Category Archives: Greatness / Genius

German dominance at the very highest levels of accomplishment

A discussion between Bruce Charlton and commenter Dearieme here brought up the question of whether or not France, given its long cultural dominance and large population, was underrepresented among the ranks of civilization-making geniuses.

At first I supported Bruce in saying that France was roughly equal to Britain and Germany. In Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment, he identifies a total of 4,0002 significant figures in the arts and sciences, and roughly equal numbers of them from the period 1400-1950 come from those three regions. (Italy is a respectable runner-up, but no other region even comes close.)

Upon further consideration, though, it still seemed that there was a qualitative difference between the great Germans and Englishmen on the one hand and the great Frenchmen on the other. As great as Lavoisier and Descartes were, they and their compatriots still seemed to be a notch below the likes of Newton, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Beethoven. So I went back to Human Accomplishment and looked only at the best of the best — the top 72 of the 4,002 greats identified by Murray, those who scored at least 50 on a scale where Shakespeare is 100 and Richard Wright is 1.

Here’s how the nationalities of those 72 super-greats break down:

At this level of accomplishment, Germany is clearly in a class of its own, with both France and England lagging behind.

If we lump together countries which are culturally and historically akin, the chart looks like this:

The Germans still dominate, and would do so to an even greater degree if the Netherlands (usually considered part of Großdeutschland despite the language difference) were included, but the Anglosphere is now close behind it — and, yes, the French do seem to lag a bit. The real underachiever, though, is Spain — historically one of the most powerful countries in Europe, on par with England and France, but with only a single dubious name to contribute to the ranks of the super-great.

Here are the names of the people represented on the charts above:

  • Greater Germany
    • Germany: Beethoven, Einstein, Mozart, Kepler, Koch, Herschel, Bach, Gauss, Goethe, Wagner, Kant, Leibniz, Paul Ehrlich, Dürer
    • Switzerland: Euler, Paracelsus (both German Swiss)
    • Poland: Copernicus (German Polish)
    • Austria: Haydn
  • The Anglosphere
    • England: Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Faraday, Cavendish, Halley, William Smith, Harvey, J. J. Thomson
    • Scotland: Lyell, Watt, James Hutton, Maxwell
    • USA: Edison, Thomas Hunt Morgan
    • New Zealand: Rutherford
  • Italy: Galileo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, Titian, Virgil (Roman), Giotto, Bernini, Cassini (Italian French), Marconi
  • France: Descartes, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Lamarck, Cuvier, Laplace, Fermat, Cezanne
  • Greece: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy (Greek Egyptian), Homer, Archimedes
  • Scandinavia
    • Sweden: Berzelius, Linnaeus, Carl Scheele
    • Denmark: Tycho, Bohr
  • Netherlands: Rembrandt, Huygens
  • Spain: Picasso

Many of the specific fields of art and science catalogued by Murray are dominated by a particular nationality. Below I list all the fields in which a single nationality accounts for at least 50% of the super-greats.

  • Music: 5/5 (100%) are German (including one Austrian).
  • Physics: 6/9 (67%) are from the Anglosphere; 4/9 (44%) are from England proper.
  • Chemistry: 2/3 (67%) are Swedish.
  • Art: 6/10 (60%) are Italian.
  • Mathematics: 4/8 (50%) are German (including one German Swiss).
  • Earth sciences: 2/4 (50%) are Scottish.
  • Philosophy: 2/4 (50%) are Greek.
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Plato’s odd hierarchy of human types

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), saying that the estate into which one is born depends on how much of the truth one has seen in one’s previous incarnations. He lists the following nine degrees, from the most enlightened to the least.

  1. the soul which has seen most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature;
  2. that which has seen truth in the second degree shall be some righteous king or warrior chief;
  3. the soul which is of the third class shall be a politician, or economist, or trader;
  4. the fourth shall be a lover of gymnastic toils, or a physician;
  5. the fifth shall lead the life of a prophet or hierophant;
  6. to the sixth the character of poet or some other imitative artist will be assigned;
  7. to the seventh the life of an artisan or husbandman;
  8. to the eighth that of a sophist or demagogue;
  9. to the ninth that of a tyrant

This is Benjamin Jowett’s translation, and I am not entirely confident of its accuracy. Was there really such a profession as “economist” in Classical Greece? (Elsewhere in his Phaedrus Jowett has earned my distrust by using “grasshopper” for what is clearly meant to be a cicada. Why would grasshoppers be up in the trees “looking down at us”? And how could it possibly be said of those proverbially voracious agricultural pests that “they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking”? A lot of translators make that mistake, for some reason; it’s gotten to the point where I simply assume that all “grasshoppers” in translations from the Greek are cicadae unless there is strong textual evidence to the contrary.)

Leaving that anomalous “economist” aside, Plato’s hierarchy still raises a lot of questions. I haven’t been able to discern any formal structure to it — it isn’t organized chiastically, or in three groups of three, or anything like that — so I can only assume that it is meant to be taken at face value, as a ranking of of human types from highest to lowest.

The most surprising thing to me is that, while the artist is considered to be of the highest rank, coequal with the philosopher, the imitative artist ranks just two steps above sophists, demagogues, and tyrants. The term “imitative artist” here clearly covers more than just epigones or producers of derivative work; all poets, except those who are also philosophers, are considered to be merely “imitative.” He makes it clear elsewhere in the Phaedrus that even Homer himself ranks considerably lower than a true artist or philosopher.

I bethink me of an ancient purgation of mythological error which was devised, not by Homer, for he never had the wit to discover why he was blind, but by Stesichorus, who was a philosopher and knew the reason why;

Of course Plato’s criticism in the Republic of artists in general and of Homer in particular is well-known. The surprising thing is not that Homer and the other poets rank so low in Plato’s hierarchy of souls, but that they rank so low in a hierarchy in which artists are given first place. If Homer is not a true artist, who is? Who besides the philosophers (even Stesichorus is praised as a philosopher rather than as a poet) did Plato consider to have “seen most of truth”?

I don’t have an answer. I merely pose the question and invite comments.

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