Beethoven shared those characteristics.
His mastery of tonal harmony and the musical forms of the
classical era was absolute. His sense of mission to realize
an ideal of musical beauty is explicit in his own writings.
But he also played The Genius to the limit, especially in
his later years. He was rude, obstinate and self-absorbed,
and railed against the slightest interference. Beethoven
behaved as if he were God's gift to humanity.

O.K., so he was. But Beethoven was as revered in the arts
as Newton had been in the sciences, and his artistic
personality became a model. As the century proceeded,
composers, writers, painters and sculptors who were not
God's gift to humanity increasingly adopted the persona of
the genius possessed of a unique personal vision,
unappreciated by a plodding public.

As the 19th century changed to the 20th, the imperative to
express the self increasingly displaced the traditional
mission of realizing the highest standards of aesthetic
excellence. Transcendental conceptions of truth and beauty,
embodied nowhere more supremely than in Beethoven's music,
were abandoned in favor of conceptions of sensitivity,
authenticity and the artist's obligation to challenge the

Thus the paradox: Beethoven the devoted craftsman created
products so profoundly resonant with the human spirit that
they will find an audience for as long as the species
exists. Beethoven The Genius contributed to a frame of mind
that impedes today's artists from doing the same thing.

Charles Murray's most recent book is "Human Accomplishment:
The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800
B.C. to 1950" (HarperCollins).

This article had me cursing on the Aristotle part. AFAIK and IIRC he's pretty much got it wrong on multiple places.

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