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Comment on Einstein's loneliness

What follows is an excerpt from a recent exchange that is shared with permission. The identity of my correspondent remains private. The quoted part, which appears as indented on my website, is the point I am commenting on.


for a change. what are your thoughts of the Einstein quote: It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.

[ Prot edit: My correspondent provided a link in a follow-up message https://www.azquotes.com/author/4399-Albert_Einstein/tag/being-alone. ]

I was not aware of this quote and I am taking this information at face value: I do not know if Einstein said this, but I am commenting on it regardless as my point does not hinge on the fact. I can relate to the statement and have already written/talked about it, such as in the video about my concept of the “presumptive idol”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-30-presumptive-idol/.

Einstein must have felt lonely because he was universally known as the genius scientist. Though Einstein, like everybody, was a fully fledged human being: he was not “just” a scientist. It may then be the case that Einstein could not find someone that would understand him and associate with him in full beyond the scope delineated by the “genius scientist” persona. His interactions were probably limited to:

  • Work and related formal commitments.
  • Casual, superficial exchanges such as saying “hello” to a neighbour and commenting on the weather of the day.
  • Flattery or admiration from people who otherwise would not go beyond the initial niceties.

None of those involved a peer who wanted to know who Einstein qua fully fledged human was. Hence Einstein’s impression of loneliness: it does not matter if everybody knows you, when nobody is willing to join you as a fellow traveller, so to speak.

What I point out when considering this problématique is that loneliness is not the same as solitude. The latter means to actually be alone, as in an empty room. Whereas loneliness is a feeling of not being understood, not fitting in to any group, not connecting with another. Loneliness occurs amidst others. At its extreme, loneliness makes the person think they are defective or an alien of sorts.

The lonely person can still be sociable and even super popular. It does not matter, because sociability may be limited to formalities or superficialities, while popularity revolves around one’s “presumptive idol”, not who they actually are. For example, Einstein was the “genius scientist” but do we know much else about the person, such as what was his favourite clothing style, if he liked to sing in the shower, whether he would cook, how tolerant he was to excessive use of spices, whether he would take a joke and if he would trashtalk in return. We just have this idol of “genius scientist”, which is not a real human even though it is associated with one.

To give an example of something we can understand better, as Einstein is one in a million type of figure in terms of eminence and impact (or even more rare). Consider the case of a beautiful person. Everyone is an admirer. This person enters a bar and they always get free drinks because everyone likes them. People are always nice and/or sexually interested. Does the beautiful person enjoy the fact that no-one cares about other aspects of their personhood? I am telling you that this beautiful person, who enjoys “pretty privilege”, can suffer from loneliness, because it will be hard to find someone who wants to associate with them beyond the specifics of this beauty.