Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

ADAMS: Education of Henry Adams (Boston Religion)

The education of Henry Adams was very ordinary in some respects.  It ended up being the result of many things; partly careful planning, partly pure luck, and partly just the chance of the age in which he lived.  In Henry Adams’ time the religion of repentance and redemption found in the Gospel of Mark (GB Series 3) had given way to a social gospel of human progress based on human effort (expressed in John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, GB Series 4).  The new social gospel needed inspired politicians to guide the progress of society and Henry Adams had little confidence modern politics could do that.  Politicians did not inspire the young Adams.  As it turned out neither did preachers.  “Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most.  The boy went to church twice every Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible…he believed in a mild Deism; he prayed; he went through all the forms but neither to him nor to his brothers and sisters was religion real…church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church.  The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived…”  The whole Adams clan had lost its “religious instinct” and wandered away from the strong Biblical faith of their great-grandfather, John Adams.  In the Adams family “The children reached manhood without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing.  So one-sided an education could have been possible in no other country or time.”

But it was possible.  In another country (Denmark) another young man had wrestled with the same problem of education in the modern world.  Soren Kierkegaard (The Knight of Faith, GB Series 2) lived a generation before Henry Adams but he was prophetic about the problems the modern world would encounter in the nineteenth century.  And he was mostly correct in his diagnosis.  Kierkegaard had foreseen the impact brute secular force would have on someone with an intelligent mind and a sensitive human spirit.  Henry Adams had both a keen mind and a sensitive spirit.  He had asked the right question: what kind of education is appropriate for a man living in this age?  Kierkegaard had asked a simpler question: “What then is education?”  And he also tried to give a simple answer: “I believe it is the course the individual goes through in order to catch up with himself and the person who will not go through this course is not much helped by being born in the most enlightened age.”  This is a simple answer but hard to understand.  It’s simple because we can understand the words; it’s hard because we know the words, we just can’t understand them the way Kierkegaard has put them together.  This paradox of simplicity amid complexity was the same paradox facing Henry Adams.  Kierkegaard analyzed Adams’ problem this way: “…he wants to suck worldly wisdom out of the paradox…our generation does not stop with faith, does not stop with the miracle of faith, turning water into wine; it goes further and turns wine into water.”  The “miracle of faith” was what Henry Adams had lost in his own transition to the modern world.  He couldn’t return to the simple faith that had comforted John Adams.  Henry had to live in a more complex world created by men like John Stuart Mill.  Kierkegaard had predicted a fascination with worldly secular affairs would soon undermine the faith of men like Henry Adams.  He wrote, “Most people live completely absorbed in worldly joys and sorrows; they are benchwarmers who do not take part in the dance.”  Boston politics and religion had turned Henry Adams into a benchwarmer in the dance of life and he would never recover.

Friday, April 24, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Boston Politics)

Henry Adams was born into that small, smug self-contained world called Boston.  Any self-respecting young Bostonian would of course attend Harvard College.  That’s how things were done.  Harvard had originally been founded to produce puritan clergymen.  By the time Henry came along Harvard had a different mission.  Its educational system turned out local officials for Boston and Quincy, Governors and state legislators for Massachusetts, congressmen and Presidents for the nation.  That’s how things were done and “no one, except Karl Marx, foresaw radical change.”  By the time Henry came along this system was already entrenched for cultivating statesmen.  And make no mistake about Harvard graduates “…they were statesmen, not politicians; they guided public opinion but were little guided by it.”  Of course Henry wasn’t ready for Harvard yet.  He still had to grow into the system.  It would take time but Henry had no doubt he would be up to the task: “All experience since the creation of man, all divine revelation or human science, conspired to deceive and betray a twelve year old boy who took for granted that his ideas, which were alone respectable, would be alone respected.”

But Henry still had a lot to learn before he was ready for Harvard.  America was changing.  Boston was slower to change but it too was undergoing a metamorphosis.  There was a new middle class emerging to challenge the Boston-Harvard upper crust.  And change wasn’t just going on in Boston and America.  “The Paris of Tocqueville (Intro GB 1,2,3)…and the London of John Stuart Mill (GB Series 3,4) were but varieties of the same upper-class bourgeoisie that felt instinctive cousinship with Boston…the system had proved so successful that even Germany wanted to try it, and Italy yearned for it.  England’s middle-class government was the ideal of human progress.”  Human progress was an article of faith for the modern puritanical New Englander.  Harvard had taught them politics and politics was just a natural extension of the religion of their forefathers.  So Harvard shifted its focus from religion to politics.  And by the time Henry came along “Politics offered no difficulties, for there the moral law was a sure guide.  Social perfection was also sure, because human nature worked for Good, and three instruments were all she asked: Sufferage (voting rights), Common (public) Schools, and (a free) Press.  On these points doubt was forbidden.  Education was divine, and man needed only a correct knowledge of facts to reach perfection…”  Everything had been set up according to the newest theory.  Now everyone just needed to get with the program and it would all work out.  But who exactly would work it out?

The old Harvard preachers and the old Gospel message of salvation through Christ were long gone.  The new Unitarian clergy “insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvations.  For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were a waste of thought…Boston had solved the universe…The problem was worked out.”  But the problem was not, in fact, “worked out.”  Something was still wrong; but what?  Henry Adams was after something else.  He just wasn’t sure what.  He says, “If school helped, it was only by reaction.  The dislike of school was so strong as to be a positive gain.  The passionate hatred of school methods was almost a method in itself…he hated it because he was herded with a crowd of other boys and compelled to learn” politics.  Was politics all the education Boston and America needed?  Something was still missing for Henry.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

ADAMS: Education of Henry Adams (Boston)

In the first chapter of his book we learn that Henry Adams hated school.  But like all boys he also needed an education “to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency.”  How is the best way to get this kind of education?  In Adams case it started by simply watching and listening to the great men clustered around his father’s house.  This kind of education was only made possible because “the wreck of parties which marked the reign of Andrew Jackson had interfered with many promising careers.”  Many men found their promising careers wrecked and would gather at the home of Charles Francis Adams to regroup and form a new political strategy.  Henry was just a little boy and didn’t know it at the time but “…his education was warped beyond recovery in the direction of puritan politics.”  Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  Both.  Here’s the good side.  Adams writes “the puritan thought his thought higher and his moral standards better than those of his successors.  So they were.”  This could mean either (a) puritan standards were, in fact, higher than those of ordinary Americans, or it could mean (b) puritans had achieved higher standards precisely because they set higher standards for themselves and worked hard to achieve them.  Either way it amounts to the same thing.  Puritanism for Adams represented a kind of intellectual and moral snobbery.

Nobody likes a snob because, as Adams says, “Average human nature is very coarse and its ideals must necessarily be average.  The world never loved perfect poise.”  The flip side of snobbery is a high standard of excellence in academics and virtue in morals.  Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean once observed "It ain't braggin' if you done it."  And many of the men who gathered in the Adams residence had done it.  They had, in their own ways, achieved excellence.  These men lived in an age of unprecedented scientific breakthroughs.  But “Mr. Adams (Henry’s father) cared very little for science.  He stood alone.  He had no master; hardly even his father.  He had no scholars; hardly even his sons.”  What set Charles Adams apart was his mastery of eighteenth century standards without the snobbery.  Henry noted “Never once in forty years of intimacy did his son notice in him a trace of snobbishness… Never did his son see him flatter or vilify, or show a sign of envy or jealousy; never a shade of vanity or self-conceit.  Never a tone of arrogance!  Never a gesture of pride!”  Nevertheless this did not make Charles politically popular because “the critics…called him cold.”  Only in America.  Charles Adams was obviously a great influence on Henry.  But Charles’s friends also made a great impact and their lives shaped Henry’s thinking.  For instance, “lifelong friend William M. Evarts used to say: ‘I pride myself on my success in doing not the things I like to do, but the things I don’t like to do.’”  This has a solid puritan sound.  Another friend, Richard Henry Dana, “forced himself to take life as it came, and he suffocated his longings with grim self-discipline, by mere force of will.”  And Charles Sumner “adored English standards, but his ambition led him to rival the career of Edmund Burke.”  These men had the old puritan ethic in their bones and “It was the old Ciceronian idea of government by the best that produced the long line of New England statesmen.  They chose men to represent them because they wanted to be well represented, and they chose the best they had.”  But these men were old school and “the generation that lived from 1840 to 1870 could do very well with the old forms of education; that which had its work to do between 1870 and 1900 needed something new.”  Henry sensed that he would need a new kind of education; but what kind?  And where would he find it?  That’s why he wrote this book.

Monday, April 20, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Quincy)

Education begins at home.  So just like all children that’s where Henry Adams first started learning about life.  He came to the conclusion that even though we all share the same world “everyone must bear his own universe.”  We all see the same world but react to it very differently.  That was precisely Burke’s point in his Reflections on the Revolution in France when he said we all have “prejudices.”  Adams summed up his own prejudices this way: “He seemed to himself quite normal, and… whatever was peculiar about him was education, not character…”  What kind of education did he get?
Adams says “This problem of education, started in 1838, went on for three years, while the baby (Adams himself) grew, like other babies, unconsciously, as a vegetable, the outside world working as it never had worked before, to get his new universe ready for him.”  Henry Adams started out pretty much “as a vegetable” but would grow up to develop his own unique universe; not mine, not yours, but his own.  “He was three years old when he took this earliest step in education; a lesson of color.”  His earliest memory was color: yellow sunlight on the kitchen floor.  The “vegetable” of a baby was acquiring animal instincts and “…the second followed soon; a lesson of taste… hunger must have been stronger than any other pleasure or pain… a baked apple.”  Seeing and tasting, touching and hearing and smelling; these senses form the core of all education.  This is how ideas first begin to form in our minds.  As we grow and continue to learn we begin to distinguish between things and make judgments; this is good, that’s bad.  And Henry Adams certainly made strong judgments (again we find Burke’s prejudices).  “Town was restraint, law, unity.  Country, only seven miles away, was liberty, diversity, outlawry… winter was always the effort to live, summer was tropical license… summer and country were always sensual living, while winter was always compulsory learning.  Summer was…nature; winter was school.”  This may not be my opinion or yours but it was his.
And that wasn’t all.  Adams said “He never could compel himself to care for nineteenth century style.  He was never able to adopt it… because, for some remote reason, he was born an eighteenth century child.”  In Adams’ own universe he had been born in the wrong century and he pondered “What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up and find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?”  At the outset of this book Adams wants us to think about the kind of education we need to have if we want to play the game of life.  A good family life at home is a good start.  But that’s not enough.  In Adams case “…though three or four vigorous brothers and sisters, with the best will, were not enough to crush any child, everyone else conspired toward an education which he hated.”  Adams knew what he did not like, school.  And he describes what a boy like him would do if left to himself: “He hung about the library; handled the books; deranged the papers; ransacked the drawers; searched the old purses and pocketbooks for foreign coins; drew the sword-cane; snapped the travelling pistols; upset everything in the corners…”  Boys will be boys.  But boys grow up to be men.  The question is: what kind of man?  For Henry Adams “Already at ten years old, the boy found himself standing face to face with a dilemma that might have puzzled an early Christian.  What was he?  Where was he going?  …He could under no circumstances have guessed what the next fifty years had in store, and no one could teach him…”  Adams has to learn on his own.  And so his education begins…

Friday, April 17, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Preface)

Reading and discussing Great Books is one of the great ideas in the history of education.  Proponents of the program view it as a way of spreading the word that all Americans, regardless of income, have a golden opportunity to study great books and discuss the ideas that shaped Western civilization.  Discussing their reactions in light of what other people think forces them to assess and reassess opposing viewpoints.  Opponents of Great Books view the program as elitist, racist, and sexist.  It’s true the authors are mostly wealthy dead white males.  (One of the founders of GB responded that if GB is elitist, it’s the kind of elitism that builds bridges instead of walls.)  Still others believe self-education (which is the core of the GB program) is just plain foolish.  Benjamin Franklin once said, "He that teaches himself has a fool for a master." How do we sort through these different theories?  At a deeper level we’re asking, what’s the best education?  How can I get it?

This is the theme of The Education of Henry Adams.  The introductory Preface is well worth reading.  A Preface is “a preliminary statement in a book by the book's author or editor, setting forth its purpose and scope.”  The purpose and scope of Henry Adams’ book is laid out when he says “the object, in this volume, is to fit young men, in Universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency.”  Adams wants to pass on his ideas about education to young men and women who are leaving home to go out and make their own way in the world.  The best place to start is from personal experience.  Edmund Burke gave us his own reflections of the French Revolution based on his own personal experience, not from the abstract experience of reading books.  In this selection Henry Adams wants to reflect on his own education and writes from personal experience what life is like in the real world.  The underlying question Adams wants to explore is; did my education prepare me for the world I find myself living in?  This is a question every serious reader should ponder.  Adams looked back fondly to the 18th century but he was born in the 19th and lived on into the dawning of the 20th century.  The question in Adams’ mind was whether an 18th century education adequately prepared him for living a good life in the 20th century.  A similar question for the contemporary reader might be; does a classical education prepare me to live in a technological age?  Or, do Great Books help me live a better life in my own society or would my time be better spent studying science and technology?
Adams pays homage to an author Burke detested, Jean Jacques Rousseau.  Adams says, “Jean Jacques was a very great educator in the manner of the eighteenth century, and has been commonly thought to have had more influence than any other teacher of his time; but his peculiar method of improving human nature has not been universally admired.”  What was Rousseau’s method?  Rousseau said “let them hear my confessions…and then let any one of them tell thee if he dares: ‘I was a better man!’”  Burke did not admire Rousseau. He would reply, there are many who could hear your confessions and honestly answer, yes, I was a better man.  But Adams is willing to listen.  He says “American literature offers scarcely one working model for high education.  The student must go back, beyond Jean Jacques, to Benjamin Franklin, to find a model even of self-teaching.”  Imagine Jean Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke, and Henry Adams sitting around a table debating their idea of an ideal education.  Now that would be a Great Books discussion worth listening to.   

Monday, April 13, 2015

BURKE: Reflections of the Revolution (Burke and Rousseau)

Which is more important to modern Americans, freedom or equality?  Reading the Great Books gives us real diversity of opinion about government.  They have something substantial to add to the discussion about the best way to live together in society.  By comparing alternative theories we get a better understanding of our options in forming a civilized social order.  Jean Jacques Rosseau serves as a good contrast to Edmund Burke.  Rousseau lays out his own idea for a civilized social order in the form of a “social contract.”  What do we lose and what do we gain living under Rousseau’s social contract?  “What man loses by the social contract is his natural freedom and an unlimited right to everything that tempts him and that he can get; what he gains is civil freedom and the proprietorship of everything he possesses.”  (The Social Contract GB Series 1)  This sounds good but Burke remains suspicious; the devil is in the details.  What exactly does Rousseau mean by civil freedom and proprietorship?  Burke smells a rat and it doesn’t take long until he finds one.  Here’s the red flag and danger Burke suspected was lurking all along in Rousseau’s philosophy of government.  In Rousseau’s own words we find that “rather than destroying natural equality, the fundamental social contract on the contrary substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have placed between men, and that although they may be unequal in force or in genius, they all become equal through convention and by right.” 

This is just what Burke suspected.  Rousseau isn’t interested in civil freedom and private property rights.  What Rousseau really wants is equality.  And for Rousseau the purpose of government is to help provide the material needs of its citizens.  Burke is having none of that.  Burke sees Rousseau’s “social contract” as a philosophical con game designed to cover up a political power grab by the state over its citizens.  Burke counters that “Society is indeed a contract…but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee…”  In Burke’s view the purpose of government is not limited to the physical well being of its citizens.  Instead, government “is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection…it is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  For Rousseau the idea of government is to respond to the needs of today’s problems.  For Burke the idea of government is to solve problems too.  But the most important function of government is to conserve the cultural heritage handed down to us from our ancestors and in turn to pass it on to our own children and grandchildren.  That’s why Burke thinks Rousseau’s ideas are so dangerous.  Rousseau views society as a laboratory for a grand social experiment.  Concerning Rousseau and men who think like him Burke says “They must take it for granted that we attend much to their reason, but not at all to their authority.”  Burke is listening.  He understands what Rousseau is saying.  But he doesn’t like it and trusts more in the lessons of history than in some new-fangled, untested theory of government.  Rousseau prefers equality over freedom.  Burke thinks freedom is more important than equality.  Americans want both but here’s our political dilemma.  Equality requires trimming individual freedoms “for whatever physical inequality nature may have placed between men.”  Freedom is the willingness to accept a certain amount of natural inequality among citizens.  We want both; so American government is a delicate and constant balancing act between the two alternatives expressed by Rousseau and Burke. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

BURKE: Reflections on the Revolution (The Wisdom of History)

One criticism aimed at Edmund Burke by some readers is inconsistency.  They assume since he’s passionately opposed to the French Revolution he must be opposed to any revolution, including the American one.  Not so.  Burke “wrote influential essays, letters, speeches, and statements advising British reconciliation with American revolutionists.”  How can this be?  Some readers believe Burke is being inconsistent and shows blatant prejudice against the French.  Not so.  Here’s why.  The situations in America and France were vastly different.  It’s unfortunate they both used the term “revolution” because they were not at all alike.  They started from different principles, proceeded using different methods, and ended with different results.  The Americans wanted to build a social order grounded in a pattern of life established in colonial times; the French wanted to tear down an ancient social order and replace it with an entirely new one.  The Americans wanted to graft a new branch onto the tree and receive nourishment from an old trunk with deep roots; the French wanted to chop down the whole tree and start over from scratch.  They wanted to create a brand new perfect democracy.  The Americans wanted democracy too but accepted the wisdom best expressed by Benjamin Franklin when he said nothing human is perfect.  This is where Burke steps in and takes sides.  He agrees with the Americans.  Burke says “A perfect democracy is the most shameless thing in the world.  As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless...”  The French mistake was trying to create a perfect form of government.  They misread the nature of Man.  Man as an individual is not a perfect creature so how can we possibly expect men to be perfect by banding together in large groups?  In large groups men do not become perfect.  They tend to do the opposite and turn into dangerous mobs.  Men are afraid when they’re alone but in a mob they’re fearless.  That’s why Burke believes “it is of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong.”  Here’s the unpleasant fact Burke wants us to ponder: in mobs the “will of the people” is jut as dangerous as the tyranny of any tyrant-king.

Here’s something else to ponder: if we can’t turn to kings or to “the people” for standards of right and wrong, where do we turn?  Wisdom is hard to come by but Burke thinks our best path to it is through religion and the study of history.  He says men cannot become anything “other than what God, and nature, and education, and their habits of life have made them.”  Burke admires “manly liberty” and also thinks a manly religion is a solid foundation for government.  Life is hard and governing is even harder.  But Burke says “difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental Guardian and Legislator, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as he loves us better, too.”  Without this bridge of religion and history “No one generation could link with the other.  Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”  What would happen then?  They would tend to view history and religion “as a heap of old exploded errors” and before long “barbarism with regard to science and literature, unskillfulness with regard to arts and manufactures, would infallibly succeed to the want of a steady education and settled principle; and thus the commonwealth itself would, in a few generations, crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length dispersed to all the winds of heaven.”  This is why Burke was consistent in his thinking.  He knew how the American and French republics would end because he knew how they started.  He had studied the lessons of history and learned its wisdom.