Thursday, 26 November 2009

Russell Kirk on Henry Adams

From Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953).

Today finishes, I apprehend, the silver period of our society, and gives it the coup-de-grace. We must now brace ourselves to the struggle for gold. Unless you and I are wholly in error, this struggle has got to break much old crockery and bric-à-brac, and to make a clear field for some new variety of social, political, and economic man. I have of late tended to see in it the compulsion which is to suppress still more the individual and to make society still more centralized and automatic, but the fun is in the process, and not in the result. The process bids fair to be long enough to furnish us with more than a life-long amusement.
-- Henry Adams to Brooks Adams, October 23, 1897

To dislike Henry Adams is easy. Full of the censoriousness which was so prominent a characteristic in his great ancestors, mercilessly candid in his estimate of everyone, often mocking even toward what he loved best, perfectly certain that his great-grandfather and grand-


father and father had been consistently right and their adversaries sunk in delusion or hypocrisy, but swearing by no other certitudes-this gloomy yet humorous man, whom Albert Jay Nock calls the most accomplished of all the Adams family, is the most irritating person in American letters-and the most provocative writer, and the best historian, and possibly the most penetrating critic of ideas. The best cure for vexation with Henry Adams is to read his detractors; for against his Olympian amusement at a dying world and his real inner modesty, their snarls and quibbles furnish a relief which displays Adams' learning and wit as no amount of adulation could.

A case might be made that Henry Adams represents the zenith of American civilization. Unmistakably and almost belligerently American, the end--product of four generations of exceptional rectitude and remarkable intelligence, very likely (despite his autobiography) the best-educated man American society has produced, Adams knew the history of medieval Europe as well as he knew the administration of Jefferson, understood Japan and the South Seas as he understood New England character, and perceived as no other American of his generation did the catastrophic influence which modern science would exert upon the twentieth--century mind and society. But the product of these grand gifts was a pessimism deep and unsparing as Schopenhauer's, intensified by Adams' long examination and complete rejection of popular American aspirations. Henry Adams' conservatism is the view of a man who sees before him a steep and terrible declivity, from which there can be no returning: one may have leisure to recollect past nobility, now and then one may perform the duty of delaying mankind for a moment in this descent; but the end is not to be averted.

In any account of American conservatism, the house of Adams and Harvard College must occupy a space conspicuously disproportionate, on the face of things. But one may say, without much exaggeration, that this family and that college were the conservative mind, at least in the North. Henry and Brooks Adams carry right into the triumphant imperial America of 1918 the courageous and prescient conservative tradition that John Adams founded in the days of the Boston Massacre. Harvard, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, manifests in Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton, Barrett Wendell, George Santayana, and Irving Babbitt the legacy of conservative republicanism which was one face of New England's genius. As professor of history at Harvard, for a few years, and editor


of the North American Review, Adams exercised upon the American mind an influence still discernible, commencing in pupils and disciples like Henry Osborn Taylor and Henry Cabot Lodge and Ralph Adams Cram, and extending now in some degree to every respectable university and college in America. But this sort of influence Adams cared little for; first he hoped to become a leader of political society through the law, and later through the press; defeated in both aspirations, he turned to Chartres and the thirteenth century for consolation. "There are two things that seem to be at the bottom of our constitutions," he wrote in 1858, from Berlin, to Charles Francis Adams, Jr.; "one is a continual tendency toward politics; the other is family pride; and it is strange how these two feelings run through all of us." Fifty-three years later, it was clear to Adams how both political attainment and gratification of family pride had been frustrated for the fourth generation of his house. "I have always considered that Grant wrecked my own life, and the last hope or chance of lifting society back to a reasonably high plane. Grant's administration is to me the dividing line between what we hoped, and what we have got." In the Gilded Age and its aftermath, an Adams could not lead with success or serve with honor.

What are the sources of the monstrous corruption of modern life, the sickness Adams detected in England and in the Continent and in the comparative innocence of American civilization? He spent half his life asking that question. When a very young man at the American legation in London, Adams read John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville, and the other liberals, and presently Comte, and Marx; but though all these authors left some trace upon Adams, he dismissed the liberals with a wry smile, retained from Comte only the idea of phase, and observed of Marx, "I think I never struck a book which taught me so much, and with which I disagreed so radically in conclusion." His convictions were inherited ideas, substantially, the convictions of John Adams and John Quincy Adams. His History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, in style and method the finest historical work by an American, judges those fateful years with the impartial dislike his grandfather and great-grandfather felt for both Jeffersonians and Hamiltonian Federalists; his novel Democracy expresses the high contempt of the Adams breed for a nation led by Blaines and Conklings, living a complex lie. What is wrong with this society, whose gifts befoul, warping the character of Roosevelt


and of Taft, cheapening even his intimate friend Hay? Adams rejected the popular answers to this question, as he rejected the popular specifics; and turning, like his ancestors, to science and history for enlightenment, he saw at work in modern times the culminating stages of a tremendous and impersonal process of degradation which had commenced centuries before, was signalized in his age by the triumph of gold over silver as a standard of value, and would rumble on resistlessly to further consolidation and centralization until socialism should be ascendant everywhere; then socialism, and civilization, would rot out.

"Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces," he wrote in his Education. "The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces." For centuries, society has frenziedly sought centralization and cheapness and incalculable physical power; now all these things are near to attainment; and they mean the end of civilized life. Once man turned from the ideal of spiritual power, the Virgin, to the ideal of physical power, the Dynamo, his doom was sure. The faith and beauty of the thirteenth century, this descendant of the Puritans declared, made that age the noblest epoch of mankind; he could imagine only one state of society worse than the rule of the capitalists in the nineteenth century-the coming rule of the trade unions in the twentieth century.

Adams' devotion to the mind and heart of the thirteenth century has exposed him to a hail of criticism, some shrewd, some shallow. The naïve idea, promulgated by certain historians of the American mind, that Adams either ignored or was ignorant of the disorder and physical dread of that age, would have been beneath Adams' contempt: there has been no man since who could teach medieval history to Henry Adams. He knew perfectly the danger and discomfort of the Middle Ages; and he knew quite as well that happiness is more dependent upon tranquil mind and conscience than upon material circumstance. "He transformed the Middle Ages by a process of subtle falsification, into a symbol of his own latter-day New England longing," Mr. Yvor Winters writes; but if this charge is better founded than its predecessor, still it remains vague; and Paul Elmer More inflicts a more serious blow when he observes of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, "There is a fateful analogy between the irresponsibility of unreasoning Force and unreasoning Love; and the Gods of Nietzsche and of Tolstoy are but two faces of one God. To change the metaphor, if it may be done


without disrespect, the image in the cathedral of Chartres looks perilously like the ancient idol of Dinos decked out in petticoats." Did Adams, after all, nowhere perceive anything but Whirl, even in thirteenth-century Chartres? "I am a dilution of a mixture of Lord Kelvin and St. Thomas Aquinas," he told Brooks. His grandfather's tormenting doubt of the existence of Providence and Purpose seems to have condemned succeeding generations of the Adams family to an hereditary reluctant skepticism, a Maule's Curse more malign than the spell upon the House of Seven Gables. (It is curious that General Hamilton was the initial instrument of their discomfiture, General Jackson the agent of their disillusion, and General Grant the gross confirmer of their skepticism.) Yet if faith had been no more than a charming illusion even in the age of Aquinas, still it had been a beneficent delusion, Henry Adams implied. To it had succeeded a more delusory worship of Force, by 1900 incarnate in the dynamos at the Paris Exposition. "My belief is that science is to wreck us, and we are like monkeys monkeying with a loaded shell," he wrote to Brooks in 1902.

Decay of religious conviction and the Christendom it sustained had led down to "a society of Jews and brokers"; the Trust was an instrument for converting the remnants of the old free community for which the Adamses had struggled into the complete consolidation of a monolithic state, and the despot, the anarchist, and the gold-standard lobbyist all were partners of the Trust. The next stage of society would be "economic Russianization"; thought already was regarded with distrust, and with the final triumph of centralization, individuality would be suppressed utterly. State socialism was nearly inevitable and wholly odious; it would triumph over capitalism because it is cheaper, and modern life always rewards cheapness. Confiscation by the state, of which the beginning could be discerned in death duties, was only a few generations off. Labor, rapidly gaining mastery over the capitalists, would blackmail society until the old order was quite effaced. "I maintain that . . . we are already in principles at the bottom,--that is, at the great ocean equi-potential,--and can get no further. I prove it by the fact that I live here in Paris, or there in Washington, at the mercy of any damned Socialist or Congressman or Tax-assessor, and that I can't enter the Port of New York without being made to roll on the dock, to be kicked and cuffed and spit upon by a dirty employee of a dirtier Jew cad who calls himself collector, and before whom the whole mass of American citizens voluntarily kneel." The ruling impulse of mod-


ern humanity, indeed the very laws of natural phenomena, made this end certain. As the "conservative Christian anarchist" he whimsically called himself, Adams contended against this tide, most hotly in 1893, upon the silver question. "He thought it probably his last chance of standing up for his eighteenth-century principles, strict construction, limited powers, George Washington, John Adams, and the rest."

Gold crushed silver, as the Trust and the Socialist (really the same people under different names) were crushing out individual personality. "The attraction of mechanical power had already wrenched the American mind into a crab-like process. . . . The mechanical theory, mostly accepted by science, seemed to require that the law of mass should rule." The capitalists, expiring in their hour of triumph, must yield in their turn to greater force. "It is the socialist-not the capitalist-who is going to swallow us next, and of the two I prefer the Jew." Society, in short, obeys Gresham's Law (as Albert Jay Nock later put it): the cheap drives out the dear; and in the long run, civilization itself will be too dear for survival.

The process of degradation was now too far advanced for any exertion of will to hamper its course. Some 2,500 years of this evolution had brought us near the finish of things, he wrote to Brooks Adams in 1899: "I give it two more generations before it goes to pieces, or begins to go to pieces. That is to say, two generations should saturate the world with population, and should exhaust all the mines. When that moment comes, economical decay, or the decay of an economical civilisation, should set in." The resources of nature, like those of spirit, are running out, and all that a conscientious man can aspire to be is a literal conservative, hoarding what remains of culture and of natural wealth against the fierce appetites of modern life. The whole idea of progress, whether that theory entertained by John Adams' old enemy Condorcet or the biological version of the Darwinians, had been nonsense. "That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called-and should actually and truly be--the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as commonplace as Grant's own commonplaces to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone enough to upset Darwin."

And man's very acquisition of scientific knowledge was become the instrument of his moral and physical destruction. The discovery of


the nature of radium, in 1900, meant the beginning of a revolution which must end in disintegration. "Power leaped from every atom, and enough of it to supply the stellar universe showed itself running to waste at every pore of matter. Man could no longer hold it off. Force grasped his wrists and flung him about as though he had hold of a live wire or a runaway automobile. . . . If Karl Pearson's notions of the universe were sound, men like Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, and Newton should have stopped the progress of science before 1700, supposing them to have been honest in the religious convictions they expressed. In 1900 they were plainly forced back on faith in a unity unproved and an order they had themselves disproved. They had reduced their universe to a series of relations to themselves. They had reduced themselves to motion in a universe of motions, with an acceleration, in their own case, of vertiginous violence." The Virgin had ceased to inspire faith; the Dynamo, or science, had lost all significance; Whirl remained.

In three essays, reprinted in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, Adams condensed these reflections with melancholy lucidity into "a historical study of the scientific grounds of Socialism, Collectivism, and Humanitarianism and Democracy and all the rest": "The Tendency of History" (1894), "The Rule of Phase Applied to History" (1900), and "A Letter to American Teachers of History" (1910). Shorn of Adams' supporting evidence, the general argument he advances may be put briefly enough. It is just this: as the exhaustion of energy is an inevitable condition of all nature, so social energies must be exhausted, and are now running out; and many of the types of "progress" upon which we congratulate ourselves are no more than symptoms and afflictions of this decay. The Laws of Thermodynamics are our doom. By the Law of Dissipation, nothing can be added to the sum of energy, but intensity must always be lost. Work can be done only by degrading energy, as water can work only by running down hill. Society does its work at the same price; and as scientists realize this sombre fact, they are becoming oppressed by a stifling pessimism. All vital processes suffer degradation, inevitably incident to their operation; the growth of the brain enfeebles the human body, for instance. A supernatural will or directive power seems to account for the existence of energy, but this power does not provide for the replenishing of energy. Even the rise of human consciousness was a phase in the decline of vital force. Human activity reached its point of greatest intensity in the Middle Ages, with the Crusades and the cathedrals;


since then, true vitality has been waning rapidly. The year 1830, which marked the beginning of a gigantic harnessing of natural physical energies in the service of man, at the same time enfeebled humanity, for power gains at the expense of vitality. Industrialized, we are that much nearer to social ruin and total extirpation. "The dead alone give us energy," says Le Bon, and we moderns, having severed our ties with the past, are not long for this world.

Future historians must be guided by a knowledge of physics; and if the dilemma of degradation of energy is to be explained away, another Newton will be required. As perhaps the ape, a hundred thousand years ago, groped dimly for further development of his kind, and failed, so mankind now is trapped by the failure of its energies and by the depletion of those natural resources that men have plundered wantonly. Human evolution has passed perihelion, after the fashion of the Comet of 1843, and now, with terrible speed, we are rushing away from the day of our nobility. Adams applies the law of squares to the problem of modern decay, and suggests that the Mechanical Phase of modern history, beginning in 1600, reached its highest authority about 1870, and then turned sharply into the Electric Phase, which may be considered under way by 1900; and the Electric Phase will endure only until 1917, when it will pass into the Ethereal Phase--and more prophecies beyond this. Adams' celebrated predictions of the outbreak and duration of the First World War, of a possible subjugation by Thought of "the molecule, the atom, and the electron to that costless servitude to which it has reduced the old elements of earth and air, fire and water . . ." are by-products of this rule of phase. But prolongation of such resources cannot prevent the final total degradation of energy.

In this catastrophe, the social degradation represented by triumphant consolidation and its heir socialism are developments quite as natural and fatal as the general extinction of energy. Socialism must be succeeded by social rot, a disguised blessing, since socialism's continuance would be unendurable; indeed, it is in itself corruption. Politics, too, will end as water does, at sea-level, or like heat, at 1° Centigrade. Like the Comet, humanity hurtles into the oblivion of eternal night and endless space.

Christian orthodoxy believes in an eternity which, as it is superhuman, is supra-terrestrial; and the real world being a world of spirit, man's fate is not dependent upon the vicissitudes of this planet, but may be translated by Divine purpose into a realm apart from our pres-


ent world of space and time. In this certitude, Christians escape from the problem of degradation of energy; but Adams, however much he might revere the Virgin of Chartres as incarnation of the idea and as a symbol of eternal beauty, could not put credence in the idea of Providence. He was determined that history must be "scientific"; although so independent of mind, he complied willingly with the well-known tendency of metaphysics and theology to follow the lead of scientific theory; he found it impossible to disbelieve Thomson and Pearson and Kelvin. If science "should prove that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of religion, it commits suicide." The phase of religion was far nobler, to Adams' mind, than the phase of electricity; but he felt himself borne irresistibly along by the wave of progress. One might reverence the Virgin, in the Electric Phase; but one could not really worship. The blunt noncomformist piety of John Adams gave way to the doubts of John Quincy Adams, the humanitarianism of Charles Francis Adams, the despair of Henry Adams. Belief in Providence, so enduringly rooted in Burke's conservatism, was lost in the vicissitudes of New England's conservative thought.

Just one moral support in trial was nearly sufficient, Adams once wrote to Henry Osborn Taylor, and that the Stoic--but only "in theory." Marcus Aurelius was Adams' type of highest human attainment, and with the Antonine ended the story of moral adjustment. Irving Babbitt refers to "the desolate and pathetic Marcus Aurelius," and indeed the spectacle of the Emperor's devouring loneliness takes on renewed and frightening significance when contemplated with his disciple Henry Adams in the foreground. "The kinetic theory of gas is an assertion of ultimate chaos," said Adams. "In plain words, Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man. . . . The Church alone had constantly protested that anarchy was not order, that Satan was not God, that pantheism was worse than atheism, and that Unity could not be proved as a contradiction." Karl Pearson seemed to agree with the Church; and so, in passionate desire, did Adams himself; but his overmastering Adams rationality could not submit to his heart. Paul Elmer More, a conservative of the next generation, writes thus of Henry Adams' frustrated conservative loyalties:

This breed of New England, of whom he was so consciously a titled representative, had once come out from the world for the sake of a religious and


political affirmation-the two were originally one-to confirm which they were ready to deny all the other values of life. For the liberty to follow this affirmation they would discard tradition and authority and form and symbol and all that ordinarily binds men together in the bonds of habit. But the liberty of denying may itself become a habit. The intellectual history of New England is in fact the record of the encroachment of this liberty upon the very affirmation for which it was at first the bulwark. By a gradual elimination of its positive content the faith of the people had passed from Calvinism to Unitarianism, and from this to free thinking, until in the days of our Adams there was little left to the intellect but a great denial.

Here an heir of Hooker and Laud sits in judgment on an inheritor of Mather and Cotton. Deprived of the sanctions of religion, does conservative instinct verge toward extinction? The ideas of the house of Adams, carried by Henry Adams to their twentieth-century philosophical culmination, obtained their political summary in the writings of Brooks Adams--like his brother, fascinated by that determinism the consequences of which he hated.


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