A Great Man Cannot Salvage a Bad Idea

  • June 8, 2023
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When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.

—1970s TV commercial

Imagine if your surname was synonymous with genius. And not just genius, but creative genius. Is there anything you could write or say that could be seriously challenged? Among your colleagues, certainly. Science is never closed, always debated, always contingent on certain postulates. But the lay public is apt to regard you as infallible.

Such has been the fate of Albert Einstein who today is best known for his theory of relativity and especially his equation E = mc2: the energy (E) of a body at rest is its mass (m) times the square of the speed of light (c). As astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains it, “For every 1 kilogram of mass you turn into energy, you get 9 × 1016 joules of energy out, which is the equivalent of 21 megatons of TNT.” The “Little Boy” bomb the US dropped on the people of Hiroshima had an estimated blast yield of fifteen kilotons of TNT.

Einstein developed relativity in two parts, special (1905) and general (1915), with general adding gravity to the equations of special. His 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” introducing the special theory was one of four papers he published that year now referred to as the annus mirabilis papers (“miracle year” papers)—all while working as a clerk in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Another of those four papers, “On a Heuristic Point of View about the Creation and Conversion of Light,” earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. By that point he had been nominated for the award ten times.

Einstein was thoroughly knowledgeable of the work of his contemporaries and of scientists who came before him, particularly Sir Issac Newton whose mechanics he revolutionized. Einstein’s wife, Mileva Marić, assisted in his work to a degree that has become a matter of dispute, though at the very least she served as a sounding board and checked his math, which was no small feat in itself.

International fame for Einstein arrived on the morning of November 7, 1919, at age forty. On that date The Times of London euphorically proclaimed his general theory had revolutionized science. It was “one of the most momentous, if not the most momentous, pronouncements of human thought.”

Four years earlier Einstein had written that large masses curve or bend space. If this is true, then light rays would bend in the vicinity of the sun. A British expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington to the island of Principe (off the west coast of Africa) had measured the deflection of light coming from close stars during a solar eclipse on May 29, 1919. They had confirmed his bizarre theory empirically.

German newspapers acknowledged the finding but without fanfare, until a Berlin paper on December 14 featured a picture of Einstein with a caption, “A New Celebrity in World History.” In the following days, articles began spinning a legend. “No name was quoted so often as that of this man. . . . Relativity had become the sovereign password. . . . The mere thought that a living Copernicus was moving in our midst elevated our feelings.” Einstein had become a rock star for developing a theory no one could understand.

This world is a strange madhouse,” Einstein wrote to a friend. “Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct.”

Einstein’s general theory had rescued man from the lowly depths to which science had assigned him. First, Nicolaus Copernicus took away the earth as the center of the universe, then Charles Darwin established the groundwork for questioning his divine creation, and finally Sigmund Freud cast doubt on his intellect by claiming he was really ruled by his unconscious. Einstein emerged as “living proof of man’s enduring grandeur. By means of pure thinking, man’s noblest art, he had succeeded in plumbing the depths of the universe.”

The Great Physicist’s Other Interests

According to biographer Jürgen Neffe, Einstein was utterly lacking in the three major forces he saw ruling the world: stupidity, fear, and greed. In Einstein’s book The World as I See It, he said,

We exist for our fellowmen—in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends. . . . I am strongly drawn to the simple life and am often oppressed by the feeling that I am engrossing an unnecessary amount of the labor of my fellowmen. I regard class differences as contrary to justice and, in the last resort, based on force. I also consider that plain living is good for everybody, physically and mentally.

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity.

He also admired the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose assertion that “a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,”—as confusing as that might sound to ordinary brains—served, for Einstein, as an “inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others.”

One of the tenets of collectivism is the notion that we exist for the sake of others, the wellspring of “from each according to his ability.” From this we get master/slave societies of various degrees along with the condemnation of profit as an expression of “greed,” which to collectivists is any act that strays from the purity of self-sacrifice. He’s at least consistent when he feels “oppressed” about “engrossing” more from the labors of others than is necessary for his ideal of “plain living”—even Einstein admits to wanton selfishness, it seems. With its definitional elasticity, greed covers a wide range of heinous misconduct from “comfortable living” to the lifestyle of Jeff Bezos, leaving only the starving homeless and the dead greed-free. That no one can “will as he will” amounts to a denial that people are ultimately in control of their lives, not even an entrepreneur like Bezos.

In late 1915, while the Great War was in its second year of slaughter, Einstein, at age thirty-six, wrote “My Opinion on the War,” in which he said the roots of war were found in the “aggressive characteristics of the male creature.” Aggressiveness is brought to the fore when individuals or societies are placed side by side. This was true for males of all ages, even among his schoolmates who took pleasure in beating up younger kids from a neighboring school. He continues by saying, “Wherever two nation states are next to each other and without a joint superpower above them, those [aggressive characteristics] at times generate tensions in the moods [gemüt] that lead to catastrophes of war.”

Who is to control this joint superpower is omitted, but presumably it would be an ethical freak for whom absolute power never corrupts, absolutely or otherwise. And if violence did erupt under this arrangement, however impossibly it could be attained, it would be more like a genocide than a war since the superpower would necessarily be entrusted with the means to extinguish any recalcitrant group.

In his writings and speeches, Einstein sometimes sounded libertarian: “Without creative personalities able to think and judge independently, the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.”

But not all communities are “nourishing” in the sense he means. For radical social theorists, not to mention many ordinary people, the communities in which they were raised were nourishing only in the sense of providing an example of how not to live. Did Einstein find the Nazi community from which he emigrated nourishing? How nourishing did Alexander Solzhenitsyn find the Soviet society in which he wrote? How about the countless immigrants now crossing the southwestern US border—were they escaping from nourishing communities?

Though he had been neutral toward Vladimir Lenin’s Soviet revolution in 1920, by mid-1932 he was condemning Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship:

At the top there appears to be a personal struggle in which the foulest means are used by power-hungry individuals acting from purely selfish motives. At the bottom there seems to be complete suppression of the individual and of freedom of speech. One wonders what life is worth under such conditions.

Ukraine found out a year later.

Notwithstanding that both Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had “socialist” in their titles, Einstein never surrendered his commitment to socialism: Anyone who sticks his head out of the window yet fails to notice that the time is ripe for socialism is stumbling through this century like a blind man.” And also, I am enjoying the reputation of an irreproachable Socialist.”

In 1949 Einstein authored an essay—“Why Socialism?“—that detailed his opposition to capitalism and promoted not just socialism but global socialism. It is rife with naïve fallacies and gross misunderstandings:

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. . . . Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals.

To his credit Einstein closed his essay realizing the danger inherent in his proposal:

The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

If only he had read about the German miracle of 1948 first, followed by Ludwig von Mises’s book Socialism, Einstein might have had a better understanding of the system he promoted and the system he condemned.

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