PREFACE TO ORIGINAL EDITION
Only individuals have a sense of responsibility. –Nietzsche
This book does not represent a complete collection of the articles, addresses, and pronouncements of Albert Einstein; it is a selection made with a definite object– namely, to give a picture of a man. To-day this man is being drawn, contrary to his own intention, into the whirlpool of political passions and contemporary history. As a result, Einstein is experiencing the fate that so many of the great men of history experienced: his character and opinions are being exhibited to the world in an utterly distorted form.
To forestall this fate is the real object of this book. It meets a wish that has constantly been expressed both by Einstein’s friends and by the wider public. It contains work belonging to the most various dates– the article on “The International of Science” dates from the year 1922, the address on “The Principles of Scientific Research” from 1923, the “Letter to an Arab” from 1930–and the most various spheres, held together by the unity of the personality which stands behind all these utterances. Albert Einstein believes
in humanity, in a peaceful world of mutual helpfulness, and in the high mission of science. This book is intended as a plea for this belief at a time which compels every one of us to overhaul his mental attitude and his ideas.
INTRODUCTION TO ABRIDGED EDITION
In his biography of Einstein Mr. H. Gordou Garbedian relates that an American newspaper man asked the great physicist for a definition of his theory of relativity in one sentence. Einstein replied that it would take him three days to give a short definition of relativity. He might well have added that unless his questioner had an intimate acquaintance with mathematics and physics, the definition would be incomprehensible.
To the majority of people Einstein’s theory is a complete mystery. Their attitude towards Einstein is like that of Mark Twain towards the writer of a work on mathematics: here was a man who had written an entire book of which Mark could not understand a single sentence. Einstein, therefore, is great in the public eye partly because he has made revolutionary discoveries which cannot be translated into the common tongue. We stand in proper awe of a man whose thoughts move on heights far beyond our range, whose achievements can be measured only by the few who are able to follow his reasoning and challenge his conclusions.
There is, however, another side to his personality. It is revealed in the addresses, letters, and occasional writings brought together in this book. These fragments form a mosaic portrait of Einstein the man. Each one is, in a sense, complete in itself; it presents his views on some aspect of progress, education, peace, war, liberty, or other problems of universal interest. Their combined effect is to demonstrate that the Einstein we can all understand is no less great than the Einstein we take on trust.
Einstein has asked nothing more from life than the freedom to pursue his researches into the mechanism of the universe. His nature is of rare simplicity and sincerity; he always has been, and he remains, genuinely indifferent to wealth and fame and the other prizes so dear to ambition. At the same time he is no recluse, shutting himself off from the sorrows and agitations of the world around him. Himself familiar from early years with the handicap of poverty and with some of the worst forms of man’s inhumanity to man, he has never spared himself in defence of the weak and the oppressed. Nothing could be more unwelcome to his sensitive and retiring character than the glare of the platform and the heat of public controversy, yet he has never hesitated when he felt that his voice or influence would help to redress a wrong. History, surely, has few parallels with this introspective mathematical genius who laboured unceasingly as an eager champion of the rights of man.
Albert Einstein was born in 1879 at Ulm. When he was four years old his father, who owned an electrochemical works, moved to Munich, and two years later the boy went to school, experiencing a rigid, almost military, type of discipline and also the isolation of a shy and contemplative Jewish child among Roman Catholics– factors which made a deep and enduring impression. From the point of view of his teachers he was an unsatisfactory pupil, apparently incapable of progress in languages, history, geography, and other primary subjects. His interest in mathematics was roused, not by his instructors, but by a Jewish medical student, Max Talmey, who gave him a book on geometry, and so set him upon a course of enthusiastic study which made him, at the age of fourteen, a better mathematician than his masters. At this stage also he began the study of philosophy, reading and re-reading the words of Kant and other metaphysicians.
Business reverses led the elder Einstein to make a fresh start in Milan, thus introducing Albert to the joys of a freer, sunnier life than had been possible in Germany. Necessity, however, made this holiday a brief one, and after a few months of freedom the preparation for a career began. It opened with an effort, backed by a certificate of mathematical proficiency given by a teacher in the Gymnasium at Munich, to obtain admission to the Polytechnic Academy at Zurich. A year passed in the study of necessary subjects which he had neglected for mathematics, but once admitted, the young Einstein became absorbed in the pursuit of science and philosophy and made astonishing progress. After five distinguished years at the Polytechnic he hoped to step into the post of assistant professor, but found that the kindly words of the professors who had stimulated the hope did not materialize.
Then followed a weary search for work, two brief interludes of teaching, and a stable appointment as examiner at the Confederate Patent Office at Berrie. Humdrum as the work was, it had the double advantage of providing a competence and of leaving his mind free for the mathematical speculations which were then taking shape in the theory of relativity. In 1905 his first monograph on the theory was published in a Swiss scientific journal, the Annalen der Physik. Zurich awoke to the fact that it possessed a genius in the form of a patent office clerk, promoted him to be a lecturer at the University and four years later–in 1909–installed him as Professor.
His next appointment was (in 1911) at the University of Prague, where he remained for eighteen months. Following a brief return to Zurich, he went, early in 1914, to Berlin as a professor in the Prussian Academy of Sciences and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Theoretical Physics. The period of the Great War was a trying time for Einstein, who could not conceal his ardent pacifism, but he found what solace he could in his studies. Later events brought him into the open and into many parts of the world, as an exponent not only of pacifism but also of world-disarmament and the cause of Jewry. To a man of such views, as passionately held as they were by Einstein, Germany under the Nazis was patently impossible. In 1933 Einstein made his famous declaration: “As long as I have any choice, I will stay only in a country where political liberty, toleration, and equality of all citizens before the law are the rule.” For a time he was a homeless exile; after offers had come to him from Spain and France and Britain, he settled in Princeton as Professor of Mathematical and Theoretical Physics, happy in his work, rejoicing in a free environment, but haunted always by the tragedy of war and oppression.
The World As I See It, in its original form, includes essays by Einstein on relativity and cognate subjects. For reasons indicated above, these have been omitted in the present edition; the object of this reprint is simply to reveal to the general reader the human side of one of the most dominating figures of our day.
The World As I See It The Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow-creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.
The World as I see it
What an extraordinary situation is that of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he feels it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow-men–in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours 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 the simple life and am often oppressed by the feeling that I am engrossing an unnecessary amount of the labour of my fellow-men. I regard class differences as contrary to justice and, in the last resort, based on force. I also consider that plain living is good for everybody, physically and mentally.
In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer’s saying, that “a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,” has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others’. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralysing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place.
To inquire after the meaning or object of one’s own existence or of creation generally has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view.
And yet everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavours and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves–such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty. The ordinary objects of human endeavour–property, outward success, luxury–have always seemed to me contemptible.
My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced freedom from the need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I gang my own gait 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 an obstinate sense of detachment, of the need for solitude–a feeling which increases with the years. One is sharply conscious, yet without regret, of the limits to the possibility of mutual understanding and sympathy with one’s fellow-creatures. Such a person no doubt loses something in the way of geniality and light-heartedness ; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellows and avoids the temptation to take his stand on such insecure foundations.
My political ideal is that of 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 respect from my fellows through no fault, and no merit, of my own. The cause of this may well be the desire, unattainable for many, to understand the one or two ideas to which I have with my feeble powers attained through ceaseless struggle. I am quite aware that it is necessary for the success of any complex undertaking that one man should do the thinking and directing and in general bear the responsibility. But the led must not be compelled, they must be able to choose their leader. An autocratic system of coercion, in my opinion, soon degenerates. For force always 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 to-day. The thing that has brought discredit upon the prevailing form of democracy in Europe to-day is not to be laid to the door of the democratic idea as such, but to lack of stability on the part of the heads of governments and to the impersonal character of the electoral system. I believe that in this respect the United States of America have found the right way. They have a responsible President who is elected for a sufficiently long period and has sufficient powers to be really responsible. On the other hand, what I value in our 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 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 the herd nature, the military system, which I abhor. That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism by order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that does by the name of patriotism–how I hate them! War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business. And yet so high, in spite of everything, is my opinion of the human race that I believe this bogey would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the nations not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interests acting through the schools and the Press.
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear–that engendered religion. 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. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
The Liberty of Doctrine–à propos of the Guntbel Case
Academic chairs are many, but wise and noble teachers are few; lecture-rooms are numerous and large, but the number of young people who genuinely thirst after truth and justice is small. Nature scatters her common wares with a lavish hand, but the choice sort she produces but seldom.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.