Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 2 August 2009

Einstein's words

Today I bought a special edition of the science magazine, DISCOVER (July 2009), with the auspicious title, DISCOVER presents EINSTEIN. The magazine opens with an essay that Einstein wrote in 1931 (so before World War II). Or, at least, it was published in 1931, copyrighted by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The essay is titled, The World as I see It, which one assumes was provided by Einstein himself.

For the rest of this post I will remain silent; I merely wish to present some very eloquent excerpts that provide an insight into Einstein’s personal philosophy.

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though sometimes he thinks he senses it.

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to a frugal life and am often oppressively aware that I am engrossing an undue amount of the labor of my fellow men. I regard class distinctions as unjustified and, in the last resort, based on force. I also believe that a simple and unassuming life is good for everybody, physically and mentally.

Schopenhauer’s saying “A man can do what he wants but not want what he wants” has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance. This realization mercifully mitigates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility and prevents us from taking ourselves and other people all too seriously; it is conducive to a view of life which, in particular, gives humor its due.

I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves – this ethical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed to me empty. The trite objects of human efforts – possessions, outward success, luxury – have always seemed to me contemptible.

I am truly a “lone traveler” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude – feelings which increase with years. One becomes sharply aware, but without regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and consonance with other people. No doubt such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.

My political ideal is democracy. Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized. It is an irony of fate that I myself have been the recipient of excessive admiration and reverence from my fellow-beings, through no fault, and no merit, of my own. The cause of this may well be the desire, unattainable for many, to understand the few ideas to which I have with my feeble powers attained through ceaseless struggle.

The led must not be coerced; they must be able to choose their leader. An autocratic system of coercion, in my opinion, soon degenerates. Force attracts men of low morality, and I believe it to be an invariable rule that tyrants of genius are succeeded by scoundrels. For this reason I have always been passionately opposed to systems such as we see in Italy and Russia today.

The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.

This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor. That a man can take pleasure in fours to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; unprotected spinal marrow was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them! How vile and despicable seems war to me! I would rather be hacked to pieces than take part in such an abominable business.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes true religiosity, and in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.


The Rambling Taoist said...

Thanks for sharing that. The man sounds like a bit of a mixture of Spinoza and Lao Tzu.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Rambling Taoist,

You may have noticed that I referenced you on a comment I made on Storytelling. Also in reference to Einstein, though that was before I read his essay.

I found a date on the magazine under the barcode, so I've amended my post accordingly.

Regards, Paul.

PK said...

His personal aversion to adulation notwithstanding, it is hard for me not to idolize a man who proclaims in no uncertain terms what Einstein does here relative to the fathomlessly abhorrent evils of oppression by class and of the practice of war. Thank you for bringing these passages to my attention. I had read only the great man's scientific work.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi PK,

What strikes me is that he wrote so eloquently, albeit obviously translated from German.

He states his position on these topics very clearly and unambiguously.

I do own a book he published on relativity theory for laypeople, which I've had for about 30 years now.

When I was a teenager I saw a programme about him on TV and I was struck by his eccentricity as well as his genius. I already knew some eccentric individuals so I tended to associate it with independence of mind.

There's a quote from that programme that I now struggle to recall, but it was probably my first brush with existentialism. Something about needing a purpose in order to be alive. I wish I could remember it.

Regards, Paul.

Sue said...

I just read the excerpts from Einstein - very eloquent and full of hope for those who cannot or have given up or (as I like to think ) haven't on being able "to want what they want " .....

Surprisingly his ideas or rather his abhorence for any and all men in uniform raised some conflicting thoughts in me. Why? Because I felt that it was primarily due to the hard work, sacrifices, blood, sweat and tears of the honourable men who themselves do not relish war but overcame their personal aversion and gave up their very own lives and life's hopes so that others such as Einstein might live to contribuite. I detect his very personal aversion and strong dislike (hateful contempt?) for men in uniform- which is valid and understandable to me. To be forced to flee in fear to places far from home, to see friends and neighbours become enemies is to rob the very thing that separates "higher" men from "base humans " ... i.e the trust and confidence in each other.

How lonely is life without this basic trust ... it is what drives many a good person to despair, vice and untimely demise of various kinds.

That is the tone I detect in these excerpts and I am wondering if this was after his discovery of the atomic bom or before..and the great irony that one of his biggest inventions ended up in the very hands of those he hated: i.e. the armed forces. If this was written after they dropped the atomic bomb, his melancholic vibes are easily understood; to imagine that one's creativity could lead to such earthly destruction is a heavy cross to bear for one as sensitive as him.

Sue, from Malaysia

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Sue,

I think you have a good point. It was written before the bomb, in fact before WWII. But I think part of his melancholy was that he'd seen what WWI had done to young men from all corners of the globe. It was meant to be the war to end all wars, but in 1931 (when he wrote this) he was already seeing the fomenting in Europe that would create WWII, so I expect it was a case of premonitory intuition more than anything else.

But, I admit, I have the same sense of ambiguity about his thoughts. After all, my father took part: spent over 2 years as a prisoner-of-war in Germany, after being bombed all the way from Greece to Crete before being captured. As far as the bomb goes, it was Einstein who urged Roosevelt by personal and urgent correspondence to act on the bomb before the Germans did. He said later, that if he knew the Germans would fail, he would never have written the letters. But, I understand, he also wrote a letter to Roosevelt not to use the bomb against Japan. One of the ironies is that his pacifist politics were so well known that he was considered a security risk by the FBI, so he wasn't allowed to have anything to do with the scientists working on the bomb even though it was only through his instigation that it ever happened. In other words, he was considered a security risk on the project that he had personally initiated.

I wrote something about Trust last year.

Regards, Paul.

Diogenes said...

Einstein was a "Spinozist" (the word with it's "ist" is contrary to the thinking of both men) and understood God as Spinoza understood God. He said in his "Evolution of Physics" that the science of physics was built on shifting sand - he knew the limits of Empiricism. He created a system that was more complicated than Newton's - but in a world of infinite complexity this is really no feat. He was an enlightened being and that is his greatest feat.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Diogenes, for your comment.

Regards, Paul.