. . .

Michael Lind explains (link via metameat), in clearer prose than I'm ever likely to produce, what's wrong with talk about "the West," and comes to a depressing conclusion:

"The collapse of liberal denominations promises an increasing polarisation between consistent secularists and devout believers."
Empty chatter about "the Christian West" or "the capitalist West" fogs perception, as universalizing abstractions tend to do: when we need to know the weather, we're told that clouds look like bunnies (or at least real clouds do). But what makes this particular parochialism dangerous rather than merely annoying is its easy slide into racism and aggression.

The reader a-thirst for closer analysis of Rise-and-Fall Clash-of-Culture rhetoricians might enjoy Robert Musil's 1921 essay, "Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Eluded the Decline of the West":

For there is a favorable prejudice -- I want to use the word spiritual, let us say then in spiritual circles, but I mean in literary circles -- toward offenses against mathematics, logic, and precision. Among crimes against the spirit, these are happily counted among the honorable political ones; the prosecutor actually finds himself in the role of the accused. Let us be generous, then: Spengler is speaking approximately; he works with analogies, and these are always right in some sense or other. If an author is bent on referring to concepts by the wrong names or even confusing them with each other, one can eventually get used to it. But some key symbol, some kind of ultimately unequivocal connection between thought and word, must be sustained. Even this is lacking. The examples I have adduced, without having to look very hard, are only a selection among many; they are not errors of detail, but a way of thinking.

There are lemon-yellow butterflies, and there are lemon-yellow Chinese. In a certain sense, then, one can say that the butterfly is the winged, middle-European, dwarf Chinese. Butterflies and Chinese are both familiar as images of sexual desire. Here the thought is formulated for the first time of the previously unrecognized commonality between the great ages of lepidopteral fauna and Chinese culture. That butterflies have wings and the Chinese do not is only a superficial phenomenon. If ever a zoologist had understood anything about the ultimate and deepest ideas of technology, it would not have been left to me to be the first to disclose the significance of the fact that butterflies did not invent gunpowder precisely because the Chinese had done so already. The suicidal predilection of certain kinds of nocturnal moths for bright light is a relic of this morphological connection to Sinology, a connection hard to explain in terms of everyday reason.

It really makes no difference what it is that is to be proved by such means.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Henry Adams, 1

That the effort to make History a Science may fail, is possible, and perhaps probable; but that it should cease, unless for reasons that would cause all science to cease, is not within the range of experience. Historians will not, and even if they would they cannot, abandon the attempt. Science itself would admit its own failure, if it admitted that man, the most important of all its subjects, could not be brought within its range.
- Henry Adams to the American Historical Association, 12 December 1894

History saw few lessons in the past that would be useful in the future; but one, at least, it did see. The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance. During a million or two of years, every generation in turn had toiled with endless agony to attain and apply power, all the while betraying the deepest alarm and horror at the power they created.... the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.

... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and instead of Kant's famous four antinomies, the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.

- The Education of Henry Adams, 1905

Social studies are an excellent idea; social sciences less so.

The problem springs (and I mean springs) from the confusion of description and prescription, the impulse to apply "knowledge" lickety-split to "practice," a confusion and impulse so built into human nature that only us kinda screwed-up people even perceive it, much less perceive it as a problem. If we try to study "how unhappiness develops," financial pressure will quickly switch us to the more profitable question of "how to prevent unhappiness": psychology turns into therapy, philosophy turns into self-help, sociology turns into genocide, and economics into utter insanity; pro-republic Machiavelli barely advanced into a science of politics before his research became funded and repurposed by Medici Technologies. Sure, everyone wants to be an authority, and that's harmless enough; the trouble is that people expect authorities to give orders.

Luckily if unprofitably, virtually all attempts at formalizing a "humanity" into a "scientific discipline" crumble -- such a relief after straining to hold it together! -- unless one assumes a static monoculture. Historical narratives demonstrably overlap without strictly determining each other, and therefore what's defined as history depends on the observer's chosen focus. Predictive history is impossible because both the facts and their interpretive framework are in the future. Even within a monoculture, even for a single interpeter and for a safely past-and-gone event, newly discovered facts (as Adams often mentions) can completely overturn an interpretation. As a result, the new and glorious science can only be defended by outrageously know-nothing rhetoric -- which hardly makes it a safer foundation for action.

History can only react. It doesn't tell us what to do; it only tells us "I told you so," and that's precisely its value. We need it not because we need prescience but because we need narratives. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fewer and dumber ways of interpreting the present.

. . .

The Descent of Man

If God created man in His own Western (but not too Western) European image, why don't all men resemble Western Europeans? And if men are entitled to law and property, how can one justify enslaving men or colonizing their territory?

The enlightened eighteenth century killed both these birds and got a nice dinner out of 'em by casting the stone of degeneration.

That sounds a bit odd to American ears, since our local colonialist rhetoric restricted itself to filthy bloodthirsty savages (that is, the populations of Africa and the New World). But Sarah Jordan reminds me that Mother England also had to deal with the Middle East, India, and China, and an Oxbridgian could hardly claim that the English infantry was more civilized than those populations. Instead, he'd claim it was less depraved:

Alexander Dow, The History of Indostan, 1770:
"The frequent bathing inculcated by the Coran, has, by debilitating the body, a great effect on the mind. ... The prohibition of wine is also favourable to despotism. It prevents that free communication of sentiment which awakens mankind from a torpid indifference to their natural rights."
Robert Orme, History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, 1763:
"An abhorrence to the shedding of blood, derived from his religion, and seconded by the great temperance of a life which is passed by most of them in a very sparing use of animal food, and a total abstinence from intoxicating liquors; the influence of the most regular of climates, in which the great heat of the sun and the great fertility of the soil lessen most of the wants to which the human species is subject in austerer regions, and supply the rest without the exertion of much labour; these causes have all together contributed to tender the Indian the most enervated inhabitant of the globe."

The effete East is decadent, and "savages" are just decadents who got so lazy they stopped putting on clothes in the morning. God wants the English, as His original representatives, to restore both groups to their hard-working hard-drinking natural ways rather than let them continue to squander their god-given resources in their god-forsaken countries.

As Jordan points out, although admirably unified, this self-justification had a blatant flaw: What man had done, man could do. If the savage African and the effete Asian had started off as pure as Adam or George IV but then been corrupted by their climates, wouldn't the same corruption sooner or later strike colonists? A hard question to turn away, given the gruesome evidence supplied by the colonists' persons.

If ideology was determined by rational argument rather than economics, then the advent of evolutionary theory would have destroyed racism.

Instead, the ideology stayed firmly in place and the justification flipped around it. In the enlightened nineteenth century, the colonized and enslaved went from "degenerate" to "primitive," and the colonists were no longer throwbacks to the golden age but pinnacles of progress, bred to resist rot. The awkward question of environmental factors no longer heckles us, smug in our Darwinian birthright.

So have creationists carefully thought through the possible consequences of their textbook revisions?

+ + +

Presumably not. I mean, is Supreme Designer really a term of praise? Myself, when I survey the vast panoply of life, I'm awestruck by the shoddiness of the job.

I think our friends in the news media would agree that it's easier to flatter a hands-off tough-talking take-charge delegate-everything pass-the-buck-and-overprice-the-ammunition kind of CEO (so like our own dear Queen) than a clumsy would-be mastermind.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom

I am intrigued by this article because, like the woman cited in the first quote above, I often find myself torn between "a traditionally humanist right and an antihumanist left."

Surely, the solution is a postmodern humanist left? How?

Having not felt this conflict myself, I wonder at its prevalence in American graduate schools and bordellos. It may be that embodying "teacher" and "grader" roles in one person is bound to make hash of any investigation of authority. (One-man-bands of judge, prosecutor, jury, and executioner have a poor reputation for justice, despite their efficiency.)

When I learned that everyone is mortal, my breath caught and my heart skipped a beat, but I wasn't relieved of the need to breathe oxygen or circulate blood. I simply gained an awareness of death, which I could either ignore or bear in mind while operating heavy machinery.

Learning the extent to which conscious decision-making is a Pistol of preliminary bluster and unlikely retrospection didn't relieve me of the unpleasant duty to decide things. I only earned another bit of knowledge to work with or discard to the best of my ability.

Similarly, the knowledge that social values come from somewhere, can change, and often conflict might cushion the shock when we encounter differing values or unexpected results, or it might make us more likely to examine and readjust some of our values in the light of others (notably in the light of empiricism). Or it might just be something we drop.

But it certainly doesn't transform us from animals that make, hold, and live by social values into animals that don't. We aren't granted that luxury. (Nietzsche rarely wrote of himself as a new species; his "we"s and "our"s tend to be a bit humbler than that.)

And the knowledge certainly doesn't compel us to give up such constructed values as pleasure, or honesty, or understanding, or greatest good for greatest number, and to instead reshape our lives around such constructed values as short-term selfishness or xenophobic tribal allegiance -- any more than reading about digestive enzymes compels us to switch from delicious to repulsive food. A fella's still gotta eat.

. . .

Historical Imperative

Cardinal Richelieu, instead of being an innovative modernizer of France's military system... in fact failed to initiate effective reforms in military administration, and owed what limited success he had in expanding and strengthening the French army to improvised expedients and the cultivation of the great nobles and existing clientage networks.... funded not by a streamlined fiscal system, but through high taxes and short-term borrowing managed by officials whose corruption was encouraged by the system. Most of the armies' successes, moreover, were the product of decentralization and delegation of authority to military commands and officials, and what limited attempts Richelieu made to concentrate power in his own hands or those of his own clients produced a backlash that threatened to destroy the monarchy a few years later.
- Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. LV, No. 4, Winter 2002
James R. Smither review of
Richelieu's Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 by David Parrott

But France made out OK for a couple years, so it's easy to see how the story of Richelieu's prowess spread. What was he going to do? Deny it?

There are as many perspectives as there are human souls and once again I’m learning that no easy conclusions can be drawn, and that what was called History in school was worse than watered-down fairy tales.
- Gail Armstrong

It's not precisely true that history's always written by the victor. Only losers write anything, much less history books. (Burning them's another matter.) But it's true enough that the notion of victors grounds the historical genre.

The historian's job is to build a coherent narrative from whatever source material's available, with memory of hearsay usually providing the initial plot outline. Narrative prefers willed action with willed effects. And so we tell about someone planning this and gaining that, and someone else making a mistake and losing. And the winners (if any) tend to be the protagonists, unless we're playing weepy reactionary, in which case it's going to be awfully hard to avoid bathos.

When sources abound, our fiction becomes untenable, no matter how much the active parties might've clung to their own fictions for the sake of career and sanity. To write coherent post-literate pre-library-burning history is to ascribe motives glibly in the text and dispute or overturn them in the footnotes. (Which is why footnotes are often where the most interesting writing is.)

[That same narratological impulse has kept torture multiculturally acceptable for millenia. Torture produces a known story, and therefore it produces a coherent story, thus re-affirming the value of torture. (Those of us raised to abhor torture should bear in mind that we rely on grossly inaccurate eyewitness accounts for similar reasons.) It's no surprise that the Bush administration, with its faith in the confidently stated lie and in Matthew 25:29-30, should be the first American administration in some time to suggest bringing torture back into the legal system. Footnotes to be shredded before publication.]

When they link local weather conditions to a monarch's virtue, classic European and Chinese histories seem quaint to (most) contemporary humanities students, who know that weather is actually caused by butterfly wings. Could be, though, we maintain some quaint assumptions of our own....

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I read a book (this was before I kept a journal about anything other than my sex life, so I don't have the title at hand) that brought two bits of research together. The first polled military scholars to determine who were the greatest military leaders in history and what determined that category; it turned out to be something like winning six major battles. The second collected a database of major battles and relevant commanders and calculated, based purely on chance, what the likely distribution of wins would be. The most likely number of winners of six battles was identical with the number of most-agreed-upon major military leaders.

Although the coincidence is merely suggestive, I've found the suggestion clarifying when brought to bear on questions like how did Grant turn from a drunken loser to a drunken winner (producing a narrative of growing wisdom and maturity) and then (as President) back to a drunken loser again (producing very confused narrators)?

Almost a century before that book's publication, confused Grant-watcher Henry Adams bid farewell to history when, after decades of mulling the elaborately unreliable allegiances of English-American diplomacy during the American Civil War, he found by reading memoirs and diaries that they'd been generated semi-randomly by the combination of an aging pathological liar, an airhead who took orders from his morning Bible reading, and a self-confessed bungler who hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions:

All the world had been at cross-purposes, had misunderstood themselves and the situation, had followed wrong paths, drawn wrong conclusions, and had known none of the facts. One would have done better to draw no conclusions at all. One's diplomatic education was a long mistake. His whole theory of conspiracy,— of policy,— of logic and connection in the affairs of man, resolved itself into "[a mistake of] incredible grossness."

All this was indifferent. Granting, in spite of evidence, that Gladstone had no set plan of breaking up the Union; that he was party to no conspiracy; that he saw none of the results of his acts which were clear to everyone else; granting in short what the English themselves seemed at last to conclude:— that Gladstone was not quite sane; that Russell was verging on senility; and that Palmerston had lost his nerve.... How should it have affected one's future opinions and acts?

Politics cannot stop to study psychology. Its methods are rough; its judgments are rougher still.... The problem would have been the same; the answer equally obscure.

- The Education of Henry Adams

Even in the presumable limit condition of fiction labeled as such, on the presumable author's own authority, we often find confusion, second-guessing, or admission of surprise ("I meant to make God the hero, but Satan kept taking over"). How much more murkiness might be expected from a Real Life Adventure with the cross-purposed interference of multiply improvising and scatterbrained plotters?

Does this mean history has nothing to teach us?

Even to this non-historian, it seems very insistently to teach lessons of (in no particular order) tolerance, skepticism, humor, and panic.

Those were never very popular lessons, however, and, except for the last, they're less popular now than ever.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 1

Since the capitulation of Paris the soldier has tended to sink more and more into a paid official, receiving his orders from financiers with his salary, without being allowed a voice even in questions involving peace and war. The same fate has overtaken the producing classes; they have failed to maintain themselves, and have become subjects of the possessors of hoarded wealth. Although the conventions of popular government are still preserved, capital is at least as absolute as under the Caesars, and, among capitalists, the money-lenders form an aristocracy. Debtors are in reality powerless, because of the extension of that very system of credit which they invented to satisfy their needs. Although the volume of credit is gigantic, the basis on which it rests is so narrow that it may be manipulated by a handful of men. [...] The aristocracy which wields this autocratic power is beyond attack, for it is defended by a wage-earning police, by the side of which the legions were a toy; a police so formidable that, for the first time in history, revolt is hopeless and is not attempted. The only question which preoccupies the ruling class is whether it is cheaper to coerce or to bribe.
- The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History
by Brooks Adams (1895-6)

Brooks Adams never set "The Law" in a single line of Greek and arithmetic; his wife's suggested title was The Path to Hell: A Story Book. He thumps out a simple enough pattern, though.

History describes the inverse relationship of two emotions: Fear and Greed. ("That's not where I want to be.") As a population centralizes, Fear becomes less important, Greed more. The power (or status or survival he makes no distinction) of an individual (or "organism", "type", "breed", "race" he makes no distinction) in any community (or "culture", "civilization", "nation", "race" he makes no distinction) is determined by whether Fear or Greed has the ascendancy. Military heroes and priests rule the Fearful; capitalists rule the Greedy. As Greed accelerates, the increasingly capitalistic community becomes dependent on cheaper external goods and labor. Eventually this leads to collapse, dispersion, and Fear.

The leading indicators (or the sole engines he's vague) of cultural change are control of financial exchange and access to the units of exchange.

  1. The Roman empire rose and conquered under the banner of forced high-interest credit, and declined under the same. Pax Romana was just another name for trade deficits and agricultural ruin: "Economic competition became free, land tended to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands, and this land was worked by eastern slaves, who reduced the wages of labour to the lowest point at which the human being can survive."
  2. The Empire moved to Constantinople to follow the center of international trade, where exchange could be balanced. Collapse of the Western empire brought the Italian peasantry immediate relief.
  3. As decentralization of Western Europe progressed and technology was lost, the money value of the miracle rose. Which eventually led to the Crusades, which eventually led back to economic recentralization.
  4. The Renaissance? The Crusades diverted money from Byzantimum towards Italy. "Placed between the masterpieces of the East and West, and having little imagination of his own, the Florentine banker conceived the idea of combining the two systems and embellishing them in a cheap and showy manner...."
  5. As the power of capital advanced, it brought about the Protestant Reformation. A personal relationship with God is cheaper than miracles purchased through His licensed agent.

Follow the money: Rome plundered Europe and the Near East. The merchants plundered Rome. The Church plundered Europe. Italy plundered Constantinople. Portugal stole the Indies trade from Italy. Spain plundered the New World. The Dutch stole the ocean trade from Spain. Improved technology re-centered trade in England. England plundered India. Germany plundered France. Bankers plundered everyone.

So it seems to be a habit with us. What makes Adams's account most impressively legalistic is his tone, the attorney's habit of argument by inevitability. "She had no choice but to pull the trigger." "You have no choice but to find her guilty." "The Knights Templar might as well have argued with gravitation." "That ostentatious, sordid, and cowardly race, being better adapted, rose to dominance."

... to be continued ...


"a habit with us" - Seeing as how they've truncated your sense of us-ness down to somewhat minus the last 3 millenia, with an unspoken codicil that any pre-our-history human lives were larval and inconsequent, like indigenes generally, even the useful ones, it might get more toward the actual analysis of motivation to say "this here us".
Fear and Greed are the driving wheels of this particular clot of this particular primate spooge, what we are as a race, or specie, is rather larger than what passes for history now.

I see where you're coming from and I'm getting there, although I can't blame you if you're tired of waiting. I meant this first part as summary, not as endorsement. (I wonder how many "Little Nell must die" letters were sent to Dickens.)

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 2

All this appreciably before Max Weber or Oswald Spengler.... It's tempting to say Brooks Adams was ahead of his time, except he hits anyone's time on his face.

Despite its recent crisis, the 1895 American elite wasn't in the mood for anti-imperialist pessimism. And neither were Marxists, really; although Adams thought capitalism incapable of avoiding civilization-shattering crises, he also thought humanity incapable of avoiding capitalism. We weren't heading for the dictatorship of the proletariat. We were heading for anarchy and subjection by fresher capitalists.

After the Great War, Spengler's race-mysticism was found more interesting than Adams's materialism. As late as 1944, the New English Weekly could complain that "the emphasis it lays on the economic factor" conflicted with "Otto Sieck's thesis that character changes are brought about by miscegenation."

But although Adams claimed wealth determined which representatives of which races ended up on top, he still expressed himself in racial reifications. This account of globalization is likely to be found distasteful by most fans of Hardt & Negri:

First, inventions from the East facilitated trade; then, the perfection of weapons of attack made police possible, and individual bravery unnecessary; on this followed the abasement of the martial and exaltation of the economic type; and finally that intense acceleration of movement by machinery supervened, which, in annihilating space, has destroyed the protection that the costly races long enjoyed against the competition of simpler organisms. [...] For nearly a century the inventions of Hargreaves, of Crompton, of Cartwright, and of Watt, enabled Lancashire to supply Bombay and Calcutta with fabrics, as, in the seventeenth century, Surat and Calicut had supplied London, and this superiority appeared assured until Orientals should acquire the momentum necessary for machinery. One effect in Europe was the rapid increase of a population congregated in towns, and bearing a marked resemblance to the "humiliores" of Rome in their disinclination for war. True to their instincts, the adventurers ever quickened their movements, ever extended the sphere of their enterprises, and, finally, just as the Second Empire verged upon its fall, they opened the Suez Canal in 1869. The consequences of this great engineering triumph have probably equalled in gravity the establishment of the gold standard, but the two phenomena had this marked difference. The producers saw their danger and resisted to the utmost the contraction of the currency, whereas the Canal was a case of suicide. Thenceforward grain, raised by the most enduring labour of the world, could be thrown without limit on the European market, and, agricultural competition once established, industrial could only be a question of time.

Even on its own terms the book's a mess, unable to resist a good torture scene anytime or anywhere, and digressing spectacularly into the vices of the Tudors.

Its own terms are what interest me.

... to be continued ...


Character changes are brought about by miscegnation. Also by adherence to racial-purity laws. Also by celibacy. Also by promiscuity. Also by tedious list-making. The character of those changes may be more of an issue.

"The character of" as in "The nature of" or as in "The person effected by"? If the latter, I agree. The characters of the miscegnator or tedious list-maker may be changed by their experiences, but not the characters of their descendents.

Oh but of course. Though cast in more subtle light than our dull gross vision has power to see. You mean predictable intentional change I think. Everything works changes on everything else. The glockenspiel effects the timpani, in its way, though we'll never hear it, still it does.

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 3

Early Darwinian historians simply swapped Nature's will in for God's: Nature evolved homo sapiens, and then Nature evolved late nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans, and now it's just a matter of mopping up the kitchen.

Brooks Adams knew better. Biological evolution describes a process, not a project; by analogy, any rules governing human culture would continue to grind through the Gilded Age. Anyone who thought they'd reached the end of history hadn't understood history.

Relinquishing the throne of creation freed Adams to found a different lineage of errors.

Take, for example, his assumption that biology and culture conserve a constant quantifiable "energy" which is divvied out across each generation. Or his asides about a force of history which can no more be argued with than gravitational acceleration. In both cases, he seems to misunderstand evolution as (singular) survival of the (winner-take-all) fittest under a (singular) law rather than as an intention-free account of species diversification. He mistakes Darwin for Newton.

He's hardly alone. Because technology depends on reliably replicable results, non-scientists tend to picture science as a matter of finding trustworthy laws and formulas. But that doesn't cover even all laboratory sciences: Medical and psychological journals describe barely distinguishable correlations rather than universally valid laws, and the pressures of research funding encourage flexibility in what's considered significant. In the twentieth century, physics itself became probabilistic.

Most drastically, the characterization doesn't cover historical science. Historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology study contingencies, not eternal verities. What makes them scientific are the materiality of their problems, their evidence, and their suggested explanations.

Darwin's problem was the appearance of new species over time. His solution was divergent descent driven by material means.

What's the historian's problem? It doesn't seem to be divergence. Like later scientizing historians, Adams rummaged through the polymorphic transtemporal promiscuity of human culture and found cycles. But evolution isn't cyclical.

Biologists in the tradition of Darwin should not speak of the coming into effect of selection if:

1. Already disappeared characters suddenly re-appear in subsequent generations (= false negative selection).
2. Characters which seem to have been positively “selected” during ontogeny never re-appear in subsequent generations (= false positive selection).

Usually, genes, genomes, characters, individuals, populations, and species never do come back once they have been negatively selected, and that is eliminated by Darwinian selection. This is the very simple, but fundamental essence of Darwin’s idea of “natural selection” which, in that respect, was a clearly materialist one....

The situation in operant learning – and, by the way, also in conceptual change in science and culture – is even more revealing. Cases 1 and 2 are in this view not rare exceptional cases, but rather they constitute more or less the rule.

- Adolf Heschl

And the problem's certainly not species. Although biological taxonomy may be fuzzy in spots, it's brick solid compared to what we grasp and mold from the blooming buzzing muck of human chronicles. So far as history is conceived as anything but a chronological collation of citations from unreliable sources, history is nothing but variations on observer bias, and misanthopic pessimism isn't enough to correct our myopia.

After only 110 years, Adams's biases seem sharp, and his (to him) clean abstractions seem (to us) to morph and merge. His towering account is stabilized by the shiftiness of its foundations. Even the line between "civilization" and "barbarism" is blurred by his fascination with torture.

Living where and when he did, Adams restricts the purview of his general law of "civilizations" to Western Europe and, occasionally, their colonies. The barbaric Crusaders contacted the Saracens at the peak of their civilization but what laws governed that civilization? China, Japan, Persia they were out there, we suppose; unchanging, decadent....

Living where and when he did, Adams's idea of "economy" focused on the movement of precious metals. But the "money" of contemporary wealth is as imaginary, as reliant on the power of orthodoxy and law, as any kingship or priesthood: a shared nightmare from which we're afraid to wake up.

Living where and when he did, Adams pictured religion and finance as opposite extremes. Protestantism had won because conscience is cheaper than icons. Taking what would seem and would continue to seem, among the elite, for some decades the natural next step, Henry Adams pointed out that "Atheism is still cheaper than reformed religion."

But then again Henry also pointed out that the leaders of the Catholic church appear to have accumulated more wealth than Luther, Calvin, and Fox. And then again, Brooks represents the Anglican capitalists who consolidated lands and lowered the value of productive labor as more economically evolved than the Puritan farmers who were thereby forced into exile. And then again, as the economic power of those exiles grew...?

Well, living where and when we do, none of it makes sense. If capitalism and religious faith were ever in conflict, they made up by the time of the Spanish Civil War. For those of us who've survived into the 21st century, it's hard to picture them as anything but allies. The age of expensive miracles isn't past. It's just that the expensive miracle cures consist of selfish murdering assholes getting to feel good about themselves. Taking the long view, though, is that really so novel?

And then there are his easy personifications of "race" and "breed". In their rush to scientize, even skeptics like Brooks and Henry Adams stayed blind to the flaws of these selectively weighted non-random outliers-scrubbed sample sets. They knew many more WASP millionaires than they knew Jewish bankers Jay Gould was as American as apples with razor blades. But that hardly registered, they'd known so few Jews who weren't bankers.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if they had. Young Louis Zukofsky's stubborn refusal of either "all you Jews" or "unlike most Jews" gambits rolled off Adams fan Ezra Pound with as little effect as every other non-artifactual experience. I'm-rubber-you're-glue is a hard game to lose.

* * *

The reader may wonder why I feel compelled to exhume and whump the peaceful corpse of Brooks Adams.

The point isn't he was an idiot. While he was alive he was smarter than me, possibly even as smart as you.

But now that he's dead, we have a bit of an edge. And I think this is a fairly common pattern.

Adams couldn't escape his time and place. That's not a mistake we've grown out of.

... to be concluded ...


misanthopic trees never bloom

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Brooks Adams, 4

But simply because it is possible to model a process in Darwinian or quasi-Darwinian terms does not necessarily imply that it is useful to do so. Darwin himself invoked natural selection to explain the existence of adaptation in nature – a phenomenon which cries out for scientific explanation and was conspicuously lacking one until Darwin’s own theory. But in many of the recent attempts to discern Darwinian processes at work in other domains, for example, in the realm of human culture, there is no comparable phenomenon which clearly requires, but totally lacks, a proper causal explanation.
- Samir Okasha
We feel as though we ought to be able to tell the "story" of anything that changes over time like America, or the vertebrates. But the things about which we can tell stories must either possess individuality, or they must be prepared to have individuality and all it entails like ontogeny and closure imposed upon them by the force of narrative.
- Bob O'Hara
That may be, but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.
- Nora Charles

Given how blatantly history and culture don't map the concerns of evolutionary biology, what attracts humanists to the rhetoric of evolutionary biology?

Darwinian evolution proposed to solve an otherwise unexplained mystery. In contrast, human history has too many explanations.

Somehow, though, on close inspection, they always seem to dissolve into a mist of unknowables, tautologies, unlikelihoods, and impossibilities.

Miasma in, miasma out. History amalgamates human actions into a reasonable narrative; human actions aren't rational. We intuit causality and teleology from our own experience of agency. But, fast talker though it is, human agency never quite finishes explaining things. Its story doesn't hang together.

In response, we might cook the books: haute cuisine chefs such as Objectivists and behaviorists eviscerate, blanch, bone, shred, filter, and pipe experience into occasional lever pushes by a mascaraed Gary Cooper.

Or we might find some supplemental force to fill the gaps of decision: gods, God, demons, spells, universal dialectic, conflicting drives, false consciousness, interfering modules, the selfish genes of our extinct ancestors.... But in describing them as "forces", we've only shifted the burden of teleological paradox on to where we hope it can't be questioned further, like a subpoenaed CEO's The Girl.

The principled skeptical historian, like the English professor who's sick of literature, would like to sweep the tainted debris of personality out of sight. "Evolution" appeals as a magically unliftable materialist carpet. But its magic material is Emperor's New Cloth. The explanations offered by evolutionary biologists are usually presented as not-disproven; the explanations offered by historians usually aren't presented in disprovable terms. The carpet can't be lifted because there's nothing there. Nothing except that same irritating multiplying dust-bunny.

Satisfaction will not be received. The scratch is just the itch's way of making another itch.

... what startles me in these paragraphs is the self-satisfied assumption of the finality of my conclusions. I posit, as a fact not to be controverted, that our universe is an expression of an universal law, which the nineteenth century had discovered and could formulate.

During the past thirty years I have given this subject my best attention, and now I am so far from assenting to this proposition that my mind tends in the opposite direction. Each day I live I am less able to withstand the suspicion that the universe, far from being an expression of law originating in a single primary cause, is a chaos which admits of reaching no equilibrium, and with which man is doomed eternally and hopelessly to contend.

- "Preface to New Edition" of
The Emancipation of Massachussetts: The Dream and the Reality
by Brooks Adams (1919)


We (or our claustrophobia-enducing tiny little comment box) seem to have finally driven this dedicated reader round the bend:

This is fine and good mindwork. Excellent. It seems important for reasons I can't get my fingers on to recognize everything Darwinian movement happens to is already there. The growth medium having its own day in court, sort of thing.

And speaking of our comment box and evolution, today marks this primitive email-based response system's first instance of bot spam:

[Link removed] would any guy here do anything sexual with a girl in front of your friend Like your best friend? I don't know if I can do anything like that.
That evolution happens to stuff, that what is evolving is stuff that's been here since either:
a. an origin only describable by dogmatic mumbo-jumbo and requiring blind faith e.g. bigbang superstring fries-with-that; or,
b. It's always been here. If it's always been here, the room for conjecture as to further and as-yet unobserved attributes is very great.

Scott McLemee commented:

Come to think of it, the whole idea that each society consists of a certain mass of energy seems awfully Herbert Spencer-ish, and I'd bet the ranch that is where he got it. It takes some doing now, really, to grasp just how gigantic a figure Spencer was at the time.

Oddly, though, Spencer doesn't really show up in the Adams material I've read. (Henry Adams mentions him once in a late letter as an English affliction to match the German Kant and French Comte.) For whatever guesses are worth, I'd guess that the two brothers thought of him more as symptom of the times than as personal inspiration -- which, of course, doesn't rule out unacknowledged influence....

. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Footnote

Samuel Butler's most cited statement on evolution must be "A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg." But his most prescient was "The power to make mistakes is one of the criteria of life as we commonly think of it."

. . .

Charles Francis Adams, Jr. : Most Annoying Adams Ever?

(Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from Charles Francis Adams by his son Charles Francis Adams, published in 1900 as part of the American Statesmen series.)

The story is not lacking in interest; but it has already in main been told both by Henry Wilson, himself an actor in it, and by Edward L. Pierce, not only an actor in it, but subsequently an untiring investigator of it. Upon it Mr. Adams’s contemporaneous record throws much additional light. The period was, too, not only important, but, as revealed in his papers, extremely interesting. It has its distinctly humorous, as well as tragic, side. [...] It is absorbing, as well as impressive; but the narrative attains almost the dimensions of a history, and will not be compressed into a sketch. Its salient features only can here be referred to.
The as yet unwritten history of this gathering can here be no more than alluded to, though it still has an interest, and, at the moment, was of great historical significance.
The manner in which the wily and really good-natured Prime Minister, acting after his wont in such cases through the skillful cooperation of Lady Palmerston, subsequently, when he thought desirable so to do, renewed social relations, was interesting and eminently characteristic; but to recount it is beyond the scope of the present sketch.
The episode of the Howell-Zerman letter now occurred. Altogether a very entertaining and characteristic incident, the letter referred to caused at the moment great commotion, and for a brief space threatened gravely to compromise Mr. Adams; but the affair soon passed over, leaving no trace behind. Reference only can be made to it here.
Meanwhile a new contingency arose, and, to his own great surprise, Mr. Adams suddenly found himself a prominent candidate for a presidential nomination. The history of the movement which culminated in the Cincinnati convention of May, 1872, and the nomination of Horace Greeley as the opposing candidate to President Grant in the canvass of that year, is curious, and not without its humorous as well as interesting features. It can, however, here only be alluded to.

I'm glad the author was at least willing to share the curious and eminently characteristic reaction, not without continuing interest, of the London Times to the Emancipation Proclamation:

If the blacks are to obtain the freedom he promises them, it must be by their own hands. They must rise upon a more numerous, more intelligent, better-armed, and braver community of whites, and exterminate them, their wives and children, by fire and sword. The President of the United States may summon them to this act, but he is powerless to assist them in its execution. Nay, this is the very reason why they are summoned.... Mr. Lincoln bases his act on military necessity, and invokes the considerate judgment of mankind and the judgment of Almighty God. He has characterized his own act; mankind will be slow to believe that an act avowedly the result of military considerations has been dictated by a sincere desire for the benefit of those who, under the semblance of emancipation, are thus marked out for destruction, and He who made man in His own image can scarcely, we may presume to think, look with approbation on a measure which, under the pretense of emancipation, intends to reduce the South to the frightful condition of St. Domingo.... In the midst of violent party divisions, in ostentatious contempt of the Constitution, with the most signal ill success in war, he is persisting in the attempt to conquer a nation, to escape whose victorious arms is the only triumph which his generals seem capable of gaining. Every consideration of patriotism and policy calls upon him to put an end to the hopeless contest, but he considers the ruin is not deep enough, and so he calls to his aid the execrable expedient of a servile insurrection. Egypt is destroyed; but his heart is hardened, and he will not let the people go.
* * *

To be fair, Charles's fashionably obese prose was never built to carry conflicting emotions. He was bound to wheeze under the load.

Charles Francis Adams, Sr., had four sons, but the eldest, John, wrote nothing ever (and seems to have been by far the happiest):

As I look back upon the Uncles, I see them as always writing Uncle Charles in a nice square house just below his own on President's Hill, which he had bought to provide space for his books and to insure him peace from the distractions of a growing family, and which he called the "Annex." Uncle Henry when he was in Quincy commanded undisputed possession of the Stone Library, while Uncle Brooks reigned in John Adams's study on the second floor of the Old House. It used to puzzle me what they all found to write about, for my father never seemed to write at all but when I asked him about it, he said "I suppose it amuses them!"

[...] Uncle Brooks often told me how jealous he had always been of my father for possessing those social qualities of charm and conviviality which he himself so painfully lacked, adding in the same breath that John was far too lazy ever to make effective use of them.

- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans

The three writing brothers described their relative charmlessness as something passed through the Y chromosome, an unamiable rectitude which both determined and curtailed the social utility and historic importance of each generation's males. Charles Junior, in particular, associated this cursed inheritance with the familial habit of diary-keeping, a compulsion friendlier to future historians than to siblings and children. Here, for example, he writes about Charles Senior's earliest discernible achievement, publishing a life-and-letters of his grandmother Abigail:

Deeply gratified as he was at the success of this his first literary venture, Mr. Adams would have been more gratified yet could he have read his father's contemporaneous diary record; for J. Q. Adams was not a demonstrative man, and rarely, except when communing with himself, gave expression to his inmost feelings. So now, on Sunday, September 27, 1840, he wrote that, attending, as was his wont, divine service in the afternoon, whereat a certain Mr. Motte preached upon the evidences of Christianity from the text, John xx. 31, “my attention and thoughts were too much absorbed by the volume of my Mother's Letters which my son has published, and of which he sent me this morning a copy. An admirable Memoir of her life written by him is prefixed to the Letters, and the reading of it affected me till the tears streamed down my face.”

And Charles Junior, in particular, associated it with their father:

The sympathies of the aristocracy were distinctly on the side of the slaveocracy of the South, as against the democracy of the North; and this the American minister had been caused to feel with a distinctness almost peculiar to London, where the shades and phases of social coldness and incivility have long since been perfected into a science. Fortunately, Mr. Adams, by nature and bearing, was in this respect exactly the man the occasion called for. When the Englishman was cold and reserved, Mr. Adams was a little colder and a little more reserved than the Englishman. He thus played well the game to which he found himself called, for the very good reason that the game was natural to him.

Charles Junior only wrote the biography because John T. Morse, the editor of the American Statesmen series, asked him to, and because like the rest of the family he thought his father's Civil War diplomacy, which against very long odds stopped England from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, had been unjustly forgotten by the ingrate Union. In his writing, however, this shared resentment had to contend with his own Adams-ish righteousness and with his more peculiarly Charles-ish resentments, both displayed in the letter he wrote to his brother Henry in the project's early stages:

I may respect the young man, as a young man; but I neither admire nor like him. The first thing I notice is the absence of anything large, human or sympathetic.... He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad; and the disease grew in him as he grew older. It was just the thing he ought not to have done. Naturally reserved and self-centred, his nature required when young,— that is for its full development,— active contact with the world and social life; but at 22 he became a married hermit with a diary for his confidant and familiar friend. He wanted no other. Actually, he never was educated. This might not have been so bad, had there been the elements of warmth, humor, imagination in his intellectual make-up,— the geniality and friendliness among persons or the sympathy with nature,— which insensibly make what some persons write worth writing for themselves or worth reading to others. In his diaries there is nothing of the sort,— not a touch of humor, no power of description, no eye to the dramatic, no love of gossip, no touches of sympathy or fun....
- Charles to Henry, 15 April 1895

On paper, it would have made more sense for Morse to ask Henry, who held the unique advantage of having been present on their father's English mission, while Charles Junior had stayed home and joined the Union Army.

Off paper, Morse had rejected Henry's submission of an Aaron Burr biography fourteen years earlier, and would not have expected forgiveness or forgetfulness. And on Henry's side, after Clover Hooper Adams's suicide and the cheerless delivery of his contractual obligations, he considered himself done with American history and, so far as possible, with any public life whatsoever. When Charles asked him to serve as backup biographer, his answer was clear:

If you fail to carry out your plan for our father’s biography, do you think much loss will result? I do not know; but if you depend upon me to redeem your failure, I fear that you will make about as bad a miscalculation as you ever set to the score of the uncalculable. I should never touch it. Sad as this collapse may be, I am by no means sure that our honored parent might not be a greater figure for the shadows that would be left about his name.
- Henry to Charles, 26 April 1895

But Henry otherwise approved of the commission, and tried to talk Charles into a more lenient mood:

In the remote atmosphere which surrounds me, this debased and degraded race seems to care about us or our friends as little as they do for a Periplaneta Orientalis; and, to judge from the supreme indifference of this generation, that insignificant coleopter will be far more important than we, to the generations which may follow the present. Nevertheless I suppose we are bound to behave as though the universe were really made to glorify our works, so I heartily approve your proceedings. Pray make any use of me that you like, just as though I were real.

As for the governor, the world has little use for him, now that he is dead, and not much more, while he lived. Judging from the intolerable dulness ofthe various Lives already published: Seward, Chase, Sumner, Motley, Longfellow, &c—in fact, of all, except Lincoln and the Generals—I should say that the less we insisted on exhibiting our papa, the better. He stands on the merits of his course and speech in one session of Congress, and his diplomatic papers and conduct. For those two results, his character, mind and training were admirably fitted. His defects and limitations were as important, and as valuable, to him, as his qualities, within the range of those fields. Had there been a little more, or a little less of him, he would have been less perfect. As he stands, he stands alone. No other public man of his time begins to compare with him, within the range of his action. He is almost like a classical gem. From the moment he appeared anywhere—at Washington, London, Geneva—his place was never questioned, much less disputed. Russell, Palmerston, Disraeli, Bright, Cobden, Gladstone, Seward, and all the Americans, were bunglers in work compared with him, as his state-papers show. [...]

Of course you cannot expressly say all this, but this is really all that the public wants to know, and your business is to make them feel it. Sons are not the proper persons to do such work, but I know of no one better suited, so we may as well try.

- Henry to Charles, 16 April 1895

While the older brother worked at his old-school history, Henry became increasingly engaged by younger brother Brooks's more novel attempt to scientize history on a firm intellectual foundation of economics and antisemitism. His later replies to Charles were terse.

Still, Charles must have been eager to hear his opinion of the finished book. Henry certainly had one, and expressed it in a couple of diary-like letters:

Charles’ Life of his father, in the statesman series, is out, and I am making myself a martyr trying to read it. Thank my miserable cowardice that I did not write it! [...] At any rate, I have, at awful cost, learned to hold my tongue, except in letters, and am getting nervous even about them. No man that ever lived can talk or write incessantly without wearying or annoying his hearers if they have to take it in a lump. Thanks entirely to our family habit of writing, we exist in the public mind only as a typical expression of disagreeable qualities.
- Henry to Brooks, 4 March 1900
I’ve been trying to read my brother Charles’s Life of our father, and it makes me sick. Now I understand why I refused so obstinately to do it myself. These biographies are murder, and in this case, to me, would be both patricide and suicide. They belittle the victim and the assassin equally. They are like bad photographs and distorted perspectives. Luckily no one knows the difference, and the modern public is as dead to the feeling of historical atmosphere as it is to the color of the Chartres windows. I have sinned myself, and deeply, and am no more worthy to be called anything, but, thank my diseased and dyspeptic nervous wreck, I did not assassinate my father. I have also read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters with much the same effect on my mind. Cabot Lodge thinks them the best letters ever written. To me they rouse again the mystery of the hippopotamus and the dinner; they never leave enough for us. They exaggerate all one’s bigness, brutality and coarseness; they perpetuate all one’s mistakes, blunders and carelessnesses. No one can talk or write letters all the time without the effect of egotism and error. They are like a portrait by Sargent; they betray one’s besetting vices in youth, and one’s worst selfishness in middle-life, and one’s senility in Joe Choate.
- Henry to Elizabeth Cameron, 5 March 1900

(Despite his gift for irony, his frequent claims to mad senile laughter, and his generally successful attempts to circumnavigate despair in front of the children, Henry Adams never seems to have felt the power of deflationary comedy, or to have realized that something more than disillusionment might result when the virtue ethics of traditional history confront mere shared humanity.)

He wasn't so forthcoming with Charles himself. The excellent editors of Henry Adams's letters briskly summarize:

CFA2 and his family had been staying in Washington for the winter. On Feb. 28, after dining with HA, he noted in his diary that “not by word, look or line has he recognized the existence of my ‘Life.’” On March 25, after again dining with HA, he recorded the evening as “pretty dull and very restrained,—not a reference even to the ‘Life.’” On April 8 he recorded his “farewell call on Henry,—to the last dumb as an oyster on the ‘Life’” (CFA2 Diary, MHi).

Charles, Jr., never expressed pleasure in the labor of this biography, and no one was clamoring for more. And so, with true Adams doggedness, he immediately, and for most of the rest of his life, began working on a massive expansion which would, as a matter of course for a completely objective historian like himself, sadly necessitate many more acknowledgments of his father's inadequacies.

The youngest Adams sibling, sister Mary, saw some of the work in progress, asked him to reconsider, and called on Brooks and Henry for backup. Both demurred, claiming (reasonably enough) that interference would only make Charles more determined. But it's likely that Henry also preferred to maintain the "don't ask, don't tell" status quo. So far as I can gather from published records, the only opinion he ever offered his brother was the extremely indirect one of The Education of Henry Adams in 1907:

Please bear in mind that I don’t mean any harm. The motive of the first part is to acquit my conscience about my father. That of the second part is to acquit my conscience about Hay.
- Henry to Mary Cadwalader Jones, 11 April 1907,
sent with a copy of the book

Nine years later, Charles had the last (indirect) word with his posthumously published Autobiography, a long purge of regrets ("Few things do I envy the possession of in others more than the faculty of remembering faces or placing names") and recriminations: He wasn't given a bicycle. Harvard hadn't offered a course in chess. A hastily assembled mix of slaves and freemen given a few weeks of ten-foot-pole's-length cavalry training had failed to establish him as a brilliant military leader. And, most startling, and possibly unique in the annals of filial resentment, a complaint that his parents did not ship him away to a bullycratic boarding school: "I would so much have enjoyed it.... It might have made me 'a good fellow.'"

He gives his father credit for one good decision, though:

The common schools my father did not care to send his children to; and I have always been glad of it. I don’t associate with the laborers on my place, nor would the association be agreeable to either of us. Their customs, language, habits and conventionalities differ from mine; as do those of their children. I believe in school life; and I believe in the equality of men before the law; but social equality, whether for man or child, is altogether another thing. My father, at least, didn’t force that on us.

Detached from the manner of its telling, as Charles himself admits at the end, it would seem like a reasonably pleasant and successful life. Accompanied and sometimes overwhelmed by its drone of frets, chafes, and carps, it's a reasonably recognizable one. A dull book; a human document.

Oh, and to answer my initial question:

On paper, when writing about himself or his father or the pristine white manliness of Robert E. Lee, Charles Junior is hard to beat. But off paper everyone agrees that Brooks Adams was the most annoying by far even Brooks:

He used to say, plaintively, "As soon as I join a group of people they all melt away and disappear," which was all only too true.
- Education by Uncles by Abigail Adams Homans


"Curious" is the word. Shades of Ogdred Weary.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.