Updated: Feb 18
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.
- Letter from Einstein responding to a father who lost his eleven-year-old son to polio (1950)
There are numerous articles, books, debates, blogs, memes, etc. floating around the internet about Albert Einstein’s belief in God (or the lack thereof), philosophy on life, and more. It seems everyone wants to claim Einstein as their own—as if someone could simultaneously be Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, etc. ad infinitum. With that said, in this article, we won’t necessarily be looking at Einstein’s Spinozian God, but rather his thoughts and comments on the meaning of life throughout his career.
There are several main works that I am aware of in which Einstein reflects on the meaning of life which include:
The World as I See It (1922-1934)
A Letter to His Son, Eduard aka “Tete” (1932)
The Goal of Human Existence (1943)
Why Socialism? (1949)
A Letter to a 19-year old Studying at Rutgers University (1950)
Response to a Letter (1954 or 1955)
Einstein’s thoughts are often tersely written, but let’s look at what he said on the subject.
In the 1922-1934 book The World as I See It, Einstein opens with the following:
What is the meaning of human life or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.
Einstein asks the question here but doesn’t really give an answer, rather he reflects on the question's negation—the meaningless life. Fortunately, he adds more insight throughout the book. Shortly after the opening, it becomes clear that almost mirthfully, his views on meaning are relativistic in nature. That is, without others to share this existence, this “sojourn,” life would be purposeless. At the same time, he notes the absurdity of it all—and that happiness is not the answer. Art and scientific research gave his life purpose, but only amid his relation to others.
What an extraordinary situation is that of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he feels it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellowmen – in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy... To inquire after the meaning or object of one’s own existence or of creation generally has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view. And yet everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavours and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves. 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. The ordinary objects of human endeavour – property, outward success, luxury – have always seemed to me contemptible.
Delving further into the black hole, addressing school children, Einstein reflects on our intellectual immortality, and how history adds to the meaning of our lives.
Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labour in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honour it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common. If you always keep that in mind you will find a meaning in life and work and acquire the right attitude towards other nations and ages.
Finally, in the last reflection on meaning in The World as I See I, Einstein combines its relativistic nature, with his strong inclination to that which is beautiful.
The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred – that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate.
Einstein starts the letter by reassuring his son that others, including himself, also struggled with life’s biggest questions—and here we are not referring to physics, but rather the act of growing. He then goes into refuting his son’s thoughts on the worthlessness of intellectualism and transitions by noting that Eudaimonism cannot make life worth living, but rather scientific endeavors and art are the best things we possess. He follows up by saying:
One is a thinking and feeling creature privately and for one’s own pleasure. If one hears the angels singing a couple of times during one’s life, one can give the world something and one is a particularly fortunate and blessed individual. Yet if this is not the case, one is nevertheless a small particle of the soul of one's generation and that is also beautiful.
Think about this carefully, so that you don’t fall victim to the devil of ambition and vanity. And keep in mind: not the desire for the achievement but love of the things themselves can lead to something worthwhile.
In 1936, Einstein also mentions meaning in life in a letter to Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, praising him for his accomplishments: I know of no other person who combines such profound intellectual gifts with such self-renunciation while finding the whole meaning of his life in quiet service to the community.
A few years later, in an essay titled, The Goal of Human Existence (1943), Einstein discusses the striving, the search for truth and knowledge as one of the highest of man’s qualities. At the end of the same essay, he expands on this idea stating, The fruits of intellectual effort, together with the striving itself, in cooperation with the creative activity of the artist, lend content and meaning to life.
During the year 1949, Einstein wrote a short essay titled Why Socialism?. As reflected previously in the 1936 letter to Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Einstein reiterates his thoughts, Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.
In 1950 a 19-year old student studying at Rutgers University asks Einstein, What is the purpose of man on earth?... in the letter the student quotes Blaise Pascal:
I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than another, nor why this short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which surround me as an atom, and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.
Einstein responded to the harrowing letter the same year by noting that there is no reasonable answer to the struggle to find a purpose for life. In his response, he discusses how man loses purpose when society is viewed as a whole, or even when viewed in relation to nature in general. However, in light of this, Einstein offers the following:
Nevertheless we all feel that it is indeed very reasonable and important to ask ourselves how we should try to conduct our lives. The answer is, in my opinion: satisfaction of the desires and needs of all, as far as this can be achieved, and achievement of harmony and beauty in the human relationships.
Related to this, in response to another letter dated 1954 or 1955 (exact date unknown), Einstein states, I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic.
In 1951, Marion Block wrote a letter asking Einstein, What's the point of living with what we're going through here—having one war after another? Einstein famously replied, The Question 'Why' in the human sphere is easy to answer: to create satisfaction for ourselves and for other people. In the extra-human sphere the question has no meaning. Also the belief in God is no way out for in this case you may ask ‘Why God’.
So, as shown above, Einstein had multifarious thoughts on the subject. But there are a few which stand clear of any ambiguity:
Life can only have meaning in relation to others.
Happiness and material wealth are not the answer.
Although the Universe’s creation of humanity via evolution is absurd, we can still create our own meaning.
Immortality and meaning can be found in the things we create.
So, what do you think about Einstein's thoughts on the meaning of life? Did he mention meaning or purpose in other works? Would love to have your feedback.