The Education of Henry Adams
A Dynamic Theory Of History (1904)
A DYNAMIC theory, like most theories, begins by begging the question: it defines
Progress as the development and economy of Forces. Further, it defines force as anything
that does, or helps to do work. Man is a force; so is the sun; so is a mathematical point,
though without dimensions or known existence.
Man commonly begs the question again taking for granted that he captures the forces. A
dynamic theory, assigning attractive force to opposing bodies in proportion to the law of
mass, takes for granted that the forces of nature capture man. The sum of force attracts;
the feeble atom or molecule called man is attracted; he suffers education or growth; he is
the sum of the forces that attract him; his body and his thought are alike their product; the
movement of the forces controls the progress of his mind, since he can know nothing but
the motions which impinge on his senses, whose sum makes education.
For convenience as an image, the theory may liken man to a spider in its web, watching
for chance prey. Forces of nature dance like flies before the net, and the spider pounces
on them when it can; but it makes many fatal mistakes, though its theory of force is
sound. The spider-mind acquires a faculty of memory, and, with it, a singular skill of
analysis and synthesis, taking apart and putting together in different relations the meshes
of its trap. Man had in the beginning no power of analysis or synthesis approaching that
of the spider, or even of the honey-bee; he had acute sensibility to the higher forces. Fire
taught him secrets that no other animal could learn; running water probably taught him
even more, especially in his first lessons of mechanics; the animals helped to educate
him, trusting themselves into his hands merely for the sake of their food, and carrying his
burdens or supplying his clothing; the grasses and grains were academies of study. With
little or no effort on his part, all these forces formed his thought, induced his action, and
even shaped his figure.
Long before history began, his education was complete, for the record could not have
been started until he had been taught to record. The universe that had formed him took
shape in his mind as a reflection of his own unity, containing all forces except himself.
Either separately, or in groups, or as a whole, these forces never ceased to act on him,
enlarging his mind as they enlarged the surface foliage of a vegetable, and the mind
needed only to respond, as the forests did, to these attractions. Susceptibility to the
highest forces is the highest genius; selection between them is the highest science; their
mass is the highest educator. Man always made, and still makes, grotesque blunders in
selecting and measuring forces, taken at random from the heap, but he never made a
mistake in the value he set on the whole, which he symbolized as unity and worshipped
as God. To this day, his attitude towards it has never changed, though science can no
longer give to force a name.