Words That Men Live By
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1954)
NEW YORK, N. Y., Dec. 26, 1954 – J. Robert Oppenheimer, the noted American physicist, drew a dramatic picture tonight of modern man living in an electric world in which virtually all of the traditional theories have become outdated. He spoke at the closing session of the Columbia University Bicentennial Anniversary.
While his speech was dramatic in itself as a scholarly foray into a description of the unfolding pages of modern arts and sciences, Dr. Oppenheimer’s appearance had the added edge of the peculiar position in which he stands today, at the age of 50, between greatness already earned to a large degree, and questions of character raised in political circles on the basis of records in political circles on the basis of records that may remain secret through his lifetime.
Earlier this year Dr. Oppenheimer was suspended as consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission for security reasons. Debate that attracted nationwide attention followed this peremptory act by the Commission, particularly since responsible officials reiterated that Dr. Oppenheimer’s personal character is above reproach.
Dr. Oppenheimer also must be remembered as the “architect” of the work that developed the atomic bomb, for he was director of the laboratories in Los Alamos, N. M., where the bomb was perfected. He now holds the post of director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, N. J., and by today’s invitation the powers at Columbia University showed their opinion of him.
In the natural sciences these are, and have been, and are most surely likely to continue to be, heroic days. Discovery follows discovery, each both raising and answering questions, each ending a long search, and each providing the new instruments for new search.
There are radical ways of thinking unfamiliar to common sense, connected with it by decades or centuries of increasingly specialized and unfamiliar experience. There are lessons how limited, for all its variety, the common experience of man has been with regard to natural phenomenon, and hints and analogies as to how limited may be his experience with man.
Every new finding is a part of the instrument kit of the sciences for further investigation and for penetrating into new fields. Discoveries of knowledge fructify technology and the practical arts, and these in turn pay back refined techniques, new possibilities for observation and experiment.
In any science there is a harmony between practitioners. A man may work as an individual, learning of what his colleagues do through reading or conversation; or he may be working as a member of a group on problems whose technical equipment is too massive for individual effort. But whether he is part of a team or solitary in his own study, he, as a professional, is a member of a community.
His colleagues in his own branch of science will be grateful to him for the inventive or creative thoughts he has, will welcome his criticism. His world and work will be objectively communicable and he will be quite sure that, if there is error in it, that error will not be long undetected. In his own line of work he lives in a community where common understanding combines with common purpose and interest to bind men together both in freedom and in cooperation.
This experience will make him acutely aware of how limited, how precious is this condition of his life; for in his relations with a wider society there will be neither the sense of community nor of objective understanding.
The frontiers of science are separated now by long years of study, by specialized vocabularies, arts, techniques and knowledge from the common heritage even of a most civilized society, and anyone working at the frontier of such science is in that sense a very long way from home and a long way, too, from the practical arts that were its matrix and origin, as indeed they were of what we today call art.
The specialization of science is an inevitable accompaniment of progress; yet it is full of dangers, and it is cruelly wasteful, since so much that is beautiful and enlightening is cut off from most of the world. Thus it is proper to the role of the scientist that he not merely find new truth and communicate it to his fellows, but that he teach, that he try to bring the most honest and intelligible account of new knowledge to all who will try to learn.
This is one reason – it is the decisive organic reason – why scientists belong in universities. It is one reason why the patronage of science by and through universities is its most proper form; for it is here, in teaching, in the association of scholars, and in the friendships of teachers and taught, of men who by profession must themselves be both teachers and taught, that the narrowness of scientific life can best be moderated and that the analogies, insights and harmonies of scientific discovery can find their way into the wider life of man.
In the situation of the artist today there are both analogies and differences to that of the scientists; but it is the differences which are the most striking and which raise the problems that touch most on the evil of our day.
For the artist it is not enough that he communicate with others who are expert in his own art. Their fellowship, their understanding and their appreciation may encourage him; but that is not the end of his work, nor its nature.
The artist depends on a common sensibility and culture, on a common meaning of symbols, on a community of experience and common ways of describing and interpreting it. He need not write for everyone or paint or play for everyone. But his audience must be man, and not a specialized set of experts among his fellows.
Today that is very difficult. Often the artist has an aching sense of great loneliness, for the community to which he addresses himself is largely not there; the traditions and the history, the myths and the common experience, which it is his functions to illuminate and to harmonize and to portray, have been dissolved in a changing world.
There is, it is true, an artificial audience maintained to moderate between the artist and the world for which he works: the audience of the professional critics, popularizers and advertisers of art. But though, as does the popularizer and promoter of science, the critic fulfills a necessary present function, and introduces some order and some communication between the artist and the world, he cannot add to the intimacy and the directness and the depth with which the artist addresses his fellow men.
To the artist’s loneliness there is a complementary great and terrible barrenness in the lives of men. They are deprived of the illumination, the light and the tenderness and insight of an intelligible interpretation, in contemporary terms, of the sorrow and wonders and gaieties and follies of man’s life….
In an important sense, this world of ours is a new world, in which the unity of knowledge, the nature of human communities, the order of society, the order of ideas, the very notions of society and culture have changed and will not return to what they have been in the past. What is new is new not because it has never been there before, but because it has changed in quality.
One thing that is new is the prevalence of newness, the changing scale and scope of change itself, so that the world alters as we walk in it, so that the years of man’s life measure not some small growth or rearrangement or moderation of what he learned in childhood, but a great upheaval.
What is new is that in one generation our knowledge of the natural world engulfs, upsets and complements all knowledge of the natural world before. The techniques, among which and by which we live, multiply and ramify, so that the whole world is bound together by communication, blocked here and there by the immense synopses of political tyranny.
The global quality of the world is new: our knowledge of and sympathy with remote and diverse peoples, our involvement with them in practical terms and our commitment to them in terms of brotherhood. What is new in the world is the massive character of the dissolution and corruption of authority, in belief, in ritual and in temporal order. Yet this is the world that we have come to live in. The very difficulties which it presents derive from growth in understanding, in skill, in power. To assail the changes that have unmoored us from the past is futile, and, in a deep sense, I think it is wicked. We need to recognize the change and learned what resources we have….
The truth is that is indeed inevitably and increasingly an open, and inevitably and increasingly an electric world. We know too much for one man to know much, we live too variously to live as one. Our histories and traditions-the very means of interpreting life-are both bonds and barriers among us. Our knowledge separates as well as it unites; our orders disintegrate as well as bind; our art brings us together and sets us apart. The artist’s loneliness, the scholar’s despairing, because no one will any longer trouble to learn what he can teach, the narrowness of the scientist, these are not unnatural insignia in this great time of change.
This is a world in which each of us, knowing his limitations, knowing the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue, will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing.
Both the man of science and the man of art live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it; both always, as the measure of their creation, have had to do with the harmonization of what is new and what is familiar, with the balance between novelty and synthesis, with the struggle to make partial order in total chaos.
This cannot be an easy life. We shall have a rugged time of it to keep our minds open and keep them deep, to keep our sense of beauty and our ability to make it, and our occasional ability to see it, in places remote and strange and unfamiliar.
But this is, as I see it, the condition of man; and in this condition we can help, because we can love one another.