Chapter 8: Some Reflections on the Spiritual Repercussions of the Atom Bomb
One early dawn in the ‘bad lands’ of Arizona, something over a year ago, a dazzling flash of light, strangely brilliant in quality, illumined the most distant peaks, eclipsing the first rays of the rising sun. There followed a prodigious burst of sound. . . . The thing had happened. For the first time on earth an atomic fire had burned for the space of a second, industriously kindled by the science of Man.
But having thus realized his dream of creating a new thunderclap, Man, stunned by his success, looked inward and sought by the glare of the lightning his own hand had loosed to understand its effect upon himself. His body was safe; but what had happened to his soul?
I shall not seek to discuss or defend the essential morality of this act of releasing atomic energy. There were those, on the morrow of the Arizona experiment, who had the temerity to assert that the physicists, having brought their researches to a successful conclusion, should have suppressed and destroyed the dangerous fruits of their invention. As though it were not every man’s duty to pursue the creative forces of knowledge and action to their uttermost end! As though, in any event, there exists any force on earth capable of restraining human thought from following any course upon which it has embarked!
Neither shall I here attempt to examine the economic and political problems created by the intrusion of nuclear energy upon human affairs. How is the use of this terrifying power to be organized and controlled? This is for the worldly technicians to answer. It is sufficient for me to recall the general condition which is necessary for the solution of the problem: it must be posed on an international scale. As the American journal, The New Yorker, observed with remarkable penetration on August 18th, 1945: ‘Political plans for the new world, as shaped by statesmen, are not fantastic enough. The only conceivable way to catch up with atomic energy is with political energy directed to a universal structure.’
The aim of these reflections -- more narrowly concerned with our separate souls, but for that reason perhaps going deeper -- is simply to examine, in the case of the atomic bomb, the effects of the invention upon the inventor, arising out of the fact of the invention. Each of our actions, and the more so the more novel the action, has its deep-seated repercussions upon our subsequent inner orientation. To fly, to beget, to kill for the first time -- these, as we know, suffice to transform a life. By the liberation of atomic energy on a massive scale, and for the first time, man has not only changed the face of the earth; he has by the very act set in motion at the heart of his being a long chain of reactions which, in the brief flash of an explosion of matter, has made of him, virtually at least, a new being hitherto unknown to himself.
Let me try, in a first approximation, to distinguish the main links in this chain.
a At that crucial instant when the explosion was about to happen (or not happen) the first artificers of the atom bomb were crouched on the soil of the desert. When they got to their feet after it was over, it was Mankind who stood up with them, instilled with a new sense of power. Certainly the power was of a kind which Man had many times felt emanating from himself, in great pulsations, during the course of his history. He had felt it, for example, in the darkness of the paleolithic age when for the first time he ventured to put fire to his own use, or accidentally discovered how to produce it; in neolithic times when he found that by cultivating thin ears of grass he could turn them into rice and millet and corn; and much later, at the dawn of our industrial era, when he found that he could tame and harness not only animals but the tireless energies of steam and electricity. Each of these new conquests signified extensively and intensively, for Man and for the earth, a total rearrangement of life, a change of epoch; but when all is said they did not bring about any essential change of plane in the depths of human consciousness. For in all these cases (even the most beneficial, that of electricity), what did the discovery lead to except the control and utilization of forces already at liberty in the surrounding world? They called for ingenuity and adaptiveness rather than any act of creation; they were no more, in each case, than a new sail hoisted to catch a new wind. But the discovery and liberation of atomic power bears quite another aspect and in consequence has had a very different effect upon Man’s soul. Here it is no longer a question of laying hands upon existing forces freely available for his use. This time a door has been decidedly forced open, giving access to a new and supposedly inviolable compartment of the universe. Hitherto Man was using matter to serve his needs. Now he has succeeded in seizing and manipulating the sources commanding the very origins of matter -- springs so deep that he can release for his own purposes what seemed to be the exclusive property of the sidereal powers, and so powerful that he must think twice before committing some act which might destroy the earth. In the glow of this triumph how can he feel otherwise than exalted as he has never been since his birth; the more so since the prodigious event is not the mere accidental product of a futureless chance but the long-prepared outcome of intelligently concerted action?
b Therefore, a new sense of power: but even more, the sense of a power capable of development to an indefinite extent. What gripped the throats of those bold experimenters in Arizona, in that minute before the explosion, must surely have been far less the thought of the destruction it might lead to than of the critical test which the pyramid of calculation and hypothesis culminating in this solemn moment was about to undergo. The quicker ending of the war, the vast sums of money spent -- what did such things matter when the very worth of science itself was on trial? That vast and subtle edifice of equations. experiments, inter-woven calculations put together little by little in the laboratories, would it survive the test of this culminating experiment which would make of it, in everyday terms, something tangible, efficacious, unanswerable? Was it a dream or reality? This was the moment of truth. In a few instants they would know.
And the flame truly sprang upwards at the place and time prescribed, energy did indeed burst forth from what, to ordinary perception, was inert, non-inflammable matter. Man at that moment found himself endowed not merely with his existing strength but with a method which would enable him to master all the forces surrounding him. For one thing he had acquired absolute and final confidence in the instrument of mathematical analysis which for the past century he had been forging. Not only could matter be expressed in terms of mathematics, it could be subjugated by mathematics. Perhaps even more important, he had discovered, in the unconsidered unanimity of the act which circumstances had forced upon him, another secret pointing the way to his omnipotence. For the first time m history, through the non-fortuitous conjunction of a world crisis and an unprecedented advance in means of communication, a planned scientific experiment employing units of a hundred or a thousand men had been successfully completed. And very swiftly. In three years a technical achievement had been realized which might not have been accomplished in a century of isolated efforts. Thus greatest of Man’s scientific triumphs happens also to be the one in which the largest number of brains were enabled to join together in a single organism, the most complex and the most centrated, for the purpose of research. Was this simply coincidence? Did it not rather show that in this as in other fields nothing in the universe can resist the converging energies of a sufficient number of minds sufficiently grouped and organized?
Thus considered, the fact of the release of nuclear energy, overwhelming and intoxicating though it was, began to seem less tremendous. Was it not simply the first act, even a mere prelude, in a series of fantastic events which, having afforded us access to the heart of the atom, would lead us on to overthrow, one by one, the many other strongholds which science is already besieging? The vitalization of matter by the creation of super-molecules. The re-modeling of the human organism by means of hormones. Control of heredity and sex by the manipulation of genes and chromosomes. The readjustment and internal liberation of our souls by direct action upon springs gradually brought to light by psycho-analysis. The arousing and harnessing of the unfathomable intellectual and effective powers still latent in the human mass. . . . Is not every kind of effect produced by a suitable arrangement of matter? And have we not reason to hope that in the end we shall be able to arrange every kind of matter, following the results we have obtained in the nuclear field?
c It is thus, step by step, that Man, pursuing the flight of his growing aspirations, taught by a first success to be conscious of his power, finds himself impelled to look beyond any purely mechanical improvement of the earth’s surface and increase of his external riches, and to dwell upon the growth and biological perfection of himself. A vast accumulation of historical research and imaginative reconstruction already existed to teach him this. For millions of years a tide of knowledge has risen ceaselessly about him through the stuff of the cosmos; and that in him which he calls his ‘I’ is nothing other than this tide atomically turning inward upon itself. This he knew already; but without knowing to what extent he could render effective aid to the flood of life pouring through him. But now, after that famous sunrise in Arizona, he can no longer doubt. He not only can but, of organic necessity, he must for the future assist in his own becoming. The first phase was the creation of mind through the obscure, instinctive play of vital forces. The second phase is the rebounding and acceleration of the upward movement through the reflexive play of mind itself, the only principle in the world capable of combining and using for the purposes of Life, and on the planetary scale, the still-dispersed or slumbering energies of matter and of thought. It is broadly in these terms that we are obliged henceforth to envisage the grand scheme of things of which, by the fact of our existence, we find ourselves a part.
So that today there exists in each of us a man whose mind has been opened to the meaning, the responsibility and the aspirations of his cosmic function in the universe; a man, that is to say, who whether he likes it or not has been transformed into another man, in his very depths.
d The great enemy of the modern world, ‘Public Enemy No. I’, is boredom. So long as Life did not think, and above all did not have time to think -- that is to say, while it was still developing and absorbed with the immediate struggle to maintain itself and advance -- it was untroubled by questions as to the value and interest of action. Only when a margin of leisure for reflection came to intervene between the task and its execution did the workman experience the first pangs of taedium vitae. But in these days the margin is immeasurably greater, so that it fills our horizon. Thanks to the mechanical devices which we increasingly charge with the burden not only of production but also of calculation, the quantity of unused human energy is growing at a disturbing rate both within us and around us; and this phenomenon will reach its climax in the near future, when nuclear forces have been harnessed to useful work. I repeat: despite all appearances, Mankind is bored. Perhaps this is the underlying cause of all our troubles. We no longer know what to do with ourselves. Hence in social terms the disorderly turmoil of individuals pursuing conflicting and egotistical aims; and, on the national scale, the chaos of armed conflict in which, for want of a better object, the excess of accumulated energy is destructively released . . . ‘Idleness, mother of all vices.’
But these lowering storm clouds are what the Sense of Evolution, arising in human consciousness, is destined to disperse. Whatever may be the future economic repercussions of the atom bomb, whether over- or under-estimated, the fact remains that in laying hands on the very core of matter we have disclosed to human existence a supreme purpose: the purpose of pursuing ever further, to the very end, the forces of Life. In exploding the atom we took our first bite at the fruit of the great discovery, and this was enough for a taste to enter our mouths that can never be washed away: the taste for super-creativeness. It was also enough to ensure that the nightmare of bloody combat must vanish in the light of some form of growing unanimity. We are told that, drunk with its own power, mankind is rushing to self-destruction, that it will be consumed in the fire it has so rashly lit. To me it seems that thanks to the atom bomb it is war, not mankind, that is destined to be eliminated, and for two reasons. The first, which we all know and long for, is that the very excess of destructive power placed in our hands must render all armed conflict impossible. But what is even more important, although we have thought less about it, is that war will be eliminated at its source in our hearts because, compared with the vast field for conquest which science has disclosed to us, its triumphs will soon appear trivial and outmoded. Now that a true objective is offered us, one that we can only attain by striving with all our power in a concerted effort, our future action can only be convergent, drawing us together in an atmosphere of sympathy. I repeat, sympathy, because to be ardently intent upon a common object is inevitably the beginning of love. In affording us a biological, ‘phyletic’ outlet directed upwards, the shock which threatened to destroy us will have the effect of re-orienting us, of instilling a new dynamic and finally (within certain limits) of making us one whole. The atomic age is not the age of destruction but of union in research. For all their military trappings, the recent explosions at Bikini herald the birth into the world of a Mankind both inwardly and outwardly pacified. They proclaim the coming of the Spirit of the Earth.
e We are at the point where, if we are to restore complete equilibrium to the state of psychic disarray which the atomic shock has induced in us, we must sooner or later (sooner?) decide upon our attitude to a fundamental choice; the point where our conflicts may begin again, and fiercely, but by other means and on a different plane.
I spoke of the Spirit of the Earth. What are we to understand by that ambiguous phrase?
Is it the Promethean or Faustian spirit: the spirit of autonomy and solitude; Man with his own strength and for his own sake opposing a blind and hostile Universe; the rise of consciousness concluding in an act of possession?
Is it the Christian spirit, on the contrary: the spirit of service and of giving; Man struggling like Jacob to conquer and attain a supreme center of consciousness which calls to him; the evolution of the earth ending in an act of union?
Spirit of force or spirit of love? Where shall we place true heroism, where look for true greatness, where recognize objective truth?
It would take too long, and it is outside the scope of this paper, to discuss the comparative worth of two opposed forms of adoration, the first of which may well have attracted poets, but only the second of which, I think, presents itself to the reflective mind as capable of conferring upon a universe in motion its full spiritual coherence, its total substance beyond death, and finally its whole message for our hearts.(Witnesses of that experiment in Arizona found, in the anguish of the last instants, that in the depths of their hearts they were praying. [Official Report: appendices.])
What does matter here is to note that Mankind cannot go much further along the road upon which it has embarked through its latest conquests without having to settle (or be divided intellectually on) the question of which summit it must seek to attain.
In short, the final effect of the light cast by the atomic fire into the spiritual depths of the earth is to illumine within them the over-riding question of the ultimate end of Evolution -- that is to say, the problem of God.
Ètudes, September 1946.