Chapter XV (The Education of Henry Adams)

Darwinism (1867-1868)

POLITICS, diplomacy, law, art, and history had opened no outlet for
the future energy or effort, but a man must do something, even in
Portland Place, when winter is dark and winter evenings are
exceedingly long. At that moment Darwin was convulsing society. The
geological champion of Darwin was Sir Charles Lyell, and the Lyells
were intimate at the Legation. Sir Charles constantly said of
Darwin, what Palgrave said of Tennyson, that the first time he came to
town, Adams should be asked to meet him, but neither of them ever came
to town, or ever cared to meet a young American, and one could not
go to them because they were known to dislike intrusion. The only
Americans who were not allowed to intrude were the half-dozen in the
Legation. Adams was content to read Darwin, especially his “Origin
of Species” and his “Voyage of the Beagle.” He was a Darwinist
before the letter; a predestined follower of the tide; but he was
hardly trained to follow Darwin’s evidences. Fragmentary the British
mind might be, but in those days it was doing a great deal of work
in a very un-English way, building up so many and such vast theories
on such narrow foundations as to shock the conservative, and delight
the frivolous. The atomic theory; the correlation and conservation
of energy; the mechanical theory of the universe; the kinetic theory
of gases, and Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection, were examples of what
a young man had to take on trust. Neither he nor any one else knew
enough to verify them; in his ignorance of mathematics, he was
particularly helpless; but this never stood in his way. The ideas were
new and seemed to lead somewhere- to some great generalization which
would finish one’s clamor to be educated. That a beginner should
understand them all, or believe them all, no one could expect, still
less exact. Henry Adams was Darwinist because it was easier than
not, for his ignorance exceeded belief, and one must know something in
order to contradict even such triflers as Tyndall and Huxley.
By rights, he should have been also a Marxist, but some narrow
trait of the New England nature seemed to blight socialism, and he
tried in vain to make himself a convert. He did the next best thing;
he became a Comteist, within the limits of evolution. He was ready
to become anything but quiet. As though the world had not been
enough upset in his time, he was eager to see it upset more. He had
his wish, but he lost his hold on the results by trying to
understand them.
He never tried to understand Darwin; but he still fancied he
might get the best part of Darwinism from the easier study of geology;
a science which suited idle minds as well as though it were history.
Every curate in England dabbled in geology and hunted for vestiges
of Creation. Darwin hunted only for vestiges of Natural Selection, and
Adams followed him, although he cared nothing about Selection,
unless perhaps for the indirect amusement of upsetting curates. He
felt, like nine men in ten, an instinctive belief in Evolution, but he
felt no more concern in Natural than in unnatural Selection, though he
seized with greediness the new volume on the “Antiquity of Man”
which Sir Charles Lyell published in 1863 in order to support Darwin
by wrecking the Garden of Eden. Sir Charles next brought out, in 1866,
a new edition of his “Principles,” then the highest text-book of
geology; but here the Darwinian doctrine grew in stature. Natural
Selection led back to Natural Evolution, and at last to Natural
Uniformity. This was a vast stride. Unbroken Evolution under uniform
conditions pleased every one- except curates and bishops; it was the
very best substitute for religion; a safe, conservative, practical,
thoroughly Common-Law deity. Such a working system for the universe
suited a young man who had just helped to waste five or ten thousand
million dollars and a million lives, more or less, to enforce unity
and uniformity on people who objected to it; the idea was only too
seductive in its perfection; it had the charm of art. Unity and
Uniformity were the whole motive of philosophy, and if Darwin, like
a true Englishman, preferred to back into it- to reach God a
posteriori- rather than start from it, like Spinoza, the difference of
method taught only the moral that the best way of reaching unity was
to unite. Any road was good that arrived.
Life depended on it. One had been, from the first, dragged hither
and thither like a French poodle on a string, following always the
strongest pull, between one form of unity or centralization and
another. The proof that one had acted wisely because of obeying the
primordial habit of nature flattered one’s self-esteem. Steady,
uniform, unbroken evolution from lower to higher seemed easy. So,
one day when Sir Charles came to the Legation to inquire about getting
his “Principles” properly noticed in America, young Adams found
nothing simpler than to suggest that he could do it himself if Sir
Charles would tell him what to say. Youth risks such encounters with
the universe before one succumbs to it, yet even he was surprised at
Sir Charles’s ready assent, and still more so at finding himself,
after half an hour’s conversation, sitting down to clear the minds
of American geologists about the principles of their profession.
This was getting on fast; Arthur Pendennis had never gone so far.
{CH_XV ^paragraph 5}
The geologists were a hardy class, not likely to be much hurt by
Adams’s learning, nor did he throw away much concern on their account.
He undertook the task chiefly to educate, not them, but himself, and
if Sir Isaac Newton had, like Sir Charles Lyell, asked him to
explain for Americans his last edition of the “Principia,” Adams would
have jumped at the chance. Unfortunately the mere reading such works
for amusement is quite a different matter from studying them for
criticism. Ignorance must always begin at the beginning. Adams must
inevitably have begun by asking Sir Isaac for an intelligible reason
why the apple fell to the ground. He did not know enough to be
satisfied with the fact. The Law of Gravitation was so-and-so, but
what was Gravitation? and he would have been thrown quite off his base
if Sir Isaac had answered that he did not know.
At the very outset Adams struck on Sir Charles’s Glacial Theory
or theories. He was ignorant enough to think that the glacial epoch
looked like a chasm between him and a uniformitarian world. If the
glacial period were uniformity, what was catastrophe? To him the two
or three labored guesses that Sir Charles suggested or borrowed to
explain glaciation were proof of nothing, and were quite unsolid as
support for so immense a superstructure as geological uniformity. If
one were at liberty to be as lax in science as in theology, and to
assume unity from the start, one might better say so, as the Church
did, and not invite attack by appearing weak in evidence. Naturally
a young man, altogether ignorant, could not say this to Sir Charles
Lyell or Sir Isaac Newton; but he was forced to state Sir Charles’s
views, which he thought weak as hypotheses and worthless as proofs.
Sir Charles himself seemed shy of them. Adams hinted his heresies in
vain. At last he resorted to what he thought the bold experiment of
inserting a sentence in the text, intended to provoke correction. “The
introduction [by Louis Agassiz] of this new geological agent seemed at
first sight inconsistent with Sir Charles’s argument, obliging him
to allow that causes had in fact existed on the earth capable of
producing more violent geological changes than would be possible in
our own day.” The hint produced no effect. Sir Charles said not a
word; he let the paragraph stand; and Adams never knew whether the
great Uniformitarian was strict or lax in his uniformitarian creed;
but he doubted.
Objections fatal to one mind are futile to another, and as far as
concerned the article, the matter ended there, although the glacial
epoch remained a misty region in the young man’s Darwinism. Had it
been the only one, he would not have fretted about it; but
uniformity often worked queerly and sometimes did not work as
Natural Selection at all. Finding himself at a loss for some single
figure to illustrate the Law of Natural Selection, Adams asked Sir
Charles for the simplest case of uniformity on record. Much to his
surprise Sir Charles told him that certain forms, like Terebratula,
appeared to be identical from the beginning to the end of geological
time. Since this was altogether too much uniformity and much too
little selection, Adams gave up the attempt to begin at the beginning,
and tried starting at the end- himself. Taking for granted that the
vertebrates would serve his purpose, he asked Sir Charles to introduce
him to the first vertebrate. Infinitely to his bewilderment, Sir
Charles informed him that the first vertebrate was a very
respectable fish, among the earliest of all fossils, which had
lived, and whose bones were still reposing, under Adams’s own favorite
Abbey on Wenlock Edge.
By this time, in 1867, Adams had learned to know Shropshire
familiarly, and it was the part of his diplomatic education which he
loved best. Like Catherine Olney in “Northanger Abbey,” he yearned for
nothing so keenly as to feel at home in a thirteenth-century Abbey,
unless it were to haunt a fifteenth-century Prior’s House, and both
these joys were his at Wenlock. With companions or without, he never
tired of it. Whether he rode about the Wrekin, or visited all the
historical haunts from Ludlow Castle and Stokesay to Boscobel and
Uriconium; or followed the Roman road or scratched in the Abbey ruins,
all was amusing and carried a flavor of its own like that of the Roman
Campagna; but perhaps he liked best to ramble over the Edge on a
summer afternoon and look across the Marches to the mountains of
Wales. The peculiar flavor of the scenery has something to do with
absence of evolution; it was better marked in Egypt: it was felt
wherever time-sequences became interchangeable. One’s instinct
abhors time. As one lay on the slope of the Edge, looking sleepily
through the summer haze towards Shrewsbury or Cader Idris or Caer
Caradoc or Uriconium, nothing suggested sequence. The Roman road was
twin to the railroad; Uriconium was well worth Shrewsbury; Wenlock and
Buildwas were far superior to Bridgnorth. The shepherds of
Caractacus or Offa, or the monks of Buildwas, had they approached
where he lay in the grass, would have taken him only for another and
tamer variety of Welsh thief. They would have seen little to
surprise them in the modern landscape unless it were the steam of a
distant railway. One might mix up the terms of time as one liked, or
stuff the present anywhere into the past, measuring time by Falstaff’s
Shrewsbury clock, without violent sense of wrong, as one could do it
on the Pacific Ocean; but the triumph of all was to look south along
the Edge to the abode of one’s earliest ancestor and nearest relative,
the ganoid fish, whose name, according to Professor Huxley, was
Pteraspis, a cousin of the sturgeon, and whose kingdom, according to
Sir Roderick Murchison, was called Siluria. Life began and ended
there. Behind that horizon lay only the Cambrian, without
vertebrates or any other organism except a few shell-fish. On the
further verge of the Cambrian rose the crystalline rocks from which
every trace of organic existence had been erased.
That here, on the Wenlock Edge of time, a young American, seeking
only frivolous amusement, should find a legitimate parentage as modern
as though just caught in the Severn below, astonished him as much as
though he had found Darwin himself. In the scale of evolution, one
vertebrate was as good as another. For anything he, or any one else,
knew, nine hundred and ninety-nine parts of evolution out of a
thousand lay behind or below the Pteraspis. To an American in search
of a father, it mattered nothing whether the father breathed through
lungs, or walked on fins, or on feet. Evolution of mind was altogether
another matter and belonged to another science, but whether one traced
descent from the shark or the wolf was immaterial even in morals. This
matter had been discussed for ages without scientific result. La
Fontaine and other fabulists maintained that the wolf, even in morals,
stood higher than man; and in view of the late civil war, Adams had
doubts of his own on the facts of moral evolution:-
{CH_XV ^paragraph 10}

Tout bien considere, je te soutiens en somme,
Que scelerat pour scelerat,
Il vaut mieux etre un loup qu’un homme.

{CH_XV ^paragraph 15}
It might well be! At all events, it did not enter into the
problem of Pteraspis, for it was quite certain that no complete
proof of Natural Selection had occurred back to the time of Pteraspis,
and that before Pteraspis was eternal void. No trace of any vertebrate
had been found there; only star-fish, shell-fish, polyps, or
trilobites whose kindly descendants he had often bathed with, as a
child on the shores of Quincy Bay.
That Pteraspis and shark were his cousins, great-uncles, or
grand-fathers, in no way troubled him, but that either or both of them
should be older than evolution itself seemed to him perplexing; nor
could he at all simplify the problem by taking the sudden
back-somersault into Quincy Bay in search of the fascinating
creature he had called a horse-shoe, whose huge dome of shell and
sharp spur of tail had so alarmed him as a child. In Siluria, he
understood, Sir Roderick Murchison called the horseshoe a Limulus,
which helped nothing. Neither in the Limulus nor in the Terebratula,
nor in the Cestracion Philippi, any more than in the Pteraspis,
could one conceive an ancestor, but, if one must, the choice
mattered little. Cousinship had limits but no one knew enough to fix
them. When the vertebrate vanished in Siluria, it disappeared
instantly and forever. Neither vertebra nor scale nor print
reappeared, nor any trace of ascent or descent to a lower type. The
vertebrate began in the Ludlow shale, as complete as Adams himself- in
some respects more so- at the top of the column of organic
evolution: and geology offered no sort of proof that he had ever
been anything else. Ponder over it as he might, Adams could see
nothing in the theory of Sir Charles but pure inference, precisely
like the inference of Paley, that, if one found a watch, one
inferred a maker. He could detect no more evolution in life since
the Pteraspis than he could detect it in architecture since the Abbey.
All he could prove was change. Coal-power alone asserted evolution- of
power- and only by violence could be forced to assert selection of
All this seemed trivial to the true Darwinian, and to Sir Charles
it was mere defect in the geological record. Sir Charles labored
only to heap up the evidences of evolution; to cumulate them till
the mass became irresistible. With that purpose, Adams gladly
studied and tried to help Sir Charles, but, behind the lesson of the
day, he was conscious that, in geology as in theology, he could
prove only Evolution that did not evolve; Uniformity that was not
uniform; and Selection that did not select. To other Darwinians-
except Darwin- Natural Selection seemed a dogma to be put in the place
of the Athanasian creed; it was a form of religious hope; a promise of
ultimate perfection. Adams wished no better; he warmly sympathized
in the object; but when he came to ask himself what he truly
thought, he felt that he had no Faith; that whenever the next new
hobby should be brought out, he should surely drop off from
Darwinism like a monkey from a perch; that the idea of one Form,
Law, Order, or Sequence had no more value for him than the idea of
none; that what he valued most was Motion, and that what attracted his
mind was Change.
Psychology was to him a new study, and a dark corner of
education. As he lay on Wenlock Edge, with the sheep nibbling the
grass close about him as they or their betters had nibbled the
grass- or whatever there was to nibble- in the Silurian kingdom of
Pteraspis, he seemed to have fallen on an evolution far more wonderful
than that of fishes. He did not like it; he could not account for
it; and he determined to stop it. Never since the days of his
Limulus ancestry had any of his ascendants thought thus. Their modes
of thought might be many, but their thought was one. Out of his
millions of millions of ancestors, back to the Cambrian mollusks,
every one had probably lived and died in the illusion of Truths
which did not amuse him, and which had never changed. Henry Adams
was the first in an infinite series to discover and admit to himself
that he really did not care whether truth was, or was not, true. He
did not even care that it should be proved true, unless the process
were new and amusing. He was a Darwinian for fun.
From the beginning of history, this attitude had been branded as
criminal- worse than crime- sacrilege! Society punished it ferociously
and justly, in self-defence. Mr. Adams, the father, looked on it as
moral weakness; it annoyed him; but it did not annoy him nearly so
much as it annoyed his son, who had no need to learn from Hamlet the
fatal effect of the pale cast of thought on enterprises great or
small. He had no notion of letting the currents of his action be
turned awry by this form of conscience. To him, the current of his
time was to be his current, lead where it might. He put psychology
under lock and key; he insisted on maintaining his absolute standards;
on aiming at ultimate Unity. The mania for handling all the sides of
every question, looking into every window, and opening every door,
was, as Bluebeard judiciously pointed out to his wives, fatal to their
practical usefulness in society. One could not stop to chase doubts as
though they were rabbits. One had no time to paint and putty the
surface of Law, even though it were cracked and rotten. For the
young men whose lives were cast in the generation between 1867 and
1900, Law should be Evolution from lower to higher, aggregation of the
atom in the mass, concentration of multiplicity in unity, compulsion
of anarchy in order; and he would force himself to follow wherever
it led, though he should sacrifice five thousand millions more in
money, and a million more lives.
{CH_XV ^paragraph 20}
As the path ultimately led, it sacrificed much more than this;
but at the time, he thought the price he named a high one, and he
could not foresee that science and society would desert him in
paying it. He, at least, took his education as a Darwinian in good
faith. The Church was gone, and Duty was dim, but Will should take its
place, founded deeply in interest and law. This was the result of five
or six years in England; a result so British as to be almost the
equivalent of an Oxford degree.
Quite serious about it, he set to work at once. While confusing his
ideas about geology to the apparent satisfaction of Sir Charles who
left him his field-compass in token of it, Adams turned resolutely
to business, and attacked the burning question of specie payments. His
principles assured him that the honest way to resume payments was to
restrict currency. He thought he might win a name among financiers and
statesmen at home by showing how this task had been done by England,
after the classical suspension of 1797-1821. Setting himself to the
study of this perplexed period, he waded as well as he could through a
morass of volumes, pamphlets, and debates, until he learned to his
confusion that the Bank of England itself and all the best British
financial writers held that restriction was a fatal mistake, and
that the best treatment of a debased currency was to let it alone,
as the Bank had in fact done. Time and patience were the remedies.
The shock of this discovery to his financial principles was
serious; much more serious than the shock of the Terebratula and
Pteraspis to his principles of geology. A mistake about Evolution
was not fatal; a mistake about specie payments would destroy forever
the last hope of employment in State Street. Six months of patient
labor would be thrown away if he did not publish, and with it his
whole scheme of making himself a position as a practical
man-of-business. If he did publish, how could he tell virtuous bankers
in State Street that moral and absolute principles of abstract
truth, such as theirs, had nothing to do with the matter, and that
they had better let it alone? Geologists, naturally a humble and
helpless class, might not revenge impertinences offered to their
science; but capitalists never forgot or forgave.
With labor and caution he made one long article on British
Finance in 1816, and another on the Bank Restriction of 1797-1821,
and, doing both up in one package, he sent it to the North American
for choice. He knew that two heavy, technical, financial studies
thus thrown at an editor’s head, would probably return to crush the
author; but the audacity of youth is more sympathetic- when
successful- than his ignorance. The editor accepted both.
When the post brought his letter, Adams looked at it as though he
were a debtor who had begged for an extension. He read it with as much
relief as the debtor, if it had brought him the loan. The letter
gave the new writer literary rank. Henceforward he had the freedom
of the press. These articles, following those on Pocahontas and Lyell,
enrolled him on the permanent staff of the North American Review.
Precisely what this rank was worth, no one could say; but, for fifty
years the North American Review had been the stage coach which carried
literary Bostonians to such distinction as they had achieved. Few
writers had ideas which warranted thirty pages of development, but for
such as thought they had, the Review alone offered space. An article
was a small volume which required at least three months’ work, and was
paid, at best, five dollars a page. Not many men even in England or
France could write a good thirty-page article, and practically no
one in America read them; but a few score of people, mostly in
search of items to steal, ran over the pages to extract an idea or a
fact, which was a sort of wild game- a blue-fish or a teal- worth
anywhere from fifty cents to five dollars. Newspaper writers had their
eye on quarterly pickings. The circulation of the Review had never
exceeded three or four hundred copies, and the Review had never paid
its reasonable expenses. Yet it stood at the head of American literary
periodicals; it was a source of suggestion to cheaper workers; it
reached far into societies that never knew its existence; it was an
organ worth playing on; and, in the fancy of Henry Adams, it led, in
some indistinct future, to playing on a New York daily newspaper.
{CH_XV ^paragraph 25}
With the editor’s letter under his eyes, Adams asked himself what
better he could have done. On the whole, considering his helplessness,
he thought he had done as well as his neighbors. No one could yet
guess which of his contemporaries was most likely to play a part in
the great world. A shrewd prophet in Wall Street might perhaps have
set a mark on Pierpont Morgan, but hardly on the Rockefellers or
William C. Whitney or Whitelaw Reid. No one would have picked out
William McKinley or John Hay or Mark Hanna for great statesmen. Boston
was ignorant of the careers in store for Alexander Agassiz and Henry
Higginson. Phillips Brooks was unknown; Henry James was unheard;
Howells was new; Richardson and LaFarge were struggling for a start.
Out of any score of names and reputations that should reach beyond the
century, the thirty-years-old who were starting in the year 1867 could
show none that was so far in advance as to warrant odds in its
favor. The army men had for the most part fallen to the ranks. Had
Adams foreseen the future exactly as it came, he would have been no
wiser, and could have chosen no better path.
Thus it turned out that the last year in England was the
pleasantest. He was already old in society, and belonged to the
Silurian horizon. The Prince of Wales had come. Mr. Disraeli, Lord
Stanley, and the future Lord Salisbury had thrown into the
background the memories of Palmerston and Russell. Europe was moving
rapidly, and the conduct of England during the American Civil War
was the last thing that London liked to recall. The revolution since
1861 was nearly complete, and, for the first time in history, the
American felt himself almost as strong as an Englishman. He had thirty
years to wait before he should feel himself stronger. Meanwhile even a
private secretary could afford to be happy. His old education was
finished; his new one was not begun; he still loitered a year, feeling
himself near the end of a very long, anxious, tempestuous,
successful voyage, with another to follow, and a summer sea between.
He made what use he could of it. In February, 1868, he was back
in Rome with his friend Milnes Gaskell. For another season he wandered
on horseback over the campagna or on foot through the Rome of the
middle ages, and sat once more on the steps of Ara Coeli, as had
become with him almost a superstition, like the waters of the fountain
of Trevi. Rome was still tragic and solemn as ever, with its mediaeval
society, artistic, literary, and clerical, taking itself as
seriously as in the days of Byron and Shelley. The long ten years of
accidental education had changed nothing for him there. He knew no
more in 1868 than in 1858. He had learned nothing whatever that made
Rome more intelligible to him, or made life easier to handle. The case
was no better when he got back to London and went through his last
season. London had become his vice. He loved his haunts, his houses,
his habits, and even his hansom cabs. He loved growling like an
Englishman, and going into society where he knew not a face, and cared
not a straw. He lived deep into the lives and loves and
disappointments of his friends. When at last he found himself back
again at Liverpool, his heart wrenched by the act of parting, he moved
mechanically, unstrung, but he had no more acquired education than
when he first trod the steps of the Adelphi Hotel in November, 1858.
He could see only one great change, and this was wholly in years.
Eaton Hall no longer impressed his imagination; even the
architecture of Chester roused but a sleepy interest; he felt no
sensation whatever in the atmosphere of the British peerage, but
mainly an habitual dislike to most of the people who frequented
their country houses; he had become English to the point of sharing
their petty social divisions, their dislikes and prejudices against
each other; he took England no longer with the awe of American
youth, but with the habit of an old and rather worn suit of clothes.
As far as he knew, this was all that Englishmen meant by social
education, but in any case it was all the education he had gained from
seven years in London.