If Freud had the intolerance of an Ezra and the characteristic faults of the cathedocracy, he also had some of its heroic virtues: dauntless courage in the defence of what he saw as the truth; passionate industry in pursuit of it, right to the end of a life marked by unremitting labour; a saintly death, after a slow cancer for which he refused morphia: ‘I prefer to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly.’ Arthur Koestler, who saw him at the end, found a ‘small and fragile’ sage, with ‘the indestructible vitality of a Hebrew patriarch’. Freud was in the irrationalist Jewish tradition, more of a Nahmanides or a Besht than a Maimonides. But, perhaps because of this, he became a central pillar of the twentieth-century intellectual structure, itself a largely irrational edifice. To vary the metaphor, he gave humanity a new mirror, and no man has ever changed so radically and irreversibly the way in which people see themselves; or indeed talk about themselves, for he changed the vocabulary of introspection too.
If Freud transformed the way we see ourselves, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) changed the way we see the universe. That made him a central pillar of the twentieth century and perhaps of the twenty-first too, for history shows that great new reformulations of scientific law, such as Galileo’s, or Newton’s, or Darwin’s, continue to impose their consequences on society for huge spans of time. Einstein was a Jew from Ulm, where his father ran a small electro-chemical firm. He worked in the Swiss patent office in Berne, where he formulated the Special Theory of Relativity (1905) and the General Theory (1915). His essential discoveries, like Freud’s, were made before the First World War; thereafter, he searched persistently but vainly for a general field theory which would accommodate Quantum Physics, in whose formulation he also played a key role.
Einstein never seems to have been a practising Jew in the ordinary sense. In this he resembled Freud. But unlike Freud he did not dismiss belief in God as an illusion; he sought, rather, to redefine it. Intellectually, he was wholly in the Jewish-rationalist tradition of Maimonides and Spinoza. He was an empirical scientist of the most rigorous kind, formulating his theories specifically to make exact verification possible, and insisting it take place before according his views any validity–almost the exact opposite of Freud’s dogmatics. But he was prepared to admit the existence of non-verifiable truth. In this respect too he was more honest than Freud. Freud denied mystic truth while remaining, essentially, a mystic himself; Einstein remained a rationalist, while admitting a mystic sphere. He thought that ‘the mysterious’, which he saw as emotional rather than factual, ‘stands at the cradle of true art and true science’. Beyond ‘the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty’ there were impenetrable truths ‘which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds’. Awareness of this, he argued, was what constituted true religious feeling and ‘in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man’.
The last assertion was a restatement of Maimonides’ belief that there are two complementary ways of perceiving truth, reason and Revelation. However, Einstein was much closer to Spinoza, whom he greatly admired, in dismissing Revelation as such. What he did say was that intuitive thinking was essential to the formulation of a great scientific concept, a sort of blind leap into a huge theoretical generalization. Here he had a great deal in common with the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), who shared Einstein’s stress on the mystical and intuitive element in science (and the interaction of time and matter). But in Einstein’s view and work, once intuition created the elements of an idea, science and reason took over. ‘I want to know how God created this world,’ he said—almost a mystical aim. But the knowledge had to be acquired by mathematical formulation, verified by astronomy. In a sense, Einstein was doing what the kabbalists had attempted, to describe creation by numbers. But whereas their numbers were intuitive, magic and unverifiable, his were rationally conceived and validated by telescope. There was magic, in the sense that it amazed him to be able to discover that the universe, instead of being chaotic, as one might a priori have supposed, was in fact orderly, governed by laws of space-time, which might have to be modified occasionally, as he had modified Newton’s, but which were fundamentally accessible to the human intellect. Herein, he said, ‘lies the “miracle”, which is becoming increasingly deep with the development of our knowledge’.
Einstein believed that the macrocosmic and the microcosmic must be governed by the same laws and that his General Theory of Relativity would ultimately become merely part of a unified theory governing all electromagnetic fields. Every physical relationship of the material world could then be accurately described in a few pages of equations. He felt a deep kinship with Spinoza, who was likewise ‘utterly convinced of the causal dependence of all phenomena, at a time when the success accompanying the efforts to achieve a knowledge of the causal relationship with natural phenomena was still quite modest’. He, coming 300 years after Spinoza, might succeed. The quest was peculiarly Jewish, in that it was impelled by an overwhelming need for an enveloping truth-law about the universe, a scientific Torah. The alternative to a general theory was indeterminacy, a concept especially abhorrent to the Jewish mind, since it seems to make impossible all ethics, or certainty in history, politics and law. Hence Einstein’s forty-year search, ultimately inconclusive. Like Maimonides, who in his code, his commentary and his Guide was trying to reduce his vast Judaic inheritance into a modest-sized, clear and rational body of knowledge—a Judaic summa—Einstein was seeking a stark and monumental simplicity, a scientific summa which would make plain sense of the universe.
In fact, his achievement stopped with the establishment of relativity theory. The truth of that has been demonstrated many times and it has been for the past sixty years or more a central part of the scientific corpus of knowledge. In the general mind, however, it introduced not a great new simplicity but a great new complexity, for relativity was confused with relativism, and especially with moral relativism. The conjunction of Einstein and Freud, at least in the popular perception, struck a devastating blow at the absolute certainties of Judaeo-Christian ethics, in which Einstein, at any rate, profoundly believed. That was another heavy debt added to the Jewish account in many dark minds. The arrival of relativity theory was the point at which a great many educated and intelligent men gave up trying to keep abreast of scientific discovery. The Jewish literary philosopher Lionel Trilling (1905-75) noted the consequences:
- This exclusion of most of us from the mode of thought which is habitually said to be the characteristic achievement of the modern age is bound to be experienced as a wound given to our intellectual self-esteem. About this humiliation we all agree to be silent; but can we doubt that it… introduced into the life of mind a significant element of dubiety and alienation which must be taken into account in any estimate that is made of the present fortunes of mind?
Hence the net result of this furious intellectual activity and cultural innovation at the turn of the century, an activity in which Jews were perceived to be taking a leading part, was to produce not merely an arms race between progressives and conservatives but a widespread feeling of bewilderment and anxiety. The new Jewish secular intellectuals felt this as strongly as anyone, even while they contributed to it with their work. The yearning for remembered certitudes is one of the great engines of Proust’s masterpiece, à la Recherche du temps perdu. In the work of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) the entire governing principle appears to be incomprehensible displacement. ‘I am here,’ one of his stories ends, ‘more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the uttermost regions of death.’ Schönberg felt the same, summing up his life in one weird metaphor: ‘I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water, and not knowing how to swim... I tried with my legs and arms as best I could.... I never gave up. But how could I give up in the middle of an ocean?’ The expressionist poet Jacob von Hoddis, formerly Hans Davidsohn, epitomized and aggravated the bewilderment by producing in 1910 a short set of verses, ‘Weltende’ (‘The World’s End’) which briefly became the most famous and notorious poem in Germany. He read it at the poetry-cabaret organized by the expressionist leader, Kurt Hiller, who claimed to be a descendant of the Rabbi Hillel. It began, ‘The hat flies off the bourgeois’s pointed head’, and for reasons now obscure it immediately seemed to sum up modernism both for its proponents and for its enemies, reducing the latter to incoherent rage. In 1914 the young poet went insane, followed immediately after by virtually the whole of Europe, in a vast dance of destruction from which both the prospects and the predicament of the Jews emerged dramatically transformed.
—Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews