Category Archives: Quotations

Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIn early February 1950, Dr. Robert Marcus of New York City was absolutely devastated by the loss of his eleven-year-old son who had succumbed to polio. Interestingly, Marcus, who was a Rabbi, did not reach out to his rabbinic mentors and friends, but rather to Albert Einstein, a legendary man of science, who was also a father of two sons. As you read Marcus’ eloquent and emotional letter, you cannot help but feel the profound depth of his anguish. And if you are a parent, you will find yourself fighting back tears — there is no greater grief than that of a parent who loses a young child. Marcus asks the famous physicist if perhaps immortality may be found in the scientific principle of energy conservation:

Dear Dr. Einstein,

Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of Polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world…

What would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish… I have said to myself: “It is a law of science that matter can never be destroyed; things are changed but the essence does not cease to be… Shall we say that matter lives and the spirit perishes; shall the lower outlast the higher?

I have said to myself: “Shall we believe that they have gone out of life in childhood before the natural measure of their days was full have been forever hurled into the darkness of oblivion? Shall we believe that the millions who have died the death of martyrs for truth, enduring the pangs of persecution have utterly perished? Without immortality the world is a moral chaos…

I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension… such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child… has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?

May I have a word from you? I need help badly.

Sincerely yours, Robert S. Marcus

A few days later, on February 12, Einstein responded to Dr. Marcus, a complete stranger, with a brief (consisting of only 78 words), but thought-provoking letter of comfort:

Dear Dr. Marcus:

A human being is 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. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes, sincerely yours, Albert Einstein

Einstein relates to this heart-broken father that only religion, not science, can provide the promise, the gift of immortality. What science can provide, which may provide some level of comfort to this father’s heartache, is the concept of “oneness of the universe” — the idea that everything in the universe is one — we and everything in the universe is made of stardust. In her fascinating book, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, Naomi Levy reflects on Einstein’s response: “Einstein offered Rabbi Marcus and all of us a vision of heaven on earth. Did Einstein’s words bring some measure of comfort to Rabbi Marcus’s broken heart? I’d like to believe that Rabbi Marcus did receive solace from Einstein’s words, but we’ll never know for sure… When you seek out a man like Einstein for inquiries about the soul, you are bound to get an answer that is out of the ordinary.”

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Read related posts: Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
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For further reading: Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children by Alice Calaprice


The Ever-Expanding Mind

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”

From The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (Chapter XI) by American physician, polymath, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The book, published in 1858, is a collections of essays that Holmes had written for The Atlantic Monthly between 1857 and 1858. The book was very popular with the public — it sold more than 10,000 in just three days. Holmes hung out with some very educated, literary folks, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell. A variant of this quotation that often appears on the Internet is: “A mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.”


How Many Hamlets Are There in the World?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsHow many Hamlets are there in the world with intellectual power for large usefulness, who wait day by day and year by year in hope to do more perfectly what they live to do: die, therefore, and leave their lives unused, while men of lower power, prompt for action, are content and ready to do what they can, well knowing that at the best they can only rough-hew, but in humble trust that leaves to God the issues of the little service that they bring. It is a last touch to the significance of this whole play that at its close the man whose fault is the reverse of Hamlet’s — the man of ready action, though it be with little thought, the stir of whose energies was felt in the opening scene — re-enters from his victory over [Poland], and the curtain falls on Fortinbras, King.

From the introduction to Hamlet (Cassell’s National Library Edition, 1899) by Henry Morley (1822-1894), one of Great Britain’s earliest professors of English literature. Morley contrasts Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters whose tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, his inability to act (specifically, to avenge his father’s death) with Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who is a warrior (he leads an army to attack Poland), a true man of action. As you may recall, at the conclusion of the play, Fortinbras is crowned King and, after hearing the tragic story of Prince Hamlet, orders that he be given a funeral befitting of a soldier. But the key point that Morley is asking is: what use is critical thinking by intelligent individuals without action, without contribution? A question that is so relevant to the many problems we face in modern times.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What if Shakespeare Wrote the Hits: Don’t Stop Believin
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People Will Hate You If You Make Them Think

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIf you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.

From Archy and Mehitabel by American journalist and humorist Don Marquis (1878-1937), best known for the humorous verses and short stories created by his fictional characters Archy (a cockroach) and Mehitabel (an alley cat). Marquis wrote a daily column, “The Sun Dial,” for many years for New York City’s The Evening Sun.


The Monument of Language on the Menacing Shore of the Ocean of Gibberish

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Rousseau made the point that writing becomes necessary when speech fails to protect our identity. The written word may be a weak second best to lived experience, but it’s still pretty powerful—our only path to meaning and inner order. I keep being haunted by this phrase of [French poet and philosopher, Paul] Valéry’s: ‘I thought to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.'”

Polish-Born American journalist, writer and literary critic Francine du Plessix Gray (1930-2019) responding to a question from Regina Weinreich, an interviewer from The Paris Review, about French semiologists who see writing as absence rather than presence. Gray began her career as a reporter, then moved to editing, and finally freelance writing. She became a staff writer for The New Yorker in the late 1960s. Subsequently she began her teaching career in the mid 1970s at City College of New York, followed by Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University. She won awards for several books, including Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, andThem: A Memoir of Parents.

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Fo further reading: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2642/francine-du-plessix-gray-the-art-of-fiction-no-96-francine-du-plessix-gray


A Reader Lives a Thousand Lives Before He Dies

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

From George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the sprawling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the source of HBO’s highly acclaimed series, Game of Thrones. The quotation appears in chapter 34, when Jojen Reed is talking to Bran Strark. Jojen, a member of the House Reed, possesses greensight, the power of prophetic green dreams. Although Jojen has greensight, he is not a greenseer, as he explains to Bran: “No, [I am not a greenseer] only a boy who dreams. The greenseers were more than that. They were wargs [a skinchanger, a person with the ability to enter the mind of an animal and control its actions] as well, as you are, and the greatest of them could wear the skins of any beast that flies or swims or crawls, and could look through the eyes of the weirwoods [deciduous trees of Westerns that have blood red leaves and bone white trunks] as well, and see the truth that lies beneath the world.”

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Life Belongs to the Whole Community; It Is A Sort of Splendid Torch

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. “

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

The first paragraph is from the play Man and Superman (1903) by Irish playwright, critic, and political activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). It appears in the eloquent, thought-provoking (and lengthy: more than 11,400 words!) dedication, “Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkley,” of the play. The second paragraph comes from one of his speeches (found in George Bernard Shaw: His Life and His Works by Archibald Henderson). Interestingly, as the Internet has a tendency to do, the first and second paragraphs are erroneously combined, as if they were one thought written by Shaw. This cobbled-together quotation, taken from two completely separate works, appears in dozens of books, all — of course — without proper attribution. American actor Jeff Goldblum is quite fond of this quote and often recites it (most recently, for example, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, February 15, 2019) as if it were one long paragraph, perpetuating the mistake.

The “brief candle” that appears in the second paragraph is an allusion to the famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) spoken by Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, /  and is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

Incidentally, the complete paragraph, from which the first sentence is taken, reads as follows: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is at worst mere misfortune or mortality: this alone is misery, slavery, hell on earth; and the revolt against it is the only force that offers a man’s work to the poor artist, whom our personally minded rich people would so willingly employ as pander, buffoon, beauty monger, sentimentalizer and the like.”

Shaw wrote Man and Superman because Arthur Bingham Walkley, who was the respected theatre critic for The Times, suggested that he write a play based on the theme of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, the archetypical womanizer. Shaw wrote: “My dear Walkley: You once asked me why I did not write a Don Juan play. The levity with which you assumed this frightful responsibility has probably by this time enabled you to forget it; but the day of reckoning has arrived: here is your play! I say your play, because qui facit per alium facit per se [from Latin: “He who acts through another does the act himself”]. Its profits, like its labor, belong to me: its morals, its manners, its philosophy, its influence on the young, are for you to justify. You were of mature age when you made the suggestion; and you knew your man. It is hardly fifteen years since, as twin pioneers of the New Journalism of that time, we two, cradled in the same new sheets, made an epoch in the criticism of the theatre and the opera house by making it a pretext for a propaganda of our own views of life. So you cannot plead ignorance of the character of the force you set in motion. You meant me to épater le bourgeois [from French, “to shock the bourgeoisie”, a rallying cry for French Decadent poets of the late 19th century]; and if he protests, I hereby refer him to you as the accountable party.” The dedication continues for 31 more paragraphs.

Shaw was a prolific playwright — he wrote 60 plays during his lifetime. His best-known works in addition to Man and Superman (1903) are Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Some literary critics believe that Shaw was the second most important playwright after Shakespeare in the British theatrical tradition. Shaw created the “intelligent” theatre that required theatergoers to think deeply about the meaning of a play, setting the stage, as it were, for modern playwrights like David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What if Shakespeare Wrote the Hits: Don’t Stop Believin
Were Shakespeare’s Sonnets Written to a Young Man?
When Was Shakespeare Born?
The Legacy of Shakespeare
Shakespeare the Pop Song Writer

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Uranus
Best Editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

For further reading: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Man_and_Superman/Dedicatory
https://books.google.com/books?id=g6dEAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA512#v=onepage&q&f=false


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