Tuesday, June 28, 2011
I see that this website has an interview with Justice Breyer where he lists and comments on several books that have influenced him. The list is interesting and, at least to me, somewhat surprising. I would not have expected The Education of Henry Adams to appear on it. Indeed, I wonder about Justice Breyer's view that the book is about the survival of democracy, let alone the view expressed by the interviewer that Adams in The Education "was both sceptical and optimistic about the constitutional system . . ." I'm not sure that's how I read, say, this memorable bit from the penultimate chapter, "A Law of Acceleration":
At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth--equally childlike--and he would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much. Perhaps even he might go back, in 1964, to sit with Gibbon on the steps of Ara Coeli.
Meanwhile he was getting education. With that, a teacher who had failed to educate even the generation of 1870, dared not interfere. The new forces would educate. 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 1800 to educate the American of 1900 had not often been surpassed for folly; and since 1800 the forces and their complications had increased a thousand times or more. 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 teacher of 1900, if foolhardy, might stimulate; if foolish, might resist; if intelligent, might balance, as wise and foolish have often tried to do from the beginning; but the forces would continue to educate, and the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.