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Light Within Us
By Albert Schweitzer
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1959 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The beginning of all spiritual life is fearless belief in truth and its open confession.
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EVERYTHING deep is also simple and can be reproduced simply as long as its reference to the whole truth is maintained.
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BUT what matters is not what is witty but what is true. In this case the simple thing is the truth, the uncomfortable truth with which we have to work.
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I INTENTIONALLY avoid technical philosophical phraseology. My appeal is to thinking men and women whom I wish to provoke to elemental thought about the questions of existence which occur to the mind of every human being.
ALWAYS accustomed in French to be careful about the rhythmical arrangement of the sentence, and to strive for simplicity of expression, these things have become equally a necessity to me in German. And now through my work on the French Bach it became clear to me what literary style corresponded to my nature
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THE DIFFERENCE between the two languages, as I feel it, I can best describe by saying that in French I seem to be strolling along the well-kept paths in a fine park, but in German to be wandering at will in a magnificent forest. Into literary German there flows continually new life from the dialects with which it has kept in touch. French has lost this ever fresh contact with the soil. It is rooted in its literature, becoming thereby, in the favorable, as in the unfavorable sense of the word, something finished, while German in the same sense remains something unfinished. The perfection of French consists in being able to express a thought in the clearest and most concise way; that of German in being able to present it in its manifold aspects. As the greatest linguistic creation in French I count Rousseau's Contrat Social. What is nearest perfection in German I see in Luther's translation of the Bible and Nietzsche's Jenseits von Gut und Boese ("Beyond Good and Evil").
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WHEN I look back upon my early days I am stirred by the thought of the number of people whom I have to thank for what they gave me or for what they were to me. At the same time I am haunted by an oppressive consciousness of the little gratitude I really showed them while I was young. How many of them have said farewell to life without my having made clear to them what it meant to me to receive from them so much kindness or so much care! Many a time have I, with a feeling of shame, said quietly to myself over a grave the words which my mouth ought to have spoken to the departed, while he was still in the flesh.
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IN THE same way we ought all to make an effort to act on our first thoughts and let our unspoken gratitude find expression. Then there will be more sunshine in the world, and more power to work for what is good. But as concerns ourselves we must all of us take care not to adopt as part of our theory of life all people's bitter sayings about the ingratitude in the world. A great deal of water is flowing underground which never comes up as a spring. In that thought we may find comfort. But we ourselves must try to be the water which does find its way up; we must become a spring at which men can quench their thirst for gratitude.
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IN MY first years at Mülhausen I suffered much from a homesick longing for the church at Günsbach; I missed my father's sermons, and the services I had been familiar with all my life.
The sermons used to make a great impression on me, because I could see how much of what my father said in the pulpit was of a piece with his own life and experience. I came to see what an effort, I might say what a struggle, it meant for him to open his heart to the people every Sunday. I still remember sermons I heard from him while I was at the village school.
But what I loved best was the afternoon service, and of these I hardly ever missed a single one when I was in Günsbach. In the deep and earnest devotion of those services the plain and homely style of my father's preaching showed its real value, and the pain of thinking that the holy day was now drawing to its close gave these services a peculiar solemnity.
From the services in which I joined as a child I have taken with me into life a feeling for what is solemn, and a need for quiet and self-recollection, without which I cannot realize the meaning of my life. I cannot, therefore, support the opinion of those who would not let children take part in grown-up people's services till they to some extent understand them. The important thing is not that they shall understand, but that they shall feel something of what is serious and solemn. The fact that the child sees his elders full of devotion, and has to feel something of their devotion himself, that is what gives the service its meaning for him.
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THERE was another incident of my earliest childhood which I remember as the first occasion on which I consciously, and on account of my own conduct, felt ashamed of myself. I was still in petticoats, and was sitting on a stool in the yard while my father was busy about the beehives. Suddenly a pretty little creature settled on my hand, and I watched it with delight as it crawled about. Then all at once I began to shriek. The pretty little creature was a bee, which had a good right to be angry when the pastor was robbing him of the honey-filled combs in his hive, and to sting the robber's little son in revenge! My cries brought the whole household round me, and everyone pitied me. The servant girl took me in her arms and tried to comfort me with kisses, while my mother reproached my father for beginning to work at the hives without first putting me in a place of safety. My misfortune having made me so interesting an object, I went on crying with much satisfaction, till I suddenly noticed that, although the tears were still pouring down, the pain had disappeared. My conscience told me to stop, but in order to be interesting a bit longer I went on with my lamentations, so getting a lot more comforting than I really needed. However, this made me feel such a little rogue that I was miserable over it all the rest of the day. How often in after life, when assailed by temptation, has this experience warned me against exaggeration, or making too much of, whatever has happened to me!
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ON THIS, my first meeting with an author, there followed a second and greater experience. A Jew from a neighbouring village, Mausche by name, who dealt in land and cattle, used to come occasionally through Günsbach with his donkey-cart. As there was at that time no Jew living in the village, this was always something of an event for the boys; they used to run after him and jeer at him. One day, in order to announce to the world that I was beginning to feel myself grown up, I could not help joining them, although I did not really understand what it all meant, so I ran along with the rest behind him and his donkey-cart, shouting: "Mausche, Mausche!" The most daring of them used to fold the corner of their shirt or jacket to look like a pig's ear, and spring with that as close to him as they could. In this way we followed him out of the village as far as the bridge, but Mausche, with his freckles and his grey beard, drove on as unperturbed as his donkey, except that he several times turned round and looked at us with an embarrassed but good-natured smile. This smile overpowered me. From Mausche it was that I first learnt what it means to keep silent under persecution, and he thus gave me a most valuable lesson. From that day forward I used to greet him politely, and later, when I was in the secondary school (the Gymnasium) I made it my practice to shake hands and walk a little way along with him, though he never learnt what he really was to me. He had the reputation of being a usurer and a property-jobber, but I never tried to find out whether this was true or not. To me he has always been just "Mausche" with the tolerant smile, the smile which even to-day compels me to be patient when I should like to rage and storm.
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ALL my life I have been glad that I began in the village school. It was a good thing for me that in the process of learning I had to measure myself with the village boys, and thus make it quite clear to myself that they had at least as much in their heads as I had in mine. I was never a victim of that ignorance which afflicts so many of the boys who go straight to a Gymnasium, and there tell each other that the children of the educated classes have more in them than the lads who go to school in darned stockings and wooden clogs. Even to-day if I meet any of my old schoolfellows in the village or on a farm, I at once remember vividly the points in which I did not reach their level. One was better at mental arithmetic; another made fewer mistakes in his dictation; a third never forgot a date; another was always top in geography; another I mean you, Fritz Schoppeler — wrote almost better than the schoolmaster. Even to-day they stand in my mind for the subjects in which they were at that time superior to me.
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THAT a deep sense of duty, manifested in even the smallest matters, is the great educative influence, and that it accomplishes what no exhortations and no punishments can, has, thanks to him, become with me a firm conviction, a conviction the truth of which I have ever tried to prove in practice in all that I have had to do as an educator.
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THEN a saviour appeared for me in the person of a new form-master, Dr. Wehmann by name. In the course of the first few days I saw clearly through the mist of my dreaminess this fact; our new teacher came with every lesson carefully prepared; he knew exactly how much of the subject he wanted to take, and he got through that amount. He also gave us back our fair-copy exercise books on the proper day, and in the proper lesson hour. Experience of this self-disciplined activity had a distinct effect upon me. I should have been ashamed to incur his pleasure, and he became my model. Three months later when my form, the Quarta, got its Easter report, I was on of the better scholars, although my Christmas report had been so bad that my mother had gone about the whole of the Christmas holidays with eyes that were red from crying.
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IN THE education and the school books of to-day the duty of humanity is relegated to an obscure corner, as though it were no longer true that it is the first thing necessary in the training of personality, and as if it were not a matter of great importance to maintain it as a strong influence in our human race against the influence of outer circumstances.
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AS FAR back as I can remember I was saddened by the amount of misery I saw in the world around me. Youth's unqualified joie de vivre I never really knew, and I believe that to be the case with many children, even though they appear outwardly merry and quite free from care.
One thing that specially saddened me was that the unfortunate animals had to suffer so much pain and misery. The sight of an old limping horse, tugged forward by one man while another kept beating it with a stick to get it to the knacker's yard at Colmar, haunted me for weeks.
It was quite incomprehensible to me — this was before I began going to school — why in my evening prayers I should pray for human beings only. So when my mother had prayed with me and had kissed me good-night, I used to add silently a prayer that I had composed myself for all living creatures. It ran thus: "O, heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath; guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in peace."
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FROM my mother I also inherited a terribly passionate temper, which she again had inherited from her father, who was a very good man but very quick-tempered. My disposition showed itself in games; I played every game with terrible earnestness, and got angry if anyone else did not enter into it with all his might. When I was nine or ten years old I struck my sister Adela, because she was a very slack opponent in a game, and through her indifference let me win a very easy victory. From that time onwards I began to feel anxious about my passion for play, and gradually gave up all games. I have never ventured to touch a playing-card. I also, on January 1, 1899, when I was a student, gave up for ever the use of tobacco.
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FROM experiences like these, which moved my heart and often made me feel ashamed, there slowly grew up in me an unshakeable conviction that we have no right to inflict suffering and death on another living creature unless there is some unavoidable necessity for it, and that we ought all of us to feel what a horrible thing it is to cause suffering and death out of mere thoughtlessness. And this conviction has influenced me only more and more strongly with time. I have grown more and more certain that at the bottom of our heart we all think this, and that we fail to acknowledge it and to carry our belief into practice chiefly because we are afraid of being laughed at by other people as sentimentalists, though partly also because we allow our best feelings to get blunted. But I vowed that I would never let my feelings get blunted, and that I would never be afraid of the reproach of sentimentalism.
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THE THOUGHT that I had been granted such a specially happy youth was ever in my mind; I felt it even as something oppressive, and ever more clearly there presented itself to me the question whether this happiness was a thing that I might accept as a matter of course. Here, then, was the second great experience of my life, viz. this question about the right to happiness. As an experience it joined itself to that other one which had accompanied me from my childhood up; I mean my deep sympathy with the pain which prevails in the world around us. These two experiences slowly melted into one another, and thence came definiteness to my interpretation of life as a whole, and a decision as to the future of my own life in particular.
It became steadily clearer to me that I had not the inward right to take as a matter of course my happy youth, my good health, and my power of work. Out of the depths of my feeling of happiness there grew up gradually within me an understanding of the saying of Jesus that we must not treat our lives as being for ourselves alone. Whoever is spared personal pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others. We must all carry our share of the misery which lies upon the world.
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THE FORMATION of drops of rain, of snowflakes, and of hailstones had always been a special puzzle to me. It hurt me to think that we never acknowledge the absolutely mysterious character of Nature, but always speak so confidently of explaining her, whereas all that we have really done is to go into fuller and more complicated descriptions, which only make the mysterious more mysterious than ever. Even at that age, it became clear to me that what we label Force or "Life" remains it its own essential nature for ever inexplicable.
Thus I fell gradually into a new habit of dreaming about the thousand and one miracles that surround us, though fortunately the new habit did not, like my earlier thoughtless day-dreams, prevent me from working properly. The habit, however, is with me still, and gets stronger. If during a meal I catch sight of the light broken up in a glass jug of water into the colours of the spectrum, I at once become oblivious of everything around me, and unable to withdraw my gaze from the spectacle.
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BUT HOW often do I in wardly rebel! How much I suffer from the way we spend so much of our time uselessly instead of talking in serious-wise about serious things, and getting to know each other well as hoping and believing, striving and suffering mortals!
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IF I meet people to whom it is impossible to open oneself out as a man who thinks, I feel a passionate enjoyment in their society as if I were as young as ever, and if I stumble on a young man who is ready for serious discussion, I give myself up to a joyous exchange of cut and thrust which makes the difference between our ages, whether for good or ill, a thing of no account.
Excerpted from Light Within Us by Albert Schweitzer. Copyright © 1959 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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