The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XXVIII - The Height of Knowledge

Summary

Adams briefly comments on the "hideous political murders" of three Presidents of the United States assassinated in office in Henry's lifetime: Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), and William McKinley (1901). He sees 1901 as a year of tragedy, including the deaths of John Hay's son, Del, and one of Henry's best friends, Clarence King. Adams occasionally demonstrates remarkable prescience regarding political developments in the coming century, here accurately predicting the importance of Germany's relationship with France and England. Henry's theory of history continues to develop within the context of paradox.

Analysis

As the new century progresses, Adams becomes nearly obsessed with endings and beginnings, deaths and rebirths. At the age of sixty-four, he sees his own life, and the life of his generation, in its twilight. He and his young country have lived through three presidential assassinations; the lesson, if any, is that life goes on. "America has always taken tragedy lightly," he observes; the country is too busy with progress to mourn long. He mentions a nation of "twenty-million-horse-power," indicating the beginning of a new age; the horsepower of the motors in a single city will surpass this number within a few decades. Clarence King's demise especially saddens him because King was "the best and brightest" of Henry's generation. All of this is significant because Adams is reevaluating his life as well as his view of history. Part of Henry's response is admittedly personal, but it comes at a time when the world is changing even more dramatically than usual.

Adams often is at his best when he discusses politics or higher education. In this chapter, he demonstrates remarkable foresight regarding Europe in the twentieth century: "Either Germany must destroy England and France to create the next inevitable unification as a system of continent against continent — or she must pool interests." It would take two world wars and nearly ninety years for the nations involved to figure that out — the "unification" finally attempted through the European Union. England's Winston Churchill will see things Adams's way before 1950, but even that influential figure cannot gather enough support to bring Europe together.

The chapter's title can be understood only as part of a paradox: The height of knowledge is the abyss of ignorance. By that, Adams means that a person really cannot know anything until he realizes that he knows nothing. He finds this to be especially true as a historian in 1902. Values are reversed, as the old knowledge is found inadequate. Out of the abyss will come Henry's new, dynamic theory of history. Within this context, Adams begins to divide the social evolution of mankind into what Ernest Samuels calls a "complex power system resembling a kind of gravitational field." According to Henry's theory, the first phase of development ran from the beginning of time until 3,000 B.C., about the date of the pyramids. This involved the biological evolution of the species and the gathering of forces such as fire, language, religion, domesticated animals, and milled grain used for food. The second phase in what Adams calls his "chart of relations" ran to about 1,000 A.D. and was involved primarily with learning to use force and energy more economically. Adams later will mention development of metals, more sophisticated use of tools, and the spread of writing as examples of this period. The third phase ran to about 1800. Here the Church reigned as force but began declining under secular influences and emphasis on a nature-centered rather than God-centered universe; the importance of science exacerbated the Church's situation. Mechanical forces began to take over during the fourth phase, running from 1800 to 1900. Henry is not able to see the future clearly. He is still working toward his dynamic theory, the beginning of which must be recognition of the abyss of ignorance.

Glossary

Ça vous amuse, la vie? (French) So, does life amuse you? (Here, stated ironically.)

neurosis any of various mental disorders including anxiety, compulsions, phobias, and depression.

Lucius Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman. Ordered to commit suicide by his former student and supposed friend, Nero Claudius.

Nero Claudius (AD 37-68) emperor of Rome (54-68), notoriously cruel and depraved.

wanton undisciplined; unmanageable.

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