Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

The Measure of Human Achievement

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As a year ends, news organizations often make a list of superlatives: the most important news story of the year; the best book of the year; the man or woman of the year. Pundits frequently err in choosing the year’s most important news story. At the end of the year in which the Soviet Union collapsed, Bryant Gumbel said that the state of the economy was the news story of the year. But who remembers anything about the economy that year?

At the end of the twentieth century there was discussion of what person in the century had made the greatest impact on human history. It was an interesting question. But it was difficult to answer because we tend to see our own times as more important than the past or the future. We are preoccupied with the present.

Our heroes are show-business people who enjoy fifteen minutes of fame and then are replaced by others of the same kind. Our political leaders lack a vision of what life should be, or they lack the will to pursue that vision because they serve constituents who are not interested.

Against this tendency in us, the truth is that duration is the best test of human achievement. The wise have often observed that accomplishments of a particular political leader cannot be assessed fairly by contemporaries. Time tends to strip away the extraneous–the personal passions and prejudices. Most political thought fades in a generation because it is tied to self-serving or silly notions of the day. Even dramatic political acts rarely outlive the people who perform them, except as historical curiosities.

On the other hand, great ideas continue to be meaningful to society long after their creators are dead. Once ideas become operative, they are not wedded to their creators but permeate the whole of human thought. They are great ideas precisely because they affect many generations of people who may not even remember who created those ideas. That’s why, among twentieth-century people, Einstein will have a more lasting effect on history than Hitler.

That is why Socrates is more important to us than the Athenians who condemned him to death; why Aristotle is more important to us than Alexander the Great, his pupil; Shakespeare than Elizabeth I; and Darwin than queen Victoria.

The political figures paired above with Socrates, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Darwin are museum pieces because the issues they were passionate about were transitory. Most politicians believe ardently in their own importance, but they may truly say with Shelley’s Ozymandias, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Still, at any given moment, politicians attract all the attention. It’s not surprising, then, that the most valuable human achievements typically go unappreciated by contemporaries. Somewhere today great things are being thought and done, but they don’t usually make the headlines.

The Margrave of Brandenburg, as far as we can determine, never had his musicians perform the six concerti sent to him by Johann Sebastian Bach. Undoubtedly, he was too busy and thought that what he was doing and saying was of overwhelming importance. But the only thing history remembers about this prince of Brandenburg is that he neglected Bach’s concerti.

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Written by polemicscat

September 7, 2008 at 12:13 pm

One Response

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  1. Polemicscat,

    I liked your blog “The Measure of Human Achievement.” I’d like to quote part of it in a new book I’m writing. If this is agreeable, please let me know. I’m am a published author, and this is a serious professional request. See my website.

    Thank you.

    Martin Durst

    Martin G. Durst

    January 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm


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