Einstein: “How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks?”
Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879. As a student, Einstein learned Greek, but there are other Hellenic connections throughout his life as well. Chief among them was his correspondence with Constantin Carathéodory, a remarkable Greek mathematician. There are a handful of letters in existence that were written between Einstein and Caratheodory, and in them, you can see how they both had a passion for mathematics and a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work:
Dear colleague! I find your derivation wonderful, now I understand everything. At first, the small writing mistakes on the second page had caused me some difficulties. Now, however, I understand everything.
You should publish the theory in this new form in the Annals of Physics since the physicists do not normally know anything about this subject as was also the case with me. With my letter I must have come across to you like a Berliner who had just discovered Grunewald and wondered whether people were already living there. If you wouldn’t mind also making the effort to present to me the canonical transfromations, you’ll find in me a grateful and attentive audience. If you, however, answer the question about the closed time trajectories, I will appear before you with my hands folded. The underlying truth, though, is well worth some perspiration.
Best regards, your Albert Einstein
To get a true sense of the influence of Hellenic thought on Einstein, look at this November 1947 profile of him by Niccolo Tucci at The New Yorker. In that profile, Einstein discusses how the ancient Greeks fascinated him:
“[Einstein said:] People are asked to be loyal to their jobs. But who wouldn’t be loyal to his job? Too many people, indeed. Also in Italy and in Germany they used to test people’s loyalty to their jobs, and they found a far greater loyalty to jobs than to democracy. But now tell me another thing. What do you give to your children in the way of good news about the world?”
“Plenty,” [the reporter] said. “For example, I tell them about Socrates, who was killed by the greatest democracy on earth for standing at the corner drugstore and asking questions that made the politicians feel uncomfortable.”
“That’s not a cheerful story, either,” he said, “but if they were able to absorb some of the spirit of the Greeks, that would serve them a great deal later on in life. The more I read the Greeks, the more I realize that nothing like them has ever appeared in the world since.”
“You read the Greeks?” I said.
“But of course,” he replied, slightly surprised at my amazement. And so I heard, partly from him and partly from Miss Dukas, that he reads the Greeks to Maja every night for an hour or so, even if he has had a very tiring day. Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps his sister company.
“You know,” I said, “that is great news. Young Americans, who have an idea of the pure scientist worthy of the comics, should be told that Einstein reads the Greeks. All those who relish the idiotic and dangerous myth of the scientist as a kind of Superman, free from all bonds of responsibility, should know this and draw their conclusions from it. Many people in our day go back to the Greeks out of sheer despair. So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks.”
He seemed a little hurt. “But I have never gone away from them,” he said. “How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science.”
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