Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Essays in Humanism by Albert Einstein

A voice for peace in dark times
As a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Albert Einstein became famous for formulating the theory of relativity, the equation of mass-energy equivalence, and other important discoveries that changed the way we view the universe. During his lifetime, however, his renown as a scientist allowed him to extend his sphere of influence beyond the realm of physics. As a public intellectual, he also spoke out on politics, economics, and social issues. Essays in Humanism is a collection of Einstein’s nonscientific writings in these areas. First published in 1950 by the Philosophical Library, this collection has been recently rereleased in ebook form by Open Road Media. The 43 essays included, written from 1933 to 1949, were originally presented as public speeches, book forewords, or newspaper and magazine articles.

Because of the time frame in which these pieces were penned, World War II hangs like an evil spectre over the entire proceedings. Whether commenting on the rise of the Nazis before the war or the Cold War that immediately followed it, Einstein ardently advocates for world peace. Having contributed to the making of the atomic bomb, and having seen its effects in Japan, Einstein feels compelled to see that nuclear weapons are never used again, though Cold War antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union make Armageddon an ever-present threat. To prevent World War III, Einstein proposes that nations relinquish their military power to a supranational governing body, stronger than the United Nations, which would insure peace by settling international disputes through judicial rather than violent means. His proposal for this plan is outlined in great detail over the course of many of the essays included here. A Soviet counterargument is also reprinted, along with Einstein’s rebuttal. Surprisingly, even in the early days of the Cold War, Einstein publicly recommends socialism as an economic solution to many of the world’s problems, a stance for which he would likely be vilified today.

The essays in this book are not arranged chronologically, but rather thematically. This one issue of international security through supranational governance takes up roughly two-thirds of the book. Then follows a series of several brief tributes to great scientists of the past, such as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, and brief eulogies of departed scientific colleagues, including Marie Curie and Max Planck. The remaining quarter of the book deals with issues pertaining to the Jews, their persecution in Europe, and their attempts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Einstein praises settlement efforts in Palestine but argues against a totally self-governing Jewish state, as he fears it will only give rise to the sort of rampant intolerant nationalism that spawned the two World Wars in the first place.

Overall, Einstein’s writing is excellent. He states his opinions very articulately while expressing an undying compassion for humanity and a conviction for social justice. Most of the book’s faults are editorial. The goal here seems to have been to collect anything that Einstein wrote, regardless of worth. Some of the “essays” are only two paragraphs long, and there is quite a bit of repetition among the selections. Nevertheless, this book gives the 21st-century reader a great deal of insight into the world political climate of the 1930s and ‘40s. Much of what Einstein describes—xenophobia, fear-mongering, extreme income disparity—bears a disturbing resemblance to the world in which we live today. His insightful perspective provides great food for thought and a touch of hope in dark times.
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