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an education on henry adams

e-mail, 13 January 2002

My dear friends,

I come to you today with a happy heart because I think finally understand something important about Henry Adams.

For those who don't know Adams, he was "the brilliant scion of two presidents," a historian and a novelist of no small repute after The Civil War. His book "The Education of Henry Adams," though almost unreadable, at least for a meager brain like mine, is a classic of American letters. The chapter called "The Virgin and the Dynamo" is a set piece in itself and highly recommended.

My current grasp on the slippery Adams — which is by no means firm — comes from a book called "The Promise of Pragmatism," and though I am only 100 pages into it, the trip has been wonderful so far. And by the way, Adams was not a pragmatist but more an "antimodern modernist."


I am going to write a little about Adams and then provide some quotes and passages from "The Promise of Pragmatism" and "The Education" for those who want more. I would welcome feedback.


Adams's topic was power and its relation to the people who consent to subordinate their lives and thoughts to its authority. To cut right to the payoff: It seems Adams eventually came to believe that true power arrives in the form of inspiration. Look at the long list of things people respond to as interesting or inspirational and there you find the true sources of power, which is experienced in the human heart as enthusiasm, the feeling of being vibrantly alive.

Traditional authority is meant to keep the peace or ensure progress or provide salvation. It is, in a very real sense, weight that we must bear for the purpose of gaining certainty or stability or redemption. Inspiration on the other hand is a power that wells up inside, more like wings than weights; and since you can't be sure where your enthusiasm will take you, hopes for peace, progress and redemption can start to quake. Faith fades and existential courage comes into play. When imagination unseats certainties, life gets interesting. And Adams wanted life to be interesting.

The source of his inspiration — the symbol he ultimately chose to fire his imagination — was rather surprising. I will let the following passages say the rest.

13 January 2002

"One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it."
— Henry Adams

These passages are from "The Promise of Pragmatism" by John Patrick Diggins, published by the University of Chicago Press. They come in sequence from the first 100 pages.

Adams had studied history to find the clue to controlling power.

Modernism may be defined in a number of ways, but each definition returns to the problem of belief and the limits of cognition. The idea of order and objective truth becomes untenable to the modernist, as do all traditional modes of acquiring knowledge. Modernism arose in the late nineteenth century when Darwinism challenged the idea of divine creation and left religious dogma in shambles. Man without God was also left, as Arnold put it, wandering between a world that had been lost and a world that had yet to be found. With God dead, the problem of creating meaning fell to men and women, especially writers like Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, who gazed into the void to see if the intellect could be at home with the unknown and face the look of death. The modernist can neither believe nor rest content in disbelief.

In offering pragmatism, Dewey gave America something to be used; in resisting it, Adams held out for something to be worshipped.

In some respects Adams looms as an American counterpart to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who recognized a truth that Adams prized in Pascal's meditations: reason can prove only the limits of reason and the contingent, even arbitrary, character of all thinking.

"The worst of it is that we have totally lost confidence in our own school," Adams wrote a friend in 1912, now aware that the new currents in intellectual life had left the historian with no certain access to history itself.

Adams's acute sensibility about the limits of historical knowledge bears all the weight of what would come to be called today modernism or postmodernism.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr enabled us to think about power and its deceptions. In contrast to Dewey and the tradition of European Enlightenment, Niebuhr rejected the assumption that sufficient knowledge would emerge to constitute a challenge to power. Adams too doubted that the intellect would ever master the riddles of power. Both thinkers shared, even if by coincidence, the Nietzschean perspective that the best answer to power is suspicion.

"Striving to make stability of meaning prevail over the instability of events is the main task of intelligent human effort." Pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey

Instead of searching for timeless essences, the pragmatic philosopher investigates events and developments as part of the changing character of reality. Ancient Greek philosophers strove to know the immutable and eternal; the modern philosopher seeks the pattern of order within change so as to bring knowledge to bear on power and control.

Adams seemed to want to provoke life into leaving him maladjusted by setting out to know the unknowable. ... Adams chose to leave open the intellectual wounds of modernity in order to push thought to the edge of the abyss. As long as he lived, the life of the mind lived in defiance of its limits.

Adams set out to look for unity without appealing to anything transcendent or supernatural. ... Adams wanted to assert his own intellectual authority not by making history, as did his ancestors, but by comprehending it.

In four words Adams confessed to his failure: "Experience ceases to educate." ... Adams saw that history itself dissolves the cognitive import of experience to the extent the historian asks for explanations for events and receives none. Surely history is the sum and substance of human experience; yet the happenings of history may elude the intellect's quest for meaning and understanding.

As a historian Adams looked backward into the nature of past events, and even at contemporary unfolding developments, and found no rational principle of explanation, no interpretative scheme that would meaningfully connect sequences and discern patterns, no answer to the demand, "Why! Why!! Why!!!"

Continually disappointed by the experience of trying to derive knowledge from experience, Adams liked to see himself as suffering from what he called, somewhat playfully, the "anxiety of truth." Pragmatism promised to relieve such anxiety by showing us not what to think but how to think and how to move confidently ahead instead of dwelling behind in metaphysical wondersickness. If Adams dove deep and found nothing, Dewey taught Americans how to swim on the surface and how to conceive nature for the purpose of using it. In his early years Adams tried swimming in the treacherous currents of modern thought, assuming mind was a truth-knowing faculty, and he ended up drowning in his own doubts. Dewey would gladly have thrown him a lifejacket, a methodology for staying afloat by coping with the instant conditions of experience. Would Adams have grabbed it? Could the philosopher save the historian?

"The habit of doubt; of distrusting his own judgment and of totally rejecting the judgment of the world; the tendency to regard every question as open ... all these are well-known qualities of New England character." (Adams describing himself.)

In the skeptical minds of Adams and Weber* the personal and theoretical cannot be easily separated. Both minds were responding to problems that, while possibly felt in the inner recesses of their psyches, originated in philosophical issues involving the crisis of knowledge.

(*Max Weber was a German social scientist.)

For Adams too sensed what Weber called the "disenchantment of the world" and what Dewey called the "unnatural wound," an awareness that the universe had been reduced to a mechanical specter no longer capable of producing the rich supernatural illusions that had once sustained the mind. ... Although Adams and Weber recognized that Christianity ultimately failed in its spiritual mission, both would continue to probe the nature of religion as a subjective experience to be understood from the point of view of the believer, an exercise that often reflected their own need to see whether life had a "final meaning."

In Adams as well as Weber there is the sense that man is the creature and creator of his own means of alienation.

Above all, what Adams and Weber shared most fundamentally was a profound sense that the mechanization of society requires an opposing principle to represent the creative and spiritual forces of life. ... both looked to some emotional force that could revive feeling and passion and thereby possibly reverse the scientific tendency toward rationalization. In Weber's view, the mindless momentum of bureaucratic structures and cultural traditions, which are themselves pragmatic adaptation to reality leading to routine regulations, could be broken only by the appearance of "charismatic authority." ... or a "charismatic breakthrough" that would bring about the birth of new value-oriented behavior.

The charismatic leader, on the basis of some extraordinary or divine gift, would be able to introduce into history emotions that endow life with meaning and value, spiritual emotions that could possibly arrest the technical forces of "disenchantment."

For both authors the real problem was reality itself, the world of power as opposed to the realm of value.

Adams shared with European thinkers like Mann and Weber the same consciousness of modernism, of the mind's quest for the basis of truth and value in a contemporary world where all knowledge is indeterminate. ... Adams saw himself as estranged from all religious and political traditions, and he could hardly agree with Weber that it was the practice of religion, and not necessarily its truth, that provided the basis of social reality and human solidarity.

(In his search for understanding) ... Adams even tried to apply the newly discovered laws of physics to history in a last desperate effort to see if history had a future.

Both Adams and Weber believed that consequences are more important than intentions ... What Weber termed the irony of unintended consequences is a perfect formulation of Adam's description of Jefferson as he left office in 1808, sadly aware of the paradoxical relation of his political programs to the original meaning of his political philosophy. "He had undertaken to create a government which should interfere in no way with private action, and he created one which interfered directly in the concerns of every private citizen in the land," Adams wrote.

Adams grew less certain about science as a mode of investigating human experience.

Philosophy once saw itself as finding knowledge; James and Dewey joined modern science in declaring that knowledge is produced rather than discovered. ... In 1949, three years before his death, Dewey came upon Weber's writings and acknowledged that "one of the most distinguished sociologists of the last century" has made us aware that modern science cannot answer to the basic human need for "meaning."

Weber makes us aware of what Adams sensed: things can be experienced but still not understood.

Weber observed that in "every-day life" people "do not become aware and do not even wish to become aware of the intermixture of hostile values, be it for pragmatic or for psychological reasons."

It was typical of Adams to show us that what we held as convictions could turn out to be conceits.

Adams and Weber saw reason itself as anxious, impelling humankind to seek in vain what is desired but cannot be obtained: freedom from insecurity and insignificance to ward off a precarious and meaningless world.

"The Education of Henry Adams" is, among other things, a discourse on power. The problem of power and its responsiveness to reason is inevitably linked to the problem of legitimate authority and its acceptance by those who consent to its exercise. Throughout his intellectual life, Henry Adams struggled with both of these problems.

(Adams was a) skeptical humanist who feared that reason could possibly destroy what it wanted to understand.

When Adams complains of the "failure" of his education he is lamenting filial rupture. He realizes he can neither accept nor transmit the moral certitudes so confidently possessed by his illustrious ancestors. Henceforth Adams would bear the burden of modernism; the "futile folly" of trying to use old standards of knowledge to get beyond the new problems of knowledge in order to speak truth to power.

In "A Defense of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America (1787-88)," John Adams explained why one could be reasonably hopeful for the future of the Republic. Noting that the colonists had rejected both royalty and the "pious mystery" of religion when considering a government, Adams assumed that authority was now safely lodged in the people themselves. ... Young Henry Adams was to grow up and question a great many of his great-grandfather's assertions.

"It is my policy to encourage rebellion to every authority but my own," he wrote his mother. "I have learned to think De Tocqueville my model, and I study his life and works as the Gospel of my private religion."

Even as a young man Adams felt in his heart two convictions that would never cease worrying his mind: history is not a rational process, and the classical argument that politics must be based on reason is an argument that itself is not based on reason. ... The notion that the world goes on independently of man's will and effort sensitized Adams's mind to the riddle of fate and freedom.

Adams conceded that Harvard had the effect of leaving him full of questions, and therefore undergraduate education succeeded in weakening "the violent political bias of his childhood" and opening his mind to new ideas. Yet if the development of intellect could free the mind from bias, it still left the mind hungering for knowledge. This awareness that the mind posed the very questions it could not answer had troubled Adams even earlier when he had accepted an appointment as assistant professor of Harvard's history department.

(He wrote in his "Education" ... ) "Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant. His course had led him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled from one ocean into another till he had learned to swim; but even to him education was a serious thing. A parent gives life, but as a parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. A teacher is expected to teach truth, and perhaps may flatter himself that he does so, if he stops with the alphabet or the multiplication table, as a mother teaches a truth by making her child eat with a spoon. A teacher must either treat history as a catalogue, a record, a romance, or an evolution; and whether he affirms or denies evolution, he falls into the burning faggots of the pit. He makes of his scholars either priests or atheists, plutocrats or socialists, judges or anarchists, almost in spite of himself. In essence incoherent and immoral, history had either to be taught as such — or falsified."

He summed up the dilemma inherent in Jeffersonian idealism as follows: the Jeffersonians believed that "government must be ruled by principles: to which the Federalists answered that government must be ruled by circumstances."

Adams was honest enough to realize that he had set out to explain more than he could comprehend. Indeed certain parts of (his 9 volume history of the United States) read like the chapters on cetology in "Moby Dick": the more information we have about the varieties of whales and their peculiar habits, the more ignorant we are when encountering the white whale.

"Historians undertake to arrange sequences — called stories or histories — assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but uncommonly unconscious and childlike; so much so that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about."

Thus while history as a mode of explanation no longer appeared valid, history as the embodiment of some unleashed power emerged as the terrible secret of human destiny. Adams's growing conviction (was) that power had been disjoined from authority.

Science had alienated man from nature by providing man the knowledge to unleash its energies but not the values to control them.

(Here's the final passage: Almost five continuous — and amazing — pages from "The Promise of Pragmatism," starting on Page 90.)

The race between enlightenment and energy, between education and catastrophe, became for Adams a race between authority and power. How could this process of accelerating disintegration be reversed, the process by which law would be transformed into force, morality into police? The question required Adams to return again to history, not to the American past but to the Middle Ages, the age of faith, worship and hope.

The key to the alienation of power from authority was to find that moment in history when these two forces were seen as one and the same. The challenge of overcoming alienation was to find the basis for reunifying man with nature and God, to find man feeling the presence of power within himself because he experienced the meaning of authority beyond himself. The key to authority lay in religion, or so it seemed when Adams allowed the needs of his imagination to flee the demands of his mind. Faith required a willing suspension of disbelief, and Adams was willing to try to reconstruct authority by giving his emotions full rein. If genuine authority cannot be found in the modern world, it may still exist as an idea, an image or symbol entertained by the imagination. Artistic effect could convey what scientific analysis would deny — that we believe in what we appreciate, value and savor, not what we know, understand, and control.

Four Problems of Modernism: Authority, Faith, Art, Love
"Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartes" (a companion book to "The Education") engages the reader as a spiritual odyssey into the medieval world of poetry, architecture, hagiography, and philosophy, from the "Chanson de Roland" to the stained-glass windows and pointed arches of Chartes, and from the symbol of the Virgin Mary to the "Summa Theologiae" of Thomas Aquinas.

The cathedral represents for Adams the finest flowering of Christianity, the triumph of faith and joy over fear and pain; and the building itself, with its geometrically arranged portals, apses, glasswork, and statuary, celebrates the concrete expressions of unity and harmony, the spiritual goal of all humankind. At the center stands a statue of Mary, a symbol radiating the mystery of grace and love and a shrine expressing the authority of goodness against the power of the oppressor — "an authority which the people wanted, and the fiefs feared." The scene of the mass, evoked by Adams to capture her magnificent presence, enables the reader to be almost at one with the crowd of worshippers who lift their gaze above the altar and see, "high over all the agitation of prayer, the passion of politics, the anguish of suffering, the terrors of sin, only the figure of the Virgin in majesty."

The capacities to believe, trust, respect, worship and adore, capacities that enable humankind to devote its energies to ends beyond itself, to the veneration of the Virgin and the construction of Chartes — these became for Adams the meaning of genuine authority. A symbol that could draw on spiritual power to elevate and purify all believers could perhaps discipline and refine the larger society itself. The worshipped presence of the Virgin would help ease the burden from which humanity aspired to realize its deepest need — harmony, unity, wholeness.

Although political heir to New England Puritanism, Adams was scarcely proposing a classical Protestant solution to the problem of knowledge and authority. Indeed his keen grasp of Mary's appeal was more psychological than theological, and his perceptions were not without his characteristic irony:

"No one has ventured to explain why the Virgin wielded exclusive power over poor and rich, sinners and saints, alike. Why were all the Protestant churches cold failures without her help? Why could not the Holy Ghost — the spirit of Love and Grace — equally answer their prayers? Why was the son powerless? Why was Chartes Cathedral in the thirteenth century — like Lourdes today — the expression of what is in substance a separate religion?

Why did the gentle and gracious Virgin Mother so exasperate the Pilgrim Father? Why was the Woman struck out of the Church and ignored by the State? These questions are not antiquarian or trifling in historical value; they tug at the heart-strings of all that makes whatever order in the cosmos. If a Unity exists, in which and toward which all energies centre, it must explain and include Duality, Diversity, Infinity — Sex!"

The Holy Ghost, Adams reasoned, offered a coldly abstract proposition, while Mary hovered as a real and intimate presence. The Trinity offered a God of judgment and justice, but the people wanted above all not strict justice but "protection, pardon and love." The Church presented a theodicy to explain God's ways to man, but Mary questioned a God who would create man in order to punish him. The masses identified with Mary's rebellion against authority. "The people loved Mary because she trampled on conventions; not merely because she could do it, but because she liked to do what shocked every well-regulated authority. Her pity had no limit." Nor did her power: "Mary's wish was absolute law, on earth as in heaven. For her, other laws were not made. Intensely human, but always Queen, she upset, at her pleasure, the decisions of every court and the orders of every authority, human or divine; interfered directly in the ordeal; altered the processes of nature; abolished space, annihilated time." Mary emerges as an impulsive anarchist undermining all that is logical, abstract, impersonal, and objective. A saint, she subverts authority in order better to express it.

In conventional scholarship, Adams's return to the Middle Ages represents a search for order and unity. But Adams's treatment of Mary suggest that he was searching the distant past not so much for unity as for spontaneity. In the figure of Mary he pitted the subjectivity of "charismatic" authority against the objectivity of traditional and "rational-legal" authority, sensing with Weber that only a continual revitalization of the former could prevent the latter's routine systematization and eventual bureaucratization — the modern phenomenon of "rationalization" that brings death to the inner life of the spirit. Mary is depicted as a passionate rebel so that her arbitrary acts can upset the dullness of habitual obedience and ritualistic authority. She is capable of such acts because unlike God, she is "human" by virtue of her imperfections and thus able to bestow subjective favor by demonstrating the true meaning of pity and help, justice and goodness, love and mercy, and all the life-enhancing qualities that cannot be translated into law. "If the Trinity was in essence Unity, the mother alone could represent whatever was not Unity; whatever was irregular, exceptional, outlawed; and this was the whole human race." As a charismatic figure Mary would rescue the authority of Christianity by rehumanizing its meaning:

"Mary concentrated in herself the whole rebellion of man against fate; the whole protest against divine law; the whole contempt for human law as its outcome; the whole unutterable fury of human nature beating itself against the walls of its prison-house, and suddenly, seized by a hope in the Virgin, man had found a door of escape. She was above law; she took feminine pleasure in turning hell into an ornament; she delighted in trampling over every social distinction in this world and the next. She knew that the universe was unintelligible to her, on any theory of morals, as it was to her worshippers, and she felt, like them, no sure conviction that it was any more intelligible to the Creator of it. To her every suppliant was a universe in itself, to be judged apart, on his own merits, by his love for her — by no means on his orthodoxy, or his conventional standing in the Church, or according to his correctness in defining the nature of the Trinity.

The convulsive hold which Mary to this day maintains over human imagination — as you can see it at Lourdes — was due much less to her power of saving soul or body than to her sympathy with a people who suffered under law — divine or human — justly or unjustly, by accident or design, by decree of God or by guile of Devil. She cared not a straw for conventional morality, and she had no notion of letting her friends be punished, to the tenth of any generation, for the sins of their ancestors or the peccadilloes of Eve."

When we read "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartes" with the problem of authority in mind, we may understand why Adams delighted in calling himself a "conservative Christian anarchist." Authority cannot be based on law, which may only regulate behavior but never inspire it. (My emphasis) Neither can it be based on power, which is the means by which authority is overthrown, not necessarily established or maintained. Nor can it be based on an omnipotent God, since a sovereignty that commands its creations denies them their free will and his own as well. And although "chaos is the law of nature" and "order the dream of man," authority cannot be based simply on order without succumbing to a deadening monotony and uniformity. Instead, authority must be founded on ideals that are ontologically self-justifying, ideals that have a compelling inner power of persuasion, spiritual ideals that touch the mind's desire to transcend itself. The symbol of Mary served Adams's purpose of finding a source of authority that could remain immune to the secular corruptions of time and the skeptical forces of science: her arbitrary actions could not be codified nor her irrational nature comprehended.

Adams conceived authority as a characteristic of the relations between leaders and followers. He remained fascinated by the "convulsive hold" Mary had on the modern imagination because he remained intrigued by the attitudes and values that mediate between authority and its subjects. Only an image that could command such devotion could discipline the energies of the human race by elevating them to higher ends. The construction of Chartes stood as a symbol of such spiritual power, and worship of the Virgin helped his burden of existence. Thus through his sinuous prose of imaginative empathy, Adams's descriptions of the celebration of the mass and of the Virgin's miracles facilitated a reliving of the religious experiences that he was trying to convey to modern man, a sense of the sacred that derives from a figure of human virtues and supernatural powers.

Ultimately, Mary becomes the symbol and shrine of authority because she is also the symbol of freedom, the "hope of despair" and the "door of escape" through which weak, finite man may identify goodness and feel the power of life within himself. In the Virgin the idea of authority reached its apotheosis and the problem of alienation found its answer.


“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb