The Two Bodies
May 4, 2009
In 1926 as a doctoral candidate in physics,
he presented a paper before the
One of these two academic bodies, so to
speak, you are probably aware of, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The other may be
unfamiliar except to devotees of medieval historians, Ernst Hartwig
Kantorowicz. Their lifetimes overlapped although Kantorowicz, Eka as he was
called, was born nine years before Oppenheimer, in 1895 and died four year before
him, in 1963. Both came from upper class Jewish backgrounds, Kantorowicz in
Posen in what was then eastern
After fighting in the first World War as a
grenadier, Eka joined the Freikorps, the right-wing terrorist group of officers
who fought communists in the streets of
Robert Oppenheimer was brought up in a
similar style, his family driving to the countryside in a Packard driven by a
gray uniformed chauffeur. His father, a very successful businessman, bought a
summer home in Bay Shore,
Robert prepped at the Ethical Culture
School in Manhattan and his parents took him on another trip to Germany where
he spent most the time prospecting old mines northeast of Berlin at a site
where two decades later the Germans would be mining uranium for an atomic bomb
project. He attended Harvard where on hot spring days he would spend his time
reading such fascinating literature such as James Jeans’s Dynamical Theory
of Gases. He became a chemistry major but had the good fortune of having
Percy Bridgman, a physicist and subsequent Nobelist, as a mentor. During this
period he would travel on vacation to
While a student at Harvard, Robert composed several poems for the literary magazine, one of which seemed to be eerily premonitory:
It was evening when we came to the river
With a low moon over the desert
That we had lost in the mountains, forgotten,
What with the cold and the sweating
And the ranges barring the sky.
And when we found it again,
In the dry hills down by the river,
Have withered, we had hot winds against us.
There were two palms by the landing;
The yuccas were flowering; there was
A light in the far shore, and tamarisks.
We waited a long time, in silence
Then we heard the oars creaking
And afterwards, I remember,
The boatman called to us.
We did not look back at the mountains.
In early 1925 the two academic bodies were
still separated by the
Citing an abstract of George’s poetry to get some idea of the orientation of this influential poet:
..Most you value today is
Rank as leaves in the fall-wind.
Doomed to perdition and death!
Only what consecrated earth
Cradles in sheltering sleep…
Far from acquisitive hands,
Marvels this day cannot grasp,
Are rife with the fate of tomorrow,
In other words, what rough beast, his hour come at last?
Both Oppenheimer and Kantorowicz showed
prodigious accomplishment early in their careers. Göttingen, a small medieval town in Lower Saxony, housed
the nucleus of the greatest center of theoretical physics, in contrast to the
experimental physics center at
Over a short period of time at Göttingen, Oppenheimer wrote prodigiously, publishing one paper after another on quantum theory, with complicated calculations which a colleague admitted was “beyond the scope of most quantum mechanics textbooks”. Several of his German colleagues, Heisenberg and Friederich Houtermans would, along with Oppenheimer, later work on developing an atomic bomb, on opposite sides.
Oppenheimer’s PhD. was granted at Göttingen after an oral examination in which one examiner, the physicist James Franck, remarked “I got out of there just in time. He was beginning to ask me questions”.
Kantorowicz while in Heidelberg around the same time also was close to another precocious medievalist, Percy Ernst Schramm, who would eventually go on to join the Nazi party and become a major in the Wehrmacht, actually the historian of the Wehrmacht, very much in contact with Hitler. As with Eka, Schramm published a pathfinding book on medieval kingship, Otto III, who died in 1002. That work has been described as “an intellectual revolution in medieval studies”.
was for the young Eka, however, to fuse the idea of the Volk and the apocalyptic
figure in another revolutionary book- a biography of Frederick II. His book on
Frederick II was published in 1928. It had a swastika on the cover, which even
at the time in the late 1920’s was
easily recognized in
“The weary Lord of the Last Day… the sage who
leads his armed warriors to the Muses’ dance and song, he who slumbers not nor
sleeps but ponders how he can renew the “Empire”. … The greatest
Eka published the book without footnotes-
it was meant for the general reader- and later when he was criticized for the
lack of footnotes, he published an Erganzungsband, an appendix with 300
pages of background footnotes. This was in response to an academic in
Obviously, being Jewish did not help him over the next few years. In 1933, with the advent of Hitler as Chancellor, Eka resigned his chair at Frankfurt and in his resignation letter to the Prussian minister of education, before an inevitable firing, betrayed his indignation that he, of all persons, supporting the theme of German nationalism, was faced with ignominy because of his religion.
”I never dreamed- I, who volunteered for
service in 1914, I who fought during, and, again, after the war against the
Nevertheless, for the next 5 years he
Although Eka was a right-wing
nationalist, he was entirely opposed to the Nazis and indeed spoke out against
them early in their ascendancy, which no doubt took great courage. When a law
on April 7, 1933 excluded Jews from public functions, with the exception of
combatants of war, which he surely was, Eka, on April 20, 1933, which by ironic
coincidence happened to be Hitler’s birthday, protested the law and informed
the Prussian minister of science of his decision not to guarantee to teach his
summer semester classes, although he did not resign. He did resign in 1934 when
he refused to take a loyalty oath to Hitler. This was not the last time he
would refuse such a request for a loyalty oath. In 1938, with the handwriting on the wall, he moved
Oppenheimer and Eka supported themselves in their postgraduate days from lavish family funds. They both had somewhat grating personalities. In Göttingen, Oppenheimer would interrupt his professor in a quantum mechanics seminar by stepping to the blackboard and demonstrating with chalk that the explanation could be done much better. Once, his mentor, Max Born, gave him a set of calculations to look over. Oppenheimer looked them over after a few days and indicated that there were no mistakes and questioned whether Born had actually done this alone.
After Göttingen, while Oppenheimer did further studies at the
Eka had a singsong way of speaking, a
German aristocratic affection, which caused much mirth in the
Oppie at the same time had his own quirks
and eccentricities. During lectures to his graduate students back in the
Oppenheimer in some ways was also involved
in a transcendental interest in myth – in his case the Bhagavad-Gita and
Sanskrit texts. You no doubt are aware of his comment after witnessing the
world’s first nuclear explosion “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds”. After
the Hindu trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the
destroyer. the future site of the A-test
Were to burst into the sky,
They would be like
the splendor of the mighty one “
It has been commented in one perspective that Oppenheimer had his own trinity of principal tenets: duty, fate, and faith.
His perspective of what he was responsible for
creating can perhaps parallel the insight that Eka evoked when he saw Nazism as
a distorted evocation of his authoritarian ideal in Frederick II. Eka tried later to suppress the republication of the book
until his death.” As he indicated: “This book was inspired by enthusiasm
peculiar to the 1920’s, rife with its
hopes for the triumph of a secret
Eka was living through the nightmare of 1930’s
Nonetheless, Oppie was not placed in the
top rank of theorists because of his difficult to understand, complex
mathematical techniques and lack of persistence in focusing on a single topic
for long. His colleague, the Nobel Prizewinner Isidor Rabi at
“Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel there was much more of the mysterious and novel in botany … than there actually was… [he turned] away from the hard, crude methods of theoretical physics into a mystical realm of broad intuition”.
During the 1930’s Oppie never returned to
Europe, and fell seriously in love with Jean Tatlock, the daughter of
Eka had no place in
He was a great success as a teacher. Just
as Oppie had his clique of students, Eka, with his singsong manner of talking
and continental clothes, that rubbed Oxford the wrong way, made a great
impression on the California students. Of course, he was erudite, gathering
around him graduate students who sipped his
and Eka were at
However, while Eka was free to enjoy his
Oppie himself stated in respect to the party
that “discipline was severe and… not compatible with complete loyalty to the
project” although he knew of several former party members who were working at
Needless to say, also, he was strongly
supported by Colonel then General Leslie Groves, the military director of the
the end of the war, Oppenheimer, seeing the results of his efforts, lobbied
vigorously for international arms control. In 1947 he accepted the directorship of the
As you are all aware, the early 1950’s was
the McCarthy era, abetted by the Un-American Activities Committee, the loyalty oaths
in universities and a general fear of non-conformity. You would have to live
through that era to fully appreciate the fear in this country, a two fold fear,
of a Soviet nuclear attack and of being fired for past activities that were not
currently considered de rigeur politically. High school teachers and college
professors of my acquaintance were fired for flimsy reasons. There was a war in
Although Oppie himself stated quite candidly
that in the 1930”s he had belonged to every Communist front organization in
“As a historian who has investigated and traced the histories of quite a number of oaths, I feel competent to make a statement indicating the grave dangers residing in the introduction of a new, enforced oath, and to express, at the same time, from a professional and human point of view, my deepest concern about the steps taken by the Regents of this University:
He concluded with the statement” It is a shameful and undignified action; it is an affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity… “
And on October 4, to President of the University
“..My political record will stand the test
of any investigation. I have twice volunteered to fight actively… the left-wing
I cannot allow myself to believe that the base field of political inquisition,
which paralyzes scholarly production, should be within the range of [the University’s]
activities.,” He did not sign the loyalty oath, of course, this so-called “Nazi
twin” of Norman Cantor’s chapter title. He did this after the President of the
University told a meeting of the Academic Senate that no faculty member on the
He had to leave
It was there in 1957 that that Eka
published his most famous work at least in English), the King’s Two Bodies. The
institute was not part of Princeton University, of course, and Joseph Strayer,
the medievalist at the University who was Chair of the History department and
the prime protégé of Haskins – despised Eka – including his style, his
mannerisms and his scholarship - there was something of Oxford in Tigertown.
Although he had had a large circle of student disciples at Berkeley, Eka became
virtually reclusive in Princeton- the Institute was not a graduate school but a
haven for academic geniuses who spent their time as faculty members with no
students. As such it is comparable to the Collège de France and All Soul’s
As to Oppenheimer himself, some faculty members were quite dissatisfied with his initial appointment as director of the Institute, recognizing his brilliance but contesting is arrogance. His relationship with the mathematics faculty was especially disastrous. One long-time mathematician at the institute complained that “Oppenheimer was a wholly frustrated personality, and his amusement was to make people quarrel with each other”. With equal consideration, Oppie called one of the mathematicians ‘” the most arrogant, bull-headed son-of a-bitch I ever met”. One wonders whether this should be considered an honor coming from Oppie, especially with the competition.
Whatever the difficulty Eka had to go
through with the loyalty oath involvement at the
Edward Teller, who was developing the
plans for the H-bomb, and had had difficult relations with Oppie since Los
Alamos, was convinced that he was obstructing its development. In 1951, when
Teller had finally solved the design problems of the bomb, he went to the FBI
accusing Oppie of attempting to delay the bomb’s development. Not only that,
but he indicated flat out to the FBI that “ a lot of people believe Oppenheimer
opposed the development of the h-bomb on “direct orders from
In fact, Oppie had a preference for the
use of tactical nuclear weapons rather than a massive H-bomb, and using these
weapons in a ground war, if necessary. His current attitude toward the
The Air Force, of course, was strongly supportive of the H-bomb, and President Truman repeatedly ignored the counsel of the General Advisory Committee of the AEC, which included, in addition to Oppie, James B. Conant, the President of Harvard, and Lee Du Bridge, the President of Cal Tech. All three submitted their resignations from the committee.
In the autumn of 1953, because of his friendship and acquaintance with scientists who were considered communists or fellow travelers, things came to a head when Oppie was first called to Washington to testify as a defense witness for a physicist who had been discharged from the University of Wisconsin for presumably subversive activities involving passing along secrets to the Russians during the war. As it turned out, Oppie did not have to testify, but by that time there was enough FBI documentation to suggest to the suggestible that Oppie was a security risk yet loyal to his country. Could this dichotomy be in some way analogous to quantum mechanics where a body could be a wave and a particle at the same time? No doubt the metaphysicians and analogists among us can have a field day about this.
By that time Strauss was head of the AEC, having supported President Eisenhower during his candidacy. He convinced the president that Oppie was suspicious enough that what was called a “blank wall’ should separate him from sensitive documents. This evoked the famous Herblock cartoon of Oppie sitting in a chair holding a symbol of the atom behind a blank wall with Uncle Sam on the other side of the wall with Strauss and Eisenhower, who were holding bricks and mortar in hod carriers. Uncle Sam is looking at the two of them, holding his forehead in amazement and exclaiming “Who’s being walled off from what?”
had to appear before a committee of the AEC concerning the charges about his
security status, stacked by Strauss to ensure the result, and the decision was
that he should lose his security clearance. In fact, he could have avoided it
but felt that appearing before the committee he would be able to clear any
doubts about his loyalty. It was not supposed to be a trial but it might have
given some inquisition Star Chamber proceedings competition. This result
devastated Oppie and over the next 14 years, until he died in early 1967 of
cancer, his effectiveness at a national level had ceased. Strauss had even
attempted to prevent him from living in Princeton after Oppie stepped down from
directorship of the Institute, without success. Oppie was finally recognized by
the government in 1963, when President Kennedy awarded him the prestigious
Fermi prize, which was he received on December 2, 1963, two weeks after Kennedy
himself was killed. Oppie received the award from President Johnson, and one
observer described Oppie as “a figure of stone, gray, rigid, almost lifeless, and
tragic in his intensity”. After accepting the award, Oppie turned to Johnson
and said “I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some
charity and some courage for you to make this award today. “ However,
Oppenheimer never got his security clearance back. As for Strauss, the Democratic
controlled senate voted down his nomination for Secretary of Commerce at the
end of the Eisenhower administration. For those of you who would relish a
literary analogy, I refer you to
this was going on, Eka proceeded to publish his book on the King’s Two Bodies,
published by the
If you want an example let us go back to the court of King Henry VII which was deciding a case in which an English Lord had trespassed on lands for which he claimed to have paid a tax to the King’s court and considered it therefore a parcel in the lord’s demesne. I quote just a part of the judges’ reasoning in deciding the outcome, which is enough to give you the idea:
“ … For when the Body politic of King of this Realm is conjoined to the Body natural, and one Body is made of them both, the Degree of the Body natural, and of the things possessed in that capacity, is thereby altered, and the effects thereof are changed by its Union with the other Body, and don’t remain in the former Degree, but partake in the Effects of the Body politic…the Body natural and the Body politic are consolidated into one, and the Body politic wipes away every Imperfection of the other Body…” . No doubt they could meet when coming through the rye.
Ill health began to overtake Eka in 1960 and he died in 1963, four years before Oppie.
What can we conclude about the lives of these unique individuals? It is of course interesting that they both wrote works with virtually the same title about entirely different spheres of scholarship yet there was a connection in the ambiguity of their subjects. Waves and particles, natural and corporate bodies, each one in the same. Both individuals had brilliant early careers and at different times were victims of government coercion. Both were brilliant teachers and displayed erratic temperaments, both coming from different countries but with similar upbringing developing their early careers in Germany and eventually finding themselves in the same institutions, both grappling with a certain mysticism that that was an important part of their lives. Both were involved in projects that influenced ideas or events leading to destruction and havoc, one a book on Frederick II, the other the development of a bomb. Both considered ruefully the humanitarian concerns of what they had brought about. It is such individuals as these who alter and illuminate their times.
Kantorowicz EH. The King’s Two Bodies.
Cantor NF. Chapter 3. The Nazi twins, in
Inventing the Middle Ages. Quill.
Bird K and Sherwin MJ. American Prometheus. Vintage.
Boureau A. Kantorowicz. Stories of a historian.
Benson RL, Giesey RE,
Kantorowicz EH. The Fundamental Issue. Documents and Marginal Notes on the
7. Hijiya JA. The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Proc Am Philosophical Soc 2000;144:123-159.