Einstein On Life, Politics & War

Brief Introduction:

It has been said that scholars of the first rank jeopardize their reputation the moment they divert their gaze and speak openly and uninhibitedly about social and political problems. "We honor your brilliance in your chosen field," the leery declaim, "but in these other areas you enjoy no special expertise. Leave the matter of war to the generals. Leave politics to the politicians. Let the experts toil away at intractable social problems."

This view has little to recommend it. It is as easy to imagine a genius not losing an ounce of his perspicacity and judgment when addressing a social issue as it is to expect a gross faux pas or sudden mental lapse. Unlike the careerist, the scholar in his humanitarian role has no turf to defend; unlike the bureaucrat, he has no incentive to privilege the needs of his agency; and unlike the businessman, he is disinclined to see the world merely in terms of profit and loss. The military man nowadays appears as a schoolmarm on television, pointing his ruler at some area on a map, explaining unfeelingly how the Air Force can efficiently bomb away at umpteen targets and leave thousands of innocents buried in craters of rubble and blood.

The eminent scholar speaks to us human being to human being, unswayed by techno-rational calculations, disdainful of that worldly intelligence which lobbies always in favor of self-interest and of conquest and war. "Remember your humanity and forget all the rest," Albert Einstein said famously.

Below is a condensed version of an article Einstein published in the 1930s. It can be found in Ideas And Opinions (trans. by Sonja Bargmann, 1954), an excellent anthology of the great man's essays, speeches, letters, and short articles.

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"How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people -- first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. 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...

"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 the 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...What I the German political system is the more extensive provision that it makes for the individual in case of illness or need. 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 marching 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 in pieces than take part in such an abominable business. My opinion of the human race is high enough that I believe this bogey would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the peoples not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interests acting through the schools and the Press.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which 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 constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of this 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 that 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."