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Einstein: The Scientist as Moralist, The Telegraph

I saw Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer earlier this week. The main character in the film, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a physicist whose family was Jewish, and who worked for many years at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. In these respects he was akin to Albert Einstein, who makes several appearances in the movie itself.

Although they had some intellectual disagreements, Oppenheimer nonetheless greatly admired Einstein. Speaking at UNESCO House in Paris in December 1965, Oppenheimer remarked that, apart from his colossal contributions to science, Einstein was ‘also, and I think rightly, known as a man of very great good will and humanity’. Oppenheimer further added: ‘Indeed, if I had to think of a single word for his {Einstein’s} attitude towards human problems, I would pick the Sanskrit word Ahinsa, not to hurt, harmlessness.’

Einstein is generally recognized as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century. Unlike other famous scientists, famously obsessed with their work and career, Einstein had a deep interest in the world outside science. He passionately loved classical music—he was an accomplished violinist himself—keenly followed national and international politics, and had strong, if usually well-considered, views on how human relationships between and within nations should be conducted.

I am utterly unqualified to write about Einstein the scientist. This column, however, is about Einstein the moralist. It draws on my reading of a book by the German-American historian Fritz Stein. Entitled Einstein’s Germany, and first published in 1999, the book is a wide-ranging survey of Germany’s 20th century, and, in particular, of the place of Jews in this history.

The most important essay in the book focuses on Einstein, and he also figures in other chapters in the book. While based on primary sources such as letters and speeches, Stein’s analysis is also informed by the fact that Einstein was a close friend of his parents.

In what follows, I present a selection of striking remarks by Albert Einstein excavated through Fritz Stein’s research. These deal not with science but with matters of morality and politics. My first quote dates to the year 1901, when Einstein was in his early twenties. It has him saying: ‘The foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth’. One presumes that Einstein here principally had scientific authority in mind. Yet, for young adults, a foolish faith in parental authority can also be misplaced, whereas for men and women of all ages and all nationalities, a foolish faith in political authority is not always to be recommended either.

Born in the German Empire, Einstein moved to Switzerland in his teens. His early scientific work was done in Zurich. In 1913, when he was in his thirties, he was persuaded to move to Berlin, the capital of Germany and of German science. Einstein liked his new scientific colleagues, yet he found the conformity of the German public, their uncritical devotion to the Kaiser and the Fatherland, deeply problematic. In January 1914 he wrote that ‘the free, uninhibited view is generally something alien to the (adult) German’. Elsewhere, Einstein spoke of the ‘inborn servility’ of the Germans. (These comments resonate with the state of India and of Indians today).

Later that year the First World War broke out. Einstein was appalled by the jingoism around him. In 1915, the physicist asked the war-crazed Germans to learn to treat ‘power-hunger and greed’, as well as ‘hatred and bellicosity’, as ‘despicable vices’. The Germans professed to be Christians and boasted of their commitment to the Christian faith, and claimed to be acting in consonance with it. Einstein called out this hypocrisy, when he told them: ‘Honour your Master Jesus Christ not in words and hymns, but above all through your deeds’.

In the same year, 1915, the Goethebund of Berlin, a forum of artists and scientists, asked Einstein his views of the war. Einstein replied: ‘The psychological roots of the war are in my opinion biologically founded in the aggressive characteristics of the male creature’. Of course, the male propensity to violence does not manifest itself only in wars between nations; consider again India today, where young men are in the forefront of violence enacted in the name of religion and/or politics.

Among Albert Einstein’s correspondents was the Swiss-French novelist Romain Rolland, incidentally a friend also of Gandhi and Tagore. In August 1917 Einstein wrote to Rolland that Germany’s military victories in the late 19th century had left the country with ‘a religious faith in power which found in [the hyper-nationalist and anti-Semitic historian Heinrich von] Treitschke an appropriate, not an exaggerated, expression. This religion dominates the minds of almost all of the cultured elite; it almost completely extruded the ideals of the Goethe-Schiller era.’ Once more, the parallels with contemporary India are depressingly visible. The power-crazed religion of Hindutva has become so influential as to largely extrude the ideals of the Tagore-Gandhi era.

Fritz Stern himself remarks that Einstein had ‘contempt for nationalist narrowness in any form’. At the same time, Einstein did believe that the continuing persecution of Jews in Europe made their own search for a homeland justifiable. He supported the migration of Jews to Palestine, in the belief, and hope, that ‘there should be a tiny speck on this earth in which the members of our tribe should not be aliens’. He was in this sense a Zionist, who endorsed the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Nonetheless, he did not want the residents of this state to be selfish and parochial in the way he had witnessed the Germans as being. Thus, as Einstein wrote in October 1919, ‘one can be internationally minded, without renouncing interest in one’s tribal interests’. (This formulation, we may note, is not dissimilar to that of Tagore, who likewise sought to blend an inclusive and non-jingoistic nationalism with an openness to the world.)

Einstein opposed the race-based nationalism of the Germans, and had reservations about Jews adopting this template in the new homeland they wished to create. In 1929, after there were violent clashes between Arabs and Jewish settlers in Palestine, Einstein wrote to the leading Zionist Chaim Weizmann (later the first President of Israel) that ‘if we do not find the path to honest cooperation and honest negotiations with the Arabs, then we have learned nothing from our 2000 years of suffering, and we deserve the fate that will befall us’. What is happening in Israel today bears witness to the wisdom of Einstein’s remarks. With a fanatical right-wing Government in power, and liberal Jews on the retreat, Israel is further than ever before from finding that necessary path towards honest cooperation with the Arabs.
All through his life, Einstein meditated deeply on how an individual should relate to the world. He deeply cherished human relationships, and, unlike other great scientists who were exclusively focused on their work and career, made many close friends. He knew that an individual life found meaning in the web of connections it built with other lives. While the Western capitalist society of his time celebrated what Ayn Rand famously (or notoriously) called ‘the virtue of selfishness’, on the other hand Einstein sought—not always with success, of course—to practice what we may call the virtue of selflessness.

Einstein’s anti-chauvinist and anti-narcissist philosophy was beautifully expressed in his funeral oration for his fellow physicist Rudolf Ladenburg in Princeton in 1954. I quote:
‘Brief is this existence, as a fleeting visit in a strange house. The path to be pursued is poorly lit by a flickering consciousness, the center of which is the limiting and separating I.
The limitation to the I is for the likes of our nature unthinkable, considering both our naked existence and our deeper feeling for life. The I leads to the Thou and to the We—a step which alone makes us what we are. And yet the bridge which leads from the I to the Thou is subtle and uncertain, as is life’s adventure.
When a group of individuals become a We, a harmonious whole, then the highest is reached that humans as creatures can reach.’

However, let me end this column not with Albert Einstein’s words but with those of the author of Einstein’s Germany. Himself an exile from Hitler and the Nazis, in reflecting on the painful, tormented, hate-and-violence-filled history of his times, Fritz Stern remarked: ‘No country, no society, is shielded from the evils that the passivity of decent citizens can bring about. That is a German lesson of the twentieth century—for all of us.’

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 29th July 2023)