The Scientist, The Philosopher, The Moralist, The Man
By Dr. Victoria Gardner Placker
Born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, Albert Einstein is still considered one of the greatest scientific and mathematical geniuses in history. In 1905, at the age of 26, he set forth his theory of relativity which discards the concept of time and space as absolute entities, and views them as relative to moving frames of reference. At the same time, he postulated light quanta or photons, comparable to energy quanta, and on these based his explanation of the photoelectric effect. In 1911, he asserted the equivalence of gravitation and inertia. In 1916, he completed the mathematical formulation of his general theory of relativity, which included gravitation as a determiner of curvature of space-time continuum and represented gravitation as a field rather than a force. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to theoretical physics, especially for his work on the photoelectric effect. In 1950, he presented his unified field theory, which attempts to explain gravitation, electromagnetism, and subatomic phenomena in one set of laws. He completed it’s mathematical formulation in 1953, just two years before his death in 1955 at the age of 76.
Such incredible accomplishments for one individual! Yet, Einstein wrote in an essay entitled, SELF PORTRAIT, "For the most part, I do the thing which my own nature drives me to do. It is embarrassing to earn so much respect and love for it.” Schopenhauer’s saying “A man can do as he will, but not will as he will,” an inspiration to Einstein since his youth, seemed to express the basis of his humility. So what was the nature, the will, of the man himself? We can learn much about Albert Einstein, the person, from THE WORLD AS I SEE IT and OUT OF MY LATER YEARS, two books he wrote shortly before his death.
Philosophy? Yes, Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist and mathematician of the twentieth century, studied philosophy. He felt deeply that science, mathematics and technology not only needed to be balanced with philosophy, ethics, spirituality, and the arts, but that they were merely “different branches of the same tree”. He said, "All religions, arts and sciences are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom.” He felt it no mere chance that universities originally developed from clerical schools. “Both churches and universities - insofar as they live up to their true function - serve the ennoblement of the individual. They seek to fulfill this great task by spreading moral and cultural understanding, renouncing the use of brute force,” he explained. “Man owes his strength in the struggle for existence to the fact that he is a social living animal. As little as a battle between single ants of an ant hill is essential for survival, just so little is this the case with the individual members of a human community.” Present world leaders could benefit from this profound truth!
In THE RELIGIOUSNESS OF SCIENCE, he wrote, “The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that compared with it, all the systemic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, insofar as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.”
Einstein said the laws of science and the laws of ethics are basically one and the same. Using the example of the question “Why should we not lie?”, he explains, “Lying destroys confidence in the statements of other people. Without such confidence, social cooperation is made impossible or at least difficult. Such cooperation, however, is essential to make human life possible and tolerable. This means that the rule ‘Thou shalt not lie’ has been traced back to the demands ‘Human life shall be preserved’ and ‘Pain and sorrow shall be lessened as much as possible’.”
He explains his view of morality in MORALS AND EMOTIONS. “If man as individuals surrender to the call of their elementary instincts, avoiding pain and seeking satisfaction only for their own selves, the result for them all taken together must be a state of insecurity, fear, and promiscuous misery. If they use their intelligence from an individualist, selfish standpoint, building up their life on the illusion of a happy, unattached existence, things will be hardly better.” He felt all moral teaching should involve principles that, by following, there should “accrue to all as great a measure as possible of security and satisfaction and as small a measure as possible of suffering.” He went on to say that moral teaching “is not a matter for church and religion alone, but the most precious traditional possession of all mankind.” I remember Dr. Joan Smutny, at the 1990 OATAG Fall Conference, stressing the importance of teaching values and morals, “a subject that affects life everyday,” in the schools.
Einstein was passionate about the ethical treatment of individuals who are different, perhaps because as a child he was so different from other children and so discrirninated against. Even in his prime, he required 12 hours of sleep a night, a handicapping condition in our work-oriented society. He wrote, “We must not only tolerate differences between individuals and between groups, but we should indeed welcome them and look upon them as an enriching of our existence. Without tolerance in this widest sense, there can be no question of true morality.”
In GOOD AND EVIL, he wrote, “A man’s value to the community depends on primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows. We call him good or bad according to how he stands in the matter. It looks at first as if our estimate of a man depends entirely on his social qualities. And yet, such an attitude would be wrong. It is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals. The use of fire, the cultivation of edible plants, the steam engine - each was discovered by one man. Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society - nay, even set up new moral standards to which life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities, the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.”
“Moral conduct does not mean merely a stern demand to renounce some of the desired joys of life, but rather a sociable interest in a happier lot for all men,” he continued. “This conception implies one requirement above all - that every individual should have the opportunity to develop the gifts which may be latent in him. Only then can the individual obtain the satisfaction to which he is justly entitled and the community achieve its richest flowering. For everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom. Restriction is justified only so far as it may be needed for the security of existence.”
Freedom! To Einstein, individual freedom was the ultimate morality and, in 1933, he 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.” He personally asked nothing more from life than the freedom to pursue his research into the mechanism of the universe. He felt the physical, social, political, intellectual and spiritual freedom of all individuals was essential and wrote, “In order to be content, men must also have the possibility of developing their intellectual and artistic powers to whatever extent, according to their personal characteristics and abilities.” He said the most essential kind of “outward freedom” involved social conditions “of such a kind that the expression of opinions and assertions about general and particular matters of knowledge will not involve dangers or serious disadvantages for him who expresses them.” He felt this freedom of communication is indispensable for the development and extension of scientific knowledge. He defined “inward freedom” as the development of science and the creative activities of the spirit, “an infrequent gift of nature and a worthy objective for the individual.”
Einstein went on to say that schools and the community can and should do much to further this achievement of inward freedom by encouraging independent thought or “at lease not interfering with it.” He said that all too often schools interfere with the development of inward freedom through authoritarian influences and through imposing on young people “excessive spiritual burdens”. He wrote, “The worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, sincerity and self-confidence of the pupil, producing the submissive subject . . . The only rational way of educating is to be an example - of what to avoid, if one can’t be the other sort.”
Einstein wrote in ON EDUCATION that schools should develop in youngsters “those qualities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. A community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. Instead, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who see in the service of the community their highest life problem.” He also felt it important that people not take themselves or others too seriously and valued humor “in its due place”.
He felt that a school’s main goal should always be to produce individuals who are “harmonious personalities”, not specialists. “If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learned to think and work independently, he will surely find his way and will be better able to adapt himself to progress and changes than the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring of detailed knowledge.” At the 1990 OATAG Conference, Dr. Smutny stated that she felt education has focused too much on technical brilliance and achievement and “separated our heads from our hearts.”
Dr. Smutny also stated, “A sense of conscious worth satisfies the hungry heart like nothing else can.” Along the same line, Einstein wrote, “It is not the fruits of scientific research that elevate a man and enrich his nature, but the urge to understand, the intellectual work, creative or receptive . . . I believe one does people the best service by giving them some elevating work to do.”
Albert Einstein was not only an extraordinary scientist and mathematician and an extraordinary philosopher, moralist, and teacher, he was an extraordinary human being! We can learn from him not only quantum physics, but how to educate our children, especially our gifted children. We need to change our school systems to help encourage the development of the “inward freedom” of independent thought. We need to allow our children the freedom and opportunity to develop “harmonious personalities” as well as “the gifts which may be latent” in them. We need to teach our children to not only tolerate differences between individuals and between groups, but to welcome their enrichment of our existence. We need to teach them that science, mathematics, technology, philosophy, ethics, spirituality, music and the arts are all merely “different branches of the same tree”, all with the same purpose of ennobling the lives of individuals and enabling society to achieve its “richest flowering.”
This article was printed in 1991 in “A Different Drummer”, the journal of the Oregon Association for the Talented and Gifted. Thank you for taking the time to read it. It's one of my favorites.
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