Philosophy of Civilization: Pt 3, An Historical Tour and the Problem of Western Philosophy

28 March 2014

In a large majority of The Philosophy Of Civilization, Schweitzer gives a bit of a tour of philosophy and history, overviewing some of the major people and periods. He starts with the problem of Western Philosophy, overviews history from the Greeks to the present, their struggle for a world-view, and then gives his new proposal. I won’t go over all of his reflections, but I want to give a brief overview to at least setup some basics.

Western Philosophy’s Strength and Weakness

The strength of Western Philosophy is in it’s “life-affirmation” and it’s “optimistic-ethical” thought. These are two terms Schweitzer uses, amongst many others, throughout the book. Western thought strived to be optimistic, and this, when held onto firmly, is what led society so far—to so much discover, deep thought, and invention.

For us Westerners civilization consists in this: that we work simultaneously for the perfecting of ourselves and of the world… . The history of Western philosophy is the history of the struggle for an optimistic outlook on life. If in antiquity and in modern times the peoples of Europe have managed to produce a civilization, it is because the optimistic world-view was dominant in their thought, and held the pessimistic permanently in subjection, although it was not able to suppress it altogether. (pp. 94-95)

Though it’s strength of optimism brought it so far, its weakness is that it lacked a sufficient, basic, and thorough world-view to sustain itself. It was searching in the wrong places and attempting to give itself a foundation on unstable ideas. And when it’s optimism led it to great achievement, it forgot to reflect upon itself and was wrecked in the results.

Beginning with the Greeks

Schweitzer starts with the Greeks who, he says, begin to free themselves from their underlying religion and belief in the gods and move to a world-view based on knowledge and thought.

The sophist begin criticizing social life, deciding that morals are invented by society for its own interests. The thinking man is to free himself from this and make his own morals based on his pleasure and interests.

Socrates, Schweitzer says goes only little further than them. “In the place of their simply pleasurable he put the rationally pleasurable.” His greatness lies in his attempt to ground ground himself in thought, reason, and inner conviction. His downfall is his obsession with the individual’s relation to the state as well as, like the other Greeks, his attempt to link his thought with pleasure—that an individual’s happiness can be connected to the interests of society.

The conception of the rationally pleasurable, which was the legacy of Socrates, is not productive enough to keep a world alive. It is impossible to develop from it the ideas of a utilitarianism directed to the welfare of the community, although he believed he founded them in it. Ethical thought remains confided within the circle of the ego. Every attempt to ennoble the rationally pleasurable ends in life-affirmation changing into life-negation. On this logical fact was wrecked the ancient West, which, after the critical awakening of the Greek spirit, could have been saved only by means of a reflective optimistic-ethical outlook on life. It was able to take seriously what Socrates gave it, but not to make it capable of producint life and civilization. Plato, too, and Aristotle, the two great independent thinkers of antiquity, are incapable of producing an ethic of action, and so giving civilization a firm foundation. (p. 121)

The Stoics attempt to widen Socrates' narrow vision into something more cosmic. They too though, are too caught up in questions of pleasure and non-pleasure and citizenship to really go beyond. And their difference in an attempt to find a world-view in what Schweitzer calls “nature-philosophy” only leads to resignation (I’ll get back to this idea in a later post).

Nature-philosophy only provides the cosmic background for the resignation to which ethics have come… . It is true that there is power in the preaching of resignation which ancient thought, no longer ignorant about life, allows to go forth to mankind. Resignation is the lofty porch through which one enters upon ethics. But Epicurus and the Stoics stay on in this porch. Resignation becomes for them an ethiacal world-view. Hence they are incapable of leading ancient society from its ingenuous life-and-world-affirmation to a philosophy based on thought. (p. 121)

Plato attempts to ground the Good on something more absolute in his forms, which Schweitzer says is devoid of content, supra-ethical, and dualistic. His virtues are the only practical element in his philosophy but have nothing to do with his conception of Good in his supra-ethical and immaterial world.

The true ethic, then, is world-negation. To this view Plato was committed the moment he allowed the ethical to find its home in the world of pure Being. Thoughts of ascetic inactivity find expression in him side by side with the Greek feeling for reality, and it is confusing that he does not recognize the conflict between them, but speaks now in one sense, now in the other. His ethic is a chaos, and he himself an expert in inconsistency. Plato’s ethic of world-negation is not an original creation; he takes it over in the Indian setting in which it is offered to him by Orphism and Pythagoreanism. By what route there found its way into Greek thought this pessimism which had been thought out to a system and equipped with the doctrine of re-incarnation, we do not know, and shall probably never learn… . (p. 123)

I’ve heard different people comment on this dualism in Plato but when I had originally read him I didn’t see it that way. I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I read him…

Aristotle, Schweitzer says, attempts to make ethics more actionable, grounded in rational reflection and virtue acquired by practice. And though he finds something simple and practical, Schweitzer says it is valueless in itself as it attempts to come to conclusions without understanding itself.

Aristotle is so firmly resolved not to have anything to do with the problem of the basic principle of ethics, that he will allow nothing to lead him to discuss it. He means to voyage along the coast, keep to facts, and deal with ethics as if they were a branch of natural science… .

It is because he misunderstands their nature that Aristotle cannot help ethics forward. Plato goes beyond Socrates and loses himself in abstractions. Aristotle, in order to maintain the connection with reality, aims lower than Socrates. He brings together material for a monumental building, and runs up a wooden shack. Among teachers of virtue he is one of the greatest. Nevertheless, the least of those who venture on the search for the basic principle of the ethical is greater than he. (p. 127)

Schweitzer continues to reflect upon these and others, and he ends with the Greeks by concluding that they were unable to find something grounded to progress humanity. It was only with the later Greek thinkers that begin to find something more “optimistic-ethical” that would progress humanity, but they were too late.

The optimistic-ethical monism of the later Stoics is like a sunbeam breaking through in the evening of the long, gloomy day of antiquity while the darkness of the middle ages is already drawing on, but it has no power to waken any civilization to life. The time for that is past. The spirit of antiquity, having failed to reach an ethical nature-philosophy, has become the prey of a pessimistic dualism in which no ethic of action is any longer possible; there can only be an ethic of purification.

The thoughts of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius are the winter seeds of a coming civilization. (p. 140)

Rennaissance and Post-Rennaissance

From the Greeks, Schweitzer moves to the Renaissance where he speaks of a new world-and-life-affirmation which breaks through as never before. This time begins to move towards nature and discovery, asking questions about governing laws and the universe and making them serviceable to itself. This new phase came quickly, Schweitzer says, but without much fruit. It had become optimistic, not because of a new deepened thought, but because its understanding of the world gave it power.

[B]eginning at the end of the fourteenth century, and it arises as a protest against the medieval enslavement of the human spirit. The movement is helped to victory by the increasing knowledge of Greek Philosophy in its original form, which is the result of the migration to Italy about the middle of the fifteenth century of learned Greeks from Constantinople. Among the thinking men of that time there arises the believe that philosophy must be something more elemental and more living than Scholasticism taught.

But the thought of antiquity would not have been sufficient by itself to keep alive this new world-and-life-affirmation which appealed to it as a precedent. It had not, in truth, the mentality required. (p. 141)

One interesting characteristic Schweitzer makes here is a transformation of pessimism to optimism, with the help of Christianity. Christianity’s transformation, he says, is the decisive event of this the modern age.

Under the steadily active influence of the new mentality, the world-view of Christianity changes, and becomes leavened with the yeast of the world-and-life-affirmation. It gradually begins to be accepted as self-evident that the spirit of Jesus does not renounce the world, but aims at transforming it. The early Christian concept of the Kingdom of God, which was born of pessimism and, thanks to Augustine, prevailed through the Middle Ages, is rendered impotent, and its place is taken by a conception which is the offspring of modern optimism… . During this period Christianity takes no account of what is happening to itself. It believes that it is remaining unaltered, whereas in reality, by this change from pessimism to optimism, it is surrendering its original character. (p. 143)

Though post Reformation thought would view Jesus' teaching as an active action to transform the world, Schweitzer says it was not so—it is the paradox of his teaching that he had an active ethical teaching combined with an awaiting of the end of the world. The modern age overlooked this paradox and held to the optimism of his teaching, and combined it, he says, with the late stoicism of a rational and active ethic. Where they were once unable to come together because of these differing viewpoints, they now were able to because of a new bridge between their world-views.

The combination of this Stoic and Christian ethic with the achievements of discovery and invention brought a belief in progress which brought forth this new age. But as time went on, progress would begin to leave ethics behind until it brings ethics down with it. And this begins a great turning point having gone from pessimism to optimism, now it returns to pessimism again.

But as the cart gets heavier and the road more difficult, so that ethics ought to lend their strength to help, they refuse, because they have no strength of their own. The cart begins to run backward, and carries belief in progress, and ethics with it, down the hill.

The task before philosophy was to change the world-and-life-affirmation which arose from enthusiasm over the attainments of discovery and invention into a deeper, inner world-and-life-affirmation arising out of thought about the universe and the life of man, and on that same foundation to build up an ethical system. But philosophy could do neither.

About the middle of the nineteenth century, when it has become perfectly clear that we are living with a world-and-life-affirmation which has its source merely in our confidence in discovery and invention and not in any profounder thought about the world and life, our fate is sealed. The modern optimistic-ethical world-view, after doing so much for the material development of civilization, has to collapse like a building erected already to a considerable height but on rotten foundations. (p. 149)

Ethics in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

These two centuries begin to go back to similar questions posed by the Greeks by asking how the self can be merged with altruism, or society as a whole. Many had attempted to put it under rational thought and argued that if an individual truly understands his own interests, he would connect them with the interests of society. Others had continued that thought and concluded that individuals left alone would only go towards their selfish desires, and authority had to compel them to do otherwise, by appealing to their egoism and material desires. Individuals could be could be regulated by society itself by using praise and blame. Hume had even apparently encouraged the love of fame, as it would keep one in the spotlight of others and encourage one to please them.

And against the more utilitarian viewpoints, others had proposed that morality is really the striving for perfection given to us by nature. There seemed to be a swirl of rational thought attempting to grasp something to build a society for the benefit of all its members, but Schweitzer points out as he does with the Greeks, that these thoughts end in resignation.

The consideration, therefore, that egoism, rightly understood, will oblige the individual to resolve on activity which is directed to promoting the common good, is a ship which sails well, but leaks. (p. 152)

Ethical thought falls from one paradox into another. If, as in antiquity, it thinks out a system in which the activity that must be directed to the common good is not sufficiently represented, it arrives at ethics which are no longer ethics, and ends in resignation. If it assumes and starts from such an activity directed to the common good, it arrives at an ethic in which there is no ethical personality. Strange to say, it is unable to mark out the middle course and let an activity which is directed to the promotion of the common good spring from the ethical personality itself. (p. 158)

Schweitzer begins here to point more towards his proposal that the ethical cannot be supported by rational thought alone, and especially not by attempting to merge spiritual happiness with material happiness. Maybe it could stand alone by an inner compulsion. Of this age he ends with a guy named Anthony Ashley-Cooper (aka Earl Shaftesbury) who became a major influence to the next generations, returning them back to the creative spirit of the Renaissance. About him Schweitzer says,

he places its origin in feeling… . [T]he important thing is that he puts forward a living philosophy of nature in combination with ethics. He is convinced that harmony reigns in the universe and that man is meant to experience this harmony in himself. Aesthetic feeling and ethical thinking are for him forms of union with that divine life which struggles to find expression in the spiritual being of man as it does with nature. With Shaftesbury ethics descends from a rocky mountain range into a luxuriant plain. The utilitarians as yet know nothing of a world. Their ethic is restricted to considerations about the relation of the individual to society. The anti-utilitarians have some idea of a world, but not a correct one. They elaborate ethics with a formal theology and a formal philosophizing about the All, but Shaftesbury plants ethical thought in the universe of reality, which he himself contemplates through an idealising optimism, reaching thereby a direct and universal notion of the moral.

Rationalism and beyond

With a rational and optimistic grounding and a strong belief in progress, society began to make great advancements, not only materially but through the beginning of tolerance, the end of witch trials and superstitious thought, torture becoming less and less used, and new ideals of all becoming educated. “The war against ignorance is begun,” Schweitzer says. A wave of enthusiasm from the previous generations was rode, but not for too long before people began to become critical of it, and Napoleon wreaked havoc on Europe, putting it “in a condition of misery.”

The ethical and the optimistic come into power, therefore, in the philosophy of the eighteenth century, although they have not yet received any real foundation. Scepticism and materialism range around the fortress like hordes of unconquered enemies, thought at first without being dangerous; as a rule they have themselves absorbed no small amount of belief-in-progress and of ethical enthusiasm. (pp. 167-168)

Moving into the nineteenth century, society kept progressing, but it began to leave ethics behind. The sciences, biology and Darwinian thought began to mark their influence as society moved from the rational to the actual. Philosophy became mere academic review and it’s creativity began to vanish. Questions of individual ethics became no longer interesting, progress no longer appreciated, and the conviction of the previous generations began to fade. And with this, the optimism western society once held became dull, the excitement of discovery gone, and only cold hard facts remained and the utility of every person sought after.

When, at the close of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the reaction against rationalism set in and criticism began to play upon it, its optimism was reproached as superficial and its ethics as sentimental. But the spiritual movements which criticize it and take its place cannot develop on the same lines what it accomplished, in spite of its manifold imperfections, by inspiring men with ideals of civilization grounded in reason. The energy of thought about civilization dwindles imperceptibly but steadily. In proportion as the world-view of rationalism is left behind, the feeling for actuality makes its influence felt, until at last, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, ideals are borrowed no longer from reason but from actuality, and we therewith sink still further into a state of uncivilization and lack of humanity. This is the clearest and most important of all the facts which can be established in the history of our civilization. (p. 91)

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