Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Albert Einstein

Folio Society, 2010.  Bound in figured boards, with photographs and slip case.

The word Einstein now stands for genius, just as Hoover means vacuum cleaner, but it was Einstein who once and for all put science beyond all but the select.  Before Einstein, people with a good general education could come to grips with the laws of science on which the world revolved.  But they could not do so after Einstein rewrote the whole book.  Now for most of us science is, at bottom, like God or Mozart, something that we must take, if at all, simply on trust.  It would be fair to hazard the assertion that the mind of Einstein has had more effect on the world than any other mind.

Einstein was born of Jewish parents in Ulm, a small city on the Danube in the south of Germany.  He at first attended a Catholic elementary school, and then attended the local Gymnasium.  He was introduced to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the age of about ten – which is like saying that Mozart started composing at the age of five.  He took his tertiary education in Switzerland and got employment as an examiner in the Swiss Patent Office.

The work of Einstein led him to conduct thought experiments about the nature of light and the relation of time and space.  He was crossing the borders of existing knowledge.  In 1905, he published four revolutionary papers, one on special relativity.  He then developed his general theory which was later verified.  He was the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, and a professor at Humboldt University from 1914 to 1932.  He won a Nobel Prize in 1921.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein was in America.  He stayed there – back home they burnt his books and put a bounty on his head.  He then warned the U S that Hitler might be te first to get the Atom bomb.  This led Roosevelt to implement the Manhattan Project.  Einstein later wrote a manifesto with Bertrand Russell on the dangers of nuclear weapons.  His total scientific output was staggering.  It does not bear to think what might have happened had Einstein returned to Germany in 1933 and provided the means for Hitler to be the first to get, and most certainly use, the bomb.

Einstein had a mature view of religion.  Towards the end of his life he said ‘I very rarely think in words at all’.  He thought in pictures, in his thought experiments, and mathematically.  Whereas some people see what they believe to be miracles as evidence of God’s existence, for Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence, and revealed a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.  This is very much like what Kant thought.  When Einstein adhered to this dictum and said that God does not play dice, the rejoinder of Nils Bohr was: ‘Einstein, stop telling God what to do!’

Einstein had the problem that Darwin had with people trying to get him to express views on religion.  People were out to get him.  A New York rabbi sent him a telegram: ‘Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  Fifty words.’  The reply was: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind’.  Einstein never felt the need to put down others who believed in a different kind of God: ‘What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’.

In a paper headed The World as I See It, published in 1931, Einstein said:

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 sense 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 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 the marvellous 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.

You can see why Einstein poses a challenge to religion as it is usually practised.  It is not just the rejection of a personal God and life after death – he finds a source of wonder and mystery from contemplating the world as he finds it.  In a paper published in Germany in 1930, Einstein had affirmed that man could get by ethically without God.

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible….Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust.  A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.  Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.

Elsewhere he made a strong allegation: ‘The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods.’

He knew how to take a stand.  Here is his advice on a 1953 inquisition.

What ought the minority of intellectuals do against this evil? Frankly, I can only see the revolutionary way of non-co-operation in the sense of Ghandi’s.  Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i. e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country.

However, this refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution.

If enough people are ready to take this grave step, they will be successful.  If not, then the individuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

That was written by someone proscribed by Nazi Germany.  He could prescribe very high standards.  Here he is on human rights in 1954.

The existence and validity of human rights was not written in the stars…There is however one other human right which is infrequently mentioned, but which seems to be destined to become very important: this is the right or the duty of the individual to abstain from cooperating in activities which he considers wrong or pernicious.  The first place in this respect must be given to the refusal of military service.  I have known instances where individuals of unusual moral strength and integrity have, for that reason, come into conflict with the organs of the state.  The Nuremberg trial of the German war criminals was tacitly based on the recognition of the principle: criminal actions cannot be excused if committed on government orders; conscience supersedes the authority of the law and the state.

The last clause is potent.  Finally, this is what he had to say to Mahatma Ghandi in 1944:

A leader of his people, unsupported by any outward authority: a politician whose success rests not upon the craft nor the mastery of technical devices, but simply on the convincing power of his personality; a victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force; a man of wisdom and humility, armed with resolve and inflexible consistency, who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people and the betterment of their lot; a man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.

Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

Those words were spoken by the man who referred to Jesus of Nazareth as ‘the luminous Nazarene.’  This book is a big clean window into one of the most powerful minds the world has known.

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