In THE PROMISE OF PRAGMATISM, John Patrick Diggins compares and contrasts Henry Adams with the seminal American philosopher and psychologist William James, pointing out that, beneath their differences, the two had much in common:
There was…a hint of metaphysical desperation in both thinkers’ pursuit of knowledge, as if old-fashioned religious salvation could now be gained through new scientific means. However their outlooks might differ, the great pressing concerns of their personal lives became the issues of their historical and philosophical speculations. Some of the most revealing aspects of their biographical reflections are confessions of helplessness. In the Education, Adams describes finding himself face to face “with the harsh brutality of chance, the terror of the blow” felt when watching his sister die. In the “sick soul” section of The Varieties of Religious Experience James has a hallucination of a catatonic epileptic and fears that he himself may someday be reduced to such a state. Both writers knew that human existence always involves the possibility of self-destruction.
They had very personal reasons for that knowledge:
Adams’s wife took her own life, and James contemplated doing so in 1866. “No one is educated who has never dallied with the thought of suicide,” James reflected. Adams, watching his sister Louisa die in pain, concluded that God could not be a “person”; James was certain that He could “surely be no gentleman.” The sensitive mind usually requires a sense of justification to make life bearable, and for James no less than for Adams this meant a search for some basis of authority that could not only relieve the ordeals of personal experience but also illuminate the conditions of daily existence.
Such illumination was no longer at hand or easy to find:
With traditional religion no longer capable of providing the sanctions of conduct, both writers had to find ways of dealing with a world they did not fully understand. Both figures, in short, confronted the first challenge of modernity, which would be the intellectual ordeal of the twentieth century, the pluralization of perspectives dramatizing the twilight of the mind as it coped with uncertainty, bleakness, and darkness. Adams wanted to know how to endure “the failure of the light,” and James felt the same responsibility for wresting meaning from the void of meaninglessness…Henry James spoke for his brother [William] and his friend [Henry Adams] when he described the modernist predicament. “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.”
According to John Patrick Diggins, “the crisis of modernity [was] a crisis that saw the American mind divided against itself.” William James and Henry Adams stand as exemplars of the division:
James [described] this predicament as a conflict between the “tender-minded” thinker who, like one half of himself, insisted that human will and desire could make a difference, and the “tough-minded” thinker who, like Adams in his darkest moments, insisted that we live in a world in which human action may be incapable of influencing the inexorable course of history. James was certain that modern man could live with uncertainty; Adams remained uncertain of James’s own certainties.
It is too easy by half at this point to denounce Modernity for its godless ways, its infantile narcissism, its wasteful and meaningless commercialism, its tribal divisions, its moral relativism, and its lowest-common-denominator vulgarities; such denunciations, accurate or not, presume that the ills of our culture were clearly delineated for us in advance and deliberately chosen by us despite their obvious and glaring flaws. The fact is, Modernity for the most part has been thrust upon us—or, to put it another way, we have found ourselves thrown into it—and we have for the most part done what we can to cope with it. We didn’t start the fires of Modernity, nor have we known a world without them.1
Stripped of the certainties of the past, modern people have struggled (and continue to struggle) to make sense of this world. For some, the old faiths still carry weight and provide meaning; but for many more, there is no way back—the only way out of our predicament, as they say, is through. It might be a showy gesture to stand athwart History yelling Stop,2 and it might do wonders for our sense of self-righteousness to point out the myriad specks in our neighbors’ eyes: but neither of those approaches helps us or anyone else in the least. We’re all in this (Modernity) together, and the least we can do is to start acting like it.
1 I should add (and not for the first time) that any evaluation of 21st-century Western culture (contemporary Europe, that is, and North America) that does not consider the existential import of two world wars, a worldwide Depression, a Holocaust of Biblical proportions, and the unleashing of the nuclear genie at Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be taken seriously; and anyone whose faith in the old certitudes wasn’t shaken by the 20th century might do well to ponder the last words of Jesus—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I’d say our modern predicament can fairly be described as “God-forsaken,” and it’s fatuous to pretend otherwise.
2 To "stand athwart History" was what William F. Buckley Jr. famously intended, and declared, as the mission for his National Review; much to his dismay, however, History refused to stop, a tragic reality that Buckley no doubt pondered at length while on retreat at the family manse or aboard his yacht.