Blind respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth. -Albert Einstein
Einstein. Has there ever lived a human more renowned on last name alone? The German-born physicist was a celebrity around the globe by his mid-30’s – famously known for having developed the theory of relativity. We know about many of his other scientific exploits as well. However, we hardly know about Einstein the man.
What did he stand for? What did he believe in?
Einstein was a very unique personality. Born in Germany, he can to age in a strict nationalist, militant Prussian society, which shaped his lifelong views about individual freedom, expression and liberty. He twice renounced his German citizenship, temporarily as a teenage in 1896, and permanently when Adolf Hitler took control of Germany in 1933.
Aside from being perhaps the greatest intellectual of his time, Einstein was remarkably consistent in his personal views. Sure, he could be aloof, detached emotionally and sometimes cold to family and friends. But broadly speaking, he was a simple, unpretentious man who cared greatly about the future of humanity. More so, his core beliefs and values remained changed for the majority of his life. He was the poster child for nonconformity.
In “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” written by Walter Isaacson, we get an intimate portrait of this great man:
Einstein’s nonconformist streak was evident in his personality and politics as well. Although he subscribed to socialist ideals, he was too much of an individualist to be comfortable with excessive state control or centralized authority. His impudent instincts, which served him so well as a young scientist, made him allergic to nationalism, militarism, and anything that smacked of a herd mentality.
Einstein was a fervent believer in the freedom of creative expression. He famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” He was no doubt shaped by the era in which he lived; which saw the rise of a militant Germany in the first World War, and subsequently communist Soviet Union, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The conditions within these repressive governments made him even more firm in his beliefs.
“His success” Isaacson wrote, “came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creativity society.”
There is much we can take away from Einstein’s views. How often do we fall into a lull of conformity because he haven’t defined who we are? Einstein had a very distinctive set of beliefs that he carried from childhood into his old age. He rarely wavered. It speaks to the importance of developing a personal credo that guides us in life. We must know what we are and what we believe in, and be able to be consistent in these beliefs, even when tempted to act without integrity.
As a youth, Einstein flashed his nonconformist streak. At age 12, he began to move away from religion, unable to reconcile his reading of science books with the stories from the Bible. As Einstein said about this time in his life, “suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, an attitude which has never again left me.” School was no different. His personality naturally clashed with the strict, military tone of the Prussian schools of his youth. The style of learning, much like today, was regimented and systematic.
Without this nonconformist attitude, Einstein would have never developed his scientific theories later in life. The scientific community at the dawn of the 20th century was still enthralled to Isaac Newton’s classical physics principles. Most were unable to move beyond conventional wisdom. It would take Einstein’s boldness and skepticism to do it.
A later collaborator of Einstein, Banesh Hoffmann, framed him perfectly; “His early suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove of decisive importance. Without it he would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind that gave him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics.” Thus, at only 36 years old, Einstein’s general theory of relativity was to become one of history’s most substantial revisions of the known universe.
Think of our own lives. What sort of beliefs do we cling to just because everyone else does? Such independence of thought is difficult to attain. It takes courage and the ability to “see around the corner” to uncover what serves us best. It’s not easy to tell family and friends we are going our own way, but often it’s the best course of action for us. Most people go their entire lives without questioning authority and the path they have chosen. They embrace the comfort the masses provide.
After World War I, when anti-Semitism began to sweep through Germany, Einstein began to reconnect to his Jewish origins (for which he had shunned in his early years). He wrongly never viewed Hitler as a serious threat to take over Germany, where he once again lived, and became a much publicized militant pacifist. Like many of his generation, World War I was so horrific as to leave a lasting mark with its utter wastefulness of life. Much in line with his flexible mind, Einstein discarded these pacifist beliefs in the 1930’s, after Hitler took power in Germany and it became clear he was rearming the country for war.
This is another admirable trait in Einstein – the ability to switch beliefs when presented with new truths and evidence. So many of us stubbornly hold on to dogmas and beliefs, and double down when challenged by those around us. Being able to convince ourselves we were wrong and change our views is inherently uncommon. Most of us can be presented with the most robust case against our beliefs and still never so much as contemplate changing them.
Isaacson wrote, “Einstein’s pacifism, world federalism, and aversion to nationalism were part of a political outlook that also included a passion for social justice, a sympathy for underdogs, an antipathy toward racism, and a predilection toward socialism…this wariness of authority reflected the most fundamental of all of Einstein’s moral principles: Freedom and individualism are necessary for creativity and imagination to flourish.“
Einstein arrived in America for good in 1933. He would never again see Europe in his lifetime. America, despite its flaws for racism and wealth disparity, jived perfectly with Einstein’s personal values: According to Isaacson, “what grew to impress him more – and what made him fundamentally such a good American but also a controversial one – was the country’s tolerance of free thought, free speech, and nonconformist beliefs. That had been a touchstone of his science, and now it was a touchstone of his citizenship.”
Einstein had a beautiful blend of intellectual curiosity, genius and utter humility. He was completely non-material and enjoyed intimate relationships with friends for decades. He believed in individual freedom above all else.
There is something here for us to discover. We have the freedom to chose our path in life. If we follow the crowd without hesitation, that’s on us. We have the responsibility to pursue our passions and live our life, no matter how successful, with humility and integrity. Far too many people live as though they are the “first.” They are not. Millions of people before us have lived through situations shockingly similar to our own joys, sorrows, accomplishments and defeats. We travel upon the road built by humanity. Einstein is a perfect example of a man who changed the world through his desire to be different. We may not be Einstein, but we have the ability to emulate his mindset and values that he so eloquently bestowed on us.
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