Einstein and Stupidity
“Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.”–Albert Einstein
In the spring of 1914, Albert Einstein left his home in Switzerland to take a job at the University of Berlin in Germany’s capital. He was then, 35.
He took the job with much misgivings. When he was a young boy living in Germany, Einstein had been deeply repelled by the authoritarians, militarism, and bigotry he found all around him. And as a young man, he was appalled by the prejudices, injustices and reactionary ideas found in the heart of many Germans in those days. Nevertheless, working in Berlin provided an opportunity to pursue his research without teaching and administrative obligations and to have ready access to many brilliant fellow scientists and mathematicians.
Einstein’s Name-Calling During World War I
Months after Einstein moved to Berlin, in August 1914, the first world war broke loose, creating wholesale death, misery, and hunger. And then, many people with whom he was working signed a manifesto denying that Germany had any responsibility for the war. Instead, the blame fell entirely on Germany’s enemies. The concluding paragraph states:
We cannot wrest from our enemies’ hand the venomous weapon of the lie [that Germany is responsible for the war]. We can only cry out to the whole world that they bear false witness against us. To you who know us, who have hitherto stood with us in safeguarding mankind’s most precious heritage–to you we cry out: Have faith in us when we say that we shall wage this fight to the very end as a civilized nation, a nation that holds the legacy of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant no less sacred than hearth and home.
This type of document along with all that was happening in the world was pretty rough on Einstein. In a letter to Paul Ehrenfest, a physicist and one of his closest friends, he wrote:
The international catastrophe has imposed a heavy burden upon me as an internationalist. In living through this “great epoch,” it is difficult to reconcile oneself to the fact that one belongs to that stupid, rotten species which boasts of its freedom of will. How I wish that somewhere there existed an island for those who are wise and of good will! In such a place even I should be an ardent patriot. (From Einstein on Peace, p. 2)
We see in this quote that Einstein, in his anger, chose to refer to the human race as stupid. And yet, some of the people that were supporting the war were among the smartest people of their day, at least in terms of their academic accomplishments.
Of course, Einstein is not the only one to use the word stupid upon becoming angry:
Apparently, for Einstein, the word stupid was meant to mean something different than an inability to master challenging subject matter. What then did he mean?
Such terms are often used broadly, meaning the same thing as other words and phrases thrown at someone in anger, such as “crazy,” “mentally ill,” “jerk,” “piece of trash,” “rotten,” etc. When used like this, they all mean nothing more than the angry party strongly doesn’t like what the other party did. They serve as a type of exclamation point.
For Einstein, I think stupid might have had an added meaning; something like not being able to see something that seems so plainly reasonable to him. War is a terrible thing, Einstein believed, and the justification that Germany used to enter into it clashed with his sense of what was so plainly reasonable.
Einstein’s Approach to Providing Negative Criticism After World War I
Soon after the end of the first world war, Germany saw the rise of Hitler and Einstein fled to America, taking a position at Princeton University. As World War II got underway, Einstein did support military intervention. As he explained it when declining an invitation to prepare a presentation of the pacifist point of view,
I am not what you might call a religious pacifist. Besides, I consider it preferable for men to fight rather than allow themselves to be butchered without lifting a finger. That was just about the alternative in the case of Hitler’s Germany. (Einstein on Peace, p. 553)
But when America became involved in the Korean War, Einstein again experienced anger about a military intervention. Korea had not attacked any country, let alone the United States. Korea was engaged in an internal fight about what type of government it chose to have. US military intervention, Einstein believed, would serve to dramatically increase the loss of life. How did Einstein express his disagreement in his adopted country where most were fierce supporters of the war?
When writing to a trusted friend he would allow himself to let out his raw emotions about what was going on in the world. This occasionally included utilizing words like stupid, idiot, and rotten. But at least in the many public statements that I’ve read of his, it was extremely rare to see him utilizing anything that strikes me as name calling. Typical is a 1953 quote taken from Einstein’s review of a book on Gandhi. The author was Gene Sharp, a 25-year old graduate of Ohio State University who had just received a two-year sentence for defying the draft law during the Korean War. Einstein wrote:
How is it possible that a young man was able to create such a mature piece of work? The author’s preface tells us how is was possible. He feels the profound obligation to serve, with all his energies and with unlimited readiness for sacrifice, a purpose which is clearly personified in Gandhi’s unique example: to overcome through an awakening of moral strength the danger of self-destruction which confronts mankind as a result of explosive technological developments. The collapse which threatens mankind is characterized in the volume by the words depersonalization, regimentation, total war, while its salvation is characterized by the words personal responsibility, in conjunction with nonviolence and service to human beings in Gandhi’s sense.
I believe the author is completely right in asserting that every human being is compelled to come to a clear decision with regard to this important matter: there is no middle ground.
In the Nuremberg trials the following principle was laid down: Personal moral responsibility cannot be set aside by national laws. Let us hope that we may soon come to the point where the Nuremberg principle will not only be enforced upon citizens of vanquished nations! (Einstein on Peace, p. 544)
Here, Einstein, rather than calling those who support war insulting names, he instead expresses admiration for two people who had acted to resist participation in military activities–Sharp and Gandhi. He then places their activities in the context of a moral principle that was articulated by the judges at the post World War II Nuremberg trials. These judges convicted Nazi leaders who presented a defense that they were just following orders.
I like this approach of letting people know, by use of a narrative, what actions you do respect. It goes beyond just saying what you don’t like. It adds specificity, and I think people learn ideas better through narrative rather than principles alone. It is this very approach that I tried to create in my three novels.
Okay, there you have it, my last post of 2014. As we welcome in a new year, here’s hoping we all find some helpful ways to bring about a more peaceful world.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.