Henry Adams ended his Education by considering the incredible changes he witnessed during his lifetime. As he reflected on how greatly life had changed, he considered how modern progress had failed to produce what it had seemed to promise. In his words, “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid.”
The world of the early twentieth century was saturated with optimism. It had been nearly a hundred years since a major European war, democracy was spreading throughout the earth, transportation and communication had been revolutionized, and famine had been all but abolished—the future seemed limitless. Yet within a generation of the century’s turn tens of millions would lie dead across Europe, ethnic strife and genocide would plague large parts of the world, and authoritarianism would spread its deep roots throughout the globe. Though Adams wrote his work before The Great War, he anticipated this coming loss of optimism. He was able to do this because he knew that man needed something more than knowledge and prosperity. At the time he wrote his Education, Adams was a committed agnostic and it appears that he never discovered what (or should I say Who) it is that man needs. But even though he failed to see the cure, he clearly saw the disease.
Sigmund Freud, for all his faults (and they are many) observed the same problem. In The Future of an Illusion Freud observed that man now travels faster than Hermes, wields greater power than Zeus, and has healing powers beyond Apollo. In short modern man lives better than the ancient Greeks imagined their gods lived! Man, with the power of the ancient gods, should be as happy as the ancient gods. But he is not. Why? Freud lacked an answer.
The answer to this profound question is found in Augustine. To paraphrase him, he wrote to God, ‘You have made us for yourself and nothing else will do; our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’
Augustine’s Confessions, like The Education of Henry Adams, can be read as the reflections of a man looking back on his failed education. Henry Adams correctly understood the faults in his education; what is more, he understood how even modern successes were riven through with conspicuous lack. St. Augustine likewise came to see a clear deficiency in his life. But whereas Adams stopped at the recognition of this deficiency and ended his life in despair, Augustine sought after God, found Him, and ended his life in love, peace, joy, and hope.
This I take to be the greatest lesson from Adams’s Education. It is my hope that as our children interact with the world and see how even the greatest worldly gifts and hopes still fail to produce the happiness they promise, that they will not double down on their idolatry and wait for the next invention, the next improvement, or the next big thing. But that they will instead recognize that the world will never have that which they most deeply desire, that they can only find their rest in Christ.
I hope you have found this series edifying.