Category Archives: Excellence

Arete: the pursuit of excellence

I broached the subject of virtue in the comments section of my last post: https://surakblog.wordpress.com/2021/05/30/memorial-day-2021/#comment-1794

“Once upon a time, it seems that Christianity married four classical virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) with three theological virtues (faith, hope, charity). Today, it seems we only have the last three, without the first four. That strikes me as terribly imbalanced, and an invitation to passive submission. We need to find a way to channel the strength of our Greco-Roman roots while maintaining the humanity of our Judeo-Christian roots. This is our core challenge in keeping Western civilization alive. Whoever determines a viable way of accomplishing this goal will be admired for centuries to come.”

“Virtue” derives from the same root as “virility”: manliness. A virtuous man is the epitome of manliness. Arete (ah-reh-tay) is the Greek word for excellence, another virtue.

Charles Murray wrote the ultimate survey of excellence in his encyclopedic book Human Accomplishment, to which I give a high recommendation. This book is dominated by the achievements of Europeans, then by Americans, but not exclusively so. One sees the migration of Western civilization from the Mesopotamia-Egypt-Greece triangle to the Roman Empire, to Europe (especially England, France, Germany, and Italy), and thence to America.

Physical accomplishment is left out of this analysis. I wondered what might happen if we simply counted the number of Nobel Prizes and the number of Olympic medals for every country. Sixty countries were examined for this study: the 30 most populous, and all countries with at least 3 Nobel Prizes or at least 60 Olympics medals. I added the number of Fields Medalists to the number of Nobel Prize winners; the Fields Medal is the so-called Nobel Prize of mathematics. The United States of America leads both lists. We’re number one!

Not so fast. It is unreasonable to expect Luxembourg, a small country, to produce the same number of Nobel laureates and Olympic medalists as America. I next computed the number of Nobel laureates and the number of Olympic medalists per one million population. This measures the ability of one million of your countrymen to produce a Nobel laureate or an Olympics medalist.

Two interesting things happened. First, wide disparities are evident in the results. Second, there is a surprisingly strong positive correlation between mental and physical accomplishment.

However, it is unreasonable to expect citizens of South Sudan, a very young country, to produce the same number of Nobel laureates and Olympic medalists per capita as America. The modern Olympic games began in 1896, and the Nobel Prizes in 1901. I divided the prizes and medal counts per one million population by the number of Olympic games each country has participated in (as a proxy for the age of the country, if newer than 1896). This measures the ability of one million of your countrymen to produce a Nobel laureate or an Olympics medalist in one year.

Guess what? There are still wide disparities in the results; and there is still a surprisingly strong positive correlation between mental and physical accomplishment.

What is the explanation? If I had examined Nobel Prizes alone, I might have focused on national IQ. Since the same phenomenon is found in physical accomplishment as well, I considered another possible explanation: daily per capita caloric supply. Without sufficient nourishment, it is hard to accomplish much mentally or physically.

I tabulated the number of Nobel Prizes (plus Fields Medalists) in each country, and the number of Olympic medalists in each country, dividing both numbers by the population, the number of Olympic games (as a proxy for age), and by the daily per capita caloric supply. The results are shown in the two maps and the graph below. Dark blue represents the highest accomplishment, light pink the lowest.

The very strong positive correlation remains, with Scandinavia, northern Europe, and the rest of Europe at the high end; Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia are at the low end.

The remaining disparities cannot be explained by differences in the size of the population, the age of the country, or the adequacy of caloric intake. IQ cannot be proposed as an explanation for purely physical accomplishments. And while the awarding of Nobel Prizes has a large subjective (not to mention political) component, the winner of a race can be determined very objectively.

Mention should be made of Dr. Murray’s newest book, Human Diversity, in which he presents respectfully the evidence for real differences among people by sex and by race.

It seems that Western civilization used to maintain a cultivation of arete. That is no longer the case, as I continue to document: https://surakblog.wordpress.com/category/culture-war/

We can predict that the future of Western civilization lies wherever arete is cultivated. Yesterday, David Goldman argued that place might be China: https://pjmedia.com/spengler/2021/05/31/will-china-become-the-last-refuge-of-western-culture-n1451094

If you read the comments, you will see how Mrs. Surak refuted Mr. Goldman. She should know! Indeed, China is the second-lowest of the 60 countries studied above in number of Nobel laureates per one million population, per Olympic game attended, per one thousand calories. New America might be a better place to look.