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If Einstein met Confucius


By James Dacey

An exhibition about the life and work of Einstein will no longer appear in Shanghai following a fracas between Chinese and Swiss museums. The exhibition has been touring China as part of a celebration of 60 years of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and China.

According to the Associated Press, the show’s organizers from the Historical Museum of Bern were unhappy with plans of Shanghai’s Science and Technology Museum. The would-be hosts had apparently wanted to merge the Einstein show with a separate exhibit of comparable size about the great Chinese philosopher Confucius who lived more than 2000 years earlier.

With the Historical Museum of Bern yet to issue a public statement, the precise details of the disagreement remain somewhat hazy. But the developments have left me pondering what the great physicist himself would think about having an exhibition of his life’s achievements lined up alongside those of Confucius.

Indeed, Einstein was clearly far more than a great physicist. He was also a man deeply engaged in the social issues of his time, which was no doubt influenced by his own position – being a Jewish scientist living in Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany.

Although Einstein’s guiding principle seems to have been the wonder of science, it is hard not to think that he would have admired some of the ideas of Confucius. For instance, I’m sure that Einstein would have shared some of Confucius’ ethical concerns, especially his idea that individuals should strive towards moral perfection.


Einstein said as much in 1950 during a conversation with Reverend C. Greenaway, a minister in New York. “The most important human endeavour is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.”

Where the two men may have disagreed, however, is their view of humanity and collective human behaviour. Confucianism holds that through communal endeavour, humans are mouldable and perfectible. Einstein, on the other hand, appears to have taken a more hardened outlook, perhaps influenced by some of the events of his time.

“I don’t believe that humanity as such can change in essence, but I do believe it is possible and even necessary to put an end to anarchy in international relations,” he said in 1919 to Hedwig Born, the wife of Max Born, when talking about how individual states may have to give up their autonomy.

So I’m not saying that Einstein’s reflections on social philosophy and morality should overshadow his scientific achievements. But I just don’t think the idea that a Chinese museum would merge a showcase about his life with an exhibit about Confucius is such a weird idea. This is especially so given the influence Confucianism has had on political life in China.

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  1. Juha Savolainen

    Well, Einstein might have been delighted if his achievements were celebrated in China alongside the bold and critical works of Han Dynasty thinker Wang Chong (王充)! But Confucius? I doubt that.

  2. Thomas Murphy

    I agree with your instinct that Einstein and Confucius are compatible. However, I’d have preferred that the companion exhibit feature Lao Tzu, author of the ~2400 year old Tao Te Ching, who’s revered as the founder of Taoism — a world view shared by Confucius and 400 million or more contemporary adherents.
    The Tao Te Ching derives its assertions from inner observation. Relativity derives its assertions from technologically enhanced outer observation.
    Morality was most notably appended to Taoism by Confucius. Thus through the ages he’s been a darling of authorities invested in maintaining the status quo, which, understandably, is most often to their advantage. Lao Tzu, on the other hand, often symbolizes freedom and liberty, though never license.

  3. John Duffield

    Einstein would have certainly agreed that [i]that through communal endeavour, humans are mouldable[/i].

  4. Robert L. Oldershaw

    Quantum Mechanics 2.0
    If you think you have a reasonably adequate understanding of what Quantum Mechanics teaches us about the discreteness of the physical world , and what it does not say about this topic, then I highly recommend a careful reading of the following paper, which won 3rd prize in a recent contest.
    1. What is candidly revealed about QM in the above-linked paper,
    2. Surprising new two-slit experiment results,
    3. Recent bending of the uncertainty relations, and
    4. Recently published observations of wavefunctions,
    one might infer that the Platonic versions of Quantum Mechanics are under concerted attack by those who prefer scientific realism and empirical testing.
    Too bad Einstein and Schrodinger are not around to see these exciting developments, but of course they knew this had to come some day.
    Robert L. Oldershaw

  5. Steve Douglas

    I really don’t see why it matters whether the views of Einstein and Confucious are compatible or not.
    People can go to an exhibition and look at two things can’t they?
    Even if the exhibition make comparisons between the two I’m sure people can make their own mind up about what they’re looking at.
    If Einstein said “it is possible and even necessary to put an end to anarchy in international relations” and the Swiss love Einstein and believe in his morals then maybe they should try it.

  6. K T Ong

    The truth is that China today suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder about her own image. She’s just plain rabid about making herself look good in the eyes of others in every respect, and absolutely convinced that one way to do so is to have her own major cultural figures exhibited side by side with those of the West — never mind that (1) Einstein and Confucius have precious little in common with respect to their intellectual interests, and that (2) consequently the Chinese are only going to end up achieving the opposite of what they wanted by making themselves a laughable lot.


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