Sunday, December 18, 2016

Albert Schweitzer and the death of Civilization (3 of 3)


The crucial role of reason and progress in Schweitzer's theory are their relation in building "world view." His entire analysis of the loss of civilization hinges on the assumption that we have lost the capacity for world view and have began to think that we can get along without one, or that we do not need one which embraces anything more grandiose than utility. Worldview is essential in restoring civilization, because we are, as a society, ultimately limited by the world view in which we live. World view is the conceptual limit upon our ability to infuse into society an attitude of struggle toward civilization. "That world view is optimistic which gives existence the preference as against non-existence and thus affirms life as something processing value in itself. From this attitude to the universe results the impulse to raise its highest level of value. Thence originates activity directed to the improvement of living conditions of individuals, of society, of nations and of humanity, and from it spring the external achievements of civilization..." (Decay, 83). As C. Wright Mills observed, the loss of rational capacity handicaps people in thinking about the goals and ends of their lives; people come to live for nothing more than the role of "cog in the machine" (op. cit.). So Schweitzer ends The Decay, and again ends The Philosophy with the argument that, in order to re-claim civilization, individuals must once more take up the question of the ends and goals of their lives. In other words, and he puts it in corny fashion, "we must think about the meaning of life" (82).

Of course, this question is going to be played out in light of metaphysical assumptions; but it is only in contemplating the nature and "meaning" of life that we can formulate an understanding of how our lives, both individual and communal, fail to serve the good, both for ourselves as individuals and as members of a community, and to understand how our lives have been circumvented and rooted into the good of an uncaring and pointless system. Our lives are lived in service to a false utility, one which only seeks the temporal security of an elite, and which replaces reason with mere rationalization about the role we play in maintaining that system. It is only through returning to an understanding of human being and communal being that we can free ourselves from this technological serfdom. This is the rudimentary beginning of world view. Reason is essential because it motivates and elevates the line of thought from mere rationalization to real searching. The notion of progress is essential because it provides the connecting links from the lot of one person that of society, and from the notion of survive alone, to that of quality of life.

While Schweitzer clearly thought in terms that employ all the modernist buzz-words that are bound to open problems in the current Postmodern climate, "reason," "progress," "civilization," etc., he was not nieve or unsophisticated in his use of these terms. He understood the limitations of reason, the pretense of rationalism, and the tendencies of humanity to construct rationalizations which justify its frailty. Nor does he use these terms in the way that most Postmoderns object to, "civilization" is not lionized environmental destruction or imperialist expansion, "reason" is not a mask for the pretense of an "all-knowing" hierarchy with an imposed agenda, and "progress" is not an inevitable march toward some pre-set metaphysical goal. In a certain sense reviving Schweitzer's view can be accomplished through a change in vocabulary. Rather than "progress," one might speak of "change," or opening up possibilities. The concept of progressive change in Schweitzer's view is not necessarily in a temporal direction, but moves from a more basic level of survival to a "higher" level of "spiritual" accomplishment. Progress is not a movement of history toward a goal, but the movement of society toward dealing with loftier questions and furnishing more sophisticated needs. This does assume, of course, that aesthetic and ethical "needs" are somehow "higher," as though they are more than mere accidental constructs but exist already and await fulfillment. That implies a certain take on human nature, and it means that reason serves a crucial function because human nature is such that reason is its orbitor. All of this smacks of a kind of metaphysical assumption many today are unwilling to make.

Schweitzer was, after all, a child of the enlightenment, and of the 19th century. By all standards, his ideas are "outmoded" and "quaint:" his praise of reason is truly a praise of reason, logocentric and rational. His notion of progress is progressive, and assumes that certain states of affairs are to be valued, others dissolved. His notion of civilization does require idealistic assumptions; on the whole, Schweitzer's view does require one to say that some things are better than others. There is no way around this reality, and if that is enough to kill Schweitzer's project before it can be re-born, that is probably the way he would have it, rather than pretend that it is just more pre-Postmodern language game in modernist garb. Moreover, there are even bigger problems with Schweitzer's view than his 19th century roots.

First, one might argue that all this talk of life-view and will-to-live is fine, but the link from one's own will to live to the externalized desire to protect the will-to-live of others fails to furnish a real grounding for an ethical system, to the same extent that any other basis in grounding has failed. Even more tenuous is the link from protecting will-to-live, to a full blown social agenda. By the time we are dealing with actual social policy, many re-interpretations can take place. One person's social betterment is another person's Orwellian nightmare. There is no guarantee that all members of society are going to agree on the nature "letter living," at Schweitzer's "higher level," and there is every reason to think they wont. Secondly, one might ask, is not this not merely a case of the saint asking everyone else to be a saint? Nevertheless, the alternative seems to be staying on the course which is rapidly transforming this planet into an environmental hell with the growing possibility of wars of mass destruction. In any case, Schweitzer might be viewed as just a starting point, a springboard to new directions, and a point of departure for re-examination of our assumptions about the goals and ends of our social existence.

It is easy to dismiss Schweitzer, his ideas really are based on the assumptions of a by gone era. His notions of nature could easily be taken to task by the Derridians, because they are undermined by other statements about controlling nature for survival. His notion of civilization assumes enlightenment notions of reason, and human nature. Moreover, our society is far too jaded to sit around thinking about the "meaning of life," we prefer our lives to be meaningless, and we work at making them appear that way. Schweitzer himself was aware of this, and expressed the notion, in Out of My LIfe and Thought, that his ideas would be forgotten because he was working against the spirit of the age. Nevertheless, as he puts it in The Decay:

But, perhaps it may be objected, we shall end in the resignation of agnosticism, and shall be obliged to confess that we cannot discover any meaning in the universe or in life. If thought is to set out on its journey unhampered, it must be prepared for anything, even for arrival at intellectual agnosticism....Still this painful disenchantment is better for it than persistent refusal to think out its position at all....There is, however, no necessity whatever for such an attitude of resignation. We feel that a position of affirmation regarding the world and life is something which is in itself both necessary and valuable. Therefore, it is at least likely that a foundation can be found for it in thought. Since it is an innate element of our will to live, it must be possible to comprehend it as a necessary corollary to our interpretation of life...we must strive together to attain a worldview affirmative of the world and of life...may become retempered, and thus become capable of formulating, and of acting on, definite ideals of civilization... (The Decay, 91).

This does not mean, however, that Schweitzer has nothing to offer. His notion of civilization is a point of departure, a place to begin thinking about the re-birth of civilization. In this context, there are two notions which are most crucial to consider: reverence for life, and the conceptual meaning of civilization. Taken together, they set up the realization that, however jaded, we are capable of being good to the other. We are capable of finding reasons to value life, and to find meaning in the over all scheme of things, even if we have to invent it (and there are those of us who think that we don't have to invent it). Civilization, then, is the struggle to free ourselves of encumbrances which would mire us in cynicism, and to work out the meaning of being good to others. Civilization is an organized playing out of that struggle, one which communicates itself, through the development of culture, to future generations who must come to understand the value of what has been gained and extend it into their own situation. The fear is that, having lost the concept, having reduced civilization to mere material convenience, humanity to genetic effects, and human experience to numbers, we might at worst lose the capacity to engage in this struggle, and at best, we wont be capable of taking part in it. The hope is, that by restoring the conceptual content of civilization, we might open the possibility of better things. Working out the particulars of what all of this means is the function of this journal, we invite dialogue.


1 He shaped the modern view of the historical Jesus. In the 19th century Christ was seen as a 18th century rational man, just a bright fellow who understood reason in way not unlike the way in which Voltaire or Kant understood it. Schweitzer realized that Jesus of Nazareth was rooted in a 1st century Palestinian context, and as such, saw his own mission as eschatological; it was the end of times, the Kingdom of God would soon manifest on earth, God would call the Romans to account for their oppression of the Jews, and the Jews to account for their faith, or lack thereof. In short, Schweitzer placed Christ in the milieu of an essene or zealot, whose mission was quasi-political, and based on the late hour in human history. This is still the basic historical view which dominates theology in the liberal protestant tradition, and which informs liberation theology. See In Quest of the Historical Jesus.

2 Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization. Translated C.T. Campion, Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books. 1980 (originally 1923). The work is divided into two sections, the "Decay and Restoration of Civilization," and "Ethics and Civilization." Unwin has published the first section as an independent volume entitled The Decay and Restoration of Civilization. Because this is the main text used in this paper I am using parenthetical notes for that source, and documenting other sources as textual end notes.

3 Holtzmann was famous for the "Marcian hypothesis," the theory that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that the others follow its basic plan and outline. This theory has become the standard outlook in Biblical scholarship, and is considered such a basic aspect of knowledge that the few scholars who still dare to challenge it are outside the mainstream view. Schweitzer's schooling was disrupted for a brief bought of military service. He took his Greek New Testament with him on maneuvers, and managed to do such valuable work that he made a major contribution to the synoptic problem, and earned the respect of Holtzmann, even though it contradicted part of his own theory. For all biographical information, see Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought. New York: Mentor Books, originally published by Henry Holt and co. no copy right date given, the Post Script dates from 1932 and 1947.

4 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. New York: MacMillan, originally 1906, MacMillan paperbacks 1961, eighth printing, 1973.

5 Albert Schweitzer, Out of My LIfe and Thought. New York: Mentor Books, no date given, 69.

6 The word "spirit" is, of course, the German word giest--which is usually translated as "mind." But it can mean more than mind. Paul Tillich says that it refers to the total "dynamism of the individual." (see The History of Christian Thought). It is artistic, intellectual, and ethical sensibilities, and Schweitzer uses the term in all of these senses.

7 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination.

8 find

9 Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers, 1948, 12.

10 Fewer U.S. Colleges Make English Majors Study Leading Writers," The Dallas Morning News, Sunday, Jan. 5., 1997, 6A.
It is not my wish to open this can of worms in this paper. The doctoral program in which I have been ensconced these past several years is one which prides itself on the trendy view point of multiple readings and alternate canons, so I am well aware of this kind of thinking. My main point is just that it is great to let new works into the canon, let's let everything in that we can, and it is fine to understand the notion of multiple readings, I don't have the only true reading. But, without an understanding of what came before, these concepts lose all meaning (and they will eventually lose their avant guard value). Moreover, we should not forget what came before, preserve the greatness of the past, while finding new greatness.

11 John Harris, "Universities for Sale," This Magazine (Sept.) 1991.

12 "Enemies of Public Education," Alisa Solomon with Deirdre Hussey, Village Voice Education Supplement, April 21, 1998, 2.

13 Ibid. 4.

14 "The Book on Bertlesmann," by Stacy Perman, with Andrea Sachs and Peggy Salz-Trautmann. Time, April 6, 1998, 54-56.

15 Edward Rothstein, "Nays and Ayes for Capitalism as Purveyor of Culture," New York Times, Monday, April 27, 1998,

16 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination.

17 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1989, 4-5.

18 Ibid., 61.

19 Ibid. 44.

20 Ibid., 68.

21 Ibid., 61.

22 Ibid., 50.

23 Ibid., 50.

24 Rorty, 50.

25 Rorty has backed away from the position in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, and has changed his tune quite a bit. See the book review in this issue, "Having his Cake and Eating it too," by Kevin Mattson. Nevertheless, has Rorty changed his tune because he really saw the problems with his book, or because the community is now mouthing a different set of bromides?

26 With the influence of Schoupenhouer, Schweitzer draws upon the thinking of the East, he especially liked Chinese thought, he was well read in a host of Chinese thinkers, and seems to like Lao-tse and schwan-tse the best. He was also well read in Indian thought.

27 Tillich traces the line from Lessing and the Socinians of the 18th century, through Strauss, Schleiermacher, to Weiss, Schweitzer, and finally to Baultmann. This tradition fought against a calcified orthodoxy and in favor of a liberal version of textual criticism. (Tillich, 292). It is very problematic in that it tends to be deistic at its roots, a charge most of its defenders might deny. As is reflected in this essay, Schweitzer's own view seems somewhat deistic, and almost in anticipation of the latter Whiteheadian style of process thought which came to be process theology.

28 Schweitzer never uses this term in connection with his own thinking, only as a description of Neitzsche's thought. He is not really trying to create his own Ubermenche, and lacks the aristocratic exclusion of Neitzsche.

29 He admires the French philosophes, and the British Minute philosophers. His favorite ethical thinker of the late 17th-early 18th century England is Schaftisbury, whose notion of natural goodness in connection with nature influenced the French, Dederoit, Condorcer, and others.

30 Campion, in Philosophy..., trans. notes, 68.

31 This quotation is found in the Philosophy, section, Ethics and Civilization.

32 "From our knowledge comes power over the forces of the power we obtain over the forces of nature we do indeed free ourselves from nature and make her serviceable to us, but at the same time we also thereby cut ourselves loose from her, and slip into conditions of life whose unnatural character brings with it manifold dangers" (333).

33 One way in which Schweitzer was not ahead of his time was in his total lack of consciousness in terms of women. He rarely even mentions women, and he writes in the vernacular of his day, so that in statements about human dignity for everyone, he invariably phrases it in a way that would be sexist in our day (dignity for "men"). But, one might easily extend the concept, women are, after all, part of life, and are possessed of the will to live.

34 Find

35 Schweitzer's love of reason, rationalism, and the enlightenment is not apt to win him much approval in the current Postmodern climate. And unlike the situation with the terms "civilization" and "progress," when Schweitzer uses the term "reason," he means pretty much "reason" as we understand the term. Nevertheless, his attitude toward reason is not as odious to Postmodern assumptions as one might think. He was not so nieve as to imagine that "reason" alone offered any sort of "objective" window on reality, and he agreed with the image romanticism painted of the results of rationalism as arid and barren and suppression of the inner life. But, for Schweitzer, those were the results of rationalism as it was practiced, not the limits of what reason might be for us if we understood elemental thinking. Schweitzer was a nature mystic, he saw reason as the foundation of a mystical journey, and he understood the limitations of privileging reason as the only orbitor of reality. (see the Decay, 74-84).

36 "And yet, although the two [reason and mysticism] refuse to recognize each other, the two belong to each other./it is in intellect and will, which in our nature are mysteriously bound up together, seek to come to a mutual understanding. The ultimate knowledge that we seek acquire is knowledge of life, which intellect looks at from without, and will looks at from within. Since life is the ultimate object of knowledge, our ultimate knowledge is necessarily our thinking experience of life. But this does not lie outside the sphere of reason, but within reason itself. Only when the will has throughout its relation to the intellect, has come, as far as it can into line with it, it in a position to comprehend part of the universal will to live and part of being in general...reflection, when pursued to the end leads somehow to a living mysticism...which is a necessary element of thought" (Decay, 81).

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sgttomas said...

"Worldview is essential in restoring civilization, because we are, as a society, ultimately limited by the world view in which we live. World view is the conceptual limit upon our ability to infuse into society an attitude of struggle toward civilization. "That world view is optimistic which gives existence the preference as against non-existence and thus affirms life as something processing value in itself. From this attitude to the universe results the impulse to raise its highest level of value. Thence originates activity directed to the improvement of living conditions of individuals, of society, of nations and of humanity, and from it spring the external achievements of civilization..." " what did he think could possibly inspire this level of spiritual renewal in humanity? It's a nice sentiment. What is the foundation?

Joe Hinman said...

He was a 19th century liberal so he had a very rationalistic view of spirituality, For him the ethical ideals where the salvation iof civilization. But then his going to Africa to nurse the poor was probably a clue as to what that meant,