Einstein: The Passion of Pure Reason:
The Cosmic Religion of the Mathematician
Behind the manifold and varied expressions of the genius of Albert Einstein men have felt they sensed the presence of a philosophy, perhaps a religion, that gave a central impulse and direction to all he said and did. Here Irving Kristol, tentatively and suggestively, attempts an outline for what might be called a Unified Field Theory of Einstein—a crystallization of Einstein’s view of the universe that might draw into a single coherent structure the different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, phases of his life and work: his scientific views and metaphysics, his ethical beliefs, his views and actions in regard to world unity and world peace, and his interest in Jewish nationalism and creativity. Mr. Kristol bases his study on Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, volume 7 of the “Library of Living Philosophers,” as well as a number of other recent books.
Arrows of hate have been shot at me too; but they never hit me, because somehow they belonged to another world, with which I have no connection whatsoever.
In Philipp Frank’s biography, Einstein: His Life and Times, we read the following anecdote:
Einstein was once told that a physicist whose intellectual capacities were rather mediocre had been run over by a bus and killed. He remarked sympathetically: ‘Too bad about his body!’
Of course it is probable that Einstein was having his own quiet little joke, making a gesture to the public image of himself as an abstracted, bloodless intellect floating languidly in the stellar spaces. And indeed, according to Einstein’s way of thinking, body is body and mind is mind, and it is hard to think of a logical reason why one should have anything to do with the other. The body grows old, but that is hardly worth a thought: Einstein believes birthday celebrations are for children. The body perishes and is buried—of what interest is this to a mature mind? (“Attending funerals is something one does to please the people around us. In itself it is meaningless.”) Men are prone to make spectacles of themselves, watching the calendar, meditating on their imminent dissolution into dust, but “the true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”
A volume recently published in Einstein’s honor1 contains an autobiographical sketch he wrote four years ago. It opens with the naked sentence: “Here I sit in order to write, at the age of 67, something like my own obituary.” Then, with a few personal asides, there follow forty-five pages of physics and equations. The asides, to be sure, are illuminating. We learn that: “Even when I was a precocious quite young man I became vividly aware of the nothingness of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life.” Einstein’s reaction to this discovery was a deep religiosity that ended abruptly at the age of twelve, giving way to a passion for science, which seemed more capable of freeing him from “the chains of the ‘merely personal,’ from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings.” We are told all this briefly, in a few paragraphs quickly submerged in pages of technical discussion. But, on page 33, Einstein pulls himself up short, to dispel once and for all any confusion in the mind of the reader:
‘Is this supposed to be an obituary?’ the astonished reader will likely ask. I would like to reply: essentially yes. For the essential in the being of a man of my type lies precisely in what he thinks and how he thinks, not in what he does or suffers.
This, then, is how Einstein would like to see himself: no mournful pilgrim on earth, but the spirit of Pure Reason; not an anguished voice calling futilely from the depths, but a creative spirit hovering over the world of chaos; not a suffering creature, but a thinking creator, whose science is “the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of reality by the process of conceptualization,” and whose duty it is “to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction.”
What is the path which the spirit must take to this “posterior reconstruction of reality”? On this point, Einstein is unequivocal: the path is through mathematics. And if one can “reconstruct” reality with the aid of mathematics, then it is clear that the original creation must have been according to formula. God is a mathematician, and mathematics is imitatio Dei. Of course, God is an exceptional mathematician and his creation is an exceptionally “well-designed puzzle.” But not an insoluble puzzle, for God is just. “Raffiniert is der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht” (“God is subtle, but he is not malicious”)—with such words Einstein consoles and encourages Princeton’s mathematicians when they lounge in Fine Hall and read the inscription over the fireplace. God is not only not malicious, he is also divinely simple: “Our experience . . . justifies us in believing that nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.”
And if one should inquisitively demand why God is, after all, a mathematician? Ah, that is the mystery, that “pure thought is competent to comprehend the real,” that nature is intelligible.
Einstein is not involved in what have been, at different times, designated as the two major scandals of philosophy: the first, that philosophers have not yet been able to prove the existence of the external world; the second, that philosophers should ever have presumed to believe this to be their business. For Einstein, the real world simply is. Simply—is. For if its existence is not to be questioned by serious men, neither is its simplicity. This simplicity may not be apparent to those who are prisoners of their senses and have not been able to make the leap from the kingdom of the bodily self to the kingdom of selfless mind, which is the realm of mathematics and necessity. The world of the body’s sense perception is real—but the realer world, the world of order behind the confusion of perceived existence, is the one which is also rational, that is, mathematical. When Einstein refers to the world that is both real and rational he uses the phrase “Physical Reality.”
The way to Physical Reality is through the mathematical imagination, through an exercise of “musicality in the sphere of thought.” Such exercises, giving birth to formulas, need to be verified by experiment in order to sift the true from the false; but this does not affect the fact that “the creative principle resides in mathematics.” Sense experience is, in itself, chaotic; order is of the mind. “A theory can be tested by experience, but there is no way from experience to the setting up of a theory.” The “fateful” error is to entertain the belief that scientific concepts can be abstracted out of experience. They are “free inventions of the human mind.” Fortunately for us, these free inventions of the human mind are found to be congruent with those free inventions of the divine mind which make up the real and rational world of Physical Reality.
One may well ask: what manner of scientist is this? He does not fit the popular image of a white-frocked manipulator of test tubes, or speak with the familiar accents of an apostle of “scientific method.” He is, for instance, flatly in disagreement with the positivist Philipp Frank, who expresses what is probably the majority opinion of philosophers of science when he writes that “science cannot discover what actually happens in the world, but can only describe and combine the results of different observations.” Einstein is old-fashioned, agreeing with most classical metaphysicians, and incidentally with the man in the street, that science aims to find out what really happens beyond the veil of appearance. Is Einstein a crank, his head filled with anachronistic jargon about God and Physical Reality, who by sheer luck stumbled upon some useful equations? Or is the inadequacy with a misinterpretation of “scientific method”?
If we examine the phrase “scientific method,” we see that there is a studied ambiguity between a “method” of discovery and a “method” of verification, with “scientific method” presumably uniting the two. But, as Morris Raphael Cohen properly emphasized many years ago: “Science knows of methods of verification, but there are no methods of discovery. If there were such, all we need would be discovered, and we would not have to wait for rare men of genius.” The universe of scientific discovery is ruled by an aristocracy of talent, not a democracy of method. All theories are in principle equal before the bar of verification, but only a few can gain seats in the house of Truth, and there is no way of determining beforehand which these shall be. Genius is not reducible—to method or to anything else—and its very essence is to be uncommon, even exotic.
It Is to be expected that men will be resentful of this state of affairs and attempt to circumvent it. The rise of modern science has been accompanied by an insistent philosophic effort at The Taming of the Mind. Bacon set up his inductive method, whereby a scrupulous attention to the facts and the relation between facts would make an intelligent man a scientist; Descartes proposed his analytic method, by which “all those who observe its rules exactly would never suppose what is false to be true, and would come—without fatiguing themselves needlessly but in progressively furthering their science—to the true knowledge of all that can be known”; Dewey has sought to make science’s “method of inquiry” a human habit, to divert men from “meaningless” metaphysical questions, and to encourage them to good works; and, most recently, logical positivism announced that science cannot hope to plumb the nature of things, but “can only describe and combine the results of different observations,” a task for which genius is dispensable, though not entirely useless.
Yet in the actual history of science, discoveries have not been the offspring of any omnipotent “method.” As often as not, private fancies have been more productive than the staid virtues of sobriety and skepticism. Men of genius—Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Einstein—have stubbornly gone their own way, possessed by metaphysical ideas of God and Reality, perversely trying to plumb the depths of nature, passionate to the point of extravagance in their speculations. Descartes himself could be so certain of his method—and could make his mathematical contributions—only because he was convinced that the book of nature was in the script of geometry. The record of scientific thought gives us leave to say of science what Goethe said of poetry, that it “presupposes in the man who is to make it a certain good-natured simple-mindedness, in love with the Real as the hiding place of the Absolute.”
So intimate has been the relation between scientific creativity and metaphysical (and theological) speculation, that even so astringent a thinker as Bertrand Russell has wondered at the possibility of the wellsprings of science drying up in an era which deprecates metaphysical curiosity. Positivists, early in this century, were too well versed in “scientific method” to believe that atoms were “real,” that they were more than a convenient intellectual construct by which one could “describe and combine the results of different observations”; but the atom was split nevertheless. Afterwards, of course, the revelation of genius is taken as testimony to the virtue of “scientific method,” for it is not difficult to show—after the event—that by a proper extension of “scientific method” we could have known what we did not know, and to forget that we did not know it.
To this it might be retorted: what is of importance is the result of Einstein’s work, not the idiosyncrasies that spurred him on to the job. Science is interested in what Einstein does, not in what he says.
If this were so, then Science would be an extremely discourteous mistress—as she has indeed often appeared to be. In actual fact, the relation between what Einstein says and what Einstein does is not so easily severed. It is true that after Einstein has done something, his work can be repeated by other physicists and mathematicians who will have no truck with anything called Physical Reality. The General Theory of Relativity can be used by anyone; it has no metaphysical patent, any more than had Kepler’s laws of planetary motion (which were also born of some very private fancies). It is also true, however, that it was Einstein who formulated the theory, and had he had none of these private fancies about Physical Reality there would not have been a General Theory of Relativity.
That it was Einstein who developed the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 may be classified as an “accident.” Physics was suffering a crisis in its foundations, experimental data refused to conform to prevailing theories, and a drastic revision of the Newtonian mechanical world view was clearly in the offing. If there had been no Einstein, someone else probably would have thought up something similar to the special theory—though precious and painful years might have been wasted. But if Einstein had not devised the General Theory of Relativity, there is a good chance that it might never have been formulated at all. For the general theory was not needed by science to explain any baffling facts. It was needed by Einstein—and by him alone—to unite the basic concepts of inertia and gravitation in one formula, in order to approximate more closely to the divine mathematical simplicity of the universe.
This intimacy between Einstein’s private metaphysics and his public science is dramatically revealed in his lonely position in contemporary quantum physics. Despite the fact that his early work on photoelectric phenomena (1905)—for which he won the Nobel prize—has been extremely important in the development of quantum theory, Einstein is today an isolated and somewhat embittered figure among physicists. He believes that quantum physics has gone off the right track and has deviated from “the programmatic aim of all physics,” which is the description of any situation as it really is, regardless of the act of observation. For his own part, he toiled stubbornly during the past decades to construct his recently published Unified Field Theory, which covers electromagnetic as well as gravitational fields, and which would establish—in a nearly final form—the programmatic aim of physics. Never, perhaps, has any theory by so eminent a scientist been so thoroughly ignored by his colleagues. His Unified Field Theory is not even a subject for polemic—evoking only indifference. The newspapers, of course, gave it a big play. In the laboratories, it was a topic for wisecracks. The quantum physicists feel that Einstein is exactly where he charges them with being: in a blind alley.
Einstein’s reproach against quantum physics is similar—at least superficially—to that which the Catholic Church leveled against Copernicus’ theory, or the conservative physicists against relativity: it is mathematically useful but not really, i.e. metaphysically, true. Einstein sees the similarity but insists that the present situation is truly unique. For while the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions radically revised man’s image of nature, and the relativity theory helped to substitute a mathematical model of nature for a mechanical one, the principles of quantum physics rule out the possibility of a model altogether. And this, Einstein believes, is the suicide of physics. His theory of relativity, he says, “teaches us the connection between different descriptions of one and the same reality.” But the reality is there, and physics must describe it.
In a letter to the physicist Max Born, in 1944, Einstein wrote: “In our scientific expectation we have grown antipodes. You believe in God casting dice and I in perfect laws in the world of things existing as real objects, which I try to grasp in a wildly speculative way.”
“God casting dice” is a picturesque but not inaccurate representation of how quantum physics conceives of physical reality. The statistical probability laws of quantum mechanics are not the kind of statistical laws one meets in actuarial work, for instance. In the latter, each individual event has its cause, even if statistics gives us only an average report. In quantum physics a detailed causal analysis of atomic phenomena is not only renounced for convenience sake, but is excluded in principle. The very idea of causality does not pertain; all we know is the probability of the results of measurement at a given time.
Einstein concedes that quantum physics has made great progress with the aid of its probability statistics, but he will not admit that the present state of quantum theory is more than a stopgap. His aim is still a theory that represents “events themselves and not merely the probability of their occurrence”; he will not give up the principle of causality: he is convinced that the laws of the microscopic universe and of the macroscopic universe are continuous—nature is of one piece.
Obviously, science itself will ultimately decide whether Einstein’s Unified Field Theory is relevant to the problems of modern physics—whether God casts dice or is subtle but still rational. The point here is that between Einstein as scientist and Einstein as thinker the relation is closer than some overly glib enthusiasts of “scientific method” consider decent.
Recently, the British positivist A. J. Ayer wrote (in Partisan Review) rather contemptuously of present-day intellectuals who turn to religion: “They want a form of explanation which will say something more than merely that this is how the world works. They have to be given a reason for its working as it does. . . . It is not enough to state what happens to be true; it has to be shown that it is necessarily true.”
This may be taken as a fair summary of Einstein’s philosophy of science. For Einstein is one of those—again in Ayer’s words—“to whom it is intolerable that facts should be contingent, that things should just happen to be as they are. . . .”
Indeed, it can be said that it is not only Einstein’s philosophy of science that Ayer has described, but the philosophy of science itself. For if it were not intolerable “that facts should be contingent, that things should just happen to be as they are,” why should science ever have been born? In our epoch of technology, we tend to view the aim of science as prediction and control. But this is a modern belief that would have horrified the Greeks, Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes and Newton, and which has been alien to the temper of Planck, Eddington, and Einstein, to name only a few contemporaries. For them, science has meant a passion for the rational truth which lies concealed behind all sense experience. Science in the West has been, and is, based on the assumption that what is factual and contingent has to be explained by what is rational and necessary, that statements of fact must be deduced from statements of mathematics, that matter is to be illuminated by Reason. Einstein is, par excellence, the scientist of the Western world, wedded to the belief that behind the particular and contingent there is the general and rational. The goal of science is a formula from which everything that ever happens can be logically and rigorously derived. Behind the All there is the One.
If we press further, and ask why Reason should have any success in comprehending Physical Reality, then, according to Einstein, we burst through science and philosophy together, and arrive at religion: “To the sphere of religion belongs the faith that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational. . . .” This faith is not something tranquil and final; it is restless and perpetually dissatisfied, always goading Reason to convert it into a rational certitude.
God wills that the scientist—who is Reason incarnate—shall dissolve Him into demonstrable theorems. Probably the dissolution will never be final, and Einstein has uttered some forlorn sentiments on the mystery of existence. But, as Henry Margenau has acutely pointed out, in the case of Einstein “a certain pathos for the unknown, though often displayed, always intimates the ultimately knowable character of existence, knowable in scientific terms.” For God may be subtle but he does not deceive.
There are, according to Einstein, three ascending stages in the development of religion: the religion of fear, the religion of morality, and the religion of the cosmos.
The religion of fear is the product of primitive, self-centered, unenlightened men, of the kind we meet in the Pentateuch. These men believed in a personal God who was involved in their destinies, who rewarded and punished his creatures. The religion of fear not only did not free men from their bodily concerns and egocentric anxieties—it made these very concerns and anxieties an occasion for God’s intervention in the workings of the world.
The religion of fear is superseded by the religion of morality, as embodied in some of the Jewish prophets and elaborated by the New Testament. Knowledge itself provides only the means, not the ends of life; religion—acting through the intuition of great teachers and radiant personalities—sets up the ultimate goals of life and provides the emotional context in which they can influence the individual. Men, left to shift for themselves, would see the ends of life to be ease and happiness; such a selfish ethic, dominated by elementary instincts, is “more proper for a herd of swine.” A genuinely religious person is one who has “liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value.”
The religion of morality is the highest that the great mass of men can aspire to, and it is sufficient to tame their animal spirits. But for a select few there is something finer and more noble: the religion of the cosmos. For the wise man—and this is the very definition of his wisdom—ethical behavior needs no religious sanction; sympathy and love of humanity he finds to be sufficient unto themselves. His religion, as distinct from his morality, is the result of a unique religious event, the mystical experience of the rationality of the cosmos, in which the individual is annihilated. Of this experience Einstein writes: “The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.”
This experience is not reached by any Cabalistic practices. On the contrary: the via mystica is nothing other than the via scientiae. Science, at its greatest, is identical with religion, at its most sublime. Science provokes a “profound reverence for the rationality made manifold in existence.” The scientist “achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind towards the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence. . . .” And just as science leads us to true religiosity, so does true religiosity lead us to science:
The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and the noblest, driving scientific research from behind. No one who does not appreciate the terrific exertions, the devotion without which pioneer creation in scientific thought cannot come into being can judge the strength of the feeling out of which alone such work, turned away as it is from immediate practical life, can grow.
What deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world, what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed in the world, there must have been in Kepler and Newton.
When a Boston Catholic priest took it upon himself in 1929 to warn Americans of Einstein’s “atheism,” Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein cabled Einstein: “Do you believe in God?” Einstein cabled back: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all Being, not in God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men”—a statement which so affected Rabbi Goldstein as to make him predict hopefully that Einstein “would bring mankind a scientific formula for monotheism.”
Instead of the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we have—in the tradition of Maimonides, Spinoza, and Hermann Cohen—the amor Dei intellectualis. Instead of the Lord of Hosts, we have the God of the philosophers—the Logos, the Reason which governs the universe, the incorporeal meaning behind the chaos of concreteness.
Reason, which worships the God of Spinoza, begins with the proposition “all men are mortal,” and is most interested in the immortal truth of this and other propositions. Biblical faith, which worships the God of Abraham, begins with the fact that “all men are mortal.” The truths of Reason are true even if man does not exist; they are true, as Husserl remarked, for “men, angels, monsters, and gods.” Faith is less concerned with the truths of Reason than with the fate of man—the mortal, finite creature who cannot volatilize himself into Reason. Reason is what we have gained by the eating of the Tree of Knowledge: we are like unto gods, sharing in divine omniscience. Faith is the human condition experiencing itself in its most naked actuality, for with the eating of the apple there goes the Fall, and we must surely die.
The struggle between the God of Abraham and the God of Spinoza is the central theme of the spiritual history of the Western world. Out of it there comes the Old Testament and the New, Greek philosophy and Gnosticism, medieval Scholasticism and Renaissance science, German Idealism and modern atheism.
And in this conflict the Jew is tensed and sundered. For he is of the Covenant of Abraham, whom God commanded; and he has also prominently been of the opinion of Philo and Spinoza, to whom the world is the garment of Reason.
Einstein was born in 1879 into a German Jewish family whose Judaism had been pretty well eroded by the tide of assimilation. He was sent to a Catholic elementary school in Munich, and even here the fact of his being a Jew was in no way impressed on him. We are told in his autobiographical sketch about a pre-adolescent religious fervor, but it seems to have been in no way Jewish. At the Gymnasium, at the age of 14, he was instructed in the elements of Judaism; he was attracted to what he regarded as its elevated morality, repelled by its ritual codification. When Einstein was sixteen, his family moved to Milan from Munich for financial reasons; after six months, unable to bear the rigid discipline of the Gymnasium, Einstein joined them. In Milan he renounced both his German citizenship—becoming stateless—and his membership in the Jewish community; only by such a double renunciation could the rational young man show his contempt for the idols of the herd.
Einstein formally became a Jew once again in 1910 when he accepted the chair of theoretical physics at the German University in “Prague. Emperor Francis Joseph believed that only members of a recognized religious denomination were qualified to teach there, so Einstein had to register as a follower of the “Mosaic creed.” More than half the German-speaking population of Prague were Jews, and the city at that time was witnessing, under the general influence of Martin Buber, a Jewish intellectual renaissance. Einstein came to know and be friendly with the active leaders in this movement, especially Hugo Bergmann and Max Brod. (He met Franz Kafka, too—one wonders what they had to say to each other.) But Einstein still refused to take being a Jew seriously.
In 1921, however, Einstein publicly declared himself to be a Zionist—to everyone’s surprise and the consternation of not a few. The man who was known to despise nationalism as an excrescence of the herd mentality praised Zionism as “the embodiment of the reawakening corporate spirit of the Jewish nation.” What happened to bring this “conversion” about? Nothing singular or dramatic so far as we know. Indeed, it is best understood as not a conversion at all, but as a relapse—from the religion of the cosmos to the religion of morality. It was apparently not possible to sustain forever the ecstasy of Reason; one had to return to the realm of matter and men, and there the best of all possible demeanors was an exalted, abstract morality. Einstein was able to announce that he found in Judaism an admirable ethical sensibility that demanded not faith but “the sanctification of life in a suprapersonal sense.” Jewish morality, like Reason (though not so nobly), turned man from himself to the sanctification of life in general. He liked to quote Rathenau to the effect that “when a Jew says he’s going hunting to amuse himself, he lies.”
More to the point, one feels, is the tone and inflection with which he writes of his generations of ancestors, the ghetto Jews: “. . . 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 completely absorbed. . . .”
Einstein’s new Jewishness was not the result of his discovering a hidden Jewish self. It was, on the contrary, a new means of escaping from his self. The flight to Reason from the chaos of existence, which seemed to have succeeded so well, was now acknowledged to have been, at least in part, a failure. Something ponderable and indissoluble had been left behind: the flesh-and-blood Jew born of woman, the specific presence of the absent-minded professor. And Einstein once again fled—into Community, the ghetto, the warm mass of Jewry. What could not be transmuted into Reason would be absorbed into The Jew.
And what could not be absorbed into The Jew would be once more etherealized—this time into the World Citizen.
Einstein’s political and social opinions—so naive, so superficial, so bizarre—have baffled and disturbed his many admirers. They have usually sought to explain these opinions away with the statement that there is apparently no correlation between scientific and political intelligence. But this does less than justice to Einstein, who certainly would not concede the point. Moreover, it is possible to show that Einstein’s political views are closely related to his entire outlook. He has applied to society that same rage for simplicity and love for the abstract that accomplished so much in his theoretical physics. But men cannot be so profitably transformed into clear and logical abstractions. The result of such an effort is confusion, contradiction, and, inevitably, an unpleasant impatience on the part of the thinker.
Thus, Einstein has always been a pacifist, His pacifism is bred of an intense hatred of the military, which he regards as the bestialization of man. But in so selfless a devotion to Humanity as Einstein’s, strange things happen in one’s relations to men. Sometimes, indeed, one cannot see men for Humanity. So it happened that Einstein not only vigorously supported the Second World War; he also defended the indiscriminate bombing of German cities as “morally justified,” and urged that the Germans be “punished as a people” for their “collective guilt.”
Einstein despises capitalism because it presupposes the existence of discrete, free, and autonomous selves in competition and even conflict. The individual’s position in our society is such that “the egotistical drives in his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. . . . Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they [individuals] feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life.” Such a simple celebration of life can only come about when men have transcended their selves into Humanity, and the chaos of existing societies has been stilled into Community. Rejecting the idea of capitalism, Einstein elects for the idea of socialism.
The ideal community is the antithesis of the self-centered individual, and the perfect community, like the purified self, can only be won through Reason. But Reason has a way of discovering the “laws of society,” the observance of which constitutes freedom. So there is the not uncommon sight of the radical rationalist—for example, George Bernard Shaw or the Webbs—who is favorably disposed to a society that suppresses the “self-seeking ego” (that is, the individual) in the name of a selfless raison d’état. Einstein’s habit of sending messages to Communist-controlled “congresses of intellectuals” does not represent any sympathy for Russian totalitarianism—which he detests—but is rather a genuflection before the socialist idea, and an act of homage to those of vigorous intellect “who get things done,” especially when they wish to “do things” for “peace.” An international organization of the intellectual elite influencing the policies of nations has always been one of Einstein’s fondest dreams.
The escape from the self into The Jew and Humanity, however, like the flight into Reason, has failed Einstein. Though he still signs petitions and sends encouraging communications, there is abundant evidence that his heart is not in them. Einstein’s melancholic loneliness is the salient feature of his personality, as it is of his face.
“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 have gone my own way 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. . . .”
Philipp Frank comments further: “He always has a certain feeling of being a stranger, and even a desire to be isolated. On the other hand, however, he has a great curiosity about everything human and a great sense of humor, with which he is able to derive a certain, perhaps artistic pleasure from everything that is strange and even unpleasant.”
And: “His attitude in intercourse with other people, consequently, was on the whole one of amusement. He saw everyday matters in a somewhat comical light. . . . The laughter that welled up from the depths of his being was one of his characteristics that immediately attracted one’s attention.”
Einstein has not succeeded in becoming pure spirit or pure citizen or the selfless member of an organic community. He has ended up as simply more himself, laughing at his own presumption, though not for that the more content with man’s condition and man’s fate.
Einstein’s gaiety, his informality of dress and manner, his quick sympathy—they are of that humanism which springs, not from love of fellow men, but from compassion at the brutal fact that men exist at all. Perhaps if Einstein and Kafka—whose earthly self was amiable too, and from the same cause—had talked a while, they would have found more in common than one might expect! The Jew as Pure Reason and the Jew as Pure Alienation might have sensed in each other a kinship—perhaps even a secret identity, for the Kingdom of Reason can be as cold and infinitely empty as K.’s Kingdom of Nothingness; and both are as uninhabitable as the illusory world of the average sensual man. They might have smiled with a common irony at the world of matter and men, so complacent and blind in the ignorance of its own essential unreality. And they might have sighed, too, at being forever excluded from it.
1 Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed. by Paul Arthur Schilpp (The Library of Living Philosophers. Evanston, Illinois, 781 pp., $8.50). This collection of essays by outstanding philosophers and physicists is most valuable for an understanding of Einstein. It can be read in conjunction with a collection of Einstein’s more recent essays and addresses, Out of My Later Years (Philosophical Library, 282 pp., $4.75), and Leopold Infeld’s Albert Einstein (Scribner’s, 132 pp., $2.00); as well as Philipp Frank’s biography, Einstein: His Life and Times (Knopf, 298 pp., $4.50).