Mr. Eure | Brewster High School
Oppenheimer ETA: Parallelism with Purpose
February 21, 2013Posted by on
On February 21, you took a multiple-choice test on studying the following passage:
The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style. It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.
This comes from J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the scientists charged with creating the world’s first atomic bomb. He was also a student of history and something of a poet; at the moment of the first successful detonation, he was reminded of a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” To Oppenheimer, power wasn’t an abstract concept; watch him here, twenty years after the Trinity test, and notice how deeply his memories seem to move him.
The passage we are studying is from The Open Mind, a speech published around 1949, when Oppenheimer was one of the most prominent physicists in America. It is a definitional argument in miniature, offering a series of assertions about the word style. There is also a problem that this kind of style solves: “[t]he problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown.” For Oppenheimer, that problem was at the heart of the physical sciences.
Your task is to take the structure of this passage and build onto it your own definitional argument in miniature. You will choose your own central term, like Oppenheimer’s style, and build a paragraph around it that emulates the arrangement here: four sentences, the third much shorter than the others, and the last a series of five parallel clauses that define the term. You must post this paragraph in the comments section of this post.
Here are the directions for writing the paragraph:
- Choose a term that you would like to work with. You can use any noun, from the abstract (e.g., power, style, grace, beauty) to the concrete (e.g., homework, rain, sickness).
- Determine what purpose your first three sentences will serve. You can emulate Oppenheimer (i.e., introduce a problem, contextualize it, and then explain how your term solves that problem), or you can construct your own three-sentence approach.
- Brainstorm about the term itself: what it does, how it is viewed, what it affects, and so on.
- Construct five parallel clauses for your final sentence. The first four must begin the same way: “it is [noun] which…” The final clause must begin with a superlative qualification, exactly as Oppenheimer’s does: “it is above all [noun]…”
I will break down Oppenheimer’s paragraph for you in a moment. First, since it’s been a while since we talked on here, let’s go over the directions for posting in the comments section below:
- Begin by saving your paragraph in a Word document or text file. If WordPress crashes, you will have a backup.
- At the bottom of this post, you will find a place for you to leave comments.
- Fill in the required information, using your school email address. Use your full name, not a nickname.
- Paste or retype your paragraph in the comment box. Edit your work; this is a formal writing assignment, not an Internet chat forum.
- Click “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”
Ignore the box for website, and be careful of logging in through Twitter or Facebook—unless you’d like that account public, that is. Then follow the usual rules for adversarial conversation, leaving feedback and replies as you see fit. Here is last year’s version, and another from the previous year; you can seek inspiration from them, if you like. Focus on saying something meaningful and insightful with your mini argument. To help, here is a breakdown of what Oppenheimer does:
The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics.
The first sentence presents a problem, and offers us the context that it is “not unique in politics.” This implies that the solution to the problem, while applicable to politics, could also be applied elsewhere. Notice that Oppenheimer uses no active verbs here; this focuses us on the complex ideas introduced, from what it means to do justice to the distinction between implicit, imponderable, and unknown.
It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art.
The second sentence contextualizes the problem, offering three fields in which it must be solved: science, our personal affairs, and “writing and all forms of art.” These assertions could be said to add gravity to the problem, and therefore to its solution. Notice also that Oppenheimer has juxtaposed science with “the most trivial of personal affairs,” and those quotidian concerns with the lofty ideals of literature and art.
The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style.
A simple sentence that moves us into a definition of style. Notice that “style” is the only word here with any new or significant meaning; the others serve merely to direct us toward the next sentence.
We should break down the next sentence clause by clause. As we do that, notice how the parallel construction focuses us on each aspect of the definition, and how the final clause is both the simplest and most important one.
It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility;
We start with abstract concepts and a subtle verb (“complements”) that connects them. Oppenheimer suggests that style manifests itself as limitation and humility; style, in other words, prevents us from seeming arrogant in victory.
it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely;
Again, style is defined as a way of tempering an action. Effective actions are contrasted with absolute ones, with several ways to interpret the latter adjective: unrestrained, unchecked, implacable, and so on.
it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light;
A long clause like this prevents parallelism from becoming repetitive. Notice that the construction of the first two clauses (“it is style which [verb]”) is broken up by an adverbial phrase (“in the domain of foreign policy”) that grounds us. The abstract ideas of the first two clauses are now given context: international relationships and policies. Notice also that Oppenheimer uses an asyndeton to suggest the countless ways in which we differ from foreign nations and individuals (“the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations”).
it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty;
This penultimate clause sets up the final one by suggesting that, in the context of politics and foreign policy, we should be more uncertain—less swift to act and more willing to debate our motivations. Consider this idea in the context of the last ten years of U.S. politics, where rationality and reasoned debate are at war with impatience and immediacy; perhaps Oppenheimer would say that we have stopped respecting the power of uncertainty out of fear that inaction equals failure.
it is above all style through which power defers to reason.
In adapting Oppenheimer’s structure for your own paragraph, you might borrow that last phrase (“above all”) verbatim. It tells us that we’ve arrived at the most important definition of style, and the most important purpose it serves. The previous ideas of uncertainty and harmony fit under this last one, and the switch from a noun (“deference”) in the penultimate clause to a verb (“defers”) here emphasizes the need for respect. This is the crux of the miniature argument: that our actions on the world’s stage can break harmony and balance if we lack the style that allows for strength through uncertainty and reason, and that our power must be tempered through humility and nuance.
Okay, then—your turn.