30 January, 2021

Where Have All the Great Works Gone?

A few months ago I wrote about Oswald Spengler’s attempt at comparative world history. I expressed severe reservations with Spengler’s methods and conclusions.[1] But for me the most fascinating parts of the book were the footnotes to Spengler’s main argument. Take, for example, Spengler's attempt to compare and contrast members of his chosen pantheon of “great” scientists, philosophers, and artists over the course of world history. This particular comparative game is just a sidenote to his larger attempt at comparative civilizational history: Spengler's main thesis is that all great cultures (and by culture he means something as broad as the entire classical world, the modern West, or all of India) follow a parallel course of development. Events that occur in one era for one culture will have distinct mirrors in another culture a few centuries later.  Thus if one culture had its Socrates and its Homer, or it Jesus and its Justinian, then other great cultures will produce figures of similar stature that play a similar role in their own civilization’s story.

Now the specifics of Spengler's comparisons are not really that important for this post. If you would like to know more of those details feel free to read my original review essay of his work. The only thing relevant to the point I want to explore here is that Spengler saw his own culture, that of the modern West, as beginning in the high Middle Ages and reaching its point of intellectual stagnation in his own lifetime. 20th century Europe was about to enter the period where politics swallows up the world of thought and creativity. Empire would lead to intellectual rigidity, just as it did in Rome two millennia before. This periodization explains the book’s contemporary popularity—everybody loves books that predict imminent disaster—but it meant that Spengler gave himself a fairly difficult task. It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history—say, Socrates or the Buddha—and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight. That they are still household names millennia later is all the evidence you need to prove that these men were, in Spengler’s words, “world-historical” figures. But how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honor? One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John's curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.[2]

Now Erskine’s list is not perfect; it has not perfectly weathered the centuries. The fame of William James has sunk with time; today we usually think of Joseph Conrad, not Thomas Hardy, as the supreme English novelist of that era. But the broader point holds: only a decade or two after these men’s deaths intellectuals confidently spoke of them in the same breath as Shakespeare and Plato. And not just subjectively, in the sense we might today ("I think Urusala LeGuin is as good as Shakespeare" or "I think Hayek is better than Plato") but with full knowledge that the broader public already knew that these people and their works belonged on the list. It was obvious to even those who disliked Nietzche that he was a seminal figure in Western thought; it was obvious even to those who disagreed with Ibsen that he claimed a similar place in Western literature, and so forth. Their ideas might be argued against, but their genius and their influence was undeniable.

Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?

How about for the last two decades?

The last three?

Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

In the realm of science, perhaps. But in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind. Most "great books" curricula stop right around World War II and its immediate aftermath. St. John's recently added Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir to their curricula, but their works are almost 70 years old. Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.

In the world of literature there are more candidates that I can imagine people listing: Beckett, Achebe, Márquez, Morrison, Ishiguro, Solzhenitsyn all come to mind, but none save the last would be recognized as automatically, obviously deserving to be on the list, and the last only because he is one of the key testaments of the 20th century's totalitarian experiment, and it still is not clear which individual will be seen as the definitive voice of that experiment in a few centuries time (Orwell? Arendt? Levi? Grossman? Serge?).

Where have all the great works gone?

In my essay “Living in the Shadow of the Boomers” and in my review of Lawrence Friedman's Strategy: A History I have discussed closely related questions. The latter book is intellectual history of strategic thinking— including military strategy, political strategy, and business strategy— over the last three centuries. Because strategic theory is so thoroughly intertwined with broader intellectual currents, the book served as an able history of social, economic, and political thought over that time. Though it is not the book’s central thesis, it is clear from his survey that there was a post 1950s decline in the quality of thought in all three domains. There are many possible reasons for this: these sixty years we have lived enslaved to the culture of the boomers, a generation whose great intellectual commitments were explicitly anti-intellectual. The professionalization of intellectual pursuit is another problem. Melville would never have written Moby Dick if he had spent years enrolled in an MFA program instead of spending years at sea. Men and women who in past ages would have observed humanity up close (or at least who would have been forced through a broad but rigorous education in classics) instead cloister themselves in ivory towers. There intellectual energy is channeled into ever more specialized academic fields and cautiously climbing the bureaucratic and over-managed academic ladder. Could that social scene ever produce a great work? 

But much of this is not entirely unique to human history. Nations go through creative phrases. Occasionally a lucky combination of intellectuals and incentives converge in one era, inspiring a series of great works remembered centuries later. Then it dissipates out. It is not strange for America to repeat this experience. More damaging, and perhaps more unique, is how American stagnation has deadened creative thought across the globe. In many ways global intellectual life has been reduced to American intellectual life. Here is how I describe it in my review of Strategy:
Freedman's history really begins only in the 19th century. Specifically, 19th century Europe. At this time, no one European country dominates the debates over military, political, or revolutionary strategy. Germany is something of the center-node for strategic thought and practice as the century comes to a close, but the Germans by no means have a monopoly on strategy, and there is no clear division between debates happening within Germany and those happening outside of it. In both military and revolutionary circles, everybody read everybody else.

When American thinkers first show up on the scene in the 1910s, this did not change. They simply joined the conversation. It is clear from Freedman's profile of American theorists like Jane Addams and John Dewey (not who you expected to show up in this book, is it?), that the American thinkers of this era viewed themselves as voices in an international conversation. Freedman presents them as such; the chapter in which they appear gives equal space to Max Weber and Leo Tolstoy.

This changes in the post-war world. In each of the three eras, Freedman's intellectual history narrows in on America after 1945. These chapters are devoted almost entirely to case studies involving American social movements, American military conflicts, or American firms. Henceforth he profiles frameworks created by strategic theorists living in America or made relevant because they were written in English and addressed to Americans. There are two main exceptions to this: a chapter on Foucault and French social theory of the 60s and 70s, and a chapter on Japanese business strategy in the 1980s. Even these two chapters earn their place mostly because of the immediate impact their subjects had on American strategic thought in '80s and '90s. The utility of French thinking and Japanese praxis is assessed by the impact they had on American conceptions of strategy.

There is a larger pattern here. You will find it on numerous syllabi in philosophy and related topics in the humanities. A chronologically minded 101 course will contain a scatter-shot collection of writings from the ancient and medieval world, a much larger chunk of content from 18th and 19th century Europe, and then around 1950 or so "Western" thought becomes "Anglophone" thought, and most of that is really just "American." Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it.[3]

Interestingly, Freedman is not an American himself. This narrative is not a creation of self-centered Americans but rather the standard way of thinking about many topics regardless of the country in which one lives. There are explanations for this: the best scientists, academics, and entrepreneurs from every nation flock to the United States and its university system. American pop culture saturates the music and movies of other nations. It is not uncommon to find Asians or Europeans who know more about American politics than many Americans do themselves. Their mind has been taken over by American affairs. Thus the creative classes of the rest of the entire Earth are sucked into the same orbit that the Americans have languished in for three generations. This only reinforces Americans own significant cultural insularity. While there may be important debates being had and works being written in Russian, Spanish, or Chinese, those works are not being translated for American readers.

This is probably the greatest cost of American hegemony. In a world in which American culture is so dominant yet so sterile it is difficult for genuinely fresh developments abroad to arise. For three decades we have had our universal empire and all the intellectual rigidity that comes with it. Perhaps Spengler's prediction that the Western world would follow the Roman may not have been wrong, just a few decades too early.

If this post on inter-generational intellectual history caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on similar problems: "On Living in the Shadow of the Boomers," "A Non-Western Canon: What Would a List of Humanity's Hundred Greatest Thinkers Look Like?,"  Book Notes: On Strategy, a History," "On Adding Phrase to the Language," "On Cultures That Build," "A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," and "On Sparks Before the Prairie Fire." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


[1] Tanner Greer, "Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human History," The Scholar's Stage (14 December 2020).

[2] William Scott Rule, "Seventy Years of a Changing Curriculum at St. John's College," Dissertation, Georgia State University (2009), 45.

[3] Tanner Greer, "Book Notes--Strategy, a History," Scholar's Stage (16 July 2019)


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I second Taleb, also Ayn Rand, Stallman, possibly Yudkowsky, Moldbug.

Onto literature, Tolkien, Heinlein, Gene Wolfe.

Maybe Orson Welles and Hitchcock.

Anonymous said...

Intellectual dark ages do happen. Nearly every book about the history of Western thought has a rather noticeable millennium long gap between the Late Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

Anonymous said...

I think there is another perspective on "great works" that is worth considering, regardless of whether you think it applies here:

"Great works" are not great by virtue of their text, but solely by virtue of the fact that everyone has read them. (Or otherwise absorbed a societally-agreed summary of their ideas.) They provide a way for two people to converse using concepts familiar to both.

Thus the lack of "great works" recently does not reflect a lack of societal creativity, but instead reflects a lack of societal homogenization.

On this analysis, the "great works" of the past several decades would mostly be films -- television and perhaps some movies -- but Harry Potter is worth mentioning too. In more recent decades, the audience for film content has diverged much like the audience for textual content.

T. Greer said...

@Anon II--

There is certainly something to that, but I think it underestimates the true diversity of novels being published in the 19th century. For ancient Rome, the "classics" means basically "something that was well written and survived." Tacitus is on the list almost due to a freak historical accident in preservation.

But the closer we get to the present the less true this is. And so the significance of all contemporaries agreeing at the time "Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are writing at the Shakespeare level, just aeons above the tens of thousands of novelists in the Western world" was significant. It might help that the Russian scene was less crowded than the English language scene, but not by so much. Tolstoy towered not because he was the only novelist of 19th century Europe, but because he was one of the very best.

As for today's great works--I think it is clear that in the 21st century the premiere art form is clearly long form television ("prestige TV") series. Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, etc.

Ahab said...

Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Ozu, Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese. These are all virtually undisputed masters. And with the last one we come right up to the present day.

Sopranos and The Wire are epic works but they aren't precisely auteur works in the same way that the Great Books were; not to say that's a bad thing. I personally found The Sopranos to be more of a well made entertainment, comparable to Thackeray's Vanity Fair, than a timeless classic.

Shorewalker said...

One idea: many of the greatest #creative minds are not focusing so heavily on books. They're writing screenplays, producing YouTube talk series, posting to websites, hosting and appearing on podcasts.

I'm mostly a (non-fiction) writer. But writing's no longer the only big game.

Zmflavius said...

@anons Find it more than a little dubious to list any of Taleb, Rand, Stallman, Yudkowsky, or Moldbug. I could tell from that list, as a software developer, that you too, come either from the world of tech or some place adjacent to it, because I guarantee you that outside that world, the percentage of people who have heard of any of those names (save perhaps Rand) does not break 1%.

Zmflavius said...

As a serious answer to an individual in the past 50 years or so who has made serious and more importantly, widely discussed, if not accepted contributions to human social and political thought, perhaps Rawls, Nozick, and Friedman. But they are not exactly recognized much outside the academy either.

TJ said...

Saul Kripke, Noam Chomsky, and John Rawls.

Anonymous said...

Robert Caro

Anonymous said...

As a side note, the nobiliary particle in french is not actually part of the name. "Simone de Beauvoir" is correct, so is "Madame de Beauvoir", but "de Beauvoir" on its own is incorrect.

Grant K. said...

I disagree completely!

If one focuses on the intellectual content of what is being produced as opposed to the form in which the ideas are expressed, I think it is unarguable that we are living through the most productive and amazing intellectual era of human history, including especially the last two decades.

Many of the questions that lay at the core of the great books are being addressed in substantive ways by everything from genetic anthropology to evolutionary psychology to physics.

Specialization in the modern academy may have resulted in an unprecedented mass of uninspired and misguided work, but we now have good, empirical answers to many of the longest standing and hardest questions about human nature, our origins, the natural world, etc. by which every intellectual from the past would be astonished.

To take just one example, the ability to reconstruct human population movements deep into prehistory using genetic analysis and the corresponding insights we have gleaned in everything from archaeology to linguistics has led to an astonishing new information about the concrete past of our species, and all of this has come only in the last decade or so.

Gentleman scholars have been pushed out of the market because their musings can no longer compete with the quality and content of the best results of our collective and institutionalized intellectual processes.

This may mean that we no longer have the appearance of towering intellects and virtuosic monographs, but don't let that fool you! We are living in a golden age without precedent.

usscaptain said...

A list of great thinkers who died in the last decade

John Forbes Nash

Steven Hawking

Christopher Hitchens

Derek Parfit

For ones with bigger influence in the past 20 years I can come up with only 1 major example

Milton Friedman.

For modern thinkers the biggest ones are Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahneman (thinking fast and slow), Noah Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Slavoj Žižek

I find a lot of the time we think in terms of the ideas of people rather than the people who made them. Which makes examples like Daniel Kahneman seem strange at first until you remember that they made some huge contribution to our understanding of intutition vs thinking. We just don't ascribe it the same respect.

Similarly peter singer isn't very famous but his ideas reach billions of dollars.

russell1200 said...

So Spengler in 1914 is pretty much at the front end of the WW1/WW2 Communist Rise/Collapse sequence that dominated much of the energy of the 20th century.

The U.S. passes Great Britain in GDP somewhere in the 19th century. But it is still mostly agrarian and much of this is a factor of shear size. But the United States is in excellent position to take the lead after the destruction of WW2.

What it is not in a good place to do is take over intellectual leadership outside of the sciences/economic endeavors. Agricultural employment is peaking in the 1920s and dropping off rapidly in the 50s. But the focus of artistic endeavors are going to be very widely spread out over a the huge population that is newly wealthy.

Which is not to say that nothing of value is created. Simply that it will be geared toward a middlebrow audience, and the prominence of that middlebrow audience will drive the "fine arts" into odd highbrow cubby holes in an effort to maintain exclusivity. High art isn't really high art, if everyone can afford it.

Thus a dearth of universally recognized Shakespeare equivalents even though there is a huge number of people involved in the arts.

T. Greer said...

@Grant K--

I don't disagree, though there is a good Thielian argument to be made on the limits on modern science and the limited returns it provides in most domains compared to earlier eras.

This post was geared more towards the humanities in any case. I think one could make the case that the humanities have underperformed because the sciences are eating them up, but that argument only travels so far. geneticists are helping discover keys to the human past but they provide little guidance for understanding the felt experience of the present moment or political/ethical guidance for the future. I am inclined to agree with Douthat in the realms of politics, ethics, and art we are stuck in a recursion back to 1975. The great attempts to take what we have learned from the new sciences and bridge them back to the world of action and judgement has not really been made--or if made, has not caught on except in small circles.

CJ said...

Could it be that cultural and scholarly production increased to the point where it is impossible to know, at a glance, what can be considered to be candidates for great works status or not? To make such a judgment, you need to have a reasonable grasp of what the candidates are and how they compare to each other and to the works of the past. Meanwhile, since 1914, the world's population and economy has grown several-fold, and while elite cultural and intellectual production probably hasn't grown that fast, it's has grown enough to make such judgments impossible.

Ji Xiang said...

I think that every now and again a book is still written that tries to answer some of the "big" questions, and makes an impression on a lot of people. "Sapiens" by Noal Yuval Hariri is a good recent example. "Guns, germs and steel" by Jared Diamond and the "God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins are other examples from the past few decades. Yes, none of these people are Marx or Adam Smith, or likely to become that influential. We obviously don't live in an era where coherent new ideologies or scientific disciplines are created by single individuals.

Kartturi said...

My suggestions: Orwell and Cesare Pavese (d. 1950), Nikos Kazantzakis (d. 1957), Carl Jung (d. 1961), Hannah Arendt and R. C. Zaehner (both died in mid 1970's), Borges (d. 1986), Carl Barks and H. S. M. Coxeter (more recently), or Donald Knuth (not dead yet). But the time will tell... In any case, none of those Amazon-bestselling popularizers that people read nowadays.

Ricardo Carvalho said...

I completely disagree with the political thought of both of them, but Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa are certainly among the greatest writers of literature ever published in Spanish.

I'd say the same for Mia Couto and José Saramago and Portuguese literature.

Two of these four died less than 15 years ago and two of them are still alive.

Literature in Spanish and Portuguese are however really something the Anglo-Saxon world isn't really that interested though.

Anonymous said...

For ancient Rome, the "classics" means basically "something that was well written and survived." Tacitus is on the list almost due to a freak historical accident in preservation.

But the closer we get to the present the less true this is. And so the significance of all contemporaries agreeing at the time "Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are writing at the Shakespeare level, just aeons above the tens of thousands of novelists in the Western world" was significant. It might help that the Russian scene was less crowded than the English language scene, but not by so much. Tolstoy towered not because he was the only novelist of 19th century Europe, but because he was one of the very best.

You've interpreted "societal homogenization" a little differently than I meant it. I'm not saying that Tolstoy was great because the other Russian literature of the time was so similar/homogenized that it was easy for Tolstoy to stand out.

I'm saying Tolstoy was great because various people needed to agree on what "great literature" was, and they picked Tolstoy (for reasons including but not limited to the quality of his writing). I'm positing more homogenization then than now among literature consumers, not among literature producers.