An Extraordinary Letter Connecting Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Whose Work Had a Revolutionary Impact on How People Perceived Their External and Internal Worlds

The two most impactful Jewish men of science

Einstein: “I am an eager admirer of Freud as an author and thinker…”

Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud were the three giants of science whose theories and discoveries changed the way people thought about themselves and the world around them. Contemporaries, their careers spanned just over a century,...

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An Extraordinary Letter Connecting Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Whose Work Had a Revolutionary Impact on How People Perceived Their External and Internal Worlds

The two most impactful Jewish men of science

Einstein: “I am an eager admirer of Freud as an author and thinker…”

Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud were the three giants of science whose theories and discoveries changed the way people thought about themselves and the world around them. Contemporaries, their careers spanned just over a century, at the end of which the ways of thought at the start were virtually unrecognizable at the end. Darwin’s concepts of evolution and natural selection explained the origin of species without reference to a creator, which up-ended the contemporary religious orthodoxy. It weakened the hold of religious dogma, and by eliminating God from science, made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena. Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity led to a complete revision of the way people perceived their external world. Our understanding of space, time, gravity, and indeed every facet of how the cosmos works stems from Einstein. Photoelectric cells, television, nuclear power, space travel and semiconductors all bear his signature; even the global positioning system (GPS) people tap into on their smartphones relies on Einstein’s theory of general relativity to function accurately. Sigmund Freud’s writings led to a complete revision of the way people perceived their internal world. It changed people’s understanding of human behaviour, and pioneered insights into the self and created an awareness that there are engines that drive behavior, and motives beyond the obvious. It also changed the way society thought about and dealt with mental illness.

Einstein and Freud were Jews, and likely the most impactful Jewish men of science the world has known. Both were compelled to flee their native Germany and Austria with the coining to power of the Nazis. Einstein came to the U.S., while Freud went to Britain. Freud wrote his nephew in 1926: “The Jews all over the world boast of my name, pairing me with Einstein.” That pairing continues today.

Einstein’s younger son Eduard, a medical student with an interest in psychoanalysis, suffered from mental illness. It was Eduard who urged his father to read the work of Freud. Einstein first met Freud in 1926, and after their meeting Freud observed of Einstein, “He is serene, assured and courteous, understands as much of psychology as I do of physics, and so we had a very pleasant chat”. Einstein was not then convinced of Freud’s theories. In July 1932, the physicist wrote to the psychoanalyst to open a dialogue about how best to avoid war. Their correspondence was published in the 1933 pamphlet entitled Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Why War? In 1936, Einstein wrote Freud on the occasion of the latter’s 80th birthday, indicating he now accepted Freud’s work as accurate: “I am glad that this generation will be granted the opportunity of expressing its respect and gratitude to you, as one of its greatest teachers… Until a short time ago I was only aware of the speculative force of your thought and its powerful influence on our contemporary view of the world, and was unable to make up my mind about the intrinsic truth of your theories. However, I recently happened to hear about certain, as such insignificant cases, which convinced me that any differing explanation (an explanation differing from the doctrine of repression) was excluded. This gave me pleasure, for it is always a source of pleasure when a great and beautiful idea proves to be correct in actual fact”. Freud responded, “I really must tell you how delighted I am to learn of the change in your judgment…”

Theodor Reik was one of Freud’s first students in Vienna, and like Einstein and Freud was a Jew who fled the Nazis. He emigrated to the United States in 1938, went on to become a pioneer of psychoanalysis here. He remained Freud’s friend for decades. Reik founded the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis after he was refused membership in the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Despite his lack of a medical degree, the principle reason for his rejection, Freud himself wrote an essay (The Question of Lay Analysis) defending Reik’s credentials. The two remained friends until Freud’s death in 1939.

Typed letter signed, in German, Peconic, NY (where he pursued his hobby of sailing), August 3, 1938, to Reik, less than two months after the latter had arrived in the U.S., expressing his opinion on Freud. “I keep myself completely apart from university circles and cannot take the initiative on your behalf due to a lack of personal contacts. But I am happy to empower you to mention me in your efforts. I am an eager admirer of Freud as an author and thinker, and I know that an opinion along the lines of what he has said about you demonstrates a lot. So please dispose of me, as far as it makes sense under the stated circumstances. With great esteem, A. Einstein.”

This is the first letter we have ever seen reach the market in which one of the three giants of science offers an opinion on any of the others. It also associates the two greatest Jewish scientists of the age.

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