Sunday, December 11, 2016

Albert Schweitzer and the Death of Civilization (1 of 3)

(with current political import)

Albert Schweitzer

This is probably the best article I ever wrote. It was published under the name J.L. Hinman (my name) and published in Negations, Winter of 1998. That was the academic journal that I published. It was peer reviewed. I know it's long, but hey this is my real work here. This is my academic career. In a couple of days we will get back to God stuff. Although I believe this is theological. . It has very important application to the current political situation.

... The ethical ideas on which civilization rests have been wandering about the world, poverty stricken and homeless. No theory of the universe has been advanced which can give them a solid foundation...--Albert Schweitzer

Before there was Mother Teresa, there was Albert Schweitzer. At the time of his death in 1965, he was the household symbol of the best sacrificial instincts in humanity, a man who gave all he had to serve among the poorest of the poor. Unlike Mother Teresa, however, Schweitzer gave up not one, but four brilliant careers to became a doctor in equatorial Africa. Today he is chiefly known for his medical mission, and secondly as the theologian who shaped our modern view of early Christian eschatology.1 Yet, in addition to being a theologian, minister, and concert organist, Schweitzer was also a philosopher. Yet today, his philosophy has been forgotten. When he went to Africa, it became easy to tuck him away as a convenient symbol of humanitarian sacrifice, and to ignore the bothersome notions which had shocked thinkers of his day: Schweitzer argued (as early as 1900), that civilization was already dead, and that we live in a barbarous society. In so arguing, he anticipated much of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, and C. Wright Mill's notion of the "cheerful robot," as well as the decline which now besets our society. In 1923 he published, The Philosophy of Civilization2 While many of Schweitzer's ideas are quaint, seemingly outmoded, even naive, they contain a profound nature. In an age when "civilization" is either vilified as hierarchical, exploitive and environmentally unsound, or it is reduced to a sociological examination of cities, it may help to know that, at least according to Schweitzer, we are beating the wrong dead horse. Schweitzer argues that the concept of civilization has been forgotten, and the material infrastructure which accompanied it historically has been put over as the thing itself.

Schweitzer was born on January 14th, 1875 at Kayserberg in Upper Alsace, his father was a minister from a long line of ministers, and he was the older cousin of Jean-Paul Sartre. He grew up in Gunsbach in the Muster valley. In October of 1893 the young Albert became a student at Strasbourg University. He attended the lectures of Heinrich Julius Holtzman (New Testament), Wilhelm Windelband, and Theobald Ziegler (history of Philosophy), all of whom became his academic advisers and close personal friends.3 In July 1899 he took his doctorate, and shortly after that he began a position on the theological faculty at Strousbourg, and another position as an assistant minister at a small church near by. He began work on his best known book, Quest of the Historical Jesus4 in 1901, it was published in 1906. By that time, he had already declared his intention to become a jungle doctor (which he announced to family and friends in October of the previous year). The decision was a bombshell for all who knew him, (Ziegler burst into tears) and everyone tried to discourage the idea. Schweitzer himself said that the decision was based on a natural realization one morning as he woke up, he had been allowed a happiness and success that the vast majority of people never know, and now it was time to do something concrete for the happiness of others.5 He began work as a medical student in 1905, while continuing to do some of his greatest theological scholarship, including a revision of the Quest. Some where along the way he also found time to write a book on Bach, and a book on Organ building. He continued his intellectual work and music throughout his life, writing The Philosophy of Civilization while a jungle doctor in Africa (completing the work in 1923).

The Philosophy is divided into two parts, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization (also published as a single volume by Unwin books) and Civilization and Ethics. In part I, Schweitzer argues that we live in a barbarous society because the concept of civilization has been forgotten. The notion has become confused with the trappings of the material infrastructure of civilization; the "modern" industrialized world of technological production. But, civilization is not merely in-door plumbing, telephones, and sky scrappers, it is a notion built on ethical assumptions. In part II, Civilization and Ethics, Schweitzer deals with a long and detailed analysis of the failure of ethical thinking which led to the decline of civilization. Schweitzer defines Civilization as "the sum-total of progress made by `mankind' in every sphere of action and from every point of view, in so far as this progress is serviceable for the spiritual perfecting of the individual. It's essential the ethical perfecting of the individual and the community" (translation notes, 69). This definition, is fraught with the baggage of a terminology long outdated, and laced with the metaphysical assumptions of an age which we are coming no longer to understand. Nevertheless, it encodes the philosophical givens of Schweitzer's day ("progress," "individual," "spiritual"); they are anathema in our time. Rather than try and unpack these definitions at this point, because that would require unraveling an entire world view, it would be better to use them operationally at the moment, and to explain Schweitzer's use of them in the context of his notion of civilization.

For Schweitzer, civilization consists in the efforts of individuals, as part of the mass, to overcome the struggle for existence and to establish favorable conditions for living. But, "favorable conditions for living" involve more than food and housing, but also the situations in which the artistic and intellectual ("spiritual") freedom of the individual can flourish as well.6 The struggle is twofold: to overcome the limitations imposed by nature which make living burdensome (physical survival), and that of conflicts between people. This latter suggests the necessity of ethical content, it also implies something more than mere survival, since humans seem to be constituted such that mere survival is not enough. We also create culture, and when culture reaches a level such that the intellectual and artistic is able to flourish, and the ethical level obtains a degree of moral excellence, we are civilized (Decay, 41). Schweitzer's notion of "progress" was not Hegelian, not based on some inevitable telos, but based upon a more practice desire to solve problems. In the late 19th century, however, according to Schweitzer, the grand metaphysical systems of the day collapsed, and in so doing, took the ethical assumptions they had co-opted with them. Having stripped the "spiritual" dimension from the equation, all that remained was a physical definition of civilization; civilization came to be seen as overcoming nature and establishing highly organized and viable living conditions in a purely physical sense. In other words, the totality of the twofold struggle is reduced to its material components alone, and the concept of civilization is limited purely to its material dimension.

Schweitzer saw the results of the loss of civilization taking shape in concrete interactions between society and the material conditions imposed by economic forces. "[hindrances to civilization] are to be found in the field of spiritual as well as economic activity, and depend above all on the interaction between the two" (9). Civilization is the result of people thinking out the ideals of progress and fitting them to the concrete situation of their lives (Ibid.). Civilization, therefore, depends upon freedom of thought and action. "Material and spiritual freedom are closely bound up with one another. Civilization presupposes free men [and presumably women] for only by free...[individuals] can it be thought out and brought into realization. But today both freedom and the capacity for thought have been diminished" (10). Just as C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse7 would argue four and five decades latter, Schweitzer saw an inverse correlation between freedom and capacity for thought on the one hand, and the rise of material abundance and prosperity on the other (Ibid.). The struggle for abundance, the imposition of material conditions for survival in an industrialized society, and ideas of self-interest which result from this way of life, subsume the ideals of civilization, and the energy and time it takes to ponder them.

In much of his analysis Schweitzer sketches out a sense of modern life which anticipates Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. In the opening lines of that work, Marcuse speaks of "a smooth, easy, reasonable democratic unfreedom...,"8 so Schweitzer observers, "...through revolutions in the conditions of life...[humans] become in ever greater numbers, unfree instead of free" (87). He sketches an historical development of capitalism with almost Marxian overtones.

The type of man who once cultivated his own bit of land becomes a worker who tends a machine in a factory; manual workers and independent tradespeople become employees. They lose the elementary freedom of the man who lives in his own house and finds himself in immediate connection with Mother Earth. Further, they no longer have the extensive and unbroken consciousness of responsibility of those who live by their own independent labor. The conditions of their existence are therefore unnatural. They no longer carry on the struggle for existence in comparatively normal relations in which each one can by his own ability make good his position whether against Nature or against the competition of his fellows, but they see themselves compelled to combine together and create a force which can exert better living conditions (87-88).

Perhaps Schweitzer lacked Marx's faith in the nature of class struggle, but he understood that the industrial age, in so far as it had crated a streamlined version of class antagonisms, and moved workers from their own sphere of life and work, into the factory or the office as cogs in the machine. As Marx stated, "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned."9

Moreover, the pace and tension of this way of life, a life that counterfeits civilization in the techniques which have built the material apparatus of a once civilized society, place such demands upon our mental energy and time that the ideal of civilization, and the practices of freedom are forgotten. In time we come to accept the material abundance and the rigors of maintaining the infrastructure as a replacement for the thing itself. "Overwork, physical or mental or both is our lot. We can no longer find time to collect and order our thoughts. Our spiritual dependence increases at the same rate as our material dependence" (88). He speaks of the growing power of the state, of the increase in political organization, and economic forces which strangle the individual and necessitate conformity (Ibid.). While Marx sees class struggle as an inevitable result of capitalistic ownership, Schweitzer sees it as a threat to peace, a problem necessitated by growing industrialization and the greed of ownership. Where Marx saw class struggle as a logical social outcome, Schweitzer saw it as a necessary although problematic and dangerous reaction to a situation which had no other solution, yet he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the capitalists: " was machinery and world commerce which brought about the war (WWI) "(Ibid.). But in the final analysis, he is arguing that all of these ills, class oppression, war, and economic deprivation, are the result of losing the concept of civilization, and of mistaking the historically bound material conditions which accompanied it for the thing itself.

Schweitzer argues that in so far as workers are separated from the total production process, the individual becomes a mere "cog in the Machine." This holds true for office work as well as factory work. The office worker shuffling papers (or pounding the key board) is also left out of the over all production process, so that there is no sense of craftsmanship, no sense of the overall purpose. A mentality is cultivated in which the "bottom line" is all that matters. The reason for producing the product in the first place is lost. Profit margins become the reason for all our endeavors. As people become their jobs, plan careers around orbitrating production problems and maintaining cost effectiveness, etc. the notion grows gradually that the commodified product is the standard model against which all of life may be judged. "Excellence" in life becomes greater efficiency in production.

The resulting affects upon popular culture transform leisure time and entertainment into even greater anti-civilizing forces. Predicting the sound-bite and the "dumbing down" that we now see all around us, he comments on the simplification of newspapers compared with those of the nineteenth century, the result of time constraints on readers (12). He speaks of how the worker must spend leisure hours in vein entertainment since his/her energies have been drained to the point that any serious contemplation is futile "To spend the time left to him for leisure in self-cultivation, or in serious...[conversation] or with books, requires a mental collectedness and self-control which he finds difficult" (11). Schweitzer's words reflect an interest in books as a part of mass culture which is unknown today. Of course, they didn't have as many ways to waste their time in 1923, and so they tended to read more. But, the nature of an ever expanding entertainment and leisure market have meant a totally different way of life, one in which it is natural to expend energies on fruitless and pointless entertainments, and attempts at serious conversation are often a serious social transgression.

As civilization is lost conceptually, it is replaced conceptually by a shift to the organizational structure of its own physical infrastructure. Organizational structure comes to be seen as civilization itself, and organizational strategies come to replace ideals. Learning and thinking become specialized and segmented(16). On this point he anticipates C. Wright Mills argument that the rise of organizational bureaucracy limits freedom. As the arms of bureaucracy stretch forth, as workers lose the global vision of their activities, the goals and ends of their lives, they come to rationalize their lot in the overall scheme of things. The opportunity to reason about life is replaced with rationalization, no one can follow the big picture. The system takes on a life of its own, even the leaders, "like Tolstoy's generals, only pretend to know what's going on." (Mills, op. cit.). Specialization of knowledge and scientific reductionism are the result of the decay of our concepts of civilization. "Most clearly perhaps in the pursuit of science, we can recognize the spiritual danger with which specialization threatens not only individuals, but the spiritual life of the is carried on now by teachers who have not a wide enough outlook to make their scholars understand the interconnection of the individual sciences, and to give them a mental horizon as wide as it should be" (13).

In the latter part of the 20th century, these trends in education and reductionist thinking have reached critical mass, they have created a situation in which the loss of a concept of civilization creates further erosion of civilizing forces. A hefty portion of the work of professors now consists in trying to fill in gaps left by the educational system. Still more alarming, however, is the realization that the educational system itself is being dismantled and replaced with a corporate training system. A study by the National Alumni Forum found that two thirds of the colleges and Universities answering the survey do not require English majors to learn the Western literary canon. The emphasis has been shifted from Homer and Dante to boxing stories, gangster films, and soap operas. Only 23 of 67 schools responding required Shakespeare.10 It is not that society will fall apart because people don't read Shakespeare, but, the perpetuation of civilization as a concept requires at least passing familiarity with the greatness of the past. When Graduate students can spout off reams of regurgitation about Derrida or Lyotard, but have never heard of Dante, there might just be an indication that something is wrong. As it will be argued further down, civilization is passed on through the tradition of letters. Knowing the tradition as a continuous chain of literary and philosophical links is part of the process of maintaining it (and losing the links, Schweitzer argues, is part of the problem). While many of the respondents site student choice as the main reason for dropping requirements of canonical writers, others refer to the trendy ideologies of the day (Ibid.). The canon is hierarchical, we must not privilege one writer over another. Of course the effect is that boxing stories are privileged over Faulkner or Joyce.

More and more, universities are becoming the servants of corporate finance. Originally, state universities were conceived as a way for working class kids to get a college education. As the consequences of Reagan's tax revolt continue to work their magic, however, fewer tax payers are willing to foot the bill. Education is no longer viewed as a means of passing on a repository of knowledge in culture, but merely a means of job training. State Universities are more often forced to seek private funding, which ties them to corporate needs and expectations. The results of this trend are devastating for academic freedom. "Knowledge that was free, open and for the benefit of society is now proprietary, confidential and for the benefit of business. Educators who once jealously guarded their autonomy now negotiate curriculum planning with corporate sponsors... [emphasis mine] ...Professors who once taught are now on company payrolls churning out marketable research in the campus lab, while universities pay the cut-rate fee for replacement teaching assistants... University presidents, once the intellectual leaders of their institutions, are now accomplished bagmen."11

Moreover, the avenues of learning which once offered the working class a means of entry into the rarefied world of letters, are being dismantled. As a case in point, the State University of New York, (SUNY) once offered affordable education to the poor, and many students who began in the humblest of circumstances wound up getting Ph. D's. But, SUNY is being taken apart, it's funding curtailed, and it's future tied to corporate leadership. Mayor Rudy Giuliani has called for an end to open admissions at CUNY, (City University of New York) which is also being overhauled. "In recent months, SUNY and CUNY have come under a barrage of attacks from anti-tax activists and right-wing think tanks and from the Republican politicians whose budget-cutting frenzies they feed..."12 Solomon documents the involvement of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation (a mega funder of right-wing think tanks) Scaife Family Foundations, the Manhattan Institute, and many others. The major reason for "reform" cited by the Mayor, is that the system is a failure--remedial courses, only 9% of the students graduate in four years (which is true of most baccalaureate graduates now days, as the Center for Educational Statistics shows (Ibid. 6) and only 1% from the cities community colleges in two years. The content of courses is also sited, the emphasis upon popular culture rather than the classics, but the "reformers" are not replacing these remedial courses with Dante and Milton. They infuse corporate need into University life, and orient the program along the lines of a job training program. "They speak of the degrees they grant as `products' and their students as `customers' and insist upon `productivity measures' that are more appropriate to widget manufacturing than to broadening students' knowledge and critical faculties."13

While academics try to justify abandonment of the Western tradition of letters with the most ideologically trendy line, the economic realities lurking behind the problem speak for themselves. The American publishing industry is going under, with sales of adult hardcover trade books slipping 7% in one year (1996-1997). The sale of Randomhouse to the German company Bertelsmann is a prime example. It is not that publishers are selling so few books that they can't stay in business, rather, the expectations of booksellers are not being met. Publishing has changed profoundly over the past 30 years. "Today's books are more like grocery products than works of literature. Publishers scrutinize an author's sales history and before buying a new title they consult with the marketing and sales departments about the books chances."14 As the concept of civilization collapses, art and literature are reduced to commodities. A rash of corporate takeovers in the `80s and early `90s transformed the publishing industry. "Under corporate ownership, the cultural appeal of books began to give way increasingly to bottom line considerations. Media czars, expecting books to yield the same 15%-20% profits as their other current businesses..." (Ibid.). Thus, publishers try to compete with other forms of media by holding publishing hostage to market research. While there is a valid question of causality involved here--is the failure to teach and respect the canon the cause or the result of this cultural drift away from serious reading?--it is not hard to see that Universities and other institutions of "higher learning" are doing precious little to prevent the consequences. Not only are the very people who should be furthering the tradition, seeking the theoretical means to justify its demise, but the University itself is imperiled.

One might add to the litany the state of the arts. While the explosion in small presses has brought with it an abundance of very prosaic poetry and a flourishing small press movement, the situation for artistic institutions is very different. "Every major cultural institution, from the metropolitan Museum of Art to the New York Public Library to Lincoln Center would collapse immediately if it were at the mercy of market a handful of entertainment conglomerates have become the main suppliers of cultural products, and even popular arts, it is argued, have suffered under their watch."15 "High culture," is an acquired taste. Society is no longer very interested in passing on that taste, thus, the market cannot support it. As we grow more dependent upon market forces, the emptiness of the culture begins to feed upon itself. The educational system must work twice as hard, it must battle both the tax revolt, and the culture itself; a culture which has been taught to despise learning and thinking. Without the concept of civilization, all aspects of life are reduced to commodities, and the commodification becomes the only valid pursuit, dominating all taste, all vision, and all aspirations.

The common link in each of these problems is between the loss of civilizing influences and their affects upon society. Each new problem which emerges becomes in turn a new source of the loss of civilization. Popular culture is a good example. As the culture itself takes on a reduced aspect in its "spiritual" milieu, (capacity for free thought and artistic expression), the resulting popular culture creates mazeways through which the next generation grows up even more separated from the ideals and pursuit of civilized life. The next generation grows up thinking of civilization as freeways and flush toilets, with no concept that it could be an ideal of behavior or of individual thought, and with no concept that spare time might be a source of intellectual renewal, rather than the chance to play. As C. Wright Mills remarked, alienated from work, the average person is alienated from leisure.16 The generation after that grows up thinking of civilization as one of those old fashioned hierarchical things we were smart to get rid of, and the generation after that one will grow up never knowing the term existed. The specialization of knowledge is an even better example. While specialization itself is necessitated by technological advancement, the disconnected nature of knowledge results from the loss of a global view. We do not have "learning," we merely have "information," because the ideals of having a civilization are missing. Students are not taught to have an inter-related world view, but to cram bits of knowledge into their heads so that they might find a job. The University ceases to be a "little universe," but becomes a honeycomb of specialized interests, and increasingly the pet project of industry. In turn, knowledge becomes even more specialized under the demands of meeting the burden of the already overly specialized fields. Thus, the loss of civilization becomes a "snowball" effect. Ultimately, however, Schweitzer traces the original core of the snowball back to the failure of 19th century philosophy.

part 2


Eric Sotnak said...

"As civilization is lost conceptually, it is replaced conceptually by a shift to the organizational structure of its own physical infrastructure. Organizational structure comes to be seen as civilization itself, and organizational strategies come to replace ideals."


Instrumental value is mistaken for inherent value.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

exactly. Well put. Thanks you.

What we are facing now is the cheapening of even the organizational as American interest will comer to be identified with Exon's interest.

sgttomas said...

It seems well established that primary and most of secondary education was established to train factory workers, now that the jobs require more bureaucratic functions and less tactile ones, the universities are simply conduits to the "Machine".