John Von Neumann and the Parable of the Talents 1.2.3

Richard Feynman said that John Von Neumann (one the principle architects of the atomic bomb) taught him that he didn’t have to take responsibility for the world, and that his (Feynman’s) sense of social irresponsibility made him a happy man. As someone who worked on the Manhattan Project himself, Feynman failed pick up on the ironical fact that the person advising social irresponsibility was himself an advocate of, and was more or less directly responsible for, the murder of 135,000 Japanese civilians and initiating the nightmare that is nuclear warfare.

John Von Neumann was not a wise man, and when dying of cancer, would have infantile screaming fits, not because he was in pain, but because couldn’t accept someone as clever and important as himself was condemned to die. But the knowledge that that one is condemned to die -and justifiably condemned by one’s inherent corruption- is the beginning of wisdom. Von Neumann overestimated himself. He was slightly clever about a limited number of shallow things, and very ignorant of the things of most importance in this life. Feynman overestimated Von Neumann, and made the mistake of following the former’s bad advice.

We have all been thrust into a world which is a certain way, and in no small part the world is as it is because those that came before us have made so (personally I don’t at all like what they’ve done with the place). Before we follow Feynman, and give up our sense of social responsibility, we should think of those that will come after us and will live in a world that has been pre-made for them by their predecessors. What kind of a world do we want our descendants to inherit? If we don’t care, then we can sit back, take no responsibility, and effectively leave things as we found them. If on the other hand we do care then we should find a way to be a force for good in the world. The alternatives are to be a force for evil or -what is more likely- to be irrelevant, someone who lived and died for nothing. One thinks of the parable of the talents in which a master, about to leave on a long journey, gives each of his servants a particular number of talents (a talent was an ancient unit of mass worth approximately 300,000 US dollars). One is given 5 talents, one 2, and another 1. Two of the servants made a profit with their talents, but a third buried his single talent in the ground. This servant choose the ‘irrelevance’ option, and when his master returned to discover this, he was extremely displeased. One can imagine someone choosing this option and arguing “What can I do, I don’t have what it takes to change the world.” But this is untrue. One interpretation of the parable of the talents is that everyone has some ability to change the world, and that everyone is morally obliged to exercise this ability.