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.