The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XXXIII-XXXIV - A Dynamic Theory of History and A Law of Acceleration


Adams approaches the entire span of mankind's history on earth from the point of view of "progress" and "forces," for which he has specific definitions. His theory "defines Progress as the development and economy of forces." "Force" can be anything that produces work; but he also speaks, perhaps more importantly, of the "attractive force" of opposing bodies, the gravitational pull of an entity. He applies his theory to what he considers to be the major divisions of history. The first runs from the dawn of time to 3000 B.C. (the date of the pyramids). Second is the period from 3000 B.C. to 1000 A.D., concerned primarily with economies of energy rather than their development, according to Adams. The era from 1000 to 1800 features declining energy of the Church and increasing interest in science. In the nineteenth century, scientific discovery begins to grow. Finally, Adams is concerned about the future, which will require a new kind of intelligence.


The central metaphor of Adams's dynamic theory is the gravitational attraction of an entity. This is a dynamic theory because it considers concepts, as well as objects, to be constantly in motion; in flux, not static. Adams is interested in social and intellectual movement, the evolution of mankind from the dawn of time to 1900 and, speculatively, beyond. He covers this in about fourteen pages. Students should not be surprised if he seems abstract or, at times, confusing. The top Adams scholar of the twentieth century, Ernest Samuels, in The Major Phase, even wonders if the entire, extreme approach may be satire; he is sympathetic with students who may wonder what is going on and asks, "Who is not lost in wild surmise at the crux?"

However, you need not remain lost. To find your way through the maze, hold onto that central metaphor: the gravitational attraction of an entity. Adams is saying that, from the beginning, mankind has been drawn to the "attractive force" of various concepts. Man is not shaping nature; nature is interacting with mankind. The earliest man was different from Darwin's apes or monkeys, according to Adams, because he was able to respond to higher "forces" or concepts; they attracted his capacity to learn. There have been various stages of attraction: survival, power, philosophy, and the appeal of divinity were among the most important through the year 1000. Mankind was drawn to these as if by a gravitational pull, distinguishing him from other primates: "Susceptibility to the highest forces is the highest genius; selection between them is the highest science; their mass is the highest educator."

From 1000 to 1800, Adams sees mankind as drawn more toward scientific experimentation in the natural world; the attraction of theology waned. This attraction to scientific investigation increased in the nineteenth century at such an exponential rate that Adams is concerned about mankind's capacity to keep up during the next (twentieth) century.

Adams feels that the laws of acceleration may provide scientific force that is too much for the human mind. If the attraction of scientific information continues to increase at the current rate, mankind will have to make some sort of intellectual leap to keep up. Sometimes Adams's examples seem absurd. For example, he bases his rate of scientific expansion on the increased use of coal power between 1800 and 1900, a convenient doubling every ten years or so. On the other hand, his predictions are often amazingly accurate. He anticipates that the scientific body of information is increasing so quickly that the human brain will be unable to keep up. With a leap of intellect, however, he thinks that Americans in the year 2000 would be able to "control unlimited power" and "think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind." One could now say that the leap of intellect that Adams anticipates is, in fact, accomplished through use of the computer and artificial intelligence. Adams is right. He is also prescient about the dangers as well as positive potential of nuclear power, stating that power comes from every atom, "enough of it to supply the stellar universe. . . . Man could no longer hold it off."

Throughout these chapters, Adams relies on two guides that are important to his process and, therefore, his conclusions. The English philosopher, essayist and statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) directs him with his belief that truth is discovered through empirical observation, which is compatible with the approach of Pearson (Chapter XXXI) and his contemporaries. Speaking of Bacon, Adams writes, "He urged society to lay aside the idea of evolving the universe from a thought, and to try evolving thought from the universe."

When considering mankind's future, Adams compares the orbit of the Great Comet of 1843 to the path of humankind as it approaches the twentieth century. Although he is incorrect in thinking that the spectacular comet moved "in defiance of [natural] law," Adams helpfully infers from the comet a need for man's leap of intellect to project the human mind into a sphere of understanding congruent with the amount of new knowledge. As the comet is attracted to the sun, which Adams thinks it orbits with a leap, the mind of man is attracted to scientific inquiry. The central metaphor of gravitational attraction holds throughout.


fetish here, any object believed by superstitious people to have magical power.

audaciously boldly, fearlessly.

In hoc signo vinces! (Latin) In (or through) this sign, you will conquer! (Said of the Cross.)

ignominy loss of one's reputation; shame and dishonor; infamy.

ordnance cannon or artillery.

dynamometer an apparatus for measuring force or power.

antinomy a contradiction or inconsistency between two laws, principles, and so on.

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