October 05, 2005

An American Education

For Intellectual History this week I was required to finish reading The Education of Henry Adams, the lengthy autobiography of a historical figure I had never before encountered. Great-grandson of our second president, grandson of our sixth president, and son of the Union's ambassador to England during the Civil War, Henry Adams is rather a curious figure. At least, I am led to conclude that he was after completing the book. Perhaps the best place to start in a discussion of his ideas is with a summary.

Henry Adams was born in Boston in 1838 and spent most of the first sixteen years of his life there before attending Harvard College. This was followed by two or three years of unprofitable wanderings through Europe, chiefly Germany and Italy, under the guise of studying law. Then, throughout the Civil War and beyond, he served as his father's private secretary in England, returning to the United States in 1868.

For the next few years he drifted, trying to find a place for himself, particularly around Washington D. C. He tried writing for the press, particularly about political matters, and would have likely become involved in politics under a certain kind of president. U. S. Grant, however, dashed those hopes, and in 1871 he reluctantly took a teaching position in the history department at Harvard and also served as editor of the North American Review. He would remain there until 1877.

However, at this point the narrative skips about two decades, resuming in 1892. During the intervening period he married, and, after the death of his wife's father in 1885, she killed herself. This portion of his life is ignored completely. Adams died in 1918, and this book was written in 1907. The latter half, after the twenty-year break, is chiefly concerned with ideas rather than experiences. Adams travels all over the United States and Europe, visiting the Chicago and St. Louis World Fairs and the Great Exposition in Paris, studying stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals, and developing and expounding upon his own theory of the movement and direction of history.

During his life, Adams rubbed shoulders with some of the great names of his age: poets and authors like A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry James, famous statesmen like Charles Sumner, John Hay, and William Gladstone, and no less than twelve United States presidents. His areas of study and interest were broad and far-reaching, extending through history, art, geology, diplomacy, politics, journalism, etc. The life he led, to my mind, was almost an ideal 19th century existence. Here we have a man who, while he was not particularly famous himself, either then or now, was often intimate with men who were, and who experienced history firsthand in a way that few others did. Henry Adams witnessed history without significantly influencing it, a historian's dream.

And yet he was pleased with very little of what he got out of life. His obsession with education, and failure to become educated to his own satisfaction, interfered with contentment. Paige observed in class that his search for an education seems to have been a search for purpose, not only for himself but for humanity and its very existence. Adams's search could also be viewed as a search for unity, the hope to discover a Theory of Everything. And in both of these searches he seems to have failed.

Having said that he failed to find purpose, it is hardly necessary to point out that Adams was an atheist. He spends very little time discussing his personal view of God, but when his sister dies painfully and horribly of tetanus over the course of ten days in 1870, he strongly rejects the possibility of God's existence. It's the old problem of the loving God who allows suffering and evil in the world.

However, I hope it is not to awful to say that, had he been a Christian, it is doubtful that he would have produced a work of any use to a historian. It was his inability to find either unity or purpose that drove him to continue the search and, however unsatisfactory the results may have been to him, they yield some interesting material for us. As straight history, Henry Adams often seems to have little to tell us. He is unabashedly biased in much of his writing, and so concerned with his own journey of self-discovery that he frequently ignores major historical events which are transpiring under his very nose.

Adams's chief concern, and his great use to us, is his interest in the minds of his time. He has a great deal to show with regard to intellectual history . . . not surprising considering the nature of the course I am reading this for. Adams's investigations into, and expirements with, the various disciplines he dabbled in are fascinating. His interests are often informed by some of the great minds and events of his time, such as his research on Darwinism and his investigations into the scandals of the Grant Administration.

Additionally, he discusses at great length his own "18th Century" mind and the contrast it presents with the American minds around him. America after the extremely transitional Civil War was a veritable beehive of activity for over a quarter of a century. Americans were industrializing rapidly, taming the West, dealing with an increasingly enormous influx of immigrants, and, in short, marching rapidly to the beat of progress. Adams, though unable to keep up, stands back and watches in fascination, allowing us to watch with him. It is from these observations, and his attempt to unify everything, that his grand theory of history comes.

This theory is laid out in two of the final three chapters of the book: "A Dynamic Theory of History" and "A Law of Acceleration." Adams's theory "defines Progress as the development and economy of Forces" and "defines force as anything that does, or helps to do work" (474). Further, the movement of force throughout history has produced a certain amount of inertia, causing an ever-faster acceleration of progress. Things are moving forward with increasing speed, and they cannot be stopped.

Adams postulates that, for instance, the increase in the amount of energy at man's disposal between 1840 and 1900 accelerated at an exponential rate. Further, if one were to map out the values of the energy man has been capable of harvesting throughout history, it would be possible to show a fixed ratio of accelerating force going back to at least the year 1400. What this amounts to in his mind is a leap forward during the next hundred years (between 1900 and 2000) of a magnitude which the mind of 1900 can scarcely imagine or fathom.

His examples are quite fascinating, particularly his perspective on the power of the Cross as a symbol and a driving force after 300 AD. His observations about the leap which he foresees in just a few short years are indeed perceptive. My mind goes immediately to air and space travel, nuclear power and weapons, computers, satellite communications . . . the list could extend almost indefinitely.

I was following very closely his conclusions, as much about the past as about the future, and nodding in agreement. That was probably why it was such a shock to see him observe that, in 1905 and within two pages of the end of the book, "For the first time in fifteen hundred years a true Roman pax [is] in sight . . ." (503). And, on the final page, "Perhaps some day -- say 1938, their centenary -- they might be allowed to return . . . and perhaps then, for the first time since man began . . . they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder" (505).

To find that Henry Adams was, once again, so totally wrong in his assertions, even unto the end, left me discouraged for his sake. He spent his entire life trying to figure the world out, and having his dearest theories turned upside down. However, even in his final, false prediction he leaves us with one final bit of education for ourselves. Adams's hopeful outlook towards the future was a common product of the time he lived in, one more valuable glimpse into the minds of the past. As for his attempt to find unity in multiplicity, we of the year 2005 are still searching. Whether we shall be any more successful than Henry Adams remains to be seen.

Posted by Jared at October 5, 2005 10:26 PM | TrackBack