A Dialogue Between Einstein and Socrates

If you think getting people to act more ethically is tough, try convincing the world to eliminate nuclear weapons. In his 2013 book, ZERO – The Case for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace FoundationDavid Krieger makes his case through a series of compelling and common sense essays. This one, a conversation between Einstein and Socrates, is particularly engaging.


Socrates was taking a walk through the countryside and he came across Professor Einstein.  After the two men greeted each other, Socrates asked Einstein about his famous quotation concerning the atomic bomb: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Socrates: I’ve often wondered about this statement.  What exactly did you mean by “modes of thinking”?

Einstein: I meant that the new weapons we have created require us to think in a new way.  We can no longer continue to use our old ways of thinking that have brought us this far.  Our thinking must change.

Socrates: How must it change?

Einstein:  To start with, we must recognize that these weapons have the power to destroy everything, including most life on the planet.  We must make greater use of our imaginations, and imagine the outcome of a nuclear war.  We must be able to imagine the outcome of a war that would end civilization and cause the death of all humans.

Socrates: This may be difficult for many people to imagine.

Einstein: I have no doubt that it is difficult to imagine.  We tend to project the past into the future, but in the Nuclear Age the future could be very different from the past.  But imagining a future without human life, or even all life, may be easier to imagine than it is to prevent such a future from occurring.

Socrates: You mean imagining a future without a human presence on the planet is the easier part of changing our modes of thinking?

Einstein: Exactly so, Socrates.  But it is very important.

Socrates:  Why do you find it so important?

Einstein:  If you can imagine that we could have a world without human beings, then it should be motivating to do something to prevent this from happening.

Socrates: Yes, Einstein.  I can see that this would be motivating.  But why aren’t more people motivated?

Einstein: First, they aren’t motivated because they can’t really imagine such a world.  Second, even if they can imagine it, they can’t figure out what to do.
Socrates: I think the first problem, the failure of imagination, could be helped with education.

Einstein: Yes, I think the right kind of education would help greatly.

Socrates: And what would be the right kind of education?

Einstein: Education that shows how devastating the use of these weapons would be.  I have always felt that scientists should lead in providing this education, but political leaders should also educate in this regard.  And also teachers in classrooms must help educate a new generation.

Socrates: But many people still think that nuclear weapons make them safer.

Einstein:  This is an old mode of thinking.  It must be changed through education.  Nuclear weapons, rather than making us safer, make the world more dangerous.

Socrates:  But many leaders say that the threat to use nuclear weapons prevents other states from using nuclear weapons against you.

Einstein:  That, too, is an old mode of thinking.  It is called deterrence, and it relies upon the rationality of other leaders.  I’ve always believed in rationality, but I cannot believe that it makes sense to risk the future of humanity on the assumption that all leaders will act rationally at all times and under all circumstances.

Socrates:  I can’t imagine leaders who are rational all the time.

Einstein:  It would be irrational to believe that all leaders are rational at all times.

Socrates:  Yes, surely there are times when even the most rational leaders act irrationally.  This is true of all humans.

Einstein:  Then surely we should not risk the future of the human species due to an unwarranted belief in the nature of rationality.

Socrates:  Do you find spirituality to be more important than rationality?

Einstein:  I find both are important human capacities requiring further development, and such development requires that we should not put the human species at risk of nuclear annihilation.

Socrates:  There is much we can imagine, but also much that is beyond our ability to imagine.

Einstein:  Of course, Socrates.  But we must expand our capacity to imagine.  Nuclear weapons make this necessary.

Socrates: You said that even for those who could imagine a world without humans due to our nuclear arsenals, they still may not be able to imagine a way out of the dilemma.

Einstein:  Yes, to imagine a world without humans is only a way to understand that we must act to prevent this.

Socrates:  But some humans may view a world without humans as a positive outcome.

Einstein:  It would mean not only the end of the present and the future – that is bad enough – but also the eradication of all memory of the past, the end of every beautiful thing ever created by humans.  There would be no one to appreciate music and poetry, art and architecture, no memory of great or small human triumphs of the past.

Socrates:  There would be no one to remember the heroism and heroes of the past.

Einstein:  It would be a world without humans.  It would destroy the mirror of self-awareness that humans hold up to the universe.

Socrates:  That would indeed be a great loss.  How can we prevent this from happening?

Einstein:  It will require us to summon our creativity and discipline, perhaps more than we have ever done before.

Socrates:  This is indeed a great challenge.

Einstein:  It is the challenge made necessary by the creation of nuclear weapons.

Socrates:  So it is one burst of creativity that brings on the need for new creativity.

Einstein:  Exactly so.  We need new creative thinking.  This problem is solvable.  It just needs our best thinking.

Socrates:  What do you recommend, Professor Einstein?

Einstein:  We must be bold and meet this new danger with a new way of thinking.  War can no longer be a way to settle differences between competing powers.

Socrates:  So you would do away with war?

Einstein:  We must.  There is no choice.  In a nuclear armed world, war has become too dangerous.

Socrates:  Even though I was a soldier and am proud of it, I understand that wars must end.  War was never a healthy way to solve conflicts between contending parties.

Einstein:  You have a far more positive view of war than I do, but I’m glad we agree that nuclear weapons have made war far too dangerous to continue.

Socrates:  For a long time, countries have tried to achieve peace by preparing for war.

Einstein:  But this has never worked as they had hoped.  Preparing for war has always led to war.  Now we must change this paradigm and seek peace by preparing for peace.

Socrates:  This makes sense.  This is the way forward.

Einstein:  There is more.  Strong states can no longer prevail in war, as was once the case.  With nuclear weapons, even a small extremist group will be able to destroy a powerful country.

Socrates:  All the more reason to end war and to do away with nuclear arms.

Einstein:  There is no global problem that can any longer be solved without global cooperation.  That is also an essential new way of thinking that is necessary for global survival.

Socrates: So we must learn to think as global citizens, owing our allegiance to humanity.

Einstein:  I believe this with all my heart.  We must also end double standards, and have a single standard that applies to all countries and all people.

Socrates:  All of what you say makes sense to me, Einstein, but how can it come to pass?

Einstein:  It won’t come from our leaders.  They are still leading in the old modes of thinking based on arms and force.  They still believe in double standards, and the strong countries seek to impose their will on the weak.  Leaders of nuclear armed states won’t give up their weapons without being pressed to do so by their people.

Socrates:  Then the people must be awakened, and they must demand an end to war, and a world free of nuclear weapons.

Einstein:  Yes, Socrates, you are a wise man.  You understand the changes in thinking that are necessary.

Socrates:  I doubt that I am a wise man, Einstein, but you restore my belief in humanity.  I will help you to awaken humanity to the dangers that now confront us.  I will help you to change our modes of thinking.

(Although he looks a little like Socrates, the Indian philosopherRabindranath Tagore is pictured with Einstein.)

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