I don’t want to set the world on fire
“I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”
It is one of Einstein’s more widely recognized quotes or, to be entirely accurate, one quote that’s more widely recognizable as Einstein’s. For this, we have — in some small part — Dave Mustaine to thank. In Megadeth’s “Set the World Afire,” Dave paraphrased it as, “Einstein said we’d use rocks on the other side.” With one speed metal swoop, Dave introduced a generation-and-a-half of disaffected metal heads in all the far-flung, pot-smoke-wreathed basements and Camaro SSs across the United States to two things: Einstein’s dire portent of the perils of nuclear warfare and, to a lesser extent, the Inkspots’ 1941 single “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” (the Megadeth song opens with a sample of the latter). As an aside, if it weren’t for the debilitating effect marijuana use has on short term memory, more of those aforementioned metal heads would have recognized the Inkspots’ song from Ridley Scott’s mildly iconographic 1979 Chanel No.5 commercial.
Back to the quote. I did say it is widely recognizable as Einstein’s, and he did, in fact, say those words, and they are attributed to him. But it is unlikely that he actually came up with them on his own; he really was just echoing a sentiment voiced by several others in the late ‘40s: that the weapons of mass destruction in the next world war would be so destructive as to send us back to the stone age.
His own role as catalyst to the Manhattan Project would continue to haunt Einstein up to the end, as evidenced by longtime friend Linus Pauling’s diary entry in which he recorded Albert’s regrets on paper thusly, “I made one great mistake in my life — when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification — the danger that the Germans would make them!”
Heartfelt, surely, if lacking the drama and eloquence of Oppenheimer’s Trinity quote where he mistranslated “The Bhagavad-Gita” as, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Socialism isn’t the only thing Einstein was wrong about …
Einstein more or less immortalized the rocks statement in May of 1949. That same month, the Monthly Review published its inaugural issue, in which Einstein’s article “Why Socialism?” featured prominently. In this treatise, Albert attributed misanthropy to the “economic anarchy of capitalist society,” which is, itself, part and parcel of Veblen’s predatory phase of human development. According to Einstein, the “exaggerated competitive attitude” prized and nurtured by capitalism cripples the social consciousness of the individual. In “Why Socialism?” he related the following anecdote of an unnamed misanthrope in his opening argument: “I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: ‘Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?’”
In Einstein’s estimation, this was “the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days.”
As suggested by the article’s title, Albert’s solution to misanthropy is the establishment of a socialist economy (minus that whole bureaucratic Sargasso that mired the former Soviet Union) and an educational system that emphasizes social goals over acquisitive success. Far be it from me to argue with, arguably, the largest forehead of the 20th century but, then again, Al’s position may not be all that unassailable. After all, it wouldn’t have been the first time he got something wrong (like black holes, dark energy and quantum theory). I will — for the moment — forego debating Einstein’s politics. Where I find fault with his argument lies in his naïve perception of the social fabric. Human nature is far too complex to boil down to a causality as simplistic as misanthropy stemming from politics and economy. Certainly, both the predatory phase of human development and economic anarchy factor into the making of a misanthrope, but those are only two variables in an equation that borders upon chaos theory in terms of complexity.
Misanthropes plodded the Earth long before anyone coined the term, capitalism, and I hardly think they’d just disappear like the dinosaurs if we all of a sudden embraced socialism. Clearly, this is a case of Einstein overthinking what should have been obvious: that bombing ourselves back to the Stone Age would go an awful long way toward curing misanthropy. Orders of magnitude more effectively than socialism, at any rate. After all, misanthropy — I mean true, conscious misanthropy — is simply the natural reaction reasonably intelligent human beings have to floating adrift in a sea of gibbering imbeciles on an everyday basis, something old Al would — or at the very least should — have been well acquainted with.