Einstein’s Misquote on the Illusion of Feeling Separate from the Whole

This morning I came across a quote in an excellent essay by Daniel Christian Wahl, frequently attributed to the renowned modern theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. Wahl did not misquote him, but it seems to be often misquoted when cited in full.

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Albert Einstein

This morning I came across a quote in an excellent essay by Daniel Christian Wahl, frequently attributed to the renowned modern theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. Wahl did not misquote him, but it seems to be often misquoted when cited in full. It is this:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

This is noted on Wikiquote as being found in the a letter from 1950, which was quoted in The New York Times (29 March 1972) and a few months later in The New York Post (28 November 1972).

However, in 2005, Alice Calaprice quoted it differently in her book The New Quotable Einstein, published by Princeton University Press. She explained to Nancy Rosenbaum, who was researching the source of the quote in 2010, that Einstein “penned his famous words in 1950 to Robert S. Marcus, a man who was distraught over the death of his young son from polio. Calaprice concurred that people often misquote Einstein — and that primary sources are the key to setting the record straight.” She wrote, “When we don’t have originals to prove otherwise, falsehoods are sometimes inadvertently repeated even by scholars.”

It seems that much of the last half of the frequently cited quote was expanded significantly from Einstein’s original wording, perhaps by a translator at the New York Times (see update below). As Calaprice notes, we need the original to see what Einstein really said.

Calaprice dates the letter to 12 February 1950, and quotes it thus:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

I presume Calaprice had access to either the original draft or the typed transcript for her book. The typewritten transcript of the letter can be found here (shown below) (archived here), which was the version of the letter that Marcus received from Einstein.

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Even Calaprice’s use of this English translation may not be an accurate reflection of Einstein’s original words. If we want to go to the “primary source” to “set the record straight,” then we need to go to the original person who said the words, in the original language that they said it, which in this case is Einstein in his native German language. The original handwritten draft in German, likely by Einstein’s own hand (it looks similar to his other handwriting), with a handwritten translation in English, can be found here (shown below and at the top of this post). A copy was given to Nancy Rosenbaum by Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Albert Einstein Archives (archived here), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

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Rosenbaum wondered if the English translation on the original draft was a good one: “I wonder about who translated Einstein’s words and whether some meaning may have gotten lost.”

With a bit of research and the help of Google I was able to find a website in German that had the German that seems to match the original handwriting at the top of the draft. After three redactions and inserts, the original German seems to read:

Ein Mensch ist ein räumlich und zeitlich beschränktes Stück des Ganzen, was wir „Universum“ nennen. Er erlebt sich und sein Fühlen als abgetrennt gegenüber dem Rest, eine optische Täuschung seines Bewusstseins. Das Streben nach Befreiung von dieser Fesselung ist der einzige Gegenstand wirklicher Religion. Nicht das Nähren der Illusion sondern nur ihre Überwindung gibt uns das erreichbare Maß inneren Friedens.

Google Translate, which has become much better over the years, particularly with new additions in 2016 of deep artificial neural network technologies which improves its accuracy substantially, gives the following English rendition of the German, which has some qualities that seem to make it closer to Einstein’s original meaning:

A human being is a spatially and temporally limited piece of the whole, what we call the “Universe.” He experiences himself and his feelings as separate from the rest, an optical illusion of his consciousness. The quest for liberation from this bondage is the only object of true religion. Not nurturing the illusion but only overcoming it gives us the attainable measure of inner peace.

Fascinating!

As Rosenbaum speculated, I think this might better capture more of the original meaning and intent of Einstein in English. Besides some grammatical differences in word order, form, and tense, there are some other significant differences from both the widespread inaccurate New York Times translation, and the translation juxtaposing the original handwritten German (which seems to show some hesitancy, being edited some 7-8 times, possibly from a secretary?).

Note: I do not know German (only Spanish as a second language), so the following is my own interpretation, using Google and other translation tools, including my understanding and experience.

Einstein does not express that our experience of self as separate from the whole as a simile, “a kind of optical delusion,” but rather as a metaphor, that it is “an optical illusion” of our consciousness (“kind of” was an insert in the first English translation). But it might not be metaphorical either; he may have really had visual perception in mind. The words “optische Täuschung,” are usually translated as “optical illusion.” Later he explicitly used the German cognate word “Illusion,” which seems to point to illusion as a better English translation than delusion, even though “optical delusion” is a fun play on words of “optical illusion,” and relates more closely to consciousness. It seems the first handwritten English translation edited “illusion” to “delusion.” Illusion ties it more closely to the Eastern idea of maya, often also translated as “illusion,” with which Einstein may have been familiar, where our perception of the world is not as it really is, the world as it normally seems to us is misleading; reality is not what it seems to be. This seems to fit his quote, where Einstein seems to be saying that our typical experience is not the truth. Illusion or delusion could fit that visual or mental misperception in consciousness.

We are not “striving to free ourselves” from a “delusion,” but on a “quest for liberation from this bondage.” The words quest, liberation, and bondage, all give the quote a much more Eastern spiritual inflection. “The quest” comes from the German “Das Streben,” which can also mean “the pursuit.” Bondage is close to “prison” as used twice in the New York Times’ translation, from the German “Fesselung,” which also means “restraining,” “to tie up,” or “to shackle.” And liberation being one of the words the Times explicitly used as well, from the German “Befreiung.” Such ideas of liberation often are found in Eastern spirituality, and in the perennial ideas of enlightenment, salvation, illumination, revelation, and insight.

That Einstein was tying his words to religious ideas seems to be made explicit in the next few words. And this is not the “one issue” of true religion, but the “only object” of it, the true or real religions’ singular purpose or goal, its object-ive, from the German “einzige Gegenstand.” “Einzige” means “single” or “only,” but “one” works too. The first English translation seems to have originally been writing “objec” but then crossed it out to use the word “issue” instead.

He doesn’t say “try to overcome it” but rather “only overcoming it,” in the German “nur ihre Überwindung.” Nur means “only,” “just,” “singly,” “solely.” The hesitant “try” is not there. Additionally the tentative “the way to reach” is not there, rather “gives us,” in the German “gibt uns.”

Overcoming the illusion doesn’t give us “peace of mind” but “inner peace,” from the German “inneren Friedens,” inner can clearly be seen from “inneren,” which has a subtly different meaning, again, with more Eastern spirituality emphasis.

The following parts, as noted in the New York Times translation, while good and perhaps reflective of other quotes by Einstein, seem to be absent in the original of this specific quote: (see update below)

  • “personal desires”
  • “affection for a few persons nearest to us”
  • “widening our circle of compassion”
  • “embrace all living creatures”
  • “whole of nature in its beauty”
  • “nobody is able to achieve this completely”

That translation also lost the part about this liberation being the “only object of true religion.” It also waters down the idea that one can, in fact, overcome the illusion, that it is actually attainable or achievable, not merely “striving” or “trying” to achieve it, which is what gives us inner peace. That translation seems to say just the opposite, that “nobody is able to achieve this completely.” It seems to me that Einstein knew those who had achieved such liberation, who had attained it, that it was achievable/attainable, from the German “erreichbare,” and that is precisely what gave them a measure of inner peace. “Nurturing the illusion” of separateness is where most people remain stuck, even in many major religions. Often the religions seem to exalt the ego, this psychological construct of a separate, independent, stand-alone person and identity, detached and unconnected to the whole of the universe.

I like Google Translate’s new rendition of Einstein’s quote, as I’ve parsed it above. Perhaps this new version will begin to be used, instead of the New York Times’ misquote, maybe even more so than the original handwritten English translation as cited in Calaprice’s 2005 book. Those out there who know German far better than I do, please let me know your thoughts about the accuracy of Google’s translation.

(Update: It does look like there was a second letter sent a month later, 4 March 1950, from Einstein to Norman Salit, who had written Einstein asking for comfort to help console his oldest daughter after the death of her younger sister, which contains the text as quoted in the NY Times. It is archived here, and noted in full here. Since it looks like there is no autograph original of that letter, and the situations they were addressing were similar, it seems that the first letter from a month earlier was re-used, adjusted, and embellished. I don’t know whether Einstein embellished his own words, or if someone else did on his behalf.)

Now, I’ll comment a bit more on Einstein’s words, and what I think he was pointing towards.

It seems to me as though our ideas of ourselves, including “space and time” (known more modernly as a single entity space-time, which Einstein was a pioneer in discovering), are entirely psychological constructs, “limitations” of our common state of “consciousness,” and these thoughts and ideas in our common state of consciousness is what generally creates the “illusion” of “separateness.” We can only perceive separateness if there is a space in which there is something here and another thing there, in space.

Our experience of being separate is an illusion of consciousness, just as much as space-time is an illusion of consciousness. But our consciousness itself is ultimately an inseparable “part of the whole” that we call the “Universe,” the One, the Absolute, Reality, Nature, or what many refer to as God. Our brains and bodies, and consequently our minds and consciousness, emerge from out of Nature, from the Universe, while still being absolutely a part of that Nature and Universe. We are not separate from Nature looking out onto Nature, but we are Nature looking at itself.

Our minds construct the perception of reality such that we appear separate from all that is around us, independent, isolated, as siloed islands in the ocean of the world. We have an incredibly strong subject-object duality in the everyday nature of our perceptions, such that “I” am perceived as here, and everything “else” is out there separate from me. This often makes us feel alone, weak, fragile, broken, temporary, mortal, and thus in “bondage.” We are prisoners of our own perceptions, of these “illusions,” of our own typical state of consciousness which perceives the world in this way.

Through “liberation,” which religions call by many different names, we free ourselves from this limited nature of our perceptions, of our consciousness, to see the greater whole directly. The inquisitive, thinking, intellectual, rational, thoughtful, conceptual, inner chatterbox, monkey mind, of our brains can become quiet in certain times of spiritual reflection, contemplation, meditation, walks in nature, extreme activities, near death experiences, etc. Our consciousness actually shifts to a different mode of perception, like in sleep or in dreams, where the “I” falls away, the ego is dislodged, the psychological self seems to dissolve, and we perceive reality much differently. It can seem like a kind of death (death of ego-self), but it is also a liberating realization that we are not fundamentally this ego construction, and all that goes along with it.

It seems to be a much more direct, intimate, personal, immediate, primary perception, devoid of thoughts, concepts, ideas, and even images that typically pervade our conscious mind. It is a direct knowing of awareness itself, which has no center, no distinct sense of “I,” but rather sees the wholeness and interconnected nature of reality, and this essentially and fundamentally includes one’s own awareness and consciousness. We are freed from the bondage of our egoic thoughts, of our typical selfish nature or “natural man,” and we can perceive the One indivisible nature of reality more directly. We have “overcome” our ego-self, our ego mind, our “separate” perception.

And we realize we are that One, we are a manifestation of This, an emanation of This, and we have never been separate from This, we only thought we were, in our mind. Our mind often makes it seem like we are separate from it (which is the illusion), but how could we be? We are fundamentally the One, but in order to perceive the One we must become separate from it, to divide ourselves from it, so that we can turn around and witness it. An eye cannot see itself, but must use a mirror. Similarly, the One cannot perceive its Self, except by dividing its Self, so that its parts can see the other parts. But the error comes in thinking that we are witnessing something separate, apart, and isolated. We are not, but we are witnessing our own Self, our own true Nature, the Source from which we’ve come, of which we are, and which we will always be. When we look out onto Nature, we are looking in a mirror. We are looking at our Self. We are looking at the One which we are. Daniel Christian Wahl discusses this very well in his essay.

The “overcoming” of our typical state of consciousness to perceive the One Great Whole of the universe in this way is the objective of perennial ancient wisdom found at the core and origin of the world’s major religions, and it is that core that is “true religion.” It is what gives us “inner peace,” to know we are not separate, “limited,” apart from this Universe, but eternally at-One with it, in It, as It. This is “liberation,” enlightenment, salvation, redemption, transcendence, freedom, resurrection, rebirth, peace, and rest. Christians seeking salvation, seeking to end the separation of the Fall and reunite again with God, through realizing at-one-ment in Christ, even realizing Christ in themselves as at-one in the Father, are seeking the same thing as Buddhists in the awakening or enlightenment of their consciousness to their eternal Buddha-nature or true essence or original nature, or as Hindus in the moksha or liberation/freedom of knowing their soul or Atman is One and the same in Brahman, the Ultimate Reality of the universe.

These are all just a diverse array of different symbols pointing at the same One Great Whole of Reality, and how we may experience This. Every religion and spiritual tradition on Earth has their own set of symbols, and this includes science. We can appreciate the wide diversity and beautiful uniqueness of each point of view, while also recognizing that underneath their apparent differences they are ultimately pointing at the same Ultimate Reality, Nature, the One, the Absolute, the Universe, the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Source, what theists call “God.” Just as we can love all the diverse and different and apparently separate and beautiful individuals, beings, life forms, and infinite array of creation all around us, while realizing that there is a much deeper and more fundamental unity, oneness, nonduality, and infinite indivisible eternal Love that keeps it all together, interconnected, interexchanging, united, and as One, forever and always.

For all those apparent separate things out there are not separate from you at all, but they are You! Coming to this profound realization directly, in our own consciousness, is a very much “attainable” Peace and Rest in our lives.

The game of telephone seems to alter words and meaning, as words get translated from one language to another, and changed repeatedly in meaning as they are transmitted from place to place, and rewritten by different people with different backgrounds and understanding than the original author. We can find the same loss of intended meaning in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, which is why I have begun my own translation of those as well, according to my experience. Of course, my translations are also influenced by my background and understanding, and should not be considered authoritative in any way. Yet perhaps it takes a mystic to know one.

Einstein was a mystic.


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One thought on “Einstein’s Misquote on the Illusion of Feeling Separate from the Whole

  1. Einstein’s letter of March 4, 1950 contains two major concepts of Buddhism:

    (1). Nonself : “He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

    (2). Global compassion: “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creature and the whole nature in its beauty. “

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