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Einstein the Philosopher

Einstein and the ancients might initially seem like an odd juxtaposition, science legend Einstein and thinkers of the ancient world.

The above link will take you the article on Medium that inspired today’s sententia.

Einstein was as much philosopher as he was physicist. The above article tells us that he once shared the following philosophy of life with a bellboy when in Japan:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with

constant restlessness.”

Were you to take this in isolation not knowing it was Einstein, you might well be forgiven for thinking it was Socrates or Plato. The article mentions Spinoza, but he was also influenced by ancient thinkers. As Burns says in his article:

“Einstein’s ideas echoed the wisdom of the ancients. Their ideas withstood the test of


Einstein praised both the Greeks and ‘old Oriental sages’ for their achievements in their thinking about what made life truly happy. He considered it an important area of thought and one not receiving sufficient dedication in schools and universities. Striving to achieve your goals was fine, but not if it became the quest for power over others.

When he said: “The ordinary objects of human endeavor — property, outward success, luxury — have always seemed to me contemptible.”

He could not have been closer to the sentiment of Socrates reflected in the following passages from the Apology:

“I undertook to persuade each of you not to look after his own affairs before he has taken

care of himself…”

‘Affairs’ here refers to external goods and success.

Earlier in the speech, he said:

“But, I had no care for those things, which most of you do, making money, household

management, military leadership, and popular oratory, and other offices…”

Socrates also contrasts himself with the Olympic victors. They make the people think they are happy as they glory in their success. But he, Socrates asserts, shows them how to be truly happy. This leads him, rather cheekily, to propose that a penalty (he has already been convicted) in accordance with his worth would be to be fed at public expense. Not a way to win friends. But he was remaining true to what he believed.

Burns also mentions the Epicureans. The Epicureans advocated the pursuit of ataraxia, freedom from mental anguish stirred by involvement in politics or stresses of public life. They believed that you don’t need pots of money to live a ‘prosperous’ life. We have come to define such a life as moneyed (of should, I say typically to associate it with money), but the ancients did not.

I wonder if Einstein was familiar with the tale of Solon and Croesus in Herodotus’ first book. Croesus seeks to dazzle Solon with his wealth and to be deemed the ‘most fortunate of men’. Solon disagrees and selects instead a man who lived a fulfilled life in family terms and was esteemed for glorious service.

His theory of relativity and e=mc2, and his photoelectric effect that earned him the Nobel prize were about understanding our world. But so was his deep and rich philosophy of life. This was about understanding ourselves.

Ancient wisdom was good enough for Einstein. So, it’s certainly good enough for us.

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