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The Power of History on the Education of Henry Adams

While it’s been a while since I’ve visited an architectural masterpiece like the cathedrals of Europe, a recent reference to the construction of Solomon’s Temple brought me back to the musings of Henry Adams, in his autobiographical reflections on his (elite) education. There’s lots to be learned from Adams’s own experience of a classical education, not the least of which was his time at Harvard. Perhaps the real revelation seems to be that his educational experience was missing certain essential features—chief among them being wonderment. 

This one particular chapter from Adams’s autobiography is entitled “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” where he details his visit to the Exposition Universelle of 1900, a world’s fair in Paris, which was filled with the latest technologies of the day—diesel engines, escalators, talking films, audio recorders, etc. It must have been quite impressive. Adams was clearly impressed by the sheer physical force being harnessed by the modern tools surrounding him in those exposition halls. 

On that same visit, while walking around the City of Lights with an artist colleague, the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, Adams began to reflect on the monuments and structures that reveal something of the history of civilization, and how they reflect the power of man’s spirit as translated into great works of art.  

It’s a searching essay, this chapter from his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. For it explores the nature of genuine power, the authentic movement of mind over matter. If you’ve never encountered it, I highly recommend this 10-minute read. It will leave you musing for yourself on the forces that truly move the world. 

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