Pauling and Democracy

Linus Pauling reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Washington High School, Portland, Oregon, 1966.

Linus Pauling reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Washington High School, Portland, Oregon, 1966.

In honor of Independence Day, we are presenting below excerpts from two speeches delivered by Linus Pauling which are reflective of his beliefs concerning democracy and the importance of an informed and active citizenry.

The first passage is extracted from a talk that Pauling delivered in November 1940 titled “Science and Democracy,” written during a time when an increasingly-large portion of the world was collapsing into war.

The second is from a commencement address that Pauling gave to the graduating class of Cook College, Rutgers University in the Spring of 1983.

Though separated by forty-three years and very different in their content, Pauling’s steadfast belief in the democratic ideal shine through in both texts.


Science and Democracy, Tau Beta Pi Banquet, California Institute of Technology, November 26, 1940.

In these days we all have a greater consciousness of social and political subjects, and hence it may be allowed me to talk on the subject expressed in a general way by the title “Science and Democracy.”

Democracy in its development has run a parallel course to science. Democracy, that form of government in which the people rules itself, originated in Greece, at the time that science got its start. The science of the Greeks was not perfect – thus Aristotle thought that a body weighing two pounds would fall twice as fast as one weighing one pound; and Lucretius (a Roman, to be sure) said that the molecules of honey and milk are round, whereas those of wormwood are hooked. Similarly the democracy of the Greeks was the rule of only a portion of the people – the others, the slaves, were in fact not considered to be people.

Democracy and science both faltered and lagged in the Middle Ages. Then came the renaissance of science and the revolutions which led to the rebirth of democracy – a better democracy than that of the ancients. This started with the revolutions of 1642 and 1688 in England, which consolidated the parliamentary system; then the American revolution; the French revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848; and democracy got a firm and, we hope lasting start in the world.

Thomas Jefferson, who may be considered the father of American democracy, stated that it was closely linked with science. He wrote in a letter to John Adams that he and his followers had believed “in the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, etc. Those who advocated a reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintain that no definitive limits could be assigned to progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, denied improvement and advocated steady adherence to principles, practices, and institutions of our fathers which they represented as the consummation of wisdom and the acme of excellence beyond which the human mind could never advance.”

Thus Jefferson contended that government, like science, could grow and improve through research. This is what democracy has done. There have been continual reforms, leading to a greater and greater voice of the people as a whole in the affairs of state. Thus in the time of Andrew Jackson, who was truly the representative of the people, the old caucus system of electing the president was abolished in favor of the modern one, with electors pledged to vote for a certain candidate, and now we are talking of election by popular vote.

The alternative, of dictatorship, is that of slavery, with the individual subject to the whim of the ruler. This freedom is something worth fighting for, worth going to war for if necessary.

And now let me talk a bit about science and war, since war and government are linked together. Man has always been a warlike animal, and he has usually been fighting for his freedom of action in one way or another. In the earliest times he fought with his neighbor when their interest clashed. Then when he had learned to form tribes for the common good and protection the tribes fought. In time, with the development of the science of agriculture, there arose towns, which fought with neighboring towns, and then small countries with other small countries. Now where are we, and what can we hope for? We have large countries – a score or more with a half-dozen of importance. These countries are fighting: the democracies, in which people are free, against the totalitarian states, in which people are the slaves of the rulers. England is fighting not alone for democracy but for existence – yet this is essentially for democracy. We are arming [our nation too]….

[What about] the future? We can extrapolate – with the progress of science the countries of the future will be larger. Ultimately – perhaps in our lifetime – there will be a world government. The great question is this: Will it be a world democracy or a world dictatorship? Either is possible.

The present war will lead to larger countries. Perhaps one will be so large as to dominate the world from now on – then the war would be over. Otherwise the issue will be settled by a later war or war.

The best hope is that the democracies will win this war and then continue to dominate the world.

The Duties of a Graduate, Commencement Address, Rutgers University – Cook College, New Brunswick, New Jersey, May 27, 1983.

You young men and women are now graduates. As graduates you have, because of your training, reached a position in the world that imposes duties upon you.

One of these duties is to be a good citizen. The first step toward being a good citizen is tot take an interest in community affairs, regional and national affairs, and world affairs. Making use of the training that you have now received, you can form opinions about the various problems that need to be solved and express your opinions, both by voting and by discussing the problems with other people.

I believe that every graduate, in addition to carrying out his own work in the world, as determined by his profession, has the obligation to help educate his fellow citizens, to the extent that he can. This obligation is an especially important one for graduates who have studied science. Nearly every problem in the world is to some extent a scientific problem. Scientists are better able to understand these problems than other people, and they may to some extent be somewhat more able to form reliable opinions about them. Accordingly, a scientist should not only strive to give information to his fellow citizens, based upon his special ability to understand the scientific aspects of problems, but should also give his fellow citizens the benefit of his own conclusions and opinions about the problems….

You must not think that your contribution toward solving the problems of the world will be so small as to be unimportant. We have seen that throughout history and especially during recent years public opinion has exerted a great effect on the world. Public opinion is your opinion and the opinion of others like you, which can be expressed in many different ways – by voting, by making statements at meetings or in letters or articles, by taking part in demonstrations, and in other ways.

I am reminded of an analogy. We have learned in our courses in physics that the pressure exerted on the end of the piston in the engine of an automobile is the result of bombardment by the trillions of trillions of molecules in the hot gas. The contribution of each molecule is very small, relative to the total pressure exerted, but if each molecule were to decide that it was unimportant the engine would not operate. In the same way the success of a mass movement depends upon the participation of the individual human beings in exerting pressure toward the goal.

There are many great problems in the world today – encroachment on the environment, the population explosion, the misdistribution of the world’s wealth, malnutrition and starvation, contamination of the environment by toxic substances, and especially the misery caused by war and the possibility of the extermination of the human race in a great nuclear catastrophe. These problems and others need to be attacked….

This is a beautiful world. We must all work to save it. Each of you, as a graduate, has a duty to the human race.

Each of you must take what action he can to save the world, and also take action to contribute to the development of a better world, a world worthy of man’s intelligence. I repeat: Do not think that you are unimportant. You are an important part of the world.


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