Summary and Analysis Chapter XXIX - The Abyss of Ignorance


Henry continues to struggle toward a scientific understanding of history. He now sees lines of force in the actions of mankind where he once saw lines of will. Henry reconsiders the concepts of unity and multiplicity and wonders if these apparent opposites may not be the same thing. He studies this possibility within the concept of the kinetic theory of gases with startling results. Placing a great deal of importance on unity and multiplicity, he begins to write his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (privately printed 1904); he will ultimately think of The Education of Henry Adams (first private edition published in 1907) as its companion piece.


After he has realized that the height of the old knowledge is really the abyss of ignorance, Henry has found a starting point for the development of his dynamic theory of history. He feels certain that there is a relationship between the lines of force studied in new science and the lines of force in history. Perhaps disingenuously, the narrator claims that Henry begins to see "lines of force all about him, where he had always seen lines of will," independently but in the manner of Michael Faraday, the English physicist who discovered electromagnetic induction in 1831. Faraday proved that electrical charges are subject to polarity, leading to the invention of the dynamo. Adams has mentioned Faraday's work in Chapter XXVI ("Twilight") and has employed the dynamo as a symbol of modern multiplicity in Chapter XXV ("The Virgin and the Dynamo"), but here, the narrator dubiously claims that Henry has never heard of Faraday and comes to his observations independently.

The significance of force versus will is that the former allows for a dynamic, mechanical, scientific motive to the direction of history instead of relying on maxims like "God's will be done" or "it's God's will," which were adequate for the medieval churchman. Adams suggests that Thomas Aquinas, for example, may say, "To me, Christ and the Mother are one Force — Love — simple, single, and sufficient for all human wants." The force for Aquinas is God's will manifested through love. But as science progresses, the force is understood in more complex ways. There are many forces, and one understands them through scientific theories or formulae. One is the kinetic theory of gases, which Henry finds instructive. Molecules of gas exist in each portion of space. What looks like a unit is really a vast complex of molecules and movement. Henry is impressed that the molecules fly at each other at speeds up to a mile a second, colliding as many as 17,750,000 times a second. This is a world in flux. Scientific "unity" thus is made up of millions of molecules, all in motion. As Henry concludes, "[T]he scientific synthesis commonly called unity [is] the scientific analysis commonly called multiplicity." For the scientist, then, unity and multiplicity are the same phenomena. Henry wonders how this can apply to the study of history. He is beginning to believe that man is no longer a projection of God's will or even a manifestation of man's will. In one of his more entertaining metaphors, Adams suggests that man is "an acrobat, with a dwarf on his back, crossing a chasm on a slack rope, and commonly breaking his neck." More seriously, Henry is beginning to believe that mankind is part of the flux and subject to rules of force and motion.

From the abyss of ignorance, Henry seeks understanding consistent with the new science. He sees two helpful points of reference. One is the medieval century from 1150 to 1250 from which he "might measure motion down to his own time, without assuming anything as true or untrue, except relation." He sets himself the task of writing the Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, which he here subtitles, "a study of thirteenth-century unity." The second point of perspective will be the Education, which, we know from his letters, is actually thought of as he is working on the first volume of Chartres; it is not yet part of the plan. He subtitles this second work, "a study of twentieth-century multiplicity."


coquetry flirting.

vis a tergo (Latin) force from behind.

kinetic of or caused by motion.

metaphysics the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of being or reality (ontology) and the origin and structure of the universe (cosmology); it is closely related to the study of the nature of knowledge (epistemology).

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