Albert Einstein Counsels His Son on the Meaning of Life
Click to enlarge:
Select an image:
“We don’t want creatures to suffer unnecessarily, but that alone is not a goal that can make life worth living. Because the balance between happiness and pain remains rather negative, and the goal might rather be achieved most perfectly by destroying life. All my life I have troubled myself with problems and am always – as on the first day – inspired by the fact that cognition in the scientific and artistic sense is the best thing we possess… 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.” ALBERT EINSTEIN.
Autograph Letter Signed (“Papa”
), in German, to his son Eduard (“Tetel”
for “petit”). [December 27, 1932]. 2 pp, 8½ x 11 in.
When I read your letters I am very much reminded of my youth. In one’s thoughts, one tends to set oneself against the world. One compares one’s own strengths with everything else, one alternates between despondency and self-assurance. One has the feeling that life is eternal and that everything one does and thinks is so important. Yes, one feels as if one were the first and only fellow who has gone through all this. Yet this heroism is rather petty and can only be corrected by humor and by one’s somehow turning with the social machine.
However, I cannot agree with what you say about the worthlessness of intellectual achievements. It is, of course, an irrefutable standpoint if you reject values in general – consistent with pessimism or Nihilism. But if you want to attach a value to society and every living thing in general, and are happy about the fact that there is consciousness, then you can’t get around having to recognize the highest level of consciousness as the highest ideal. Eudaimonism [a moral philosophy that defines right action as that which leads to the “well-being” of the individual] would be a bleak herd-mentality ideal. We don’t want creatures to suffer unnecessarily, but that alone is not a goal that can make life worth living. Because the balance between happiness and pain remains rather negative, and the goal might rather be achieved most perfectly by destroying life. All my life I have troubled myself with problems and am always – as on the first day – inspired by the fact that cognition in the scientific and artistic sense is the best thing we possess. My love of these things has never diminished and will stay with me till I breathe my last. You were also born for this and your words to the contrary only derive from the fear of not being able to achieve anything worthwhile. Dear Tetel, therefore I somehow take pity on you. But there is an easy solution. One becomes a cog in the large machinery so that no one can demand anything else from one. 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.
Be that as it may, you bring me great joy because you’re not going through life mindlessly but rather seeing and thinking. I would like to be with you again soon. Couldn’t you come here during your Easter holidays? I don’t dare to ask you to come during Christmas so that Mama will not be sad and left all on her own. Tell her that I’m embarrassed that I have not yet fulfilled her requests (Kactus, Biske was also not here unfortunately, and I don’t know his address anymore either). But I will improve myself if God will help. I have a great deal to do. I’ve recently plunged into a few interesting technical matters when it comes to the scientific. It’s almost like a sport.
Write me again soon.
I’m enclosing a note to Albert. All the best to Mama.
In 1932, Eduard was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland, where he would spend the rest of his life, on and off, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Though he would later say that it would have been better had Eduard not been born, that feeling clearly had not developed yet, as this letter shows nothing but fatherly encouragement.
Published in the Einstein Scrapbook, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 & 2002.