As it happened with Henry Adams, a robust study of history is enough to prove the indispensable role that Christianity has played in true human progress, and it might just be enough to spark an interest in seeking an alternate, unified, form of meaning in our modern age, moving us back to God.
Studies in the philosophy of history and the philosophy of time have an interesting relationship to twentieth-century critics of modernity. It is well known that T.S. Eliot, for example, was intellectually influenced by philosopher Henri Bergson’s writings on duration and time. The protagonist for this essay, Henry Adams, also had a fascination with the effects that his modern age—its distortion of time, place, and meaning—had on our culture. Culture, after all, is evocative of our social metaphysic; how we understand our existence and how we view our place in the world. History, correspondingly, is how we explain our culture through narratives and stories. Or so it was. Adams wrote that the task of the historian is to arrange the sequences in time that we call stories, or histories. The value in the historian’s analysis, then, is that it assumes a causal relationship between such sequences. Or so it did. Adams wrote three books that related his experience living during a pivotal moment in history, during the complete transition from the pre-modern world to the new, arguing that history was no longer a field through which man could attempt to understand himself and his society.
A historian himself, Adams’ greatest intellectual contribution is his philosophy of history, because it demonstrates in American literature one of the earliest traces of the awareness of modernity—although he did not call it as such. Instead, Adams deemed the century into which he was born an age of “multiplicity.” Everything before modernity, in contrast, was an age of “unity” that originated in the thirteenth century and was best exemplified by this medieval period for its cultural coherence. His third-person autobiography, titled, The Education Of Henry Adams: A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity (1907) has been described by some literary critics as the advent of existentialist literature in America because, when paired with his first book, Mont Saint Michel & Chartres: A Study of 13th Century Unity (1904), they create a complete picture of the problem with modernity: multiplicity as the new culture over unity. His books, however, demonstrate a crucial contemplation of historical progression; they are not a stern critique of the present contrasted by a romantic view of the past.
For what it’s worth, Adams probably experienced his fair share of existential dread, but his philosophy of history is unique among authors in the field of modernity, for his attempt to create a theory for human progress—that is, of man’s limited perception of progress—combined science with the humanities. Adams believed the solution to modernity’s problem with multiplicity was to cede to it its desire for proof through positivism by creating a field of history that studied human action with quantifiable data. But before getting to Adams’ philosophy of history, it will help to better explain how the problem of multiplicity has manifested itself in our lives.
I. A Burnt-Out New World?
A recent article by Buzzfeed News titled “The Burnout Generation” describes the problem of millennial youth as the inability to complete mundane tasks because our contemporary work culture values the long-term vision over the short-term. We dislike the nitty-gritty parts of life that are boring but necessary; this, we call “adulting.” The author of this article notes that our phenomenon is not a “temporary affliction,” but our default “condition.” Because we lack a unified outlook on life that connects our smallest, most commonplace actions to the greater picture that is the meaning in our existence, we struggle to justify the use of what we’ve been told time and time again are basic “responsibilities.”
It would appear that what Marcus Aurelius warned against eons ago we’ve come to ignore; that the concept of work is the very meaning of our existence, no matter how monotonous. To “do” things and experience them is the essence of life. Just as birds and bees have a function that they innately accomplish, so should we feel motivated to fulfill our nature, which is action, out of love for ourselves and others. Even so, the problem is not that young adults burn out too quickly compared to their older counterparts, but that there is something about contemporary culture that has produced this attitude and rendered it the status-quo. Our lackadaisical outlook on life is also the result of a lack of coherent and compelling culture-creation. Adams called this concept societal “inertia,” the direct consequence of multiplicity.
Are there serious costs to the problem that is our otherwise childish ineptitude? The caption for an Intelligencer article that came out in February 2019, The Poison We Pick, by the Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan stated, “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.” Dr. Sullivan’s critique of modern society takes things one step further from the previous article: The emptiness of modern life is producing a drug culture that demonstrates our dissatisfaction with the world—especially, and absurdly, in first-world countries. The United States is one of the world’s most prosperous countries that pioneered modernization. Sullivan explains the paradox of this fact with his story of how “the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy.” Both of the above articles demonstrate two different sides of the same coin.
II. The Coin of Modernity
Our inability to be aware of our own place in history has meant that we no longer understand or see any meaning in our existence, and that we no longer try to find it. This was the consequence of modernity that Adams saw with the coming of the twentieth century. Multiplicity in society created contrasting and incompatible worldviews that rendered everything relative. To him, the problem was clear: The social crises of our age with existential discontent are not economic in nature, they are crises about values and spiritual needs. Sullivan put it the following way: We are living in “a nation overwhelmed by a warp-speed, post-industrial world, a culture… indifferent to life and death, enraptured by withdrawal and nothingness.”
Sullivan’s analysis expresses a cultural observation. The contemporary philosopher, Louis Dupré, provides a philosophical explanation for the same phenomenon. In his book, Metaphysics and Culture (1994), Dr. Dupré narrates a topic that many know to be true: Culture is our perception of reality, and so it influences how we view the nature of things. Dr. Dupré himself has contributed scholarship to studies in modernity and its genealogies. He recognizes, like Adams, the divide that took place between theology and science that represented a shift from unity to multiplicity. As a result, society is divided, and “the metaphysical search for the ultimate ground became transformed into a quest for epistemic foundations.” Where we once sought common ground (singular) we now seek foundations (plural). Similar to Adams, Dr. Dupré writes that the unity of metaphysics requires a culture that has already “formed a coherent synthesis of its own. Its members need to agree on the most basic values and to share an overall vision of the real.”
A society of shared values might seem implausible to us today, but Adams witnessed this type of culture in the thirteenth century because of the unified view of the universe that Christianity produced. But how does a shift in the influence of Christianity lead to multiplicity, corroborated through rising drug addictions, nonchalance in youth, and pervasive philosophical apathy? Put another way, how can an obscure historian who wrote, of all things, a nine-volume series, The History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, speak to our current crisis?
Like Dr. Dupré, Adams argued that nostalgia is not the solution. We are facing a predicament that will need new solutions. Adams’ solution was to bring back unity to a culture divided by multiplicity by reinterpreting the field of history for this mission. For Adams, history was a means to prepare men to understand the world. It is a concept that deserves a second glance.
III. Adams: A Man for All Seasons
He may not have shared Saint Thomas More’s faith, but Adams demonstrated a similar form of conscience in his authentic search for meaning. At times, he felt like he was betraying his values as a “modern man,” other times, he realized that it was impossible for him to ignore what he felt while living in a Christian culture; that is, while traveling through France and exploring its medieval vestiges in the twentieth century.
Perhaps the direction of this essay is becoming predictable. The reader, excited or irked, is waiting for the paragraph that will wave the cross and claim that the solution to this modern problem is Christ. That will not happen, at least not directly. There are those like Adams himself, who simply cannot come to faith. But even as Adams was unable to believe in God, he still found it possible to believe in the good of the disposition that came from a time when culture was the direct output of the Christian worldview.
Christianity for Adams went beyond its religious dimension. It was an example of his philosophy of history, which he called a “dynamic theory of history,” that adopted the scientific method into the methodology of historical research. Adams attempted to render history into a parallel form of epistemology to positivism. Christianity was proof of a period of unity and the benefits of this unified worldview could be measured by its physical and intellectual triumphs: art, literature, philosophy, architecture, music—culture.
Adams’ view on the importance of culture is best understood through his book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904). Adams thought he was traveling back in time to the medieval Europe of the thirteenth century when he visited France. His work became popular after it was published and supported by the American Institute of Architects, for a great portion of Mont St Michel describes medieval architecture in wonderful prose. Adams experienced cultural movements “as they had been felt; as convertible, reversible, interchangeable attractions on thought.” He called the thirteenth century a living “work of art” because of its aesthetic unity.
The appeal of Christianity, beyond its truth, was in the value it placed on aesthetics. Adams believed that, metaphysically, man was innately and intuitively attracted to unity over multiplicity because it was more similar to his own nature.
Adams saw in the orthodoxy of Christianity a culture whose roots ran so far deep in history, that they managed to sprout up in every facet of existence. He argued that the best example of unity in history was Christianity because its unity was the strongest then: It was a “motor” that produced motion in all private, social, intellectual, secular, and religious facets of life. Faith, directly and indirectly, created a collective imagination in Europe that inspired their culture for ages. Most of Mont Saint Michel explains how medieval culture—the epic poem La Chanson de Roland, the architecture of French cathedrals, and the Scholastic intellectual tradition, to name a few features—demonstrated Christianity’s undeniable impact on society.
But the truth of the matter was that Adams, and society at large, was no longer living in the thirteenth century. Medieval Europe constructed a narrative about life and meaning that was nearly erased in the twentieth century. The new narratives that took over their place were created by science; thus, Adams had to combine the two for the sake of rebuilding unity.
IV. The Two Narratives of History
The thirteenth century built a narrative about existence from faith and love. Christianity’s images, Adams argued, contributed most strongly to this narrative through their emotional appeal. The Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael, the Passion of Christ—they all produced a unified culture that operated under the unified theory of a universe under God. It was only in the thirteenth century that man held “the highest idea of himself as a unity in a unified universe.”
This worldview changed in the twentieth century, and the problem of Adams’ modern age is that men no longer believed in an overarching narrative of existence that was connected to eventual salvation. The new narratives of history argued that the sequence of time was artificial and that the sequence of thought and philosophy was chaos, he wrote. His alternate solution came to him upon discovering the “sequence of force”—an epiphany that took place in Paris.
It was the mechanical inventions in the Gallery of Machines of the Exposition Universelle (the Great Exposition) of 1900 that left their mark on Adams. This world’s fair was monumental: Art Nouveau as far as the eye could see. Yet, the machines that debuted at this exposition shocked Adams most: Inventions like escalators, the Ferris wheel, diesel engines, and telegraphones warped the traditional conceptions of speed and motion. A new age, indeed, had arrived. This pivotal event demonstrated a radical new world so different from the one before it that Adams could only describe it graphically as an event that “broke” history’s neck, in his famous metaphor.
How to reconcile the old narrative with the new? This was Adams’ task in The Education of Henry Adams. History had become relativist and subjective—what Adams called “The Abyss of Ignorance” in a chapter of his autobiography. Despite modern efforts to seek truth in science, it had made man ignorant to his own existence. Science had created a multiplicity of narratives that disproved whatever truth the Church upheld in the past. Modern man, he wrote, took the word of science on this fact. But Adams believed that the theological universe championed by Thomas Aquinas and his idea of God had merits that went beyond the advancements of science.
Modern science, after all, did not offer a “theory of connection between its forces, or any scheme of reconciliation between thought and mechanics… St. Thomas at least linked together the joints of his machine.” The theory of the modern age was bleaker, its multiplicity opened a hole in our narrative, and thus in our worldviews.
“Nihilism had no bottom,” he wrote.
V. Adams’ Solution
Now for Adams’ philosophy of history. As with any philosopher and writer, it is important to become acquainted with his idiosyncratic language. For Adams, many things were described through the phenomena of force, motion, and motors. Adams strove to create a unified theory of human progress, studied through “motion, direction, attraction, relation.” Why these elements? They are physical properties that are congruent with modern laws of science. The field of physics explained energy as a mechanical or physiochemical process that can neither be created nor destroyed. If this law was unquestionably true, then the historian had only two choices: Either to deny that “social energy” was a form of that physical energy, or to affirm that the energy produced by human action miraculously operates by separate rules that disobey the laws of physics.
Disobeying the laws of physics would lead Adams to affirm Vitalism, heresy in a world dictated by positivism. But a twentieth-century Adams could not ignore the weight of science; so, he decided to incorporate these measurable, testable elements of physical properties into his theory. Motion, according to Adams, explained human development: All physical and intellectual products were forms of energy release through motion.
The concept is a bit quirky: Adams wanted to demonstrate in his essay, A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910), that the laws of thermodynamics could become the new cultural concept that would explain everything in a unified way. Combined, the conservation of energy and the dissipation of energy (the first and second laws) could be reduced to explain every action and motion of mankind over the ages as a continuous series that gets passed on, progressing towards eventual entropy. Per the premises of these laws, nothing can be added or removed from nature, so Adams wrote that a novel historical analysis would shift those physical constituents from “the never-varying total” of energy and “out of one of them form another.”
Now, sequences in history made sense to Adams: Human progress was not spontaneous; it was connected by the laws of physics. These laws would replace the narrative of Christianity that gathered so much attention and devotion in the old world. Unity in God would now be unity in the physical laws of energy. The theological worldview of the thirteenth century could be succeeded by a mechanical worldview.
It is not necessary to go too much into detail about Adams’ philosophy of history and how it fits in with all the laws of thermodynamics, although a curious mind can certain read the entirety of his Letter—it is well worth it, along with his other two books. More important is his motive for writing this philosophy. Adams believed that education in history was distorted because it only taught people facts and dates instead of teaching them how to think about the progression of time and their place along that trajectory. The historian of the twentieth century had become irrelevant as he turned to “the collection of facts, as the geologist turned to the collection of fossils.” Adams wanted history to be an active field by preparing people to understand their place in the trajectory of human progression, hence the name, a “dynamic theory of history.”
The key point to Adams’ philosophy of history and its relation to our times is the following point to his writings: The quantity and quality of what mankind produces intellectually and physically (i.e. our culture-creation) during a given period depends directly on the predominant worldview. Christianity, for example, produced a distinct type of architecture, art, music, theology, philosophy, literature, work-ethic, politics, family structure, etc. In the centuries that came after the thirteenth, we gradually changed all of the previous facets to adapt to the new worldview rooted in positivism and relativism. Unfortunately, these facets all diverged and scattered philosophically, leaving us with the relativism of our age: The quantity and quality of our culture-creation has changed because our motor—what drives us, as opposed to Who drives us—has changed.
VI. A “Dynamic Theory of History” Today
There is an anecdote in Mont Saint Michel and Chartres where Adams paraphrases the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas: When St. Thomas saw motion in society, he inferred the necessary existence of a prime mover. All forms of scientific reasoning that came in the later years, no matter how precise or measurable, were never able to compare to the genius of St. Thomas because he managed to converge everything to one source: God. Scientists failed at this task because they never managed to unify their theories. Adams cites the problem between Darwinism (evolutionary biology), which preaches gradual evolution and perfectibility, and the laws of thermodynamics, which uphold gradual entropy and decay, to prove the multiplicity of the twentieth century. The thirteenth century, in contrast, derived everything from an intelligent prime motor. Now, without Him, there was no unity in the narratives we told ourselves: “No orderly sequence of ordered society. Mind and Unity flourished or perished together.”
Which brings us to another practical point: the relationship between Adams’ philosophy of history and an ordered society. A believer in institutions, Adams warned that modern attempts at unity through science were enforcing individualism and relativism because they did not converge in one prime mover. Although he believed the problem of his age to be primarily philosophical, it did not mean that this problem could not become political.
Unity, by definition, means that a flaw in one arena inevitably affects all others. Near the end of his Letter to American Teachers, Adams quotes the sociologist Gustave Le Bon in an excerpt from his Physiologic des Foules (1895) to demonstrate the consequences that may arise from living with a worldview that promotes multiplicity, individualism, and relativism. Le Bon argued that, whereas people were traditionally taught to form “a unity, a block,” they were now an “agglomeration of individuals without cohesion, still held together for a time by its traditions and institutions.” As a result, men no longer knew how to govern themselves and began to ask to “be directed in their smallest acts.” The problem with this change, Le Bon observed, is that it would allow the State to exercise its “absorbing influence.” The conclusion of Le Bon’s text that Adams quoted is that society ends with a loss of an old ideal, thereby losing its soul. People become “nothing more than a dust of isolated individuals” who regress from the unity they once achieved and return to what they were at the start: “a crowd.”
Adams died on March 27, 1918. Almost a century later, we might contemplate his philosophy of history and see whether or not he was onto something. The political theorist and philosopher, James Burnham, wrote a famous book in the latter-end of the twentieth century called The Managerial Revolution (1940), which emphasized an important point that is often discussed in post-Industrial Revolution literature: the distortion of speed and our sense of time.
Similar to the sentiment conveyed by Adams in 1900 at the Gallery of Machines, Burnham wrote that “occasionally, in human history, the changes take place so rapidly and are so drastic in extent that the framework itself is shattered and a new one takes its place.” Burnham—along with a vast genre of literature on this topic—continued to discuss what Adams first noticed: that social changes in the twentieth century were taking place at a pace that altered most people’s way of life.
During the course of our intellectual development, we stopped asking questions about our existence, viewing it as meaningless. This sense of meaninglessness has manifested itself most clearly in our contemporary culture. Our society, as it was demonstrated at the World’s Fair to Adams, has dangerously disregarded sensitivity to time as we no longer point it to an infinite.
Time, it could be said, is meaningless without conception of the transcendent: Something which gives meaning to our allocation of time. Without a view to the infinite, we become overwhelmed by a world whose pace increases for the sole sake of productivity, production, and “progress.”
Whenever we manage to stop and escape the pace of our modern world, we start to question the importance of the action and work it demands. Factor in a new worldview that removes unity, promotes multiplicity, and inflicts relativism, individualism, and nihilism, and now people are even less motivated to see the value in their monotonous lives. Adams knew one law to be true: Action necessitates justification, and that justification lies in a unified theory, a coherent narrative, of our existence. We need a reason for why we do the things we do. When we lack a reason for them, our culture invents words like “adulting” and seeks substances like opium to elude truth and meaning.
As Christians, we are often inculcated that the solution to our socio-cultural problem is binary: Either to engage with the world or retreat and live out our days in blissful ignorance, Benedict Option style. Sybarite or ascetic. Optimist or cynic. Adams proves that he who accepts Christianity as the best solution for finding joy, love, and meaning in our lives is more than a nostalgic bystander or fervent reactionary who shakes his head disapprovingly at modern culture. He takes a seat next to great “modernists” of the twentieth century like T.S. Eliot and George Santayana who were neither friends nor foes of their age. It is best to be neither extremity.
Instead, it serves us best to be critical by using the best tool at our intellectual disposal: history. As it happened with Adams, a robust study of history is enough to prove the indispensable role that Christianity has played in true human progress, and it might just be enough to spark an interest in seeking an alternate, unified, form of meaning in our modern age, moving us back to God.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing” by Marian Hooper Adams, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.