“Speculators In Theories”: Henry and Brooks Adams


We may sweep away much of his speculation with theories. What has Kelvin’s second law of thermodynamics to do with writing history, or Willard Gibbs’s law of physics to do with the movement of intellect? Adams’ great achievements remain the History , the Mont-Saint-Michel and the Education , here acutely analyzed. Yet we cannot dismiss this speculator in theories even when his ideas seem most fantastic. His pessimism healthfully questioned the cant about progress. Before Ortega, he described the transfer of power from the individual to the masses, and its dangers. His essays sound an alarm over the decline of the great traditions of faith, intellectual discipline, and intellectual prestige in a world ever more materialistic. And although his “rule of phase” is nonsense, he deserves credit for pointing out so early that while the amount of power in the world has been accelerating prodigiously, the amount of intelligence to control these powers has grown little if at all. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin rose after him to illustrate that fact.

Brooks Adams with fiery eccentricity, Henry Adams with probing detachment, tried to throw much-needed illumination ahead of a world moving toward the abyss. Now that we are emerging from the abyss, we can still find values in that earnest if fitful illumination.