One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics. His mind was flexible, curious, humble, had unrivalled powers of penetration, and understanding. Father of Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics, he was brilliant, unafraid of the unknown, drawn to things mysterious and invisible – and in awe of them. Not political, he was conservative.
Why do you say Einstein was conservative, what do you mean, and why does it matter? Well, let me explain. Strong minds and strong hearts do not always go together, but they should – and did in his case.
In 1921, Einstein visited America for the first time. He was no less in awe of this nation than other wonders of the universe. You think I overstate, but I do not. He was so moved by the spirit of Americans, he set forth his thoughts in an essay.
In that essay, with shades of Alex de Tocqueville, he marveled at this nation. What strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life…The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic, and without envy.”
Nineteen years later, he would become a citizen. In the years that followed, would help bring an end to the Second World War, although he did not favor nuclear weapons. As a Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany, he was sensitive to freedom and equality, seminal values on which America was founded.
He wrote, with hopes as high as his admiration, at once foreshadowing Martin Luther King and revering the nation’s founders, that America recognized the “right of individuals to say and think what they pleased” without government intrusion, which he thought allowed curiosity to boom. He also disavowed racism, which he thought needed to end, getting “handed down from one generation to another.”
Before MLK gave any of his speeches, Einstein worked, lived, exemplified, and advocated for the American Dream, in effect for the chance that all men and women might be recognized by the “content of their character not the color of their skin.” Today, he would oppose Marxism, fascism, and racism being taught in any way to any child, for any reason, without exception.
But the most powerful evidence of this man’s insight into the universe – and his natural conservatism – beyond all the path-breaking equations, hypotheses, and proofs introduced into the stream of human understanding, are words he used to express the highest calling of a person.
He wrote: “There are only two ways to live your life – one is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle.” He saw everything as a miracle, religious fidelity.
He wrote: “Without deeper reflection, one knows from daily life that one exists for other people…for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.”
He continued: “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”
Here was a man not only brilliant in the structure, properties, and mysteries of the universe, but in the great mysteries of being human, a man who appreciated – with humility – all he had and did, what he owed to the past every day he lived. Here, in a phrase, was a conservative.
Wrote Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest,” but this is a “kind of optical delusion of his consciousness,” a “kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.”
Einstein’s instinct was to look at mankind over time, call it history or his “second version” of Relativity, the human focus. Our burden was to understand our obligations, relative to other humans, giving them freedom and equality, seeing connections to the past and future, duties.
“Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty,” because “only a life lived for others is worth living.”
Here was a man who changed the world, whose mathematical insights redefined us and the universe, making sense of the mysterious, advancing peace, freedom, and equality. When you get right down to it, his insights exceeded math, showed a path, lit by daily miracles. To me, that is being conservative, appreciative of freedom equality, history, and mysteries – near and far. In all events, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics 100 years ago. Particle or wave, his light still shines.
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