Henry Adams, Bewildered Prophet

“Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” – Henry Adams, American journalist, historian, and novelist, who died on 27 March 1918.

Adams (born 16 February 1838) is the author of an autobiographical work with which more people should be acquainted – “The Education of Henry Adams.” In it he chronicles his struggles to understand the intellectual, social, technological, scientific, and political changes that had taken place in the world between the American Civil War and the years just before World War I – changes for which his education had done little to prepare him. Adams is a witty, self-deprecating, and vastly intelligent writer; he was also a prescient one, since he foresaw that the rate of change would continue to accelerate and that traditional education in the United States, unable to keep pace with rapidly unfolding developments, would need to be supplemented by considerable reading and experience.

It is wise to remember that the Victorian Era which shaped the life of Henry Adams gave birth to the ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein – ideas that have, in turn, helped to shape the way we now interpret our world, our society, and ourselves. Thus, by reading “The Education of Henry Adams” we can more fully divine the half-hidden wellsprings of our collective identity. Finally, in a time when scientific discovery and technological innovation seem to increase exponentially with each passing year, it would be prudent to read carefully a book written by a brilliant and frequently bewildered man who shared both our hopes and our confusions.

Some quotes from Henry Adams:

“American society is a sort of flat, fresh-water pond which absorbs silently, without reaction, anything which is thrown into it.”
“Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.”
“Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.”
“It is impossible to underrate human intelligence – beginning with one’s own.”
“Practical politics consists in ignoring facts.”
“The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”
“The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where their interests are involved. One can trust nobody and nothing.”
“Young men have a passion for regarding their elders as senile.”

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