In 1930, Nobel prize winners Albert Einstein (physics, 1921) and Rabindranath Tagore (literature, 1913) met four times to discuss the nature of reality, science, beauty, consciousness, philosophy and religion.
At the time of their meetings, Einstein’s son-in-law Dimitri Marianoff said, “It was interesting to see them together — Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet… Neither sought to press his opinion. But it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat.”
Transcripts of two of these historic conversations were published in The New York Times magazine (August 10, 1930) and Asia magazine (1931).
CONVERSATION 1: JULY 14, 1930
“ON THE NATURE OF REALITY”
Tagore: You have been busy, hunting down with mathematics, the two ancient entities, time and space, while I have been lecturing in this country on the eternal world of man, the universe of reality.
Einstein: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?
Tagore: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the Universe is human truth.
I have taken a scientific fact to explain this — matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.
Einstein: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe — the world as a unity dependent on humanity, and the world as a reality independent of the human factor.
Tagore: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty.
Einstein: This is the purely human conception of the universe.
Tagore: There can be no other conception. This world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.
Einstein: This is a realization of the human entity.
Tagore: Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of truths. Religion realizes these truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to truth, and we know this truth as good through our own harmony with it.
Einstein: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?
Einstein: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.
Einstein: I agree with regard to this conception of Beauty, but not with regard to truth.
Tagore: Why not? Truth is realized through man.
Einstein: I cannot prove that my conception is right, but that is my religion.
Tagore: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness — how, otherwise, can we know truth?
Einstein: I cannot prove scientifically that truth must be conceived as a truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.
Tagore: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth. At least, the truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity. But such a truth cannot belong to Science. The nature of truth which we are discussing is an appearance — that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.
Einstein: So according to your conception, which may be the Indian conception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.
Tagore: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore the entire human mind realizes truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.
Einstein: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.
Tagore: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.
Einstein: The problem begins whether truth is independent of our consciousness.
Tagore: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.
Einstein: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.
Tagore: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.
Einstein: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same — but this is already illegitimate from your point of view — because we cannot explain what it means that the table is there, independently of us.
Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.
Tagore: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.
In the apprehension of truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.
Einstein: Then I am more religious than you are!
Tagore: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.
CONVERSATION 2: AUGUST 19, 1930
“EINSTEIN AND TAGORE PLUMB THE TRUTH: Scientist and poet exchange thoughts on the possibility of its existence without relation to humanity”
Tagore: I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.
Einstein: The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say good-bye to causality.
Einstein: One tries to understand in the higher plane how the order is. The order is there, where the big elements combine and guide existence, but in the minute elements this order is not perceptible.
Tagore: Thus duality is in the depths of existence, the contradiction of free impulse and the directive will which works upon it and evolves an orderly scheme of things.
Einstein: Modern physics would not say they are contradictory. Clouds look as one from a distance, but if you see them nearby, they show themselves as disorderly drops of water.
Tagore: I find a parallel in human psychology. Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?
Einstein: Even the elements are not without statistical order; elements of radium will always maintain their specific order, now and ever onward, just as they have done all along. There is, then, a statistical order in the elements.
Tagore: Otherwise, the drama of existence would be too desultory. It is the constant harmony of chance and determination which makes it eternally new and living.
Einstein: I believe that whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good, however, that we cannot see through to it.
Tagore: There is in human affairs an element of elasticity also, some freedom within a small range which is for the expression of our personality. It is like the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.
Einstein: That is possible only when there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people’s mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.
Tagore: You have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India, the measure of a singer’s freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer’s song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret.
Einstein: It requires a very high standard of art to realize fully the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country, the variations are often prescribed.
Tagore: If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.
Einstein: Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?
Tagore: Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song-kirtan, we call it-which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer.
Einstein: Is the metrical form quite severe?
Tagore: Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty with time, but not with melody.
Einstein: Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?
Tagore: Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India, music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.
Einstein: Is it not polyphonic?
Tagore: Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?
Einstein: Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.
Tagore: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.
Einstein: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.
Tagore: It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.
Einstein: This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer, we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.
Tagore: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.
Einstein: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.
Tagore: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.
Einstein: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.
Tagore: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.
Einstein: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.
Tagore: And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.