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The Hungarian Ervin László was originally a classical pianist, before later becoming a philosopher ...
2021-04-13 09:00:00

A Discreet Genius
The Life of Ervin László

Sławomir Mrożek, Diogenes Verlag AG – drawing from the archives
A Discreet Genius
A Discreet Genius

He believed everything to be connected and part of a greater unity. What made him so sure of that?

Read in 14 minutes

In the summer of 1973, philosopher Ervin László felt tired. The great thinker had just completed yet another global UN project and, despite the calls and invitations from many prestigious universities, he chose a ruined chapel among swathes of high grass. His intuition – which had saved his life and led to profound discoveries many times before – told him it was a good place for a year’s rest. That year has stretched into almost half a century so far, while László’s Tuscan home became the perfect space for deepening his subtle relationship with the universe.

The beginnings were bright and happy. He was named Ervin because of how original the name was. His father, a Hungarian shoe producer, chose it because nobody in his family was called that. The year was 1933, business was going well. Ervin was growing up in a spacious flat in Budapest, with a view of the park and the city’s spectacular architecture. He loved music. His mother was his first piano teacher. Ervin wasn’t good at reading sheet music – and it would stay that way – but whenever he played, he played like he breathed music; like he was transported to a different world. Beethoven’s Appassionata by Wilhelm Backhaus was his favourite. He played it over and over again, for it took him to a land of unknown wonders. Comparing music to a vehicle transporting him to a different dimension was very apt, considering Ervin László’s biography – because just one trajectory of existence would never be enough to describe his life and philosophy. He practised his own interpretation of Appassionata, until his mother took him to Professor Székely, a prominent figure at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest. Upon hearing the boy play, the stately professor exclaimed: “Genius, simply genius!” and the mother just nodded, unsurprised. They went back home, and nothing was ever going to be the same. The life of a genius pianist had begun.

A genius in high society

In 1942, upon seeing the first poster advertising his concert with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, nine-year-old Ervin ran across the street to the poster, tripped and fell. Since it was customary for little boys to perform in shorts, he appeared on stage with a bandaged knee, but it didn’t change a thing. The audience rewarded him with a standing ovation all the same, and the reward – a box of tropical-flavoured candy – was just as sweet.

He met Backhaus in 1953 in Lugano. By that time, László was 20 years old and a famous virtuoso. The old master agreed to humour the young one and played Appassionata just for him. László would later meet many other important, good people, who agreed to do exceptional things for him, just like Backhaus did. He later described those meetings in his autobiography Simply Genius!: And Other Tales from My Life, which remains the main source of information about his life. The Hungarian philosopher’s list of academic activities and publications goes on for miles; he has received honorary degrees from over a dozen universities and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet there is surprisingly little known about him. As if he spent his entire life on a separate orbit, sending us his brilliant ideas while remaining beyond our reach.

Good people also helped his family survive the war. He found out about his Jewish heritage when his mother attached a yellow star to his coat. “It’s fine,” he thought. After all, most of the best students wore them, too. The family was displaced and live in a crowded space with many other people, awaiting transport to Auschwitz. But then, the former vice-chancellor of the Academy of Music had become the Minister of Culture in the Nazi government in Hungary. He brought the family to the Spanish Embassy, where they lived until the Red Army’s arrival. This was the time László remembers as the worst of all. Air raids, bombardments, spending whole days in basements, seeing torn bodies, rape, suicide, people going mad with despair. He could never forget that. Those were the images he saw while being applauded in the best concert halls of the world.

After the war, Hungary’s communist regime began targeting private business owners, so Ervin’s father made special double-soled shoes for the boy and his mother, and hid wads of dollar bills inside. Then, he put them on a train to Switzerland with three suitcases, one of which was packed with sheet music. Ervin’s victory in the Geneva competition was undisputed. Performance invitations followed, someone offered him a French visa. Someone else provided a room by Avenue de L’Opéra in Paris. Baroness Alix de Rothschild gave Ervin a private room with a grand piano. She invited them for elegant dinners, which meant a lot for the pianist and his mother, who often went hungry. Marchioness de Talhouët took him to a tailor shop, ordered a suit for him and often invited László to her château, a home to Voltaire himself until 1749. And baroness Erzsébet Weiss de Csepel, the heiress to a fine Hungarian family and a practising psychotherapist, sent him a letter, inviting him to hold a recital in New York. She attached tickets for the SS America ocean cruiser, known as the ‘floating palace’.

László’s American debut took place in April 1948 in The Town Hall. One year prior, in 1947, the boy had graduated from the Academy of Music in Budapest. He wasn’t going to go through any other kind of education – everyone told him that music was his fate, anyway. Straight after his New York performance, he went back to his hotel and fell asleep. When he woke up, he was surrounded by a new reality of flashing camera lights and ecstatic reviews in the most important newspapers. He signed a contract with the Columbia Concerts agency, was provided with a furnished flat by Central Park, and Steinway sent him a brand-new grand piano to use. László played in Carnegie Hall, performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, was granted citizenship.

And then, when all his dreams were coming true, the nightmare memories of war caught up with him, along with horrible thoughts of death and relentless headaches. Even though he was already safe in America, he felt terminally ill, convinced that he had a brain tumour. Consultations with fashionable psychoanalysts offered little help; death took root in Ervin’s mind and remained there, despite his lucky circumstances. But he kept playing and performing on an intense schedule, despite his dark mental states.

In between concerts and travels, he would meet new friends and experience his first loves. He liked to spend his time with young intellectuals, sometimes accompanying them to university lectures. Conversations and independent reading, laced with occasional visits at this or that university – that was all the education he got. This makes his leap to the world of science even more surprising, quantum, even. Not only did he begin to explore science, but he also did it with an interdisciplinary and holistic approach, his own way.

All is one

László’s numerous publications contain not only his original concepts and theories, but also show his way towards them. His books are simultaneously academic and personal, as they unveil his way of reasoning. László perceives science as a living organism that is subject to changes. Changes in theories give life to unexpected and seemingly inexplicable observations. Every theory, says László, is temporary and should be later replaced with a new one that offers a more complex explanation of all the problems we have encountered so far. He believes that science is approaching a new paradigm, and that the world is coming close to a leap that will offer better answers to the great questions – about the meaning of life, the beginning and nature of the universe – than Einstein’s theories, which no longer prove sufficient. The most important point of reference to his analyses is quantum physics, as well as the latest discoveries in biochemistry and cosmology. He refers to them in many of his works, in which he focuses on the idea of supercoherence – the great integrity and unity of all beings.

In his perspective, the universe is an integral entity where everything is connected. Everything is one, even though it takes on different forms. What paradigm might we need to explain this coherence, then? László offers the Akasha paradigm, which he examines in his book The Akasha Paradigm: Revolution in Science, Evolution in Consciousness. He borrowed the term ‘Akasha’, usually translated as ‘æther’, from ancient Indian thinkers, who meant it to be the fundamental, primaeval and hidden dimension of the cosmos. In their interpretation, Akasha is the subtle omnipresence that permeates every substance: air, fire, water and earth. The Indian spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda described Akasha as the all-permeating existence that was supposed to give start to various other forms of life. Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian thinker who popularized yoga philosophy in the West, considered Akasha to be of fundamental importance to all other forms of life. He called it a subtle background that allows everything else in the universe to become tangible.

Based on this philosophy, as well as on experimental research on quanta and photons, Lászlo sets out to look for physical proof of the universe’s coherence – something he considers logical and self-evident, even if not yet scientifically proven. Here is the new ‘scientific parable’ that could offer a profound answer to the fundamental questions, such as the one about the universe’s origins. László considers the Big Bang theory not good enough, as it doesn’t explain what kind of ‘disruption’ caused the explosion and why more matter than antimatter was created as a result. So he offers the following interpretation instead: Akasha is a subtle holographic matrix, filled with energy and information. It is not information understood as collections of data, but rather a type of interaction – the ever-vibrating connection that includes every tiny particle of the universe, as well as molecules, entire galaxies and systems.

Therefore, rather than a cosmic void, Akasha could be a shivering quantum ocean that exists in cyclical phases. These phases come one after another, but rather than repetition, they are an ever-progressing process of increasing complexity and coherence of living beings. In its inactive phase, this quantum ocean is pure potential. It would be the place from which emerges the universe as we know it – according to László, a temporary phenomenon, and one of many possible others, undergoing constant transformation and inevitably heading toward taking on a different shape, therefore returning to its inactive phase. The scientist assumes the universe we are exploring is one of many existing ones, or one of many forms of the same universe – the form accessible to human cognition.


What consequence could this cosmic reasoning have for us, here and now? László insists that accepting the Akasha paradigm – that is, that we are deeply, constantly and wholly connected to the universe – changes our consciousness, as well as our way of living and decision-making. The fundamental dilemma of our world is at stake, the philosopher warns: if we assume our coherence with other beings, we will be capable of a good and deeply harmonious coexistence with all of the biosphere. Or, in other words, we will achieve a state of supercoherence. But if we keep perceiving ourselves as separate and different, we will keep exploiting our environment, leading to the destruction of the world. According to the philosopher, living in the false conviction of our detachment from the rest of the universe causes disruptions that are catastrophic on a cosmic scale.

László writes that this subtle, imperceptible background from which the universe is born doesn’t exist completely beyond human perception. This way, he moves on in his philosophy to examine human consciousness and its higher planes. Contemporary science assumes that the human brain is the nest of consciousness, but László disputes this thesis. He claims that we lack proof that consciousness resides there (we just know a little about the brain’s activity in the state of consciousness), and that it is difficult to go beyond. One can be self-aware, but one cannot access anyone else’s consciousness. So why are we so certain that other animals, stars, or the whole cosmos don’t have consciousness, too? Here, László refers to the ancient Indian philosophies once again, reminding us that in some of the old interpretations, the whole universe was considered – literally – as consciousness. So if humans could access higher consciousness, then those narrow cracks through which we try to observe the essence of all things could expand, letting us see the whole picture.

This conclusion led the Hungarian thinker towards the field of exploring consciousness as the possible key to achieving supercoherence with all beings. The first stage of this journey would be a strong sense of self-awareness, that is, connection to one’s own self. The next step is awareness of one’s connection to other beings. And finally, connection to the cosmic dimension of consciousness, that is, the universe. Such evolution would give us hope for civilizational transformation, for coexistence in unity; it would offer an answer to the ongoing degradation of our lives.

It is impossible to summarize all of Ervin László’s reflections, in which he compiled various scientific achievements, theoretical and empirical experiments, as well as a growing mass of scientific evidence. The Hungarian thinker is unafraid of finding connections between evidence from different areas of research, referring to parables or poetic language where more adequate terms have not yet been proposed. But there is one thing we can say about his academic work for sure: there isn’t any corner of existence he hasn’t visited, analysing it with all his mental, spiritual and creative resources. His way of thinking and describing his analyses and theories is accessible and intimidating at the same time. While working on his ‘theory of everything’, László is not ashamed to reach for the highest possible ambition. He’s striving towards finding a simple equation that could provide an answer – a single, complete answer – to the great questions posed by humanity. Is it even possible to find it at all? László doesn’t know, but he’s unafraid to try – and perhaps this is why the rules of the world of science cannot stop him. He entered it late, on his own terms. And he remained a free electron, often stating after Einstein that: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” How come a young pianist got so far on his own?

The power of intuition

It was one of those moments he considered a glimpse of intuition. He’d had them before, during his musical performances, for example, or when there was a truck rushing straight at him, and he accelerated and performed a strange manoeuvre, saving himself. Intuition was his great advantage in music, and now it was going to become his guide in his other, scientific life.

It was 1959, and the night was full of stars. He stood on a balcony in Bavaria, looking at the mountains. There, he decided he would dedicate his life to examining the problems that had fascinated him since childhood. As a young boy, he would walk around Budapest with his beloved uncle Pippa, discussing the nature of life, the world, the meaning of existence. That was when Ervin decided that he wanted to seek answers to the questions they were asking themselves – and that he wouldn’t do it through art, theology or poetry, but with scientific methods. On the planes and trains, in his hotel rooms, between one concert and another, he read scientific works. From those books, he plucked useful knowledge, “like gold nuggets”. He never cared much for methodology, reading everything he came across. He just wanted to know.

László’s wife, Marjorie, whom he had married two years earlier, approved of his new idea. Perhaps she liked the idea of a more steady life, rather than following her husband from one place to another, in a neverending concert tour with their almost two-year-old son Christopher. She was the daughter of a Finnish impresario. She met Ervin when she was studying in France and he visited her to deliver a gift from her father. He proposed quickly, unaware that his fiancée’s aristocratic roots went all the way to the Swedish royal court. He first read about it in the official announcement, published by his father-in-law, but it was already after the modest wedding ceremony, celebrated with a rushed glass of champagne on the Champs-Élysées. They had a train to catch and a concert in Brussels to play.

László was planning to keep touring in order to support his family, but his academic hobby soon became his everyday occupation. Soon, he met another good man on his path. After a performance in The Hague, he met a stranger in his hotel bar. The man made quite an impression with his observations: he claimed that humans need to seek coherence and unity in life. In a time of intensifying communication, transport, and various kinds of connections, those observations sounded groundbreaking and refreshing. László mentioned that he’d been writing down some of his own observations. The man asked the pianist to show him his notes, and in the morning, he came back with an offer. He turned out to be an editor in the academic publishing company Martinus Nijhoff. In 1963, Ervin László’s first book was published, titled Essential Society: An Ontological Reconstruction. The first out of the almost 100 he has written to this day.

A scientist by choice

The publication drew the attention of the European academics. László – despite having no high-school diploma nor a Master’s degree – was offered a job at the University of Freiburg. From there, he moved to Yale, where he was awarded a philosophy scholarship. He lectured at Princeton and Oxford, and in 1969, he defended his doctoral thesis at Sorbonne. László managed to achieve it all despite his refusal to follow the rules: he never specialized in a narrow field, not wanting to be trapped in an ‘egocentric perspective’. In his works, he consequently combined hypotheses with deduction, similarly to Einstein, although László valued imagination and predictions, too. This inclination places him among the most fascinating minds of our times while explaining – at least partially – why he never became a mainstream scientific celebrity.

In the mid-1970s, the world was entering a new stage of globalization: the integration of economic markets and global cooperation. László believed it important to rethink social structures as a whole, predicting that the existing models of organization and governance would prove insufficient. He wrote about it in his book A Strategy for the Future, which attracted the attention of many political strategists. In 1972, the international think tank known as the Club of Rome published a report titled The Limits to Growth, stating simply: the Earth has its limits, and so does economic growth, therefore humanity should be getting ready to change its goals and priorities. Those challenges were also tackled in a report by the UNITAR (the United Nations Institute for Training and Research), titled Goals for Mankind, on which László worked with 130 other scientists and academics. The document was published in 1977. After that, also on the request of the UN, the former pianist went to Tokyo to help establish the concept of a new international economic order. László and a group of researchers created 90 volumes of scientific reports that were to lay foundations for a new global dialogue, to be inaugurated by the UN at the General Assembly in 1980.

The breakthrough moment was coming, ready to open up a new, higher level of thinking about the planet as a shared resource. Unfortunately, the US, the UK and West Germany – the countries that constituted the key economies in the planetary jigsaw – refused to participate. The great plan collapsed, and global dialogue keeps stumbling over the same obstacles, time and time again – mainly that the big players are unwilling to make some space for the smaller ones. It’s been almost half a century since László recognized that our planet’s future depends on sustainable, community-based models of cooperation. We’ve had plenty of time to see how accurate his claims were, and how helpless large, unreformed organizations turn out to be.

The dusk of reform

Even though his global dialogue plan came to nothing, László didn’t give up on his efforts to take down the mental wall. When invited by Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the United Nations, he chose to try a different approach. He offered a regional cooperation plan – since individual nations had failed to cooperate, perhaps certain world regions could? The document took three years to prepare, but this time, too, there was no chance to make its ideas come true. The UN’s new leaders wouldn’t even read the document. And that’s when László felt tired.

He took his family for a holiday to Tuscany. During their trip, they came across a village called Montescudaio. László walked up the grassy hill and saw an abandoned house. He felt that he wanted to live there. On the next day, he signed a contract with the owner, who was somewhat surprised to see someone pay such good money for a 400-year-old ruin of an old church.

László thought the break from his whirlwind academic and expert lifestyle would take a year, but it’s been 48 years and counting. His Tuscan home, nestled in the former centre of the Etruscan civilization, became the perfect harbour to live his third life as a philosopher and theorist of systems and integrity. For years, he’s been following the same routine – apart from daily reading and writing, he goes for walks over the river and to the village, unhurriedly watching the nature that surrounds him. Without mindfulness, listening and time, we have no chance to become aware of what we are seeing, hearing and feeling. Without mindfulness, there is no coherence, the first small step on a journey towards a cosmic supercoherence.

When writing this article, I used several books by Ervin László: Simply Genius!: And Other Tales from My Life; The Akasha Paradigm: Revolution in Science, Evolution in Consciousness; Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything; and The Intelligence of the Cosmos.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.