Einstein, Albert (1879–1955)
In writing this eulogy to friend and physicist H. A. Lorentz, Einstein could have been describing himself: ‘His life was ordered like a work of art down to the smallest detail. His never-failing kindness and magnanimity and his sense of justice, coupled with an intuitive understanding of people and things, made him a leader in any sphere he entered. Everyone followed him gladly, for they felt that he set out never to dominate but simply to be of use. The beneficent influence of this intelligent, humane, and modest personality, whose unspoken but faithfully followed advice is 'Not mastery but service,’ will lead people in the right way. His work and example will live on as an inspiration and guide to future generations.’
Einstein once wrote that ‘The ordinary objects of human endeavor—property, outward success, luxury—have always seemed to me contemptible.’ The ideals which ‘lighted me on my way,’ and gave him courage to face life, were truth, goodness, and beauty. He was further guided by beliefs in the unity of science, determinism, and secular reality.
He often described cosmic awe and wonder as his religion. His noesis arose from ‘…knowledge of manifestations of profound reason and radiant beauty. In this sense and in this alone you are a deeply religious man.’ He observed that philosophers, heretics, and religious geniuses throughout history (e.g., Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Buddha, Schopenhauer, and Democritus) were also distinguished by ‘this kind of religious feeling,’ which ‘knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image.’
In the ‘sublime, marvelous’ scheme of a vast universe, he felt that ‘cosmic religious feelings’ are the ‘strongest and noblest incitement’ to scientific research and human achievement. He believed that dedicated theoretical scientists experience these feelings, and are devoted to their quest. He felt that history’s exceptional scientists possessed a need for solitude, a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe, and a yearning to understand it. He cited Kepler and Newton, who ‘spent years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics,’ as having this yearning. In his view, the most important function of art and science is to awaken a profound cosmic wonder in those who are capable of experiencing it.
He could not conceive of an afterlife, nor of an anthropomorphic god who ‘rewards and punishes his creatures’, or possesses a humanlike will. On life after death, he wrote, ‘An individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.’
A hard determinist, Einstein believed that all events, conditions and circumstances in the universe have physical causes, and are thus effects of those causes. He wrote that ‘The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events—that is, if he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear, and equally little for social or moral religion.’ He often implied that deep exploratory thinkers who experience the universe as a significant whole have no need for a god.
A pacifist throughout his life, Einstein strongly advocated against war and military conscription. He wrote, ‘May the conscience and the common sense of the peoples be awakened, so that we may reach a new stage in the life of nations when people will look back on war as an incomprehensible aberration of their forefathers.’ He predicted that unless nations agree to judgments of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the world would forever be mired in anarchy and terror. As an early member of the NAACP, he actively advocated equal rights for minorities.
The virtue ethics of Einstein may be summarized in three of his statements:
• 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.
• The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self.
• It is the duty of every man of good will to strive steadfastly in his own little world to make the teaching of pure humanity a living force, so far as he can.