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Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein; drawing by David Levine

Albert Einstein’s chief title to immortal fame is his transcendent scientific genius, about which, like the vast majority of mankind, I am totally incompetent to speak. Einstein was universally revered as the most revolutionary innovator in the field of physics since Newton. The exceptional respect and attention that were everywhere paid to his person and to his opinions on other topics sprang from this fact. He knew this himself: and although he was a genuinely modest man, embarrassed by the adulation which he excited, and disliked publicity, he expressed pleasure at the thought that, if homage was to be paid to individuals at all, it should go to those who could claim achievement in fields of intellect and culture rather than of power and conquest. Indeed, that a mathematical physicist should have become a great world figure is a remarkable fact and a credit to mankind.

If the impact of Einstein’s ideas outside the realms of theoretical physics and, perhaps, of the philosophy of physics is compared to that made by the ideas of other great scientific pioneers, an odd conclusion seems to emerge. Galileo’s method, to go no further back, and his naturalism, played a crucial role in the development of seventeenth-century thought, and extended far beyond technical philosophy. The impact of Newton’s ideas was immense: whether they were correctly understood or not, the entire program of the Enlightenment, especially in France, was consciously founded on Newton’s principles and methods, and derived its confidence and its vast influence from his spectacular achievements. And this, in due course, transformed—indeed, largely created—some of the central concepts and directions of modern culture in the West, moral, political, technological, historical, social—no sphere of thought or life escaped the consequences of this cultural mutation.

This is true to a lesser extent of Darwin—the concept of evolution affected many fields of thought outside biology: it upset the theologians, it influenced the historical sciences, ethics, politics, sociology, anthropology. Social Darwinism, founded on a misapplication of Darwin’s and Huxley’s views, with its eugenic and sometimes racist implications, did social and political harm. I hesitate (before this audience) to refer to Freud as a natural scientist; but there is no doubt that his teaching, too, affected fields far outside psychology—history, biography, aesthetics, sociology, education.

But Einstein? His scientific achievement touched on the philosophy of science; his own views—his early acceptance of Mach’s phenomenalism, and his subsequent abandonment of that view—show that he possessed the gifts of a philosopher, and so, indeed, did his views of the central doctrines of Spinoza, Hume, Kant; Russell. In this respect, Einstein and Planck were virtually unique among the outstanding physicists of our century. But his influence on the general ideas of his time? On educated opinion? Certainly he presented a heroic image of a man of pure heart, noble mind, unusual moral and political courage, engaged in unswerving pursuit of the truth, who believed in individual liberty and social equality, a man sympathetic to socialism, who hated nationalism, militarism, oppression, violence, the materialistic view of life. But apart from embodying a combination of human goodness with a passion for social justice and unique intellectual power, in a society in which many seemed to live by the opposite values—apart, that is, from his exemplary life, from being, and being seen to be, one of the most civilized, honorable and humane men of his time—what impact did Einstein have?

It is true that the word “relativity” has been, to this day, widely misinterpreted as relativism, the denial of, or doubt about, the objectivity of truth or of moral and other values. But this is a very old and familiar heresy. Relativism in the sense in which Greek sophists, Roman skeptics, French and British subjectivists, German Romantics and nationalists professed it, and in which theologians and historians and ordinary men have, in modern times, been tormented by it—this was the opposite of what Einstein believed. He was a man of simple and absolute moral convictions, which were expressed in all he was and did. His conception of external nature was that of a scientifically analyzable, rational order or system; the goal of the sciences was objective knowledge of an independently existent reality, even though the concepts in which it was to be analyzed and described were free, arbitrary human creations.

What general impact did his doctrines have? Modern theoretical physics cannot, has not, even in its most general outlines, thus far been successfully rendered in popular language as Newton’s central doctrines were, for example, by Voltaire. High-minded public men in England like Haldane and Herbert Samuel tried to derive general metaphysical or theological truths, usually somewhat trite ones, from the general theory of relativity, but this only showed that their gifts lay in other spheres.


But if the impact of Einstein’s scientific thought on the general ideas of his time is in some doubt, there can be none about the relevance of his nonscientific views to one of the most positive political phenomena of our time. Einstein lent the prestige mondial of his great name, and in fact gave his heart, to the movement which created the state of Israel. Men and nations owe a debt to those who help to transform their realistic self-image for the better. No Zionist with the least degree of self-esteem can refuse to pay him homage if the opportunity of doing so is offered to him. Einstein’s support of the Zionist movement and his interest in the Hebrew University were lifelong. He quarreled with Weizmann more than once; he was highly critical of the Hebrew University and, in particular, of its first president; he deplored the shortcomings of Zionist policy toward the Arabs; but he never abandoned his belief in the central principles of Zionism. If young people (or others) today, whether Jews or gentiles, who, like the young Einstein, abhor nationalism and sectarianism and seek social justice and believe in universal human values—if such people wish to know why he, a child of assimilated Bavarian Jews, supported the return of the Jews to Palestine, Zionism, and the Jewish state, not uncritically nor without the anguish which any decent and sensitive man cannot but feel about acts done in the name of his people which seem to him wrong or unwise, but, nevertheless steadily, to the end of his life—if they wish to understand this, then they should read his writings on the subject. With his customary lucidity and gift for penetrating to the central core of any issue, whether in science or in life, Einstein said what had to be said with simplicity and truth. Let me remind you of some of the things he said and did, and in particular of the path which led toward them.

He was born in Ulm, the child of irreligious parents. He was educated in Munich where he seems to have encountered no discrimination; if he reacted strongly against his school and suffered something approaching a nervous breakdown, this does not seem to have been due to anti-Jewish feeling. What he reacted against was, perhaps, the quasimilitary discipline and nationalist fervor of German education in the 1890s. He studied intermittently in Milan and Zurich, taught in Zurich, obtained a post in the patent office in Bern, then held university chairs in Prague and Zurich, and in 1913 was persuaded by Nernst and Haber, as well as Planck, whose reputations were then at their peak, to accept a research post in Berlin.

I need not remind you of the atmosphere of Prussia on the eve of the First World War. In a letter written in 1929 to a German minister of state, Einstein said, “When I came to Germany fifteen years ago [that is, in 1914], I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew. I owed this discovery more to gentiles than Jews.” Nevertheless, the influence of some early German Zionists, in particular Kurt Blumenfeld, the apostle to the German Jews, played a significant part in this—and Einstein remained on terms of warm friendship with him for the rest of his life. But, as in the case of Herzl, the decisive factor in his awakening as a Jew was not so much encounter with an unfamiliar doctrine (he had met adherents of it in Prague but apparently took no interest in it then) as the chauvinism and xenophobia of leading circles, in this case in Berlin, which led him to a realization of the precarious predicament of the Jewish community even in the civilized West. “Man can flourish,” he declared, “only when he loses himself in a community. Hence the moral danger of the Jew who has lost touch with his own people and is regarded as a foreigner by the people of his adoption.” “The tragedy of the Jews is…that they lack the support of a community to keep them together. The result is a want of solid foundations in the individual which in its extreme form amounts to moral instability.”

The only remedy, he argued, is to develop a close connection with a living society which would enable individual Jews to bear the hatred and humiliation to which they are often exposed by the rest of mankind. Herzl is to be admired, Einstein tells us, for saying “at the top of his voice” that only the establishment of a national home in Palestine can cure this evil. It cannot be removed by assimilation. The Jews of the old German ghettos were poor, deprived of civic and political rights, insulated from European progress. Yet


these obscure, humble people had one great advantage over us—each of them belonged in every fiber of his being to a community in which he was wholly absorbed, in which he felt himself a fully privileged member, which asked nothing of him that was contrary to his natural habits of thought. Our forefathers of those days were pretty poor specimens intellectually and physically, but socially they enjoyed an enviable spiritual equilibrium.

Then came emancipation: rapid adaptation to the new open world: eager efforts to don clothes made to fit others, involving loss of identity, the prospect of disappearance as a group. But this was not to be:

However much the Jews adapted themselves, in language, manners, to a large extent even in the forms of religion, to the European peoples among whom they lived, the feeling of strangeness between them and their hosts never vanished. This is the ultimate cause of anti-Semitism, which cannot be got rid of by wellmeaning propaganda. Nationalities want to pursue their own goals, not to blend.

To ignore, or argue against, emotional prejudice or open hostility, Einstein declared, is wholly futile; the baptized Jewish Geheimrat was to him merely pathetic. National frontiers, armies, he regarded as evil, but not national existence as such: the life of peaceful nations, with reciprocal respect for one another and toleration of each other’s differences, was civilized and just. There follows a statement of Zionism not unlike the reaction to a similar predicament of another internationalist and socialist, Moses Hess, in the 1860s. Let me quote Einstein’s words in 1933: “It is not enough for us to play a part as individuals in the cultural development of the human race, we must also attempt tasks which only nations as a whole can perform. Only so can the Jews regain social health.” Consequently: “Palestine is not primarily a place of refuge for the Jews of Eastern Europe, but the embodiment of the reawakening of the corporate spirit of the entire Jewish nation.”

This seems to me a classical formulation of the Zionist creed, with an affinity to the unpolitical cultural nationalism of Ahad Ha’am: what Einstein was advocating was, in essence, the creation of a social and spiritual center. But when British policy and Arab resistance, in his judgment, made the state inevitable, he accepted it and the use of force to avoid annihilation as being, perhaps, something of a necessary evil, but nevertheless as a burden and a duty to be borne with dignity and tact, without arrogance. Like all decent Zionists he was increasingly worried about the relationship with the Arabs of Palestine. He wished for a state in which Jews and Arabs could fully cooperate. But he realized, sadly, that events made this unlikely for the time being. He remained a consistent supporter of the Jewish State of Israel: here Jewish ideals must be pursued, especially three among them: “knowledge for its own sake; an almost fanatical love of justice; desire for personal independence.”

I need hardly say how sharply this differed from the general attitude of the educated German Jews of his milieu, not to speak of men of similar origin and social and intellectual formation elsewhere in Western Europe. When one remembers Einstein’s earlier life, remote from Jewish affairs, his lifelong idealistic internationalism, his hatred of all that divided men, it seems to me to argue a remarkable degree of insight, realism, and moral courage of which his fellow Jews today have good reason to feel proud. After all, other eminent German Jewish scientists, honorable men of unimpeachable personal integrity, Fritz Haber, Max Born, James Franck, reacted very differently. So did writers and artists like Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Mahler, Karl Kraus, or Werfel, who were all too familiar with anti-Semitism in Vienna.

I do not wish to imply that Einstein necessarily condemned assimilation to the culture of the majority as always ignoble or doomed to failure. It was plainly possible for children of Jewish parents to find themselves so remote from their community and its traditions that even if they considered it, they were unable psychologically to reestablish genuine links with it. He was clear that in a civilized society every man must be free to pursue his own path in the manner that seemed to him best, provided that this did not do positive harm to others. He did not accuse these scientists and writers and artists of dishonorable or craven motives; their human dignity was not, for him, in question, only their degree of self-understanding.

It was his incapacity for self-deception or evasion, his readiness to face the truth, and—if the facts demanded it—to go against the current of received ideas, that marked Einstein’s bold rejection of the central elements in the Newtonian system, and it was this independence that characterized his behavior in other spheres. He rejected conventional wisdom: “Common sense,” he once said, “is the deposit of prejudice laid down in the mind before the age of eighteen.” If something did not seem to him to fit, morally or politically, no less than mathematically, he would not ignore, escape, forget it; adjust, arrange, add a patch or two in the hope that it would last his time; he would not wait for the Messiah—the world revolution—the universal reign of reason and justice—to dissolve the difficulty. If the shoe does not fit, it is no use saying that time and wear will make it less uncomfortable or that the shape of the foot should be altered, or that the pain is an illusion—that reality is harmonious, and that therefore conflict, in-justice, barbarism belong to the order of appearances, which superior spirits should rise above. If his philosophical mentors, Hume and Mach, were right, there was only one world, the world of human experience; it alone was real: beyond it there might be mystery; indeed, he regarded the fact, of which he was totally convinced, that the universe was comprehensible as the greatest of mysteries; yet no theory was valid which ignored any part of direct human experience, in which he included imaginative insight, arrived at by paths often far from conscious.

It was this sense of reality that saved him, despite his deep convictions, from being doctrinaire. When what he knew, understood directly, was in conflict with doctrinal orthodoxy, he did not ignore the immediate evidence of his moral, social, or political sense. He was a convinced pacifist; during World War I he made himself unpopular in Germany by denouncing it. But in 1933 he accepted the necessity of resisting Hitler and the Nazis, if need be by force, which horrified his pacifist allies. He was an egalitarian, a democrat, with an inclination toward socialism. Yet his sense of the need to protect individuals from the state was so strong that he believed that Bills of Rights would be trampled on unless an elite of educated and experienced persons in authority at times effectively resisted the wishes of majorities. He praised the American Constitution, and in particular the balance of power between the president, Congress, and public opinion (his early political mentor, the Austrian socialist Fritz Adler, would scarcely have approved). He hated walls between human beings, exclusiveness. But when Jewish students were being hounded by nationalist students in German or Polish universities, he declared that Weizmann was right; liberal and socialist resolutions were useless; the Jews must act, and create their own university in Jerusalem.

He hated nationalism all his life. But he recognized the acute need of the Jews for some form of national existence; above all, he did not regard a sense of national identity and nationalism—which he detested—as being one and the same thing. It is clear that he took political allegiance seriously. He renounced his German nationality twice. He would not, as a young man, have chosen to adopt Swiss, or, after Hitler, American citizenship, had he not felt that he could give his full allegiance to these democratic countries when, for obvious reasons, he found it unbearable to retain his German passport. It was this combination of social sensitiveness and concrete insight into what it is that men live by that saved him from doctrinaire fanaticism; it was this that made him morally convincing.

He was an innocent man, and sometimes, I should think, taken in by fools and knaves. But innocence has its own modes of perception: it sometimes sees through its own eyes, not those of the spectacles provided by conventional wisdom or some uncriticized dogma. The very same independence which caused him to reject the accepted notions of physical space-time and boldly offer the hypothesis of gravitational waves and light quanta against the resistance of physicists and philosophers also liberated him morally and politically.

Consequently this man who sought privacy, who remained wholly uncorrupted by adulation and unparalleled fame in five continents, who believed in salvation by work and more work to unravel the secrets of nature—secrets miraculously amenable to analysis and solution by human reason—this gentle, shy, and modest man displeased many establishments: German nationalists, Germanophobe Frenchmen, absolute pacifists, Jewish assimilationists, Orthodox rabbis, Soviet Marxists, as well as defenders of absolute moral values in which, in fact, he firmly believed.

He was neither a subjectivist nor a skeptic. He believed that the concepts and theories of science are free creations of the human imagination, not, as Bacon or Mill or Mach thought, themselves abstracted from the data of experience; but what the scientist seeks to analyze or describe by means of these theories and concepts is itself an objective structure of which men, viewed scientifically are themselves a part. Moral and aesthetic values, rules, standards, principles cannot be derived from the sciences, which deal with what is, not with what should be; but neither are they, for Einstein, generated or conditioned by differences of class or culture or race. No less than the laws of nature, from which they cannot be derived, they are universal, true for all men at all times, discovered by moral or aesthetic insight common to all men, and embodied in the basic principles (not the mythology) of the great world religions.

Like Spinoza, he thought that those who deny this are merely blinded by the passions; indeed, he felt Spinoza to be a kindred spirit. Like Spinoza, he conceived God as reason embodied in Nature, as being, in a literal sense, a divine harmony, Deus sive Natura; and, again like Spinoza, he showed no bitterness toward his detractors, nor did he compromise with them—he remained serene and reasonable, humane, tolerant, undogmatic. He did not wish to dominate, and did not demand blind fidelity from his followers. He supported any movement—say, the League of Nations or left-wing groups in America—if he thought that on the whole it did good, or at least more good than harm.

So with Jewish Palestine. He hated the chauvinists; he was critical, at times to an unrealistic degree, of the attitude of the Zionist leadership toward the Arabs, but this did not make him lean over backward occasionally as it did others; he denounced the Eisenhower Administration for seeking to please the Arab states at the expense of Israel, a policy which he attributed to American imperialism. He was critical of some of the Hebrew University’s policies: so, for instance, he thought that, among the academic refugees from fascist Europe, young scholars, not the old and famous, should be offered appointments. But his loyalties remained unimpaired. He was not prepared to abandon the Zionist movement because of the deficiencies of some of its leaders. His Zionism was grounded in the belief that basic human needs create a right to their satisfaction: men have an inalienable right to freedom from hunger, nakedness, insecurity, injustice, and from homelessness too.

He was somewhat homeless himself. In a letter to his friend Max Born he wrote that he had no roots; that he was a stranger everywhere. He was, on his own admission, a lonely man who instinctively avoided intimacy. He was a solitary thinker, not easy to know as a human being. His deep humanity and sympathy with the victims of political oppression, social discrimination, economic exploitation, were central to his outlook and need no special explanation; they were in part, perhaps, a compensation for his difficulty in forming close personal relationships.

Like many physicists connected in some way with the production of the atom bomb, he was, in his later years, oppressed by a sense of the responsibility of scientists for introducing a terrible new means of destruction into the world; and he condemned the use of it made by his adopted country which seemed to him bent on a dangerously imperialist course. His hatred of the cruelty and barbarity of reactionaries and fascists at times led him to believe that there were no enemies on the left—an illusion of many decent and generous people, some of whom have paid for it with their lives.

Perhaps his very gifts as a scientist led him to schematize, to oversimplify practical problems, including complex political and cultural ones, which allow of no clear-cut solutions, to be too sweeping and to ignore the wrinkles and unevennesses of daily life, insusceptible as they are to exact quantitative analysis. For it seems to me that there may exist a certain difference between the gifts of scientists and humanists. It has often been pointed out that major discoveries and inventions—as opposed to demonstrations of their validity—require great imaginative power and an intuitive sense—not rationally analyzable—of where the right solution must lie, and that this is not dissimilar from the vision of artists or the sympathetic insight into the past of gifted historians or scholars. This may well be true. Yet those who deal with human beings and their affairs need some awareness of the essential nature of all human experience and activity, a sense of the limits of what it is possible for men and women to be or to do; without some such awareness of the limits imposed by nature there is no criterion for dismissing an infinity of logically possible but wildly improbable, or absurd historical or psychological, hypotheses.

About what makes men rational Aristotle and Kant and Voltaire and Hume may well be right: on this sense of what can, and what clearly cannot, be the case in human affairs, on the normal association of ideas, on such basic concepts as those of past, future, things, persons, causal sequence, logical relations—a closely woven network of categories and concepts—human rationality, perhaps even sanity, in practice, depends. Departure from these, as attempted, for example, by surrealist painters or poets or aleatory composers, may be interesting, but it is deliberately counterrational.

But in mathematics or theoretical physics this sense of reality does not necessarily seem to be required. Indeed, something close to the opposite may, at times, be needed. In the case of seminal discoveries—say, of imaginary numbers, or non-Euclidean geometry, or the quantum theory—it is precisely dissociation of commonly associated ideas, that is, departure from some categories indispensable to normal human experience, that seems to be required, namely a gift for conceiving what cannot in principle be imagined, nor expressed in ordinary language which is concerned with day-to-day communication, with the facts and needs of human life. It is this detachment from, even flouting of, everyday reality that leads to the popular image of the abstract thinker—Thales who falls into a well, the absentminded professor who boils his watch in place of an egg.

This kind of escape into abstractions—an ideal world of pure forms expressed in a specially invented symbolism free from the irregularities and untidiness, or even the basic assumptions, of ordinary experience—may possibly, at times, be connected with a psychic disturbance, some kind of displacement in early life. Einstein’s breakdown as a schoolboy in Munich is paralleled by similar childhood experiences of Newton and Darwin, who also remained somewhat inaccessible emotionally. These thinkers, too, spoke of a type of experience which Einstein described as a deeply religious feeling before a vision of the divinity revealed in the all-embracing unity and rational harmony of the rigorously causal structure of nature. This was a vision of reality which nothing could shake: consequently, Einstein remained an unyielding determinist, and never accepted the uncertainty principle as an ultimate category of natural knowledge, or as an attribute of objective nature—only as part of our provisional and incomplete analysis of it.

Such addiction to pure abstraction and generalization may, at times, be connected with an incapacity for close personal relationships with others, a full social life; this appears to me to be a plausible hypothesis. It may well have been so with Albert Einstein. What he withheld from private life he gave to the world. Not only the fame of his achievement, but his figure, his face, are known to millions of men and women. His appearance became a visible symbol, a stereotype, of what people supposed a scientist of genius should look like, much as an idealized Beethoven became a commercialized image of the inspired artist. How many people know what other scientists of genius—Planck, Bohr, Rutherford—looked like? Or, for that matter, Newton or Galileo, or even Darwin? Einstein’s features, with their simple, kindly, bemused, melancholy expression, moved men’s hearts everywhere. He was very famous, virtually a folk hero, and his appearance was as familiar and as widely loved as Charlie Chaplin’s, long before he was portrayed on American stamps or Israeli bank-notes.

I am, as you must know, no expert on any of Einstein’s most important attributes or achievements. But I should like to return for one more moment to the state of Israel. The Zionist movement, like the state of Israel, has often been attacked, today more than ever, both by countries outside its borders and from within; sometimes with, more often without, reason or justice. That Einstein, who tolerated no deviation from human decency, above all on the part of his own people—that he believed in this movement and this state and stood by it through thick and thin, to the end of his life, however critical he was at times of particular men or policies—this fact is perhaps among the highest moral testimonials on which any state or any movement in this century can pride itself. Unswerving public support by an utterly good (and reasonably well-informed) man, against a virtually complete lack of sympathy for it on the part of the members of his social and intellectual milieu (whose general moral and political views he largely shared) may not by itself be enough to justify a doctrine or a policy, but neither can it be dismissed; it counts for something; in this case for a great deal.

This Issue

November 8, 1979