In 1931, Albert Einstein wrote to Mohandas K. Gandhi to express his great admiration for the Indian leader’s methods. Translated from German, the letter reads in part:
You have shown through your works, that it is possible to succeed without violence even with those who have not discarded the method of violence.
The letter long precedes the first atomic bombs and Einstein’s letters to F.D.R. warning of their development and use; though often discussed only in relation to the horrific events of World War II, the physicist’s opposition to violence and war was a longstanding passion for him. Einstein called his pacifism an “instinctive feeling” based only on his “deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred,” rather than any “intellectual theory." His politics often paralleled those of fellow intellectual giant and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell (the two collaborated on a 1955 “Manifesto” for peace).
Gandhi remained an important influence on Einstein’s life and thought. In the audio clip above from 1950, he again offers generous praise for the man known as “Mahatma” (great soul). In the recording, Einstein says of Gandhi:
I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men of our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.
Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, which roughly translates as “devotion to the truth,” appealed to Einstein, perhaps, because of its principled stand against political expediency and for a kind of moral commitment that depended on self-scrutiny and inquiry into cause and effect. Like the counter-intuitive theories of Einstein and Russell, Gandhi biographer Mark Shepard writes that the concept of satyagraha is “a hard one to grasp”--Especially, “for those used to seeing power in the barrel of a gun.”
For more archival recordings of Einstein expressing his views on religion, war and peace, and science, visit American Public Media’s On Being website.
Josh Jones is a writer, scholar, and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on land, literature, and labor.