Time magazine has named Albert Einstein its “Person of the Century.” The
great physicist beat out such competition as Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler,
Gandhi, Stalin, and Gloria Steinem.
The choice is hard to argue with, but not necessarily for the reasons
Time offers. True, Einstein was more than a genius: he was an Einstein.
He had the transcendent gift to see that the unquestioned presuppositions
of an entire culture were questionable. His pencil vanquished a way
of seeing the world that had seemed self-evident from Euclid to Newton.
The reverberations were indeed tremendous. Thanks to Einstein’s
inspiration, the old common sense not only of science, but of politics,
psychology, economics, art, literature, music, and morality, became
subject to iconoclasm and revolutionary innovation. All this had no
logical connection with the general theory of relativity, but it certainly
had an imaginative debt to Einstein.
Without his example in science it’s unlikely that the intellectual,
political, and artistic novelties of Freud, Lenin, Eliot, Picasso,
Joyce, Keynes, Schoenberg, and many other geniuses and frauds (even
now it’s not always easy to tell which are which) would have
had the impact they did. More than any other man, he gave us the modern
cult of the genius, the leader, the expert, with all their blind followings.
The total state claimed the authority of “racial science” and “scientific
In every field, old traditions and basic assumptions — linear
thought, coherence, melody, narrative, harmony, representation, the
rule of law itself — crumbled. Einstein is the godfather of the
counterintuitive, the modernist avant-garde, the new emperor whose
new clothes (if any) we are still arguing about. Yet Einstein himself,
puzzled by his celebrity in the mass culture of his time, remained
out of touch with nearly every movement he spawned outside the world
Time’s cover story paints him in the familiar way — as
a naive, lovable champion of freedom, driven by “humane and democratic
instincts,” hated by Hitler and Stalin alike. It neglects to
add that Stalin’s hatred was unrequited: Einstein became a resolute
fellow-traveler who defended the 1938 Moscow show trials and refused
every opportunity to condemn Soviet tyranny. He spoke of the “great
merits” and “important achievements” of Soviet Communism,
whose “only aim is really the improvement of the lot of the Russian
people.” When a correspondent pointed out that Stalin had deliberately
starved millions of peasants, Einstein made no reply, though on another
occasion he doubted that the Soviets could have done so much good “by
following softer methods.”
Einstein was also the godfather of the nuclear age. A pacifist during
World War I, he came to hate not only Hitler but his native Germany,
and he urged Franklin Roosevelt to develop an atomic bomb — the
most practical application of his discovery of the energy latent in
all matter. He was later distressed when this weapon of mass murder
was dropped on Japan and brandished against Stalin; after all, it had
been meant for Berlin.
Yet somehow his cherished image as the original absent-minded professor, “humane
and democratic,” has survived, despite revelations that he was
a cruel and habitually adulterous husband — “an egregious
flirt,” as Time indulgently puts it. He preached against the
dreadful weaponry that owed its existence to him without incurring
charges of hypocrisy: his sad, droopy face, his wild white mane, and
his baggy clothes immunized him against criticism, reinforcing the
impression that he was a sort of eccentric saint, the wise child of
“Besides campaigning for a ban on nuclear weaponry,” gushes
Time, “he denounced McCarthyism and pleaded for an end to bigotry
and racism.” What a seminal thinker!
In helping bring science out of the ivory tower and into the hands
of tyranny, Einstein was very much a typical man of the twentieth century.
In one respect, at least, he didn’t criticize the presuppositions
of his time: he shared the basic assumption of Stalin, Roosevelt, Mussolini,
and, yes, Hitler — that political power should be centralized.
There are some old principles that remain sound in spite of all revolutionary
ideas, one of them being the principle that freedom depends on the
division of power. The towering mind of Albert Einstein never managed
to grasp this.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 28, 1999.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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