I bought a copy of Albert Einstein's Ideas and Opinions up in Shell Knob at the Methodist Ladies Thrift Guild for .50 cents. It is a pretty good store, and a pretty good book. I enjoyed re-reading it over the weekend.
Ideas and Opinions is a collection of Einstein's speeches, essays, statements, and letters, mostly written between 1940 and his death in 1955. The first essay begins with a statement only Einstein could get away with: "There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century." Similar judgments follow for the next two hundred pages.
Whether these are rational judgments or moral judgments--"you are wearing a blue shirt" vs. "you are wearing an ugly blue shirt,"--is in the mind's eye, but in either case, readers of Ideas and Opinions will observe Einstein counterpunching a mile a minute against unreflective science and teaching.
Regarding education, Einstein wrote, "It isn't enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine, but he will not be a harmoniously developed personality. The scientist, undertaker, bricklayer, banker are trained to perform a certain function, but the valuable question is, do they have a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good?"
G.K. Chesterton used the man as machine metaphor several years before Einstein took it up. He wrote "Quick machines worked by slow men will be slow machines...and good machines worked by bad men will be bad machines. Tools are just man's extra limbs."
Do these quotes remind you of how our politicians and political parties are conducting themselves lately? I certainly think so.
I also think that what Chesterton and Einstein were getting at was best summarized by Allen Greenspan's testimony before a Senate Banking Committee during the investigation of the 2007 financial collapse. There, he admitted that he had not foreseen that there would be greedy bankers who would fill their pockets while draining those of their fellow citizens.
"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations," said Greenspan, "specifically banks and others, was such as they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders."
I wonder if Greenspan, Ayn Rand's most famous student and an unabashed proponent of her "virtues of selfishness" philosophy, felt at least bemused to see not only the collapse of the financial system he engineered, but to also arrive, quite late, at the place where Chesterton and Einstein had started out so many years earlier.
Selfish men will obviously make machines accomplish selfish ends. As selfish personalities--if not to say sociopathic personalities--they lack the directive principles and prescience to understand the outcomes of their behaviors. Through a glass darkly, they see the self-interested part of a picture but not the entire picture; they certainly don't see where the rest of us abide within the picture.
But is it practical to expect our scientists, undertakers, bricklayers, and bankers to "have a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good?" Maybe a better question is, "Do you expect them in yourself?"
I believe that we want those qualities in ourselves and that we hope that the people we do business with are also morally good people--as we are. Whether or not we should expect them to have a vivid sense of the beautiful is another matter since I'm not entirely sure what that means. Einstein hints at its meaning:
"Keen work often has tragic consequences for mankind...producing inventions which liberate man from exhausting labor...but on the other hand, introducing a restlessness into his life and making him a slave to his technological environment." What he warns against, I think, is the sort of moral heedlessness that is at the root of our current economic calamity.
What we certainly know is that reform of our financial systems, and of the other "machines" of modern society as well, will come to nothing unless these machines are operated by at least a "few enlightened people with lucid minds and style and with good taste."
So far, prospects for that don't seem so hot.