Albert Einstein is one of the most frequently misquoted figures in history. It’s easy to understand why from a PR standpoint. Attributing a quote to Einstein ensures automatic respectability. After all, Einstein has already earned his sterling rep. Joe Blow’s ideas are not going to be accepted as readily or uncritically.
Obviously Einstein isn’t around to defend his honor and call foul — “Hey! I’d never say anything that frigging blatantly goofy!” He’s a sitting duck, but such is the price of genius — and of dying.
Here are just a few quotes poor Al has been accidentally or not-so-accidentally linked to.
1.) “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
Often seen on posters with smiling full moons and gender-neutral woodland sprites, it sounds decidedly un-Einstein and a lot more like Jerry Garcia if just add a “man” at the end. But it’s true our pal Al did express a similar sentiment during an interview with the Saturday Evening Post in 1929:
SEP: Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?
Einstein: I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
Seriously, what’s wrong with that quote? Why make up a fake one?
2.) “Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within.”
Another one that’s often seen adorning New Age motivational posters. It’s also fake as most celebrity weddings. This is a slight reworking of a quote from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and moral law within me.”
This seems a bit curious as Immanuel Kant is a rock star in the world of philosophy and the book from which the quote is drawn was a ground-breaking work in the field. Immanuel Kant helped shape our modern world view, and yet Einstein got credit for one of his best-known quotes. Go figure.
3.) “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Not Albert Einstein.
The first time Albert Einstein is falsely credited as saying this was 2004, in a self-help book by Matthew Kelly called “The Rhythm of Life: Living Everyday with Passion and Purpose.” There’s no evidence of this quote existing before this book’s release, and certainly no proof that Einstein ever said it.
One explanation could be that the quote is based on the book “The Animal School,” a fable published in 1940 where a fish goes to school and is forced to improve his climbing and running abilities. When it was reprinted in 1999, it could have inspired Kelly or someone else to credit Einstein with the quote to garner attention.
The quote also may have been basely loosely on Einstein’s essay “Self-Portrait” from 1936:
“What is significant in one’s own existence one is hardly aware, and it certainly should not bother the other fellow. What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?”
4.) “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Once again, not a shred of proof Einstein ever said this. And, judging by a quick Google search, it’s one of the most over-used clichés of all time, especially in the political arena.
Ben Franklin gets misquoted with this one a lot as well.
The quote has been traced to Rita Mae Brown’s 1983 book “Sudden Death,” and the Narcotics Anonymous Red Book, also published in 1983. Many people believe the quote is much older and is derived from an ancient Chinese proverb. Whatever its origin, we can safely assume that Albert Einstein had nothing to do with it.
5.) “I refuse to believe that God plays dice with the universe.”
Close, but no cigar. The real quote originates from a private letter Einstein wrote to Cornelius Lanczos in 1942. The exact wording is in the book “Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archives”:
“You are the only person I know who has the same attitude towards physics as I have: belief in the comprehension of reality through something basically simple and unified… It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice and uses ‘telepathic’ methods… is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.”
So a better leg to stand on than most supposed Einstein quotes, but still arguably off the mark.
6.) “International law exists only in textbooks on international law.”
Einstein didn’t say it — but he was present when it was said. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu made this observation during the course of an interview with Einstein, so though he didn’t speak it, we know he heard it for what it’s worth, and, let’s face it — that’s not much. If you are there when Pavarotti sings do you get to take credit for the performance because you were present? No. No, you don’t.)
7.) “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
Nope. Not Einstein. This lovely little pearl of wisdom was written in 1973 by E. F. Schumacher in an essay entitled “Small is Beautiful.” The false attributions to Einstein started on the Internet in 1997, and a couple of years later in the British Medical Journal.
There are other quotes that have no discernable origin and are obvious products of the Internet meme era. It’s clear that they are not the fruit of the great mind of Albert Einstein, but it’s quite possible they were scribbled with crayon on construction paper.
A brief sampling follows:
“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interactions.”
“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.”
“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.”
OK, sorry, I’ll stop now.