Why, he wondered, when he factored in population growth, did the achievement rate in Europe appear to plummet beginning in the mid-19th century, a period when peace, prosperity, cities and political freedom were steadily increasing? In the sciences, he decided, the decline was largely benign, reflecting the fact that in many fields the most important breakthroughs have already been made. But for the arts his diagnosis was grim: a collapse of social values and the advent of nihilism.
In a word, what modern Europe lost was Christianity. While other major religions, like Buddhism and Daoism preached humility, acceptance and passivity, Mr. Murray writes, Christianity fostered intellectual independence and drive. In his account it was Thomas Aquinas who "grafted a humanistic strain onto Christianity," by arguing that "human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him." And where post-Aquinas Christianity thrived — in Europe between 1400 and the Enlightenment — so, too, according to Mr. Murray, did human excellence.
October 29, 2003
Another Times link on Murray's new book:
Posted by TS at 12:55 PM