Philosophy of Civilization: Pt 2, Crisis

6 March 2014

Albert Schweitzer

We are living today under the sign of the collapse of civilization. The situation has not been produced by the war; the latter is only a manifestation of it. The spiritual atmosphere has solidified into actual facts, which again react on it with disastrous results in every respect… . It is clear now to everyone that the suicide of civilization is in progress. What yet remains of it is no longer safe. It is still standing, indeed, because it was not exposed to the destructive pressure which overwhelmed the rest, but, like the rest, it is built upon rubble, and the next landslide will very likely carry it away.

Wow… It is fascinating to look back and learn about how society viewed itself and the world. It was 1923 when he published this book, between both world wars, which gives you an idea where he’s coming from. There seemed to be an obsession in the air for progress, for achievement. Imperialism, the white man’s burden, over industrialization, survival of the fittest, social utilitarianism, social Darwinism, human zoos. The ideals and ideas seemed to trump the value of life. Schweitzer is attempting to grapple with and reflect on the state of society. What led it here? What can we learn from history? What does true civilization look like? Is there a way out?

We want to get into our hands the key of the secret, so that we may with it unlock the new age, the age in which the worn out becomes again unworn and the spiritual and ethical can no longer get worn out. We must study the history of civilization otherwise than as our predecessors did, or we shall be finally lost.

Ultimately he finds that society is and must be ethical, that it lacks a world view, and must find one that is simple, optimistic, and upholds the value of all life.

Entering on the question as to what is the real essential nature of civilization, I come to the pronouncement that this is ultimately ethical. I know that in thus stating the problem as a moral one I shall surprise and even disgust the spirit of our times, which is accustomed to move amidst aesthetic, historical and material considerations. I imagine, however, that I am myself enough of an artist and also of an historian to be able to comprehend the aesthetic and historical elements in civilization, and that, as a modern physician and surgeon, I am sufficiently modern to appreciate the glamour of the technical and material attainments of our age… .

Only when we are able to attribute a real meaning to the world and to life shall we be able to also give ourselves to such actions as will produce results of real value. As long as we look on our existence in the world as meaningless, there is no point whatever in desiring to effect anything in the world… .

In the next few posts I’ll be going over a few of the main points I’ve gathered throughout the book, his reflections on society and philosophy, and his solution.

I do not know how how many, or how few, will allow themselves to be persuaded to travel with me on the road indicted above. What I desire above all things—and this is the crux of the whole affair—is that we should all recognize fully that our present entire lack of any theory of the universe is the ultimate source of all the catastrophes and misery of our times, and that we should work together for a theory of the universe and of life, in order that thus we may arrive at a mental disposition which shall make us really and truly civilized men.

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