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The Heroism of Despair

As I understand your Faith, your x, your reaction of the individual on the cosmos, it is the old question of Free Will over again. You choose to assume that the will is free. Good! Reason proves that the Will cannot be free. Equally good! Free or not, the mere fact that a doubt can exist, proves that x must be a very microscopic quantity. If the orthodox are grateful to you for such gifts, the world has indeed changed, and we have much to thank God for, if there is a God, that he should have left us unable to decide whether our thoughts, if we have thoughts, are our own or his’n.

Although your gift to the church seems to me a pretty darned mean one, I admire very much your manner of giving it, which magnifies the crumb into at least forty loaves and fishes…

With hero worship like Carlyle’s, I have little patience. In history heroes have neutralysed each other, and the result is no more than would have been reached without them. Indeed in military heroes I suspect that the ultimate result has been retardation. Nevertheless you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men. So far I am with you. A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred millions. What then? They drag us up the cork-screw stair of thought, but they can no more get their brains to run out of their especial convolutions than a railway train (with a free will of half an inch on three thousand miles) can run free up Mount Shasta. Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can’t prove even that we are.

Adams may have been having fun with James, but he was serious in rejecting will as an explanation of historical events. In The Education of Henry Adams he returned to the theme and spoke of “seeing lines of force all about him, where he had always seen lines of will.” In the chapter on “A Dynamic Theory of History” he made more of this:

A dynamic theory, like most theories, begins by begging the question: it defines Progress as the development and economy of Forces. Further, it defines force as anything that does, or helps to do work. Man is a force; so is the sun; so is a mathematical point, though without dimensions or known existence.

Man commonly begs the question again by taking for granted that he captures the forces. A dynamic theory, assigning attractive force to opposing bodies in proportion to the law of mass, takes for granted that the forces of nature capture man. The sum of force attracts; the feeble atom or molecule called man is attracted; he suffers education or growth; he is the sum of the forces that attract him; his body and his thought are alike their product; the movement of the forces controls the progress of his mind, since he can know nothing but the motions which impinge on his senses, whose sum makes education.

It follows, according to Adams, that “modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces.” Society could not be understood simply by concentrating on the men and women who made decisions or failed to make them. Abstract institutions—the state, technology, big business—were at every point autonomous, independent of the men and women whose lives they ostensibly served. The work of modern society was done “by masses of mechanical power—steam, electric, furnace, or other—which have to be controlled by a score or two of individuals who have shown capacity to manage it.” These managerial types, “who are socially as remote as heathen gods, alone worth knowing, but never known,” are as dumb as their dynamos. Adams wrote the History of the United States of America in the hope of understanding them and the history they apparently made. At that time he still thought he might explain things in narrative terms, find “a relation of sequence” between one fact and another:

He had even published a dozen volumes of American history for no other purpose than to satisfy himself whether, by the severest process of stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, he could fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement. The result had satisfied him as little as at Harvard College. Where he saw sequence, other men saw something quite different, and no one saw the same unit of measure.

Adams gave up the effort. Instead, he tried to map and plot the forces that captured men. He set about thinking of the motives behind the events of the modern world as if they were lines of force, diagrams, parallelograms, and rhomboids. But he didn’t know what to do with these when he had given them over to geometry and mechanics. Still, he relished the freedom of not being intimidated by what mere men did. When other styles failed, irony offered him its grim success; by definition, it could not fail. To bring it into practice, he had only to remove himself from the phenomena before him and choose better things to think about.

In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres the ironist kept himself free of nineteenth-century multiplicity by thinking of twelfth- and thirteenth-century unity. In medieval France, forces of attraction had names, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and the greatest force was the Virgin. The church at Chartres was her presence:

If you are to get the full enjoyment of Chartres, you must, for the time, believe in Mary as Bernard and Adam did, and feel her presence as the architects did, in every stone they placed, and every touch they chiselled…. She was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship.

Thinking of Aquinas, Adams brought him to bear upon the claims of modern science:

Rid of man and his mind, the universe of Thomas Aquinas seemed rather more scientific than that of Haeckel or Ernst Mach. Contradiction for contradiction, Attraction for attraction, Energy for energy, St. Thomas’s idea of God had merits. Modern science offered not a vestige of proof, or a theory of connection between its forces, or any scheme of reconciliation between thought and mechanics; while St. Thomas at least linked together the joints of his machine. As far as a superficial student could follow, the thirteenth century supposed mind to be a mode of force directly derived from the intelligent prime motor, and the cause of all form and sequence in the universe—therefore the only proof of unity. Without thought in the unit, there could be no unity; without unity no orderly sequence or ordered society. Thought alone was Form. Mind and Unity flourished or perished together…. Modern science guaranteed no unity.

In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Adams defines energy as “the inherent effort of every multiplicity to become unity.” The attempt to bridge the chasm between them is, he says, “the oldest problem of philosophy, religion, and science.” But, he continues, “the flimsiest bridge of all is the human concept, unless somewhere, within or beyond it, an energy not individual is hidden; and in that case the old question instantly reappears: What is that energy?”

That was Adams’s question and, so far as he was a historian, his quest: How to understand an energy not individual? His methods were irregular. An ironist at heart if not by conviction, he ran to hyperbole, keeping himself free by asserting differences between one value and another, the one likely to be official and axiomatic, the other likely to be occult. Marveling at the intelligence of the medieval architects, he brooded on knowledge and ignorance:

True ignorance approaches the infinite more nearly than any amount of knowledge can do, and, in our case, ignorance is fortified by a certain element of nineteenth-century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand; a violent reaction from the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.

The Education of Henry Adams is accurately named. Adams’s main concern was to acquire an education adequate to the new conditions—largely the consequence of science and technology—he thought he had to meet. Starting with diplomacy, he went on to law, science, religion, history, mechanics, only to end bewildered and tired. He needed to be assured of “unity in a universe,” but he found himself baffled by Roentgen rays, the Curies’ radium, and a world “not a unity but a multiple.” He thought of himself as a man of the eighteenth century, brother to Horace Walpole and Gibbon and still mindful of Pascal. Now he was set down in the nineteenth century without any hope of understanding its interests or coping with its multiplicity. He insisted on taking as “the fixed element of the equation” the unity of culture he divined at Chartres, but he was faced with a world in which force was exemplified not by the Virgin but by the dynamo he saw at the Paris Exposition of 1900. He was willing to construe the dynamo as “a symbol of infinity” and to adore its occult energy, but he demanded to know what its force was, and had to confess that he could discover no more relation between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. He could see “only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith.” In the end, he accepted anything, whether or not he understood it, so long as he felt it as force. As soon as he issued the Education he interpreted it as showing that education consisted in “following the intuitions of instinct.” A mother likes to nurse her own child, he cited as evidence.

These issues turn up again in the letters when Adams thinks he can share them with an amenable correspondent. Joanne Jacobson’s study of the letters starts from that emphasis; the correspondents, and how they impelled Adams to different themes and tones. The most important recipients of Adams’s letters were his brothers Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and Brooks Adams, and beyond these Gaskell, John Hay, Elizabeth Cameron and her daughter Martha, and Henry James. In Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams Jacobson shows that Adams used the letters to Charles to claim authority as a writer and “to negotiate parity” with his better established brother. In letters to Gaskell, Adams displayed mastery of “an elite rhetorical tradition,” which is presumably Jacobson’s phrase for upper-class nastiness. In his letters to Hay and James, Jacobson comments, “Adams made intimacy subversive,” using his style to erect a barrier against the world, behind which a few embattled spirits made a desperate little world of their own.

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