EINSTEIN, Albert (1879-1955). Autograph letter signed (“A. Einstein”) to Eric Gutkind, Princeton, 3 January 1954.
In German. Two pages, 215 x 280mm, bearing several autograph emendations; with original transmittal envelope.
THE GOD LETTER
“The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of venerable but still primitive legends.”
Einstein’s single most famous letter on God, his Jewish identity, and man’s eternal search for meaning. This remarkably candid, private letter was written a year before Einstein’s death and remains the most fully articulated expression of his religious and philosophical views: “The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change anything about this.” Rather, Einstein invokes “our wonderful” Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish Dutch philosopher with whom he strongly identified from an early age. Spinoza believed not in an anthropomorphic God who intervened in daily lives, but in a God beyond description, one responsible for the sublime beauty and orderliness of the universe.
And despite Einstein’s open identification with Judaism, he felt no differently toward it: “For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything 'chosen' about them.”
Einstein wrote in response to Eric Gutkind’s 1952 book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, which he read at the behest of Dutch mathematician and philosopher L.E.J. Brouwer (1881-1966). Though Einstein was unequivocal in his critique of Gutkind's work ("it pains me that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a human being and an internal one as a Jew"), he sought to establish a common ground between them, noting that they still agreed on "the essentials.” Prefacing his frank remarks on God and religion, he observed diplomatically that he and Gutkind both believed in the importance of a strong moral foundation that rose above self-interest and instead sought to benefit humanity ("striving for the improvement and refinement of existence"), while rejecting materialism as an end – a typically “un-American attitude” they shared. Provenance: Eric Gutkind (1877-1965) – Bloomsbury, 15 May 2008, Lot 303.
[With:] Black and white photograph of Eric Gutkind, 90 x 142mm – Gutkind, Eric. Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, New York: Schuman, 1952.
Princeton, 3. 1. 1954
Dear Mr Gutkind,
Inspired by Brouwer's repeated suggestion, I have read a great deal in your book in the last few days: thank you very much for sending it to me. What struck me particularly was this. We are largely alike as regards our factual attitude to life and to the human community: an ideal that goes beyond self-interest, with the striving for release from ego-oriented desires, the striving for the improvement and refinement of existence, with an emphasis on the purely human element, by which inanimate things are to be perceived purely as a means, to which no dominant function is to be attributed. (It is especially this attitude that unites us as an authentically "un-American attitude"1).
Nevertheless, without Brouwer's encouragement I would never have brought myself to engage at all closely with your book because it is written in a language which is inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change anything about this. These refined interpretations are naturally very diverse, and have virtually nothing to do with the original text. For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything "chosen" about them.
In general, it pains me that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a human being and an internal one as a Jew. As a human being you claim to a certain extent a dispensation from the causality which you otherwise accept, as a Jew a privileged status for monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as indeed our wonderful Spinoza originally recognized with absolute clarity. And the animistic conception of natural religions is in principle not cancelled out by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception; but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. Quite the opposite.
Now that I have expressed our differences in intellectual convictions completely openly, it is still clear to me that we are very close to each other in the essentials, that is, in our evaluations of human behavior. What divides us is only intellectual padding or the "rationalization" in Freudian language. So I think that we would understand each other very well if we conversed about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
1 in English in the original.
“I am a deeply religious nonbeliever.” – Einstein on his 75th birthday, 1954
At the age of 67, Albert Einstein sat down to reflect on his early life, penning a short work titled Autobiographical Notes. It was the closest he would ever come to a proper autobiography, and he described the process as writing “something like my own obituary.” It begins in Munich in 1875, where he was born to an “entirely irreligious (Jewish)” family – save for one uncle who attended synagogue as a way of hedging his bets (“Ah, but you never know,” this uncle would say) (AN 3; Clark 6). Einstein’s parenthetical description of his family’s Judaism seems to sum up the situation well; when the time came for his parents to enroll their young son in school, they defaulted to the most convenient option, a large Catholic school in their neighborhood called the Petersschule. Einstein excelled there by all accounts, even helping classmates along with their work, before leaving at age nine for the Luitpold Gymnasium, a progressive school that included religious instruction for its Jewish students. Though his family had little tolerance for the “ancient superstition” of scripture, it was at this point that young Einstein began to develop his own relationship with religion – biographer Walter Isaacson writes that “Despite his parents’ secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism,” with his sister later recalling: “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail.” Indeed, during this time, he managed to keep kosher and observe the Sabbath – things that were “rather difficult to do when the rest of his family had a lack of interest bordering on disdain for such displays. He even composed his own hymns for the glorification of God, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school” (Jammer 15, Isaacson 16).
It was a short albeit memorable phase that reached its conclusion with Einstein’s exposure to science at around the age of 10, via a family friend named Max Talmud (later changed to Talmey). Talmud, a medical student, introduced him to Aaron Bernstein’s People’s Books on Natural Science, a work that Einstein would later recall reading “with breathless attention.” “Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, an attitude that has never left me” (AN 5, 15).
Einstein thus reverted to family tradition, avoiding religion and authority from that point forward. The family business collapsed in 1894, and with it, his parents moved to Italy, leaving Einstein behind in Munich with distant relatives to continue his studies. Unhappy, he soon departed the Luitpold Gymnasium to study briefly in Aarau, Switzerland, before eventually enrolling in Zurich Polytechnic. Likely due to impending military service that would come with turning 17, he was decidedly against returning to Germany and chose instead to renounce his citizenship entirely. On his application for Swiss citizenship he would notably list his religious affiliation as “konfessionslos,” or non-denominational (CP 82).
Einstein’s feelings toward religion would be shaped further and even more definitively during his time in Zurich by wide reading, particularly works by Baruch Spinoza. In 1902, he met Maurice Solovine, a Romanian philosophy student at the University of Bern, and Conrad Habicht, a former mathematics student at Zurich Polytechnic. The three joined together to read the great thinkers and writers and debate their ideas, dubbing themselves “The Olympia Academy.” They made their way through literature including Sophocles’ Antigone and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, alongside David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature and Ernst Mach’s Analysis of the Sensations. It was the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, however, who would have the most enduring influence on Einstein. Spinoza’s God was an amorphous, impersonal God responsible for the orderliness of the universe and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature, and this philosophy, including a strong sense of determinism, resonated deeply with the scientist.
Over the decades that followed, Einstein would mostly have little to say on religion. Following his Nobel Prize in 1922 and his fiftieth birthday in 1929, however, he became more discursive, speaking more openly on his beliefs in interviews and essays – though never as definitively as he does in his letter to Gutkind, which remains the most succinct and powerful articulation of his views.
The God Letter: Einstein’s definitive thoughts on religion, man’s search for meaning, and his Jewish identity
Einstein turned 75 in March 1954, two months after writing to Gutkind. The letter was written on January third, mere days into the year that would swiftly bring one of life’s universal milestones, and the reader cannot help but feel its gravitas, the “absolute clarity” that he credits to the “wonderful” Spinoza also present in his own words. More direct than his prior essays, interviews, and letters, it is unvarnished and unwavering: the words of a great genius who was perhaps feeling the end fast approaching. It addresses the philosophical and religious questions that mankind has wrestled with since the dawn of time – is there a God? do I have free will? – and in it we have one of the most respected minds of the twentieth century give us the fruit of his own lifelong contemplation.
He had arrived in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1933 as a refugee with his second wife, Elsa (who would pass away only a few years later in 1936), and his twenty odd years in America were anything but uneventful. Einstein embraced his new country, and his concerns that Hitler’s scientists were working on nuclear weaponry prompted him to leverage his celebrity to alert Franklin Roosevelt of the threat, and his 1939 letter to F.D.R. would set in motion government research that resulted in The Manhattan Project (a version of this letter – Einstein had written a long and short version – sold at Christie’s for $2,096,000 on 27 March 2002, lot 161). He admired his adopted home’s tolerance and respect for free thought, free speech, and non-conformist religious beliefs, and became an American citizen in 1940.
It was as a result of sentiments instilled so deeply in Einstein as a young man – a distrust of authority, the respect for individuality, democratic principles, and the desire for social equality – that he remained intent on trying to live the moral life he describes here in his letter to Gutkind, one striving toward the greater good and transcending selfish desires in pursuit of human progress. He believed in a cosmic religion that orchestrated the orderliness and sublime beauty of a great universe, and favored determinism over free will. His religion was without an anthropomorphic God who protects, decides, rewards, and punishes; in Einstein’s view, there was a God, but he was never listening.
To Gutkind he writes, too, of the Jewish people “to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored.” Though his early identification with Judaism was fleeting, the rise of Anti-Semitism in Germany at the close of the First World War brought him closer to the Jewish community and the growing Zionist movement – an affiliation which prompted Israel to offer Einstein the Presidency of the Jewish State upon the death of Chaim Weizmann in 1952 (he declined). In 1934, in a short piece titled “Jewish Ideals,” he had written: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it” (World 123). He felt the Jewish people were “devoted servants of truth, justice, and liberty,” but nonetheless his ideals held firm – he believed they were not superior, and that aspects of the Jewish faith were like any other and that the Bible was ultimately a story. He admired and loved his people, but they were not “chosen” above others.
During the final years of his life, Einstein’s companion was a Czech woman named Johanna Fantova, a curator at Princeton’s Firestone Library whom he first met in Germany decades earlier. Fantova’s diary from her time with Einstein reflects two sides of the aging genius: one preoccupied with his deteriorating health who at times likened his increasingly frail body to that of an old car, and the other still very much one of the great minds of the century, reflecting on his place in the larger scientific landscape, and still in pursuit of a unified field theory.
In 1953, his old friends Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht wrote from Paris and Einstein’s reply was an homage to “An die unsterbliche Akademie Olympia” – “the immortal Olympia Academy” – that had helped him discover Spinoza so many years before: “All three of us academicians have at least shown ourselves to be durable. Even if we are also getting a bit decrepit, something of your bright and invigorating light still shines on our lonely existences.”
Eric Gutkind (1877-1965)
Philosopher, teacher, and writer Eric Gutkind was born in Berlin and educated at the University of Berlin, where his broad-ranging studies included philosophy, philosophy of religion, psychology, anthropology, physics, mathematics, and sociology. During the course of his career, he became increasingly focused on Jewish philosophy. Choose Life, Gutkind’s third book, presented the Bible as a call to arms, and Judaism and Israel as incorruptible: “Israel is not merely the late result of a long evolution. It is an intrinsic part of reality, from the very beginning. Because it is a maximal possibility of evolution, it is the very principle of evolution” (226). While certain aspects of his philosophy intersected with Einstein’s moral outlook, it inherently relied on Biblical teaching, and in Einstein’s view, favored the Jewish religion above others – a stance antithetical to his core beliefs. Gutkind was also the author of The Absolute Collective: A Philosophical Attempt to Overcome our Broken State (1937) and The Body of God: First Steps Toward an Anti-Theology (1969).