Philosophy of Civilization: Pt 1, Albert Schweitzer

24 February 2014

Albert Schweitzer I wanted to start off by reviewing Albert Schweitzer’s book The Philosophy of Civilization. I’ve grown to really admire him as a person and this book is easily one of my all time favorite books. It’s written so elegantly, so in depth, and still is so profound and simple. He gives one of the most engaging and practical overviews of history and philosophy that I have ever read. And his ethic—"reverence for life"—is one that I love, and connect with. The basic message of the book is something I think everyone should be exposed to.

Before getting into the book though, I first want to share a little about Schweitzer. Besides noting his lovely hair and mustache, for starters, he is one of the more remarkable people I’ve read about. I had primarily known him for his work on Jesus and Paul. But he was also a teacher, a pastor, a music scholar—he wrote a 400 page book on Bach in his spare time in French (apparently while teaching and in school for his medical doctorate, and later completely rewrote it… making it 800 pages… in German… because simply translating it wouldn’t have sufficed… he apparently wanted to re-saturate himself with the content to let it sit—authentically—in the German language). He studied medicine for about 6 years, and afterwards became a doctor in Africa, dedicating the rest of his life to serve humanity (I’m not sure how he accomplished all he did in his lifetime and kept his sanity). In his autobiography he writes:

The plan which I meant now to put into execution had been in my mind for a long time, having been conceived so long ago as my student days. It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering. Even at school I had felt stirred whenever I got a glimpse of the miserable home surroundings of some of my schoolfellows and compared them with the absolutely ideal conditions in which we children of the parsonage at Günsbach lived. While at the university and enjoying the happiness of being able to study and even to produce some results in science and art, I could not help thinking continually of others who were denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health. Then one brilliant summer morning at Günsbach, during the Whitesuntide holidays—it was in 1896—there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity. Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus! “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” Now the answer was found. In addition to the outward, I now had inward happiness."

What would be the character of the activities thus planned for the future was not yet clear to me. I left it to circumstances to guide me. One thing only was certain, that it must be directly human service, however inconspicuous the sphere of it.

I really got drawn to Schweitzer after reading a small book called Albert Schweitzer’s Gift of Friendship, by Erica Anderson. She had befriended him through wanting to film a documentary about him (which she was eventually able to do, after much reluctance by him—she found out after asking him that he once said to another who requested, “I would rather burn in hell than have a film made of my life”). The film won an academy award for best documentary in 1952. In her book, she writes about her entire experience with him, from the first letters she wrote him, to meeting him for the first time, and her times with him over the years. Her book and documentary give a very personal insight into his life, his humor, and his character and personality, one you wouldn’t be able to get by reading his autobiography. He has a unique blend of compassion, intellect, purpose and humor. I could share a bunch of quotes and moments from her book, but for now I want to end with a quote from the documentary she filmed. Schweitzer shares a moment from his childhood:

It was hard for me to keep my mind on my studies when my eyes were always wandering outside to the wonders of nature itself…. At the age of 9, my life took a new turn. Every morning and evening, I walked nearly two miles over the hills to the school where my parents decided to send me. I was delighted to take these walks by myself… to think my own thoughts. How well I came to know the changing seasons. But the sheer youthful joy of being alive was something I never knew. I think this is true of many children who appear outwardly care free and content. As far back as I can remember, I was shocked by the suffering I observed in nature. Suffering brought about by the relentless struggle for existence. Still more shocking to me was the pain and mystery inflicted on dumb helpless animals, by the negligence and thoughtlessness of man. Even before I started to go to school, I couldn’t understand why I was only expected to pray for human beings when I said my prayers at night. So when my mother had drawn the shudders, and blown out the candle, and kissed me goodnight I secretly said another prayer for all that had life. A prayer that I had made up myself. “Dear God, protect and bless all living creatures. Keep them from evil. And let them sleep in peace.”

An experience I had during these years made a lasting impression on me. A neighbor’s son and I had made slingshots from rubber bands. One Sunday morning he said to me, “Come on, let’s go up the mountain and shoot birds. This seemed a horrible idea, but I didn’t dare object for fear of being laughed at. The birds were singing sweetly in the morning sunshine, so unafraid of us. Crouching like an indian, my friend put a stone in his slingshot and took aim. Obeying his look of command, I did the same, with acute pains of conscience. At that moment the sounds of church bells began to mingle with the sunshine and the birds' song. To me, it was a voice from heaven. I frightened away the birds, to protect them from my friend’s shot, and ran home. Ever since, when morning bells ring out in the sunshine, I gratefully remember those bells. For they rang into my heart the commandment, "thought shalt not kill.” The matter in which this commandment speaks against killing and cruelty, worked upon me was the great experience of my childhood and youth. Gradually I came to the unshakeable conviction, that we may bring death and pain to a fellow creature only on the compulsion of absolute necessity, and that we must all feel the horror of causing suffering and death by thoughtlessness. I became more and more certain that all of us feel this way, but do not dare to affirm it. We are afraid of being ridiculed as sentimental. We allow ourselves to become callous.

And, if you’re interested in a few fun quotes from Erica’s book:

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