Einstein on Perfection of Means and Confusion of Goals

Albert Einstein on means and goals

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem–in my opinion–to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately for the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.”

Albert Einstein wrote this during World War II as the scientific community was enrolled in the war effort. It was a reminder that science is a method and not an end goal. The end goal is the achievement of human potential.

Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, but he was also a deep thinker and influential humanist who spoke and wrote widely about politics, ethics, and social causes. He felt that knowledge workers should collaborate more to be heard, develop greater influence:

“I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and also, generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field.”

He saw commonalities between different bodies of knowledge and domains:

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”

He shared a passion for using curiosity and the scientific method to understand and solve the problems that plagued humanity with Marie Curie, who he considered a dear friend and admired for her tenacity and objectivity:

“It was my good fortune to be linked with Mme. Curie through twenty years of sublime and unclouded friendship. I came to admire her human grandeur to an ever growing degree. Her strength, her purity of will, her austerity toward herself, her objectivity, her incorruptible judgement— all these were of a kind seldom found joined in a single individual…

The greatest scientific deed of her life—proving the existence of radioactive elements and isolating them—owes its accomplishment not merely to bold intuition but to a devotion and tenacity in execution under the most extreme hardships imaginable, such as the history of experimental science has not often witnessed.”

Reflecting on self-awareness and the welcome solitude he says:

“Of what is significant in one's own existence one is hardly aware, and it certainly should not bother the other fellow. What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?

The bitter and sweet come from the outside, the hard from within, from one's own efforts. For the most part I do the thing which my own nature drives me to do. It is embarrassing to earn so much respect and love for it. Arrows of hate have been shot at me too; but they never hit me, because somehow they belonged to another world, with which I have no connection whatsoever.

I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”

Many of these topics, along with the notion of creating a “global village,” something that would look a lot like the modern U.N., were collected in Out of My Later Years. The essays are easy to read and span the last 15 years of his life.

In addition to explaining The Theory of Relativity, the relationship of physics with reality, and the fundamentals of theoretical physics, the laws of ethics and those of physics and the common language of science, Einstein talks about moral decay, emotion, freedom, science and religion, education, and leaves a message for posterity.

He asks “was Europe a success?” a question we are still pondering. His advice to young people, “never lose a holy curiosity.”

Of special note is a section on public affairs where he talks about the role of science in civilization, a world government, and a message to intellectuals. Einstein wrote an open letter to the General Assembly of the United Nations and a reply to the Soviet scientists who wrote him.

His interest was the application of science to life and talks at length about the oppression of his people.