Friday, August 17, 2018

Einstein and Spinoza


Note: This is a repost from 2011.

Einstein's religious beliefs were a direct result of his love of Spinoza'a ethics in dealing with the dual questions concerning God and Free Will. Baruch Spinoza, like Einstein, was Jewish.

He was a philosopher in 17th Century Amsterdam, where he was ex-communicated for his belief in Causal Determinism. (I did not know that the Jewish faith did ex-communications, having only heard previously of the practice in conjunction with the Catholic Church.)

Causal Determinism is the belief that the existence of a superior being reveals itself in the harmony of nature and the natural order of all things. Einstein was interested in Spinoza as a way of reconciling science with his own religious beliefs.

I think that Einstein would be in agreement with the words of the late Pope John Paul II when he said, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes."

I think he would have accepted that. I know that I do. It assumes the worst of both religion and science, while at the same time recognizing the strengths that each of the two bring to the human condition. In other words, it is a position of moderation.


In November of 1920, Einstein traveled to Spinoza's home in Leiden, Amsterdam for a visit. He even signed the guest book. The signature beneath his is that of Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, the nephew of the famed physicist, who accompanied him on the trip to Leiden.

The visit so moved Einstein that he later wrote a poem about Spinoza, titled, "On Spinoza's Ethics." I have reprinted the poem here, first in German, and then followed by the English translation. I have credited both translations to their sources at the end of each translation.

The two lines in italics are ones which Einstein wrote and then put a line through, replacing them with the lines immediately following. I have included them here simply because anything Einstein thought, or wrote, must be important in some way, even if I do not fully understand it.

The Latin phrase in the third line of the second verse translates as "For God's sake." Einstein uses the phrase here to call out Spinoza's aversion to faith alone, noting that the philosophy of amor dei "leaves him cold."

Zu Spinozas Ethik

Wie lieb ich diesen edlen Mann
Mehr als ich mit Worten sagen kann.
Doch fürcht' ich, dass er bleibt allein
Mit seinem strahlenen Heiligenschein.

So einen armen kleinen Wicht
Den führst du zu der Freiheit nicht
Der amor dei lässt ihn kalt
Das Leben zieht ihn mit Gewalt

Die Höhe bringt ihm nichts als Frost
Vernunft ist für ihn schale Kost
Besitz und Weib und Ehr' und Haus
Das füllt ihn von oben bis unten aus

Du musst schon gütig mir verzeih'n
Wenn hier mir fällt Münchhausen ein
Dem als Einzigem das Kunststück gedieh'n
Sich am eigenem Zopf aus dem Sumpf zu zieh'n

Du denkst sein Beispiel zeiget uns eben
Was diese Lehre dem Menschen kann geben
Mein lieber Sohn, was fällt dir ein?
Zur Nachtigall muss man geboren sein
Vertraue nicht dem tröstlichen Schein:
Zum Erhabenen muss man geboren sein.

Written circa 1920.
Transcribed from ms. facsimile, Albert Einstein Archive, 31-018

On Spinoza's Ethics

How I love this noble man
More than I can say with words.
Still, I fear he remains alone
With his shining halo.

Such a poor small lad
Whom you'll not lead to freedom
The amor dei leaves him cold
Mightily does this life attract him

Loftiness offers him nothing but frost
Reason for him is poor fare
Property and wife and honor and house
That fills him from top to bottom

You'll kindly forgive me
If Münchhausen here comes to mind
Who alone mastered the trick
Of pulling himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail

You think his example would show us
What this doctrine can give humankind
My dear son, what ever were you thinking?
One must be born a nightingale
Trust not the comforting façade
One must be born sublime

©2007-2008 English translation by Jonathan Ely

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Happy Birthday Uncle "I"

Today, Irving Henkin, my great Uncle, would be 123 years old. But he took the place of 2 absent grandfathers, so I credit him with 2 lifetimes. I have never been to his grave, and though I light the Yahrzeit for him each year, to me it's more akin to a birthday candle. In my heart he's never really passed and I speak with him often.  Here is a bit about him from something i wrote in 2009.

Issac was later known as Irving - due to the tall tales he told we sometimes called him Uncle “Lie”- but he was always Uncle “I” as far as I was concerned. 

He was born, alternately, depending upon whom you asked, in Vineland New Jersey, Philadelphia, or New York City. Everyone agrees that it was on Aug 15th- but the year varies- 1893, 1895 or 1898 - take your pick. He was old enough to collect Social Security when I was 5 but worked until a year before he died in 1975. And he was too young to serve in World War I- registering in August of 1918, just 3 months before the Armistice. He probably was trying to avoid detection as an illegal for fear of being sent back to the "old" country. His father had crossed the ocean to escape Europe and Irving had no desire to retrace “Pops” steps – he didn’t want to go back - as a deportee or a soldier. 


He apparently worked for the American Railway Express Co and later went into the Garment Industry as a buyer of furs. He used to bring me samples and to this day I can tell real from fake chinchilla, mink, sable, rabbit and even lamb. We had raccoon tails by the armload and attached them to the handlebars of our bikes and the backs of our hats, and even flew one from the antenna of the old Plymouth. 

When I was younger, he would take me, and later, when I was older, I would meet him at the furriers where he worked on 7th Ave in the Garment District. The cutters, the tailors and sewing operators all treated me royally and I was fascinated by this aspect of my Uncles life. 

Although he was already 60 when I was born, for 20 years he took me every Sunday to the beach in the summer, movies in the winter, and ice cream sodas and walks on Friday nights. He always regaled me with the stories of all the people he had met in his business as a furrier and how everyone knew him all over the city. 

The Friday night walks were the most special times I spent with Uncle “I”. In spite of his age he never failed to make that 1 hour trip each way to watch the news, eat dinner and "talk" a walk with me. By "talk" a walk- I mean that we would talk and walk. We would go to the candy store on Kings Hwy and 15th Street and he would buy me an ice cream soda and afterwards give me a Standing Liberty or Benjamin Franklin half dollar. And when "magic time" was done I would walk him around the corner to the Quentin Road entrance of the BMT for his 1 hour train ride back to Manhattan. They said he had no where to go, but I know better- he came to see me. 

He took me to baseball games at the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, to the circus at the Old Madison Square Garden, and to Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas Show. He was Jewish to the core, but the blue lit Nativity scene, complete with real Camels on stage - made him weep from the majesty of it. He knew every doorman, every usher, and every cabbie. We would go to the Stage Delicatessen on 7th Avenue and he knew all the comedians, actors and characters there, including the owner, Max. 

We would miss parts of first acts trying to get to our seats as he stopped to acknowledge greeting after greeting, mostly from the people that worked in the places we visited, but sometimes people in the audience would call out to him, as if they desired his recognition, as well as to just say hello. He was a shy and gentle man, yet he seemed well liked and commanded some degree of affection and respect wherever we went. 

He would go to Las Vegas every year to feed the slots and bring home the old solid silver Morgan Dollars from the 1880’s and the Peace Dollars from the early 1930’s. He never won, but he’d save those last 2 dollars for my brother and I. 

Occasionally, he would stay over, especially if a game had gone into extra innings or overtime, depending on the season. He would sleep in my bed and I would take a folding cot in between my bed and my brothers. I would cover it with blankets and sheets and get underneath, pretending that this was my submarine. When I emerged I was always confronted by the sight of his teeth in a glass on my desk. 

I still recall how, at least once every summer at Rockaway Beach, he would duck into a bar for a beer to catch the game and a peek at the baseball score. He didn’t smoke or drink but he would order a beer and bum a cigarette. He’d smoke it without inhaling, enjoying a moment of male camaraderie. It always seemed so mysterious to me, this bachelor world he lived in- hotels and restaurants. It was glamorous on the one hand, and lonely on the other. 

If I characterize this part of Irving’s’ life as mysterious, it is probably because I never once went up to his hotel room. I suppose he considered it improper or ill advised to take a child up to his room with him. But he gave the most important gift of all to me. His time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Inspiration by Trinity



Green on blue or
blue on green?
Is what you drew
what I am seeing?

Curves and lines
are clues to find
what might be happening
in your mind.

Where I see water
you see sand-
Where i see ocean
you see land.

I'm not right and
you're not wrong,
It's different words
but just one song.....

My granddaughter, Trinity, did the painting and I wondered what made her see what she saw. And this is what I saw. There's a lesson here....

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

"We Without You" - (Couldn't Be )


CEmFG / FGAmD / CEmFGC / FGC

I know you've thought of walking away
I've thought of walking too.
But what would we gain if we both walked away?
You all alone and
Me without you?

So, what do you say we just
Cut it in half?
Split all the bad stuff in two?

I could never take it
if you walked away
there couldn't be a "we" without you...

Just take a bit of time and
figure it out.
You'll figure it just as I do.

I could never make it,
I could only fake it.
There couldn't be a "we" without you.

There wouldn't be a "we" without you...

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Kids and Trees



If you look closely that is not a picture of two apple trees. But with their brown trunks and green branches laden with fruit, they could be.

This was a goodbye gift from our "cross the street" neighbors, Thomas and Kerri McLeod and their 2 sons, Hudson and Owen. I posted the other day about cat sitting their wildcat, Bauer, while they are in the process of moving. Anyway, back to this painting.

Ok, it's not a picture of two apple trees, but it is kind of a picture of Hudson and Owen, and so either way they're both pictures of growth. The trunks are actually their feet, firmly planted; while the branches are their fingers reaching for the sky and bearing fruit as they grow.

It should be noted that a few of those apples are Thomas and Keri's fingerprints. The two red patches between the base of the trees are Bauer's paw prints, completing this unique family potrait, which was immediately hung on the wall where you first enter our house. Cool gift, huh?

Here's a final shot of the whole tribe in front of the now empty home.  Its not really empty you know. No home which has ever been lived in really is. They're all still filled with the memories that lived there....


Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Ice Cube



I dropped a big old ice cube
Watched it begin to slide.
I said, "Hold on there Mr. Ice Cube,
there's no place that you can hide."

He said, "No prisons held me yet, sir!"
and he said it so cold and snide.....
that I scooped up that big old ice cube
And in the sink he died.

Now, if there's any lesson
to be gleaned from this account,
I really can't think of one-
Though I've applied a huge amount

of reasoning and cunning,
I used all the guiles at my disposal.
But in the final running
I found no merit in my proposal.

So, it's simply a tale I'll tell late at night,
whilst sitting alone on the shelf.
Don't  criticize me, sir, I've earned the right!
To be talking this way to myself.....

Friday, August 3, 2018

Cat Sitting Bower

Our neighbors, Thomas and Keri, are moving. We've watched their family grow for the past 8 years or so and they'll be taking 2 sons with them that didn't come with the house - Hudson, aged 5, and his brother Owen, aged 3, soon to be 4. Bower, the cat, will also be moving with them.

But, there's about 3 months between closings and Bower will be homeless. So, he'll be living on our porch where Midnight, Baby Cat and Goldie all used to squat.

Bower has a real cool history. He's about 8 and has had shots and all the other things which housecats get to help them live longer than any of my strays could have ever hoped for. And, he's no stranger to the outdoors.

He was born on  a farm and though he knows how to kill, he also knows when to run away, split, scram, be invisible and all the other tricks associated with having 9 lives and making them last!

He's also no stranger to our porch, as he has been coming over daily for about 5 years at this point for treats. He's even walked through our house looking for Goldie after he'd been gone several days and Bower became convinced that Goldie was our secret pet cat and not a real stray at all!

Oh, and did I mention that, like most cats, he's a bit paranoid.

After Goldie passed away I vowed not to care for any more strays. Due to my allergies they need more than I can give them; like a permanent home.

So, this will be like having the best of both worlds for about 3 weeks. Then, just like the rest, he'll move on. The big difference is that this time the story ends well....