I was privileged to see my eldest son this week, down from University temporarily to speak at his old college. As usual I came away with feelings of extreme pride and stimulated by the depth and range of his conversation. He gives me hope in a world which increasingly feels uncomfortable for me, full of absurdity that I cannot reconcile. He is studying International Politics and History, and in the course of conversation I mentioned Albert Einstein and the impact he had on contemporary intellectual thought at the time. It provoked me to consider the question of who would be of similar stature in todays climate. My son was aware of Einstein as a great scientist, but not as a polymath, which was surprising to me. Einstein had an interest in the human race, and his influence extended well beyond the academia of the scientific cohort. Heralded during his lifetime as a genius because of his groundbreaking work in physics, Einstein was used to being asked to discuss his opinions on political and social questions too. Born a Jew, he later made it clear that he did not believe in an anthropomorphic deity, preferring the label of agnostic to that of atheist,
“I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.”
Nevertheless, he was less likely to be sympathetic to the hard line atheists than to the religious, believing that it was critical for humans to have some belief in the transcendental than none,
“[T]he fanatical atheists…are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium of the people—cannot bear the music of the spheres.” Einstein and Religion: physics and theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
His personal belief in a unifying force, but not in a personal God , is a viewpoint that I have been drawn to over the past decades, and it interests me that Einstein was appreciative of Buddhism , considering it to be the one religion most fitted for the 20th century. His won belief system has often been misrepresented, but he clearly stated it in his correspondence and in his books.
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.” from The World As I See It.
Politically Einstein was drawn to Socialism, believing that capitialism had failed to perform adequately to make use of human creativity, and he argued in an article for Monthly Review in 1949 for a planned economy under the principle of Socialism,
“A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.” from ‘Why Socialism’ 1949.
The range and the depth of his thinking provides insight that continues to be relevant today, and his influence will continue well into the future I would guess. So I am still uncertain who I am as attracted to as a thinker in today’s landscape. Got to put my thinking cap on. Interestingly Einstein had a deep interest in humanism and met with Rabindranath Tagore in 1930, another thinker that deeply resonates.
Oh, and he had a chemical element named after him in 1952 , Einsteinium. How cool is that?