One found one’s self in a singular frame of mind,—more eighteenth-century than ever,—almost rococo,—and unable to catch anywhere the cog-wheels of evolution. Experience ceased to educate. London taught less freely than of old. That one bad style was leading to another,—that the older men were more amusing than the younger,—that Lord Houghton’s breakfast-table showed gaps hard to fill,—that there were fewer men one wanted to meet,—these, and a hundred more such remarks, helped little towards a quicker and more intelligent activity. For English reforms Adams cared nothing. The reforms were themselves mediaeval. The Education Bill of his friend W. E. Forster seemed to him a guaranty against all education he had use for. He resented change. He would have kept the Pope in the Vatican and the Queen at Windsor Castle as historical monuments. He did not care to Americanise Europe. The Bastille or the Ghetto was a curiosity worth a great deal of money, if preserved; and so was a Bishop; so was Napoleon III. The tourist was the great conservative who hated novelty and adored dirt. Adams came back to London without a thought of revolution or restlessness or reform. He wanted amusement, quiet, and gaiety.Perhaps no theme is more prevalent in the Education than the idea that time does not keep pace with itself. Henry Adams constantly sees himself as a figure of the eighteenth century--not only himself, but the entire mid-nineteenth century political world. Time as chronology does not match up with time as dynamic expression of the movement between unity and multiplicity. For Adams, this eighteenth-centuriness manifests in an almost instinctive longing for simplicity or order, as a vast familial inheritance given to him by his illustrious grandfather and the idea of Quincy (Henry Adams is very Proustian). And when he finally breaks through to chaos, to his dynamic theory of history, it is precisely the beginning of a movement away from that burden.
- The Education of Henry Adams
But I think Adams misjudged the entailment. The eighteenth century--even the Enlightenment Project--was not, as untrained postmodernists claim, about unitary subjects and rational ordering and the new philosophy; or rather not only about those things. When Henry Adams moved himself towards his twentieth-century multiplicity, he was really only moving to a different eighteenth century.
For education itself, as it is conceived of here, is an eighteenth-century ideal, and an attempt was made by nearly every philosophe to reach the sort of insight Adams sought. The breakdown of these attempts, the ultimate inadequacy of the task, always loomed in the background; the starkest expression was either Tristram Shandy, which widened the gap between education and practice until nothing of the latter remained, or the self-cultivation of George Washington. Washington memorized etiquette books; he strove to learn the ordered concept of the gentleman so that he could live it. When the disinterestedness of the gentleman began to conflict with his public spirit, the education proved inadequate as well.
The dynamic power of raw statistical numbers--the keystone of Adams' theory of history--is likewise the product of the eighteenth century. Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson relied on the transformative power of demographics; Adam Smith, on the power of scale and differentiation. Malthus, when he described the crisis of such a quantitative development, was merely the conclusion of a specifically eighteenth-century mania. The Physiocrats would have been unthinkable without it.
But most of all I think the affinity lies in his starkest passage, when Adams admits to himself that "he did not care whether truth was, or was not, true." It is, to be sure, a profoundly Nietzschean sentiment. But it belongs also to the eighteenth century; for one of its main differences from the seventeenth is that truth arrived at scientifically ceases to be an end in itself. How could it be? Hume wrote, "A person, seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural reason, will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity." Truth was pragmatic, provisional, embraced for the sake of usefulness; and Adams was necessarily a Humean as much as a Darwinian.