Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The wisdom of Henry Brooks Adams

"I always think of a remark of Brooks Adams
     that the philosophers were hired by the comfortable class
        to prove that everything is all right."
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., letter to Frederick Pollock, June 17, 1908

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) is generally known as Henry Adams. He is most commonly recognized for his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adamswhich won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 after his death. The book is an exploration of Adams' lifetime experiences in the tumultuous 19th century and the dawning of the 20th century in America. He was a significant critic of American education.

Adams was a principal figure in the politically celebrated Adams family, that included President John Adams (his great-grandfather) and President John Quincy Adams (his grandfather). The Education of Henry Adams is a challenging read, but it's deeply absorbing and more literate than just about most of the stuff you've already read. Give it a try.

As the attributed quote above testifies, Adams was politically astute although he never sought elective office himself. In fact, as a working journalist he fought political corruption.

Obviously he was a member of the "comfortable class," but he gave no comfort to his peers.

His personal values and candor were weapons he used with broad strokes. After the Civil War ended, he observed:

"I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world."

I think Adams missed the mark. I think it is the presumptively good people in the world, in unmerited positions of power and authority, who may do the most harm.

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