Collected here in a single volume are the most important philosophical writings of Albert Schweitzer, one of the greatest thinkers and humanitarians of our time. Carefully chosen from among his many written works, the selections in this anthology illuminate and amplify Dr. Schweitzer’s cardinal principle of belief—a reverence for life. Among the important and revealing works included are “Pilgrimage to Humanity,” which outlines his philosophy of culture, the early influences in his life, and his ideal of world peace; “The Light Within Us,” one of the twentieth century’s most significant and beautiful statements of one man’s faith in his fellow man; and “Reverence for Life,” which states, with great clarity and conviction, the essence of Schweitzer’s wisdom.
Because of his legendary fame as a medical missionary, other equally important and outstanding aspects of Schweitzer’s life are not as well known. Readers of this book will realize that Albert Schweitzer was a truly creative thinker, whose concern with the problems of the human spirit and whose methods of expressing this concern have raised him to the stature of one of the world’s foremost philosophers.
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About the Author
He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life”, expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa). As a music scholar and organist, he studied the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and influenced the Organ reform movement (Orgelbewegung).
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A Treasury of Schweitzer
By Albert Schweitzer, Thomas Kiernan
Philosophical LibraryCopyright © 1965 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Feeling for Animal Life
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."
A deep impression was made on me by something which happened during my seventh or eighth year. A friend and I had with strips of India rubber made ourselves catapults, with which we could shoot small stones. It was spring and the end of Lent, when one morning my friend said to me, "Come along, let's go on to the Rebberg and shoot some birds." This was to me a terrible proposal, but I did not venture to refuse for fear he should laugh at me. We got close to a tree which was still without any leaves, and on which the birds were singing beautifully to greet the morning, without showing the least fear of us. Then stooping like a Red Indian hunter, my companion put a bullet in the leather of his catapult and took aim. In obedience to his nod of command, did the same, though with terrible twinges of conscience, vowing to myself that I would shoot directly he did. At that very moment the church bells began to ring, mingling their music with the songs of the birds and the sunshine. It was the Warning-bell, which began half an hour before the regular peal-ringing, and for me it was a voice from heaven. I shooed the birds away, so that they flew where they were safe from my companion's catapult, and then I fled home. And ever since then, when the Passiontide bells ring out to the leafless trees and the sunshine, I reflect with a rush of grateful emotion how on that day their music drove deep into my heart the commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."
From that day onward I took courage to emancipate myself from the fear of men, and whenever my inner convictions were at stake I let other people's opinions weigh less with me than they had done previously. I tried also to unlearn my former dread of being laughed at by my school fellows. This early influence upon me of the commandment not to kill or to torture other creatures is the great experience of my childhood and youth. By the side of that all others are insignificant.
While I was still going to the village school we had a dog with a light brown coat, named Phylax. Like many others of his kind, he could not endure a uniform, and always went for the postman. I was, therefore, commissioned to keep him in order whenever the postman came, for he was inclined to bite, and had already been guilty of the crime of attacking a policeman. I therefore used to take a switch and drive him into a corner of the yard, and keep him there till the postman had gone. What a feeling of pride it gave me to stand, like a wild beast tamer, before him while he barked and showed his teeth, and to control him with blows of the switch whenever he tried to break out of the corner! But this feeling of pride did not last. When, later in the day, we sat side by side as friends, I blamed myself for having struck him; I knew that I could keep him back from the postman if I held him by his collar and stroked him. But when the fatal hour came round again I yielded once more to the pleasurable intoxication of being a wild beast tamer!
During the holidays I was allowed to act as driver for our next door neighbor. His chestnut horse was old and asthmatic, and was not allowed to trot much, but in my pride of drivership I let myself again and again be seduced into whipping him into a trot, even though I knew and felt that he was tired. The pride of sitting behind a trotting horse infatuated me, and the man let me go on in order not to spoil my pleasure. But what was the end of the pleasure? When we got home and I noticed during the unharnessing what I had not looked at in the same way when I was in the cart, viz., how the poor animal's flanks were working, what good was it to me to look into his tired eyes and silently ask him to forgive me?
On another occasion—it was while I was at the Gymnasium, and at home for the Christmas holidays—I was driving a sledge when a neighbor dog, which was known to be vicious, ran yelping out of the house and sprang at the horse's head. I thought I was fully justified in trying to sting him up well with the whip, although it was evident that he only ran at the sledge in play. But my aim was too good; the lash caught him in the eye, and he rolled howling in the snow. His cries of pain haunted me; I could not get them out of my ears for weeks.
I have twice gone fishing with rod and line just because other boys asked me to, but this sport was soon made impossible for me by the treatment of the worms that were put on the hook for bait, and the wrenching of the mouths of the fishes that were caught. I gave it up, and even found courage enough to dissuade other boys from going.
Respect for Life
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.
I never go to a menagerie because I cannot endure the sight of the misery of the captive animals. The exhibiting of trained animals I abhor. What an amount of suffering and cruel punishment the poor creatures have to endure in order to give a few moments' pleasure to men devoid of all thought and feeling for them!
After all, is there not much more mystery in the relations of man to man than we generally recognize? None of us can truly assert that he really knows someone else, even if he has lived with him for years. Of that which constitutes our inner life we can impart even to those most intimate with us only fragments; the whole of it we cannot give, nor would they be able to comprehend it. We wander through life together in a semi-darkness in which none of us can distinguish exactly the features of his neighbor; only from time to time, through some experience that we have of our companion, or through some remark that he passes, he stands for a moment close to us, as though illumined by a flash of lightning. Then we see him as he really is. After that we again walk on together in the darkness, perhaps for a long time, and try in vain to make out our fellow traveller's features.
To this fact, that we are each a secret to the other, we have to reconcile ourselves. To know one another cannot mean to know everything about each other; it means to feel mutual affection and confidence, and to believe in one another. A man must not try to force his way into the personality of another. To analyze others—unless it be to help back to a sound mind someone who is in spiritual or intellectual confusion—is a rude commencement, for there is a modesty of the soul which we must recognize, just as we do that of the body. The soul, too, has its clothing of which we must not deprive it, and no one has a right to say to another: "Because we belong to each other as we do, I have a right to know all your thoughts." Not even a mother may treat her child in that way. All demands of that sort are foolish and unwholesome. In this matter giving is the only valuable process; it is only giving that stimulates. Impart as much as you can of your spiritual being to those who are on the road with you, and accept as something precious what comes back to you from them.
Riddles of Existence
Science teaching had something peculiarly stimulating for me. I could not get rid of the feeling that it was never made clear to us how little we really understand of the processes of Nature. For the scientific school books I felt a positive hatred. Their confident explanations—carefully shaped and trimmed with a view to being learnt by heart, and, as I soon observed, already somewhat out of date—satisfied me in no respect. It seemed to me laughable that the wind, the rain, the snow, the hail, the formation of clouds, the spontaneous combustion of hay, the tradewinds, the Gulf Stream, thunder and lightning, should all have found their proper explanation. The formation of drops of rain, of snow flakes, 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 in its own essential nature forever 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 daydreams, 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 colors of the spectrum, I can at once become oblivious of everything around me, and unable to withdraw my gaze from the spectacle.
Thus did love for history and love for science go hand in hand, and I gradually recognized that the historical process too is full of riddles, and that we must abandon forever the hope of really understanding the past.
The Meaning of Philosophy
The purpose of all philosophy is to make us aware as thinking beings of the intelligent and intimate relationship with the universe in which we have to stand, and of the way in which we must behave in the presence of the stimuli that come from it.
One kind of philosophy is able to bring man and the universe together only by doing violence to nature and the world and by forcing the world into harmony with man's thought.
The other, the insignificant nature philosophy, leaves the world and nature as they are, and compels man to find himself and assert himself in them as a spiritually and creatively triumphant being. The first philosophy is ingenious, the second elementary. The first proceeds from one mighty manifestation of thought to another, as they appear in the great speculative systems of German philosophy, and we are carried away with admiration for them. This philosophy has its day and disappears. The second, the plain and simple nature philosophy, remains. An elementary philosophy, which first of all tried to find intelligent expression in the Stoics and then perished with them because it failed to achieve an affirmative view of the world and of life, strives always to come into its own. This nature philosophy has come down to us in an imperfect form. It tried once again in Spinoza and in the eighteenth- century rationalism to think through to the affirmation of the world and life. When it was unable to do so, violence took the place of effort. The great speculative philosophy brought forth its systems of compulsion. At that time, when everyone was blinded by a world prostrate before thought, there was one man who was not blinded, who remained loyal to the elementary and humble nature philosophy, aware that it had not been able to think its way through to an affirmative conclusion in that eighteenth century in which he lived, but certain that it would have to do so; and he worked toward that end in the simple way which was his inner nature.
When I myself became aware of this and turned back to this nature philosophy—recognizing that it is our appointed task to bring it to an affirmative position in relation to the world and life, in so simple a fashion that all thoughtful people throughout the world would have to share in this thinking, and therein find peace with the infinite and incentive for creative activity—then I realized that Goethe was the man who had held out at the abandoned post where we were once more mounting guard and beginning to work again.
Once again I met Goethe when my laborious student years had ended and I went out into the world of medicine. It was as if I conversed with him in the primeval forest. I had always supposed that I should go there as a doctor. In the early years, whenever there was building or similar material work to be done, I took pains to pass it on to others who seemed to me fitted for it or hired for that sort of work. Soon I had to admit that this would not do. Either they did not appear, or they were not qualified to forward the work. So I accustomed myself to work which was very different from my medical duties. But the worst came later. In the closing months of 1925, a great famine endangered my hospital, and I was forced to lay out a plantation for the hospital so that in any future period of famine we might be able to keep our heads in some measure above water. I had to superintend the clearing of the jungle myself. The motley array of voluntary workers assembled from among those who attended the patients would recognize no authority but that of the "Old Doctor," as I was called there. So for weeks and months I stood in the jungle trying to wrest fruitful land from it, and tormented by unruly workers. Whenever I was in complete despair, I thought of Goethe, who had imagined his Faust, in the end, busily regaining land from the sea where men might live and find nourishment. So Goethe stood beside me in the gloomy forest as the great smiling comforter who understood me.
If I needs must mention something else that I owe to Goethe, it is this—that a deep concern for justice goes with him everywhere. When, at the turn of the century, theories began to prevail that whatever had to be done should be done without regard to the right, without regard to the fate of those affected by the change, and since I myself did not know how these theories which influenced us all were to be met, it was a real experience for me to find everywhere in Goethe a longing to avoid the sacrifice of the right in doing what had to be done. Ever and again with deep emotion, I turn over the final pages of Faust, which—whether in Europe or in Africa—I always read at Eastertide. There Goethe tells of the final experience of Faust, his last guilty action, when he determines to get rid of the hut which stands in his way by a slight and well-intentioned act of violence, because, as he says, he is tired of justice. But this well-intentioned act of violence becomes in its execution a frightful deed of violence, in which people lose their lives, and the hut goes up in flames. That Goethe should add this episode at the conclusion of his Faust, although it retards the action, gives us a deep insight into the way in which his concern for justice and his longing to achieve without hurting worked within him.
Excerpted from A Treasury of Schweitzer by Albert Schweitzer, Thomas Kiernan. Copyright © 1965 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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Table of Contents
BOOK ONE Reverence for Life,
Feeling for Animal Life,
Respect for Life,
Riddles of Existence,
The Meaning of Philosophy,
The Sanctuary of Thought,
Religion Is Not a Force,
When Thinking Was Religious,
What Do I Think?,
A New Ethical System Needed,
Reverence for Life,
The Goal of True Thought,
The Only Way to Save Ourselves,
Among the Africans,
The Will to Live,
BOOK TWO The Light Within us,
BOOK THREE Pilgrimage to Humanity,
Europe and Human Culture,
The Story of My Life,
In the Second World War,
In the Unrest of the Time,
Johann Sebastian Bach,
The Unknown One,
Reverence for Life,
BOOK FOUR Philosophy of Religion,
The Sketch of a Philosophy of Religion in the Critique of Pure Reason,
The Critique of Practical Reason,
Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone,
The Critique of Judgment,
General Summary and Conclusion,
Acknowledgments and Sources,