Einstein’s cosmopolitanism

Yet another citizenship

Yet another citizenship

So, as I mentioned, I am currently refining the characters in my book as I write the second draft. One of the characters is Albert Einstein, one of my idols. I’ve mentioned how I admire his love of simplicity, his ability to wonder and be amazed, his irreverence and impudence. Here is another thing that I like about him (and that I happen to empathize with): his quintessential cosmopolitanism.

History’s first cosmopolitan ever, you recall, was Diogenes, the man who lived in a barrel and who, when asked where he was from, said that

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites in Greek).

Well, consider Einstein, who was:

  • Born German
  • Became Swiss, dropped German nationality
  • Became Austro-Hungarian (to get job in Prague)
  • Became German again (to get job/live with lover in Berlin)
  • Became American
  • was asked to be president of Israel

That’s six or so changes or “elaborations” on his nationality. He treated passports the way I treat them: as documents to be kept, discarded or renewed depending on either convenience or morality (eg, when he dropped German citizenship when the Nazis rose to power).

Einstein went a step further and supported a “world government.” I consider that naive but that is neither here nor there. The point is that the great man always saw

  • our great overarching humanity as well as
  • our colorful individuality,

and did not get distracted by the various forms of tribalist or nationalistic perversion/delusion.

Others might accuse me of not being “patriotic” about any particular passport-issuing entity. I say to them: I’m feeling just as powerful a connection to other people as you do, just one level above (humanity) or one level below (individuality) the one that you happen to be interested in.

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9 thoughts on “Einstein’s cosmopolitanism

  1. The political genius of Einstein is that he rejected Nationalism at a time that everyone else around him in Germany (In fact his best friend Haber was such an eager Jewish German Patriot, he developed their poison gas industry…. the irony…..).

    Einstein recognized that nationality, religion and race are just tools used by politicians to make one person hate another although he does not know him.

  2. The four nationalities I’ve technically had in my own lifetime might be considered a misfortune. To have six, as Einstein did, sounds like carelessness.

    Courtesy of my own deracination, I agree absolutely with your (Andreas’s) sentiments about passports, patriotism, tribalism, nationalism et al. For me, there are now almost no self-evident truths, and I take almost nothing for granted. I do not define myself by my race, ethnicity, culture, language, or any of the other things which, when insulted, cause apoplexy in those who do define themselves thus.

    It’s alienating, I know, but also liberating.

  3. Einstein was born a German Jew, right?
    It is my understanding that then ( and even now )
    that “difference” is always identified.
    My grandfather was a German Jew.

  4. Dear Andreas,

    I am British married to an American living in Austria, so I have the same empathy for Einstein. My children have 2 passports already (by right of birth) and could easily change to a 3rd by right of residence. They may well attend higher education in a 4th country and then have an option on a 4th nationality. Then they get married to someone from a 5th country, so what passport will their children hold and does it really matter? I don’t think it is more than a travel document in the end and so it should be.

  5. I think “national identity” or “racial” or “linguistic” are all obsolete ideas.

    I live in India, where every few hours of travel brings a different language, script, culture, food, race etc to your view.

    More than 150mn Indians (not a small minority by any stretch of imagination) think, dream & communicate in English as it was the sole mode of communication in their schools, instantly alienating them from the rest if the country. The 2nd language they are taught in school (there is a choice of 3, one of which is actually French) doesn’t match the official language of the city they end up working in! Example: My schooling was in English, my second language was Hindi, the local language of Madras where I grew up was Tamil, and the local language of Bombay where am currently live/work is Marathi, and yet my official “mother tongue” is supposed to be “Urdu”! All 4 languages carry with them their own distinct cultural baggage. This is the reason most Indians believe there is no such thing as an Indian national identity except when it comes to a cricket match or war with neighboring countries over artificial borders.

    I wish we can do away with all national/regional/linguistic/religious/racial identities once and for all. Wish some aliens can land up on earth and tell us there are dozens of intelligent civilizations with better food & entertainment just next door in Alpha Centauri. And yes we may need an “Earthian” passport to travel to it as the national ones are “not recognized” in that galaxy.

  6. Oh boy, I’m not used to so much agreement by my readers. šŸ˜‰ I have cognitive dissonance.

    I love these tales by all of you. It shouldn’t suprrise me that The Hannibal Blog has quite a cosmopolitan readership.

    I love in particular Reem’s account of the Indian situation. I’ve puzzled over India a lot (and gave my daughter a Sanskrit name, although my policy is not to divulge anything about my kids online).

    The very words “Hindu” and “India”, as I understand, are Western inventions. Ie: the people “across the Indus river”, from our point of view, beginning with Alexander’s. So Hinduism is not actually an ism, for instance. It has connections, through the Vedas and Upanishads, but every instance of it is local, as Reem describes.

    The languages are even more of a puzzle to me. I know that there is one broad “family” of tongues on the subcontinent that descend from Sanskrit. Am I right, Reem, that Urdu and Hindi would be related roughly as German and English, or even German and Dutch? But then there are the Dravidian languages, which are apparently as distant from the Sanskrit heirs as Basque is from the Germanic languages.

    All very fascinating. So, yes, a cricket identity. Not bad, in fact, as identities go.

    Cheri: Yes, Einstein was a German Jew, but what is most interesting about this is how HE felt about this at the different stages of his life. (Isaacson does a good job of chronicling this evolution in his biography.) In his youth, Einstein regarded Judaism as a religion and therefore had little interest (the subject of Einstein’s religion itself merits a book, and I’ll probably do a blog post). He was, in short, as uninterested in his Jewish identity as in his German/Swiss identity.
    But: This changed at the latest when Walter Rathenau was murdered, and anti-Semitism grew after World War I. Einstein then saw Judaism as an ethnic identity, and became very interested in this part of his identity. He became a Zionist. but although he was courted by Weizmann (Israel’s first president) he never abandoned his “one-worlder” cosmopolitanism.

    • Spot on Andreas. there is a ‘Sanskrit’ family of languages and a ‘Dravidian’.
      But Urdu is different & interesting as it is a mix of 2 different trees: persian/semitic and hindi/sanskrit… probably originated due to a heterogeneous mix of people in the mughal armies of 17th century.

  7. Do you or your readers have a view about the planned international language Esperanto?

    It seems to me that learning and using Esperanto is a practicalstep to becoming a world citizen,without abandoning ones routes.

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