Someone recently accused me of knowing something of the life of Albert Einstein and asked me what the following quote means. “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a Judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
I responded that I didn’t pretend to know very much about anything, including the works of Einstein, but I indeed enjoy listening to his words.
I have read much of his work over and over so many times that the pages are dog-eared and soiled but I have never been able to fully wrap my brain around most of what he wrote. After over a century, most of us struggle to understand things he said and wrote and we can’t be completely sure of what he meant by that quote.
I have various biographies and other accounts of his life and works on my shelves but my two favorites are “Ideas and Opinions”, and “Relativity: The Special and General Theory”, both written by Einstein himself. For many years, when I was spending long hours on airplanes, I carried a copy of one or the other or both with me wherever I went.[i]A close look at the bookshelf picture in another chapter includes the “Ideas” one, right below the Spanish dictionary – dog-eared and torn over the years. The “Relativity” one I probably left in a hotel room in some far-off land because I cannot find it. It seems I never replaced that one but I have an audiobook of it. I recall listening to it while driving down Interstate 5, in the California Central Valley, where distractions are few and far between. When the tape was over I felt like I finally had a grasp of the subject, but the next morning, all that newfound understanding was gone again.
And then last week[ii]early January 2022 I got a package in the mail from my brother Todd. Inside was a fresh hard-cover – as fresh as it could be, having been printed in 1961, of “Relativity: The Special and General Theory”. I am deeply grateful for the gift and I promise that I will endeavor once more to understand at least some of it.
Now, as for the quote; some of the things we know about him are that, (1) he loved metaphor, (2) he was very spiritual in his own way, and (3) he was incredibly humble.
- His love of metaphor suggests that “Judge of Truth” probably is directed toward some journalist or politician spewing forth some nonsense in the news at the time, and “laughter of the gods” likely decodes to “what fool would pretend to understand anything completely”.
- Being spiritual for him did not mean worshiping some dogma or even believing in a god. It simply meant that being unable to understand everything that is the Universe, we must necessarily hold these things in a very special place in our hearts and minds until we learn to understand them better; hence his reference to “the gods”.
- As for the humble part, it is hard to imagine a man of such power and influence maintaining such humility throughout his entire life. We need to reach back to Gandhi, or 2000 years earlier to Jesus, or another 500-600 years to Buddha for comparisons. This quote was no doubt his way of calling the spokesman stupid.
I never met him of course but I remember clearly the day he died. I was almost 14 years old, standing in front of our large bay window, overlooking Fishers Lake. The WWII vintage radio that Dad had restored and installed in The Buffet[iii]… a beautiful piece of furniture that he had made by hand in his sparsely equipped shop in the basement was broadcasting the news. I remember the newscaster [iv]It was 1955 and a “newscaster” was someone who reported actual current events as something called “news”, without the social and political distortions. from New York informing the world of his passing. The fact that I recall that moment so clearly is a surprise to me because I remember almost nothing else from those years.
Today when I read about him or hear a quote of his, I often get a lump in my throat and I am reminded of all those who were able to stand on Einstein’s shoulders since.[v]People like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others, often echoed the words of J.J. Thompson, British scientist and President of the Royal Astronomical Society at the time, referring to his work as, “one of the greatest achievements of human thought”. Is that emotion a result of his incredible humility? I think so.
Published: April 2021
Revised: January 2022
|↑i||A close look at the bookshelf picture in another chapter includes the “Ideas” one, right below the Spanish dictionary – dog-eared and torn over the years.|
|↑ii||early January 2022|
|↑iii||… a beautiful piece of furniture that he had made by hand in his sparsely equipped shop in the basement|
|↑iv||It was 1955 and a “newscaster” was someone who reported actual current events as something called “news”, without the social and political distortions.|
|↑v||People like Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others, often echoed the words of J.J. Thompson, British scientist and President of the Royal Astronomical Society at the time, referring to his work as, “one of the greatest achievements of human thought”.|