Written By: Albert Schweitzer Translated By: C. T. Campion Original Edition (In English): The MacMillan Company, 1949 Reviewed Edition: Prometheus Books, 1987 Paperback, 347 Pages ISBN 0-87975-403-6 Quotes Table of Contents
The Philosophy of Civilization is a philosophical work of impressive scope and depth. Originally published in 1923, it contains Schweitzer's most thorough and scholarly discussion of his ideas on ethics and reverence for life. The term "civilization" referred to in the title refers not to mere political, artistic, or religious structures, but to the entire Weltanschauung, or world-view, of society and individuals. Schweitzer first defends the idea, currently somewhat out of fashion, that philosophy matters, and in fact defines the way people live and value their lives.
Next, Schweitzer describes why he feels modern philosophy, and therefore civilization, is failing. He blames the lack of idealism and optimism in philosophy since it abandoned Rationalism. If all philosophy can do is tell us what we don't know, then what is a person to dream of, and why should he try to make things better? Schweitzer, with the thoroughness and amazing breadth typical of his scholarly works, then spends better than 150 pages reviewing the major features of Western philosophy from Greece through Rationalism, Kant, Hegel and up to Nietzsche. Frankly, I found this review rather dry, although better than most philosophical writing.
The last six chapters present Schweitzer's own philosophy. Based on the will to live of all living things, it is an ethics which accepts that, for each creature its own life is important to it, and that therefore we must not treat others haphazardly or thoughtlessly. Each life is to be revered. But this is not a life- or world-denying philosophy, leading to asceticism and withdrawal. Rather it is a call to be alert, and considerate, and find some way to help others. Some are called to a lifetime of service to mankind; some are not. Regardless, all are called to some level of service; all are called to at least make a conscious decision about each and every one of their actions. All actions are ethically dangerous. Saving the life of a hawk with a broken wing may result in the death of dozens of sparrows. Schweitzer does not make the decision of what to do for you, in fact which decision you make is not his true interest. The key thing for you is that you consciously decide each and every time, and attempt to do the right thing.
I'm sure my poor attempt at explaining the depth and sweep of this book has left you confused. However, I don't encourage you to read The Philosophy of Civilization as your first introduction to Schweitzer. Read Out of My Life and Thought or Albert Schweitzer The Man and His Mind first, so that you are introduced to both his ethics and his life. Then come back and read this book for a deeper understanding.
Schweitzer used an absolute minimum of jargon. A minor exception to this is found in some of chapters which review other philosophers. It is virtually impossible to explicate Kant without some obtuse jargon, but such parts can be easily skipped without damaging the rest of the book.
"The last fact which knowledge can discover is that the world is a manifestation, and in every way puzzling manifestation, of the universal will to live."
[Schweitzer approving quotes the following from L. Annaeus Seneca (4BC - 65AD)] "No man is nobler than his fellows, even if it happen that his spiritual nature is better constituted and he is more capable of higher learning. The world is the one mother of us all, and the ultimate origin of each one of us can be traced back to her, whether the steps in the ladder of descent be noble or humble. To no one is virtue forbidden; she is accessible to all; she admits everyone, she invites everyone in: free men and freedmen, slaves, kings and exiles. She regards neither birth nor fortune; the man alone is all she wants. ... This, in fact, is the demand which is laid upon each man, namely that he works, when possible, for the welfare of many; if that is impracticable, that he works for the welfare of a few; failing that, for the welfare of his neighbors, and if that is impossible, for his own."
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