Politics: Einstein’s Ethics, War, and Us

I stumbled across this the other day at work and just spent much of this afternoon finally listening to the two main segments: “Einstein’s God” and “Einstein’s Ethics“. Wow. It is truly amazing to see how very brilliant this man was, even setting his work in physics aside.

In 1915, Einstein wrote a plea to the German public titled “My Opinion of the War.” In it he wrote:

I will never forget the sincere hatred my schoolmates felt for the first graders of a school in the neighboring street. Innumerable fistfights occurred with many a hole in the head the result. Understandably, the more modern organized states had to push these manifestations of primitive virile characteristics vigorously into the background. But wherever two nation states are next to each other and without a joint super power above them, those feelings at times generate tensions that lead to catastrophes of war. Every well-meaning person should work hard on himself and in his personal circle to improve in these respects. But why so many words when I can say it in one sentence, and in a sentence very appropriate for a Jew: Honor your master Jesus Christ, not only in words and songs, but rather foremost in your deeds.

And in 1918 he wrote, “I prefer to string along with my countryman, Jesus Christ, whose doctrines you and your kind,” he’s writing to a German nationalist, “consider to be obsolete. Suffering is indeed more acceptable to me than resorting to violence.”

But Einstein was not a complete pacifist. He wrote to Winston Churchill as early as 1933 telling him that Hitler would need to be confronted with force and urged the development of Atomic weapons in fear that Germany may themselves develop them. Though after the war he did sign the draft of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s call for worldwide nuclear disarmament.

What can we make of this man, his genius, and his commitments to justice? I wonder mostly about what he might say of our war in Iraq if were here today. Perhaps he would have seen enough of Hitler in Saddam Hussein to advocate his forceful removal from power. Perhaps he would have seen too little by way of Christian motivation in G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

What I have seen is a remarkable lack of clarity, combined with arrogant self-certainty and lack of dialogue from both ‘sides’. Reminding us of just how many American soldiers or Iraqi civilians have died is meaningless unless it is combined with a discussion of the merits of the war in the first place. If the cause is just, that is, if we truly are saving countless lives and have exhausted other means, then we should accept these deaths. Thus the problem is not how many will die or have died already, the problem is the justness of the conflict in the first place.

Similarly, the President does have a duty toward “protecting our security”, but as this is a democracy, and we the citizens are ultimately responsible for our nation’s actions, we need to know more, we have a responsibility to know more about what our government is doing and why. Our security is jeopardized if we are ignorant of the reality of the threats, if the threats are exaggerated, if intelligence is skewed, if information on governmental decisions from one branch of the government are restricted from us without oversight from other branches of the government.

My mood on the state of American politics oscillates slowly from worry and comparisons to 1920s Germany to confidence that the political pendulum will make its way back toward the middle (or left). That shifting mood is largely responsible for my prior lack of postings in the realm of politics… Oh well. Perhaps beginning in a state of great uncertainty is actually a good thing. We’ll see.

As for Einstein quotes, he also said, “If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.”

Or did he? No. No, he didn’t, actually. Thanks to Alex Caring-Lobel via twitter for pointing me to a great short article on Tricycle about the all-too-many Einstein quotes about Buddhism circulating out there. Well, I was duped, as many have been, by the quote above… But check out this text, which is the nominal source, and you’ll see that Einstein never actually said or wrote the above. If you find out otherwise, let me know. For now, my thanks to Alex and Tricycle for enlightening me on this :)

  • http://www.woodmoorvillage.org/ Nacho

    Thanks Justin, nice thoughtful, and thought-provoking post. My mood about the state of our nation also swings. I am at times quite skeptical of the idea of a pendulum. But things are impermanent after all. I think the best line to apply generally has come out of Senator Kerry of all people — and I’m sure this was a mistake and an interesting triangulation when he was calling for a filibuster of Alito’s nomination. To paraphrase, he noted that the time is now, not at some later date, in the future. We must act now to address the problems that beset us. He was right, or whomever wrote his speech. The forces that be keep telling people not to worry, not to think about any of this with deep critical eyes, to put blind faith and trust on our government… and thus we continue to abdicate responsibility for our governance. Thanks again Justin!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14246929532585980356 Buddhist_philosopher

    Nacho – I agree, now’s the time. But to do what? I suppose moving people away from a false sense of security (with their government) is always a good answer; to educate ourselves about the facts of the world (Walmart now represents 2% of the entire U.S. G.D.P.), and yes, to think critically! Critical Buddhists Unite! :)


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