In himself he was a lost soul


Practically everyone who has written about Oppenheimer has noted his elusiveness, but until now no one has convincingly explained how he came to be this way. As Ray Monk shows in this superb new life, one reason is to be found in Oppenheimer’s schooling. Born in 1904, he began attending the Ethical Culture School on Central Park West in New York in 1911. His father – an immigrant from Germany who would make his fortune in the textile trade – married Ella Friedman, a painter who had taught art at Barnard College, in a service conducted by Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Society, of which the school was an offshoot. In some ways the Society shaped the course of Oppenheimer’s life. Claiming to derive its precepts from Judaism but in fact promoting a secular version of Kant’s idea of moral law, Adler’s humanist creed was a formative influence on Oppenheimer. Insisting that the moral life had to be severed from religion, it shut him off from the spiritual traditions of Judaism. At the same it promoted the development of ‘spiritual personality’, a nebulous ideal that left Oppenheimer unsatisfied. Learning Sanskrit in the 1930s in order to read the Hindu scriptures in the original, he embarked on an enduring but ultimately unrewarding engagement with mysticism.

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