The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XXV - The Dynamo and the Virgin

Summary

Henry is infatuated with the Paris Exposition of 1900, which opens on April 15 and runs through the month of November. He has been studying Gothic architecture since 1895, foreshadowing his historical and philosophical meditation, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, privately printed in 1904. During the summer of 1900, he is also reading medieval philosophy. Even with temperatures in the nineties, Henry enjoys this summer in Paris. In July, he writes to Elizabeth Cameron that Thomas Aquinas serves as "liquid air for cooling" his heated blood. Always interested in contrasts and dichotomy, Henry begins to speculate about the medieval strength of Christianity and how it relates to the twentieth-century power generated when mechanical energy produces electricity; this theme will captivate him for the rest of his active intellectual life. In late 1900 or early 1901, he writes a long poem, "Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres," which includes a section titled "Prayer to the Dynamo."

Analysis

Henry approaches both medieval Christianity and modern technology with skepticism, but comes to respect each in its own time. Through his studies of Gothic architecture, with its spires reaching toward the heavens, and medieval philosophy, with its emphasis on God's will, Adams has gained an appreciation for the significance of the Church in the lives of medieval Christians. As a historian, he looks for relevant sequences that tell something about the story of mankind. With one exception, he is disillusioned: "Satisfied that the sequence of man led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial and the sequence of thought was chaos," he turns to the sequence of force. By "force," Adams means the power that motivates or attracts spiritual or intellectual lives. As discussed in Chapter XXXIII, this force works with something like a gravitational pull. In medieval times, he sees the Church and, symbolically, the Virgin, the mother of Christ, as providing that motivating, attracting force. As Thomas Aquinas wrote (in Two Precepts of Charity) in 1273, "Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do." He is to believe in the teachings of Christ; he is to desire service to God and salvation; he is to do as the Church prescribes.

For modern man, Adams asserts, technology, represented symbolically by the dynamo, has replaced the Church. Adams does not necessarily prefer this; as a historian, he simply attempts to describe what is happening. Modern man believes in technology; he desires what he thinks will be scientific progress; he must do what he can to advance with technology. The question of control is undecided by Adams because its answer lies in the future. At one point, decades before the first computer, he even predicts that the time may come when artificial intelligence is so advanced that man will serve machine.

Toward the end of 1900 or the beginning of 1901, Adams expresses the dichotomy in his poem "Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres," which includes the "Prayer to the Dynamo." He sends the first copy to Elizabeth Cameron who has played a key role in Henry's emotional life since his wife's suicide. Their friendship needs mention. Nineteen years his junior, and still married to his good friend Senator James Donald Cameron, she has become his confidante. He often sends her private poems. Elizabeth clearly admires Henry's intellect, maturity, and wisdom. Sometimes they tease, in letters, about rumors of a romance; but the relationship appears to have been platonic.

The "Prayer to the Virgin" recognizes the force of Christianity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as expressed in the belief in miracles attributed to Our Lady as well as belief in the Madonna's intervention through prayer. The narrative voice is that of Western Man, who journeys back through time to seek guidance from the Virgin. He has lost his innocence along with his belief and finds himself in a materialistic world in which men worship the dynamo. Well into the poem, he offers an example of a modern prayer, "the last / Of the strange prayers Humanity has wailed." This is the "Prayer to the Dynamo." The narrator fears that mankind must master technology or be mastered by it: "Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints! / Tear out of him his sacred spring! / Grind him to nothing!" At this point, Henry is looking back to medieval belief with some nostalgia. He is a little overwhelmed by the enormous scientific advances of the late nineteenth century, which include, for example, the first small, high-speed combustion engine; the automobile; the discovery of X-rays; and the isolation of radium by the Curies, all alluded to in this chapter of the Education. Soon, Henry will try to use a scientific approach to understand the sequence of history. His religious skepticism has turned to admiration for, if not belief in, medieval Christianity and the symbol of the Virgin. Next, he will turn to technology.

Glossary

electric tram here, the basket or car of an overhead conveyor.

occult hidden, concealed, secret, esoteric.

parricide the act of murdering one's parent.

310 It was actually 313 AD when Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. The Nicene Creed, a confession of Christian faith, was adopted at the first Nicene Council in 325.

folle (French) mad, insane, out of control.

tortuous full of twists and turns.

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