Kurt Gödel had a strange fear of refrigerators, believing they emitted toxic gasses. He believed in ghosts and the possibility of time travel. A lifelong hypochondriac, he believed he had a serious heart condition, despite a lack of evidence; he lived to be 71. He had at least one nervous breakdown, spent time in sanatoriums, and was convinced of a plot to poison him.
When his wife became ill and could no longer prepare his meals, he refused to eat. He literally starved, wasting away to less than 70 pounds at his death.
After living in New Jersey for a number of years, he wanted to become an American citizen. In preparation, he studied the U.S. Constitution, and when he went to his immigration hearing, he was anxious to tell the judge what he had discovered — a flaw in the document, a loophole that would allow for the overthrow of the United States government and the establishment of a dictatorship.
Afraid that such talk would imperil his citizenship case, his two companions tried their best to keep him from talking about it.
Fortunately, the judge was less interested in Gödel’s legal interpretations than in who was with him that day. One of his character witnesses was his best friend, Albert Einstein.
Gödel, who had a decorative plastic pink flamingo on his front lawn, held honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale and other universities. A mathematician, he is often described as the greatest logician since Aristotle. He may have teetered on the border of complete mental instability, but his accomplishments are universally recognized as the work of genius. His greatest achievement, his incompleteness theorems, has had radical implications not only in the field of mathematics but also philosophy and science.
Originally from Austria, Gödel mastered the English language, he held a position at the prestigious Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies and he had thoroughly studied the Constitution (something few natural born Americans have done). Still, his influential friends were afraid he would sabotage his chance at citizenship and, if not for their support, he might have.
In contrast, imagine the isolation and confusion of families and individuals, including unaccompanied minors, who come to the United States after risking grueling and perilous journeys in an attempt to escape poverty and violence, and then have to deal with immigration authorities and a complex legal system.
Jim Holt, who wrote about Gödel’s immigration experience in his book, “When Einstein Walked With Gödel,” asked several legal scholars whether Gödel could have really found a logical flaw in the Constitution. Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School surmised that the intense logician might have been troubled by Article V, which places almost no constraints on how the Constitution can be amended. But, he added, “The idea that any constitution could so firmly entrench a set of basic rights and principles as to make them invulnerable to orderly repudiation is unrealistic.”
Having come to America because of the rise of Nazism, and being inherently paranoid, Gödel might not have been fully comforted by that explanation.
But more important than Gödel’s fears about the weakness of America’s founding legal document was his belief in the country’s uniqueness, its strength and its greatness. After taking his oath of citizenship, he wrote to his mother that “one went home with the impression that American citizenship, in contrast to most others, really meant something.”
Gödel had his immigration hearing in Trenton in 1947. Now, more than 70 years later, after Americans throughout the country have just observed the 2019 World Day for Migrants and Refugees, the question of what American citizenship means — and how we treat those who aspire to it — is more important than ever.
Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.