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Einstein on Kindness, Our Shared Existence, and Life’s Highest Ideals

“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind… life would have seemed to me empty.”

In times of turmoil, I often turn to one of my existential pillars of comfort: Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the definitive collection of the great thinker’s essays on everything from science and religion to government to human nature, gathered under the supervision of Einstein himself. It’s been a challenging week, one that’s reminded me with merciless acuity the value of kindness and compassion, so I’ve once again turned to Einstein’s timeless “ideas and opinions” on this spectrum of subjects.

He considers the ties of sympathy:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all 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. 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.

With an eye to what Paul Graham might call prestige, Einstein admonishes against the trap of public opinion:

One becomes sharply aware, but without regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and consonance with other people. No doubt, such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.

Above all, he celebrates our interconnectedness, interdependency, and shared existence:

When we survey our lives and endeavors we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created. Without language our mental capacities would be poor indeed, comparable to those of the higher animals; we have, therefore, to admit that we owe our principal advantage over the beasts to the fact of living in human society. The individual, if left alone from birth would remain primitive and beast-like in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive. The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for ‘On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.’ Click image for details.

Einstein reflects on good and evil, creative bravery, and human value:

A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows. We call him good or bad according to how he stands in this matter. It looks at first sight as if our estimate of a man depended entirely on his social qualities.

And yet such an attitude would be wrong. It is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals. The use of fire, the cultivation of edible plants, the steam engine — each was discovered by one man.

Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society — nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.

The health of society thus depends quite as much on the independence of the individuals composing it as on their close social cohesion.

With this, he turns to life’s highest ideals:

Everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavors and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves — such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty.

Austin Kleon said it best: “Be nice. (The world is a small town.)”

Ideas and Opinions is a fantastic read in its entirety, the kind that stays with you for a lifetime.

Published March 19, 2012




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