Colonialism, Albert Schweitzer, and Racism
Outline of this page ...
- "The child of nature"
- Primitive man is not inwardly free
- The Setting, the Background
- "A standard bearer of civilisation"
- The Philosophical Mind, or, The Transcendence of Specific Time and Space
Time and Place: On his ninetieth-birthday (14 January 1965), when the criticism of his hospital was at its highest, Schweitzer said at breakfast:
Africans themselves showed me the way. At first I wanted to build a hospital like those in Europe. But Africans -- two simple laborers -- convinced me that here the conditions are different. I have built an African hospital for Africans. (Quoted by George Marshall in his An Understanding of Albert Schweitzer (1966), p. 166)
It was a hospital for that time and that place, for the people of that time and that place, for the remote corner of Africa that Schweitzer knew and of which he could speak with knowledge. It was a hospital for that time and place, not for all times and not for all places in Africa. The only timelessness he claimed for his hospital was that there his ethics of reverence for life was practiced and that it was therefore an outpost of the kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke.
"After the death of Doctor Albert Schweitzer it seemed right and necessary to contact the President of the Republic of Gabon ... Léon MBa ... regarding the future of the hospital [Schweitzer had] founded in 1913." When Schweitzer's daughter Rhena -- [It was Schweitzer's wish that she "take over the directorship of the hospital after his death"] -- and Dr. Walter Munz -- [the doctor in charge of the hospital in Lambaréné since 1965] -- and Charles Michel of the Association of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Strasbourg [which had owned the hospital since 1933 (p. 173)] -- went to see President MBa:
He especially asked [us] not to tear down the old buildings, but to keep the village atmosphere which made everyone feel at home, even if confined to a hospital. This, he remarked, had showed Dr. Schweitzer's complete understanding and compassion for his people and it was for those the Doctor had sacrificed his strength. The improvements [and extension of the hospital's medical mission that Dr. Munz planned] should be done in [Schweitzer's] spirit and fit into his frame of mind.
[The president said it was] his own personal desire that the Hospital Albert Schweitzer remain a living monument of true, active Christianity, established by his admired and beloved friend the late Dr. Albert Schweitzer. (ibid., Appendix B: A Report from Lambaréné, 20 September 1965, p. 175-177)
During Schweitzer's lifetime more than 130,000 patients were treated by his hospital (Marshall, Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography (1971), p. 330). Photograph below: Erica Anderson, The Schweitzer Album (1965), p. 91, circa 1950s.
Ever since the world's far-off lands were discovered, what has been the conduct of the white peoples to the colored ones? What is the meaning of the simple fact that this and that people has died out, that others are dying out, and that the condition of others is getting worse and worse as the result of their discovery by men who professed to be followers of Jesus? Who can describe the injustice and the cruelties that in the course of centuries they have suffered at the hands of Europeans? (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, tr. Campion, quoted by Oskar Kraus) [Note]
"The child of nature"
The expression 'child of nature' (Rousseau's "noble savage") contrasts with the expression 'child of civilization'. Whether that expression was applicable to the people of the Ogowe district of French Equatorial Africa at the time that Schweitzer knew them at his hospital is one of the topics discussed below.
Reality never submits to theory. (Quoted by Erica Anderson in The Schweitzer Album (1965), p. 135)
Preface: Albert Schweitzer, a European scholar and musician, dedicated fifty years of his life to the hospital he had built to ease the suffering of an, at that time, primitive African people. But how are we of the post-colonial age to understand a man who was born in 1875 and saw the world very differently from the way we do? (The most concise and considered of Schweitzer's opinions about colonialism can, in my view, be found in Chapter 17 of Schweitzer's book Out of My Life and Thought, which was the book he himself regarded as his most important.)
I wanted to be a doctor that .... this new form of activity I could not represent to myself as talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting it into practice. (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 9, tr. Campion (1949), p. 94, quoted by Exman in The World of Albert Schweitzer (1955), p. 20)
There are many [now old] books about Schweitzer's life and thought. They have profoundly affected my own thought: they have been a liberation for which I am grateful. And I am therefore puzzled by the following queries; I ask myself: what can be their motivation?
Query: Albert Schweitzer, racism quotation.
Query: Albert Schweitzer, racist remarks.
In On the Edge of the Primeval Forest & More from the Primeval Forest (1947, orig. eds. 1922 & 1931, tr. C.T. Campion), can be found (and these are the worst-sounding words their author ever wrote) --
The negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority. We must, therefore, so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority can find expression. With regard to the negros, then, I have coined the formula: "I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother." (p. 88)
Was that a racist point of view? In the context of the French colony of the Gabon in 1913, at that time and in that place, I don't know: How would I know except by reading the testimony of those who had actually lived there? Furthermore, I can't know -- because I still owe you a definition of 'racist'. I will use this criterion: Were the West Equatorial Africans of the eastern Ogowe district, in Schweitzer's view, essentially "children", i.e. (from the Europeans' point of view) free and irresponsible in the way that children are -- 'essentially' meaning: unable by their very nature to be anything else -- or was that simply their condition at that time?
Schweitzer's own view was that this was only the people's condition at that time. Europeans themselves had once been "children of nature", but after generations of development they had become "children of civilization", which was what the Europeans, after all the harm they had done to the Africans, now had, in Schweitzer's view, the moral obligation to persuade and even force the Africans to become.
Query: the black man is my little brother, by Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
Rather than is it would be was: My younger brother at that time in history and at that place, not everywhere and not forever.
By using the words 'black' (or, depending on the translator, 'negro' or 'colored') and 'white' rather than 'African' and 'European', the colonialists exposed themselves to the charge of racism. And Schweitzer was no more perfect than any other man, and in times of exhaustion and frustration with the native Africans he could according to the biographer Brabazon (Albert Schweitzer (2000), p. 371) descend to the level of calling them "monkeys" (The conflict between the "child of nature" who is free and the "child of civilization" who needs to get things done). When Schweitzer was about 78 years old, a British journalist reported him as shouting "Run, you! Work like a white man, can't you?" (ibid. xv, p. 433). Schweitzer often yelled at the Africans; usually they yelled back at him. He had a hospital to run and needed help from those who could work, usually family members who brought and stayed with the patients, sometimes the patients themselves in so far as they could work. But if he saw that he had gone too far and hurt someone's feelings, he went to that person to make it up with them.
When Schweitzer wrote "my natural authority" and "elder brother", he was speaking of himself as a representative of civilization among a primitive (indeed, prehistoric) people. An elder brother wants to help the younger brother to grow into full manhood (which is what civilization is for a human being); if Schweitzer believed the Africans in the Gabon to be incapable of this growth, then he would have judged the European effort to help them, e.g. through the schools which the Protestant and Catholic missionaries ran (which Schweitzer praised for the academic and vocational skills they taught the Africans), to be irrational. Schweitzer testified from his own experiences in Africa that blacks were in nowise less intelligent than whites nor less capable of hard work nor less sensitive and deep as human beings. Primitive man was their condition, not their essence. (If instead of "the negro is a child", Schweitzer had written "primitive man is a child", he might have given a more apt characterization of the situation: Man, when still a child of nature, is a child.)
[Schweitzer's attitude toward racial segregation in the United States is made clear by the story (which is told in Louise Jilek-Aall's Working with Dr. Schweitzer (1990), p. 62-65) about a southern white woman who wanted to adopt a black child but said that in the South she could not have the child live in her house with her; she would place him in an orphanage and visit him there. Schweitzer, when he learned that she had not prepared a room in her own home for the child, was saddened by her intention and did not allow the adoption to go forward.]
Now an "historical document" only
Gabon had changed so fundamentally since Schweitzer's hospital was founded that in the new French edition  of On the Edge of the Primeval Forest in which he describes his earliest experiences his preface calls it an historical document. (Werner Picht, Albert Schweitzer , tr. Fitzgerald (1964), p. 160-161)
"At the time with which this book deals we had the right to regard ourselves as elder brothers of the natives; elder brothers who were well disposed toward the younger bothers, and at the same time sufficiently experienced and knowledgeable to be able to judge what was best for their true advancement, and able to act accordingly.
"Now we have to admit that we can no longer feel ourselves as elder brothers, and we can no longer act as though we were. Today many people seem to think that the era of progress can dawn only if the younger brother is regarded as already mature and every bit as capable as the elder, and that therefore the natives should take the fate of their country more and more into their own hands. The spirit of the age has spoken. In all things, and everywhere throughout the world, it calls for the abolition of all traces of the former patriarchal system and its replacement by a non-patriarchal system, one which is difficult to define and will be even more difficult to carry out."
The older brother wants -- not too keep the younger brother in a state of eternal childhood -- but to help him grow into adulthood, at which point he no longer needs an older brother. That was what Schweitzer wanted for the primitive Africans of the Ogowe. But that growth could not happen overnight ... although "the spirit of the age" demanded that it do so. And those who replied that this new age's spirit was sentimental and self-deluded were dismissed as racists, colonialists, imperialists. What did Schweitzer think of the blacks of the Ogowe? That they were men, men with a primitive world-picture, living in a primitive society, but men nonetheless.
What is man?
Society is something temporal and ephemeral; man, however, is always man. (Goethe: Five Studies (1961), tr. Joy, p. 95)
Primitive man is not inwardly free
The natives of the Ogowe were in no sense free before their conquest by the French in the 1870s. They lived under tyrannical chiefs; there were inter-tribal wars; slavery was commonplace (De Brazza was the first to try to abolish slavery in the interior of the region). But at a deeper level, the people were not free because their lives were lived in fear -- fear of malevolent nature-spirits and the spirits of the dead, taboos, witchcraft, and fetich-men they believed to have supernatural powers over them. Of sickness they did not ask what caused it, but who caused it. Superstition (irrational fear) was their world-view. (Schweitzer, African Notebook (1939); the primitive view of causality was noted by Dr. C.C. Chesterman)
Question I cannot answer: is it possible to imagine [describe] how Europe would have dealt with Africa if the Africans had been primitive whites rather than primitive blacks? Well, but on the other hand, until 1806, when serfdom was abolished, my own ancestors in Italy were serfs; and until 1861 four-fifths of Russians were serfs; and in these two cases there was no racial difference between slave owner and slave. So the Europeans might not have treated primitive whites too differently from primitive blacks; the French certainly did not treat the Africans of the Ogowe the way black slaves were treated in the Americas, and the natives in the French colony of the Gabon were granted much more freedom than the serfs of Europe had ever had.
But what was to be done? Were the Europeans simply to walk away from Africa; should they have said: If the natives want to destroy the peace we have imposed on them, if they want to slaughter, eat or enslave one another, then they should be free -- they have the natural right -- to do that?
The Setting, the Background
The word 'African' is much too broad when talking about Albert Schweitzer in Africa, for if Schweitzer is "to say no more than he knows", he can speak only of the primitive peoples of the Ogowe region of Gabon as they were at the time he worked among them, for the state of development of the peoples of the different regions of Africa varies widely. (Cf. although it is true that both Sweden and Italy are part of what geographers title 'Europe', the customs of these two countries differ enormously despite being similar in some respects.) Both the names 'Africa' and 'African', as 'Europe' and 'European', are conceptual constructs ("abstractions"); the use of such concepts is a matter of what is useful to us in some contexts (Words are tools), not of necessity.
The child of civilization
For a third of a century, Dr. Schweitzer and the staff of the Lambarene hospital have lived and worked among indigènes [natives, indigenous population] who belong to the early days of man's history.... What we call civilization has hardly touched the native either for good or for ill. He lives in an earlier epoch of the world. ("After a Third of a Century on the Ogowe")
Visiting a village such as this [in the photograph], one gets a new realization of our dependence upon the generations behind us, each of which left more than it found -- more books, more inventions, more discoveries, more universities, more buildings, more factories. Here there is no civilization because nothing extra is produced by each generation and passed onto the next. ("Quickly Built -- Quickly Abandoned")
One difference between our concepts 'culture' and 'civilization' is that there is no history (other than the unrecorded natural history of man) before civilization, despite there being culture. Human history that is not remembered is as if it never happened (in the eyes of anyone except the archeologist).
"That man is not my brother" | Who is my brother? (Luke 10.29)
[The French government's Chief of the Lambarene District:] "Except for consideration within an immediate family or tribe, the natives know nothing of the kind of disinterested, unselfish generosity that Dr. Schweitzer represents." ("An Arrival and a Departure")
The horrible practice of the ordeal [through drinking poison administered by a fetisher in order to determine "guilt" or "innocence" (e.g. in the practice of witchcraft resulting in another's sudden death)], together with many other evils of the region, must, in Dr. Schweitzer's judgment, have their roots torn up. The roots are the inherited superstitions of these primitive people. The missionaries of all confessions co-operate with each other in endeavoring to do this. Only when the native can be brought to lift himself above the superstitious ideas in which he is imprisoned does he really emerge from this primitive environment. ("The Struggle of Equatorial Africa")
[Schweitzer:] "Europeans will never be able to understand how terrible is the life of poor creatures who pass their day in continual fear of fetishes which can be used against them. Only those who have seen this misery at close quarters will understand that it is a simple human duty to bring to these primitive peoples a new view of the world which can free them from these torturing superstitions." ("Prized Medical Aide", in Joy, Arnold, The Africa of Albert Schweitzer (1948) [The pages of this book are unnumbered])
Anyone who has once penetrated into the imaginary world of primitive man, and knows something of the state of fear in which people may live when they believe in taboos, unavoidable curses and active ju-jus [fetiches], can no longer doubt that it is our duty to endeavor to liberate them from these superstitions.... These conceptions have such deep roots in the world-view and traditions of primitive people that they are not easy to eradicate. (Albert Schweitzer, African Notebook iv (1939 English tr. Mrs. C.E.B. Russell))
Schweitzer told me that he believes that the most precious heritage which we Europeans have, even if it remains to us only in an infinitesimal measure, is the knightly heritage of responsibility towards our fellow-men. (Clara Urquhart, Doctor Schweitzer in Lambaréné (1957), p. 48)
"The biggest difficulty of all is that the conception 'fellow human being' just doesn't exist for natives." (Picht, p. 153)
Perhaps with that background in mind, it is easier to understand what Schweitzer meant when he called the Africans "children" above. By 'equals' below, Schweitzer is not of course talking about skin color ("race"), but about cultural development.
The "authoritative position of the white man"
When, before coming to Africa, I heard missionaries and traders say again and again that one must be very careful out here to maintain this authoritative position of the white man, it seemed to me to be a hard and unnatural position to take up, as it does to everyone in Europe who reads or hears the same. [If we abandoned the social interval between black and white, we would lose all influence. Our word would no longer be taken as "the white man's word", but we would have to argue every point with the Africans as if we were merely their equals.] (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest & More from the Primeval Forest, p. 88 [paraphrase])
Whether or not Europeans had a moral obligation to interfere in the lives of the Africans is a nice question. I know how we now feel about colonialism, which is how the Greeks felt about freedom -- namely, that it would be unbearable to live under colonial overlords who told you what to do, what to think, how to feel, how to live, what to believe, even if they did this for your own good, as a parent or elder brother guides a child.
On the other hand, we cannot take the position that we refuse ever to interfere in the lives of others. In the case of crimes against humanity [so long as we are not the ones committing them] we certainly do feel it our obligation to interfere -- and that it is wrong if we do not interfere -- even though in interfering we act as overlords. But whether freeing primitive peoples from superstition and teaching them altruism [common humanity] is one of those things that we should interfere for the sake of ... I just don't know. When should one walk away and say, "Ah, I have no responsibility towards these people"?
I think the real justification, in Schweitzer's view and experience, for the continued European rule of equatorial Africa was (1) that the mere end of colonization would not in itself undo the harm Europeans had done, (2) the superstition the natives suffered under, and (3) the improvidence of the natives. As he saw them, the Gabonese Africans were, seen in these lights, children who should not be abandoned by their older brother (the patriarchal system).
The propaganda for this new theory [that "the right of the self-determination of peoples was ... the first objective to be realized" not only in Europe after the First World War but after the Second World War also with respect to the colonial peoples] not only intentionally ignored and discredited everything that colonization had contributed, but also proposed to abolish it as something that could never be justified, something displeasing to the idealism of our time. Colonialism was uncritically dismissed as reprehensible "imperialism". ("Our Task in Colonial Africa", op. cit.)
Schweitzer wrote that thirty-five years after opening his first "hospital" (It was Schweitzer, the only doctor for 250 miles around, operating in a chick coop) in colonial Gabon. He and his staff, both European and African, had worked tirelessly to build Schweitzer's second hospital. How could he stand to have their work and the work of the missionaries dismissed as "imperialism".
For myself, with respect to what Schweitzer speaks of, it is a hopeless muddle -- that is to say, it is a problem that I don't see any solution to. But it is no longer our muddle. It now belongs to history. Although history hasn't really relieved us of it: we still have colonialism around the world, of course, only now it's called "foreign aid" and "peace-keeping".
No Sense of Time
A peculiarity which also ranks them with children is their complete lack of a sense of time.... In their vegetative calm the hours of the day slip away between their fingers like sand.
But of course. Because they have no clocks, and without clocks there are no hours of the day. Human beings in a primitive condition do not "measure time". Maybe the movement of the sun across the sky serves as a natural clock, but that movement does not say how or even if it must be used to regulate our life. (Questions in the Philosophy of Time)
Of course no one knows when his birthday is ...
Of course not! For there is no calendar; there are no dates. No day/month/year. There are no months, there are no days, there are no hours of the day. How could anyone know when his birthday is -- when the combination of words 'know when one's birthday is' is undefined language.
... and very few know how old they are. (L. Ostergaard-Christensen, At Work with Albert Schweitzer, tr. F.H. Lyon (1962), p. 26)
Those who did know measured their age by the number of dry and wet seasons they had been alive.
[Acquiring a new concept - Learning to keep track of time, one African man's experience.]
"A standard bearer of civilisation"
... even the morally best and the idealists find it difficult out here to be what they wish to be. We all get exhausted in the terrible contest between the European worker who bears the responsibility and is always in a hurry, and the child of nature who does know what responsibility is and is never in a hurry. (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest & More from the Primeval Forest, p. 91) That it is so hard to keep oneself really humane, and so to be a standard bearer of civilisation, that is the tragic element in the problem of the relations between white and colored men in Equatorial Africa. (p. 89)
How many Europeans, however, had the right to regard themselves as "standard bearers of civilization", if we define 'civilization' as Schweitzer did:
What is civilization?
But what is civilization? The essential element in civilization is the ethical perfecting of the individual as well as [of] society.... The will to civilization is ... the universal will to progress [i.e. perfecting] that is conscious of the ethical as the highest value. (Out of My Life and Thought [written in 1931], tr. Lemke, Chapter 13, p. 148)
And after the two world wars -- particularly the second, with its "extermination bombing" which has obliterated, apparently forever, the distinction between combatant and civilian -- surely a deep humility should have been forced upon the Europeans. Nonetheless, Schweitzer's view of the European role in Africa did not change after the wars: it remained for him Europe's responsibility, because of all the harm that it had done to the Africans, to teach civilization to Africa's children of nature. And there of course remained many supremely worthwhile things that the Europeans could teach the Africans of that time -- freedom from superstition, universal fellowship (the merciful Samaritan rather than tribalism), scientific medicine, industriousness and conscientiousness -- but, according to present notions, that could not justify them in their role as colonial rulers. And perhaps in order for them to teach, it was not necessary for them to be, although I don't know if that was Schweitzer's view in the end. In any case, the doctor did not leave the Gabon when it became the Republic of Gabon in 1960 (and indeed he praised its government for maintaining the peace which the French had brought the region, a region which before its independence had simply been an artificial construct of the French, an assembly of unrelated tribes solely on the basis of geography); he remained there to serve the primitive Africans of the inner Ogowe with his mission-hospital, where he died and was buried in 1965.
I remembered how [in 1961] Albert Schweitzer had provoked a lively discussion around the dinner table with his statement that only those who, through their own action and behavior were able to convey the very best of Christian civilization to the Africans, had any justification in trying to influence their way of life. (Jilek-Aall, Working with Dr. Schweitzer, p. 127-128)
Schweitzer belonged to the colonial age -- an age our age condemns and, therefore, our age condemns Schweitzer. Is that view of the past -- love of wisdom? If you are going to find what is valuable in Schweitzer, if you are going to find what is valuable in Wittgenstein, if you are going to find what is valuable in those who came before us, you will have to learn to set aside those beliefs or views [world-pictures] of theirs with which you cannot agree.
The Gospel and the Indigenes
Only those who have seen this misery [of life lived in continual fear] at close quarters will understand that it is a simple human duty to bring to these primitive peoples a new view of the world which can free them from these torturing superstitions.
In this matter the greatest skeptic, did he find himself out here, would prove a real helper of mission work. (On the Edge ... p. 34; cf. "A light that shines in the darkness of fear")
What I think I have been taught by Albert Schweitzer: that religion "cannot take the place of reason". Religion is not, thus understood, anti-rational. And why should any creature endowed with reason wish in any aspect of its life to be unreasonable -- to say "Here I do not use reason" (Wittgenstein)? "Dare to doubt!" means: Trust to the natural reason you have been given and to your experience alone to find the truth (Question tradition, question "revelation", question the very notion of revelation: contra Gilson: because the truth lies at the conclusion of an argument, not at its beginning). Why should man choose to live otherwise once that idea, the ideal of Socrates, has taken hold of him? The reverence we have for the mystery of our life and existence must never be allowed to degenerate into self-mystification. (But, on the other hand, remember that religious questions require religious answers, not philosophical ones. And that is a philosophical remark.)
Schweitzer's view that "Christianity cannot take the place of thinking, but it must be founded on it" (Out of My Life and Thought, Epilogue, p. 240) came as something entirely new to me -- and it was an idea that Wittgenstein (whose picture of Christianity is the Incarnation, Resurrection and Judgment of Christ (reformed Catholic Christianity) and his preference -- God alone knows why! -- for the irrational in religion) utterly rejected. (Wittgenstein, the brilliant logician who was at the same time the enemy of philosophy.)
Schweitzer's view that all that is now important for us about Jesus is Jesus' picture of the ethical kingdom of God, a kingdom ruled by love rather than by power, that Reverence for Truth and Reverence for Life show how Jesus' ethic of love, despite the impossibility of our sharing the Messianic eschatological world-picture of late Judaism, can nonetheless be understood and practiced in a rational way. -- That view is as great a liberation as the liberation of the Africans of that time and that place from superstition. Indeed, it is the same liberation, because it is a liberation from unreason:
Reason is not given us to be silenced
[The old Pastor Wennagel who was to prepare the young Schweitzer for confirmation] wanted to make us understand that in submission to faith all reasoning must be silenced. But I was convinced -- and I am so still -- that the fundamental principles of Christianity have to be proved true by reasoning, and by no other method. Reason, I said to myself, is given us that we may bring everything within the range of its action, even the most exalted ideas of religion. And this certainty filled me with joy. (Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, tr. Campion, Chapter 3)
God didn't endow man with reason so that man could put it under a basket, but so that it would light his way. [Compare the difference between Socrates and Abraham. The one puts even revelation (the word from God Himself) to the test of reason, while the other does not. This is the difference between philosophy and religion, how the distinction may be made.] The stumbling block is thinking you know what you don't know, that you are wise when you are not (Plato, Apology 29a). (The alternative is to believe that reason is a poisoned gift, used by the devil to lure man away from God's revealed truth and salvation.)
"But no one lights a candle in order to put it under a basket, but that the candle may light the way" (Luke 11.33, Psalm 119.105). The only question is whether the light is reason or revelation (the irrational). For Schweitzer, the candle is what reason is, and the basket is what silenced reason would be.
The theory that reason has been given to man to be used consistently and in every department of life played at this time [in 18th century Europe, the Enlightenment] an important and beneficent part in the preaching of the Gospel ... (Civilization and Ethics (1929 ed.), Chapter 8 ("Laying the Foundations of Civilization in the Age of Rationalism), p. 97, tr. Campion)
[When Schweitzer gave confirmation classes, he presented] the fundamental truths of the religion of Jesus as something not hostile to reason ["as something to be absorbed into one's thought", and in this way to make his students "religious in such a way that ... they might be able to resist the temptations to irreligion which would assail them"] later in life. (Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke, Chapter 3, p. 28 [Chapter 3, p. 28, 27 [1949 ed.], tr. Campion])
"I know that I myself owe it to thought that I was able to retain my faith in religion." (ibid. Epilogue, p. 240; Pastor Wennagel's view of faith was not the Christianity Schweitzer was taught by his own father; Schweitzer wrote: "[Our parents] trained us for freedom" (p. 60); by 'freedom' Schweitzer meant 'independence'.)
[Marshall concludes his book An Understanding of Albert Schweitzer (1966) with these words about Schweitzer's teaching:] ... that thinking is religious, and that the affirmation of thought is the beginning of wisdom. (p. 170)
Philosophy's Three Faces
At around the time of my own fifty-third birthday the three lines of thought that have been the greatest influence on my thinking came together [converged and coalesced], like the confluence of three great rivers, to form a unity of thought and, bit by bit, of deed: Wittgenstein's logic of language; Schweitzer's view of Christianity (that everything is within the scope of reason, that faith does not mean "silencing thought"); and the foundation of all: the image of Socrates I formed for myself: the Socrates who makes a thoroughgoing use of the light of natural reason, who seeks to learn how we should live our life (ethics: "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live"), based on the specific excellence proper to man and on one's own limits as an individual, as in the Delphic precept "Know thyself". That is the sum of my liberation from unreason (and mystification; but there is also a fourth crucial line, namely Kant: that concepts define phenomena, not vice versa; this belongs to my sixty-six year).
I myself found the basis and direction for my life at the moment I discovered the principle of Reverence for Life, which contains life's ethical affirmation. I therefore want to work in this world to help people to think more deeply and more independently. (Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke, Epilogue, p. 293)
And that is what Schweitzer means by 'ethical affirmation of life' -- namely, wanting "to work in this world", unlike the philosopher in Plato's Republic (496a-d) who withdraws into himself like a man sheltering from a storm behind a wall. That philosopher does not work to better this world because he does not ethically affirm life, but resigns himself instead to the view of a world over which vicious men (i.e. the opposite of virtuous men) forever rule and the nature of which he can do nothing to change. In contrast to that philosopher's resignation, Schweitzer shows how "you can have your Lambaréné anywhere" -- i.e. he shows how each of us is capable of making at least the small part of the world on which we are able to have an effect a good place, as good, that is, as there is the kingdom of God within us. It is not necessary for "a philosopher to be king" for us to do such work we can. And to accept that principle is to "ethically affirm life" rather than to resignedly withdraw into oneself.
Note that Schweitzer says "I therefore want to work ... to help people to think more deeply and more independently". He does not say "... in order for people to think the way that I do". But, rather, what he wants is for each man to think deeply and independently, for each of us as an individual to reach a world-view (The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, Chapter 5). "Only when we gain the confidence that we can find the truth through our own individual thought will we be able to arrive at living truth." (Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke, Epilogue, p. 227)
The principal question Schweitzer faces in his study of Ethics is: with what to replace, or, how to overcome, the world-view of the resignation [Note: Schweitzer distinguishes between two kinds of resignation] that says it is not worthwhile to work towards progress [i.e. the ethical and material betterment of mankind]? Schweitzer finds the answer to that question in the principle of Reverence for Life. In finding this, he writes, "I had found my way to the principle in which affirmation of the world and ethics are joined together ... I was at the root of the problem" (ibid. Chapter 13, p. 155).
Because, I think, there may be forms of life affirmation that are not ethical, e.g. hedonism and capitalism, for neither living for the sake of experiencing pleasure nor living for the sake of exploiting one's neighbor -- is ethical. And Schweitzer was searching for an ethical affirmation. [Note: I don't know if Schweitzer's expressions 'life affirmation' and 'world affirmation' make a distinction or if those terms are synonymous for him.]
The religion of primitive man
That the diseases have some natural cause never occurs to my patients ... (On the Edge ... p. 24)
... hopes and fears about a world beyond play no part in the religion of primitive man ... To him Christianity is the moral view of life in the world, which was revealed by Jesus; it is a body of teaching about the kingdom of God and the grace of God.
He has a natural responsiveness to the notion of goodness and all that is connected with it in religion. Certainly, Rousseau and the illuminati ["the enlightened" or "illuminators"; Aufklärung = Illumination (Campion's footnote, in his translation of the Epilogue)] of that age idealized the child of nature, but there was nonetheless truth in their views about him -- in their belief, that is, in his possession of high moral and rational capacities.... There lives within him a dim suspicion that a correct view of what is truly good must be attainable as a result of reflection. (ibid. p. 104)
If [the missionaries] wanted to be understood by their listeners they could do nothing beyond preaching the simple gospel of becoming freed from the world by the spirit of Jesus ... (Out of My Life and Thought p. 141)
By "freed from the world" Schweitzer means in this instance being freed from the notion that what happens to man is determined by malevolent ancestors and nature spirits, taboos, and fetich-men -- but instead that the only power over man is the will of God and that God is a father who loves his child. The idea that God is the father is not easily understood, but it is what Jesus preached and what Schweitzer preached as well. Do I understand why Schweitzer did this -- i.e. does he not merely replace one absurd -- for regardless of the picture evil befalls mankind -- world-picture with another? But there is nothing "mere" about what Schweitzer preached: there is a profound difference between the two world-pictures, for the man who believes that God is a loving father does not live a life governed by fear.
... redemption through Jesus is experienced by [primitive man] as a two-fold liberation; his view of the world is purged of the previously dominant element of fear, and it becomes ethical instead of unethical. (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (Adam and Charles Black, 1922), tr. Campion, Chapter 10, p. 155)
Religious faith and superstition are quite different. One of them results from fear and is a sort of false science. The other is a trusting. (Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 72)
Trusting is what the picture of God as the father is.
The Philosophical Mind, or, The Transcendence of Specific Time and Space
Note: some of my remarks on earlier versions of this page were misperceptions based on misconceptions -- they remade Albert Schweitzer (b. 1875) in our own image of all that is right, as if to be the good, indeed the great man that he was, it were necessary that Schweitzer think the way we now do about colonialism, without our having any first-hand knowledge of the European or African realities he experienced.
The philosophical mind is not closed, even by a lifetime's experience; it is always prepared to learn something new, to revise its premises, even to replace its axioms. It is willing to start anew even in old age. And therefore I earlier wrote:
Many there are who prefer their own ideology to the facts. They are an extreme example of the "coherence theory of truth": they have a Procrustean picture, and they require reality to conform to [or, fit in with] their preconceptions [This rather resembles madness]. [Note 1]
Thus when Albert Schweitzer had described what he found in Africa, some people [ideologues] did not like [were offended by] what he found there, and so they claimed that it did not exist, that Schweitzer wrote what he wrote and did what he did because he was a racist. This claim came from people who had no direct knowledge of the Africans that Schweitzer first found living at that time in the district of Lambaréné, nor of the even more primitive peoples who later migrated there from the interior.
But while his critics built only words upon words, Schweitzer built a hospital, a charity hospital, for which he himself had to raise all the money not only by asking his friends in Europe for donations, but also by means of the royalties from his books, organ recitals and university lectures. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1952), he used its prize money to roof the huts of his leprosy village. Over 130,000 patients were treated at the hospital during Schweitzer's lifetime.
At Schweitzer's mission-hospital was practiced Schweitzer's ethics of Reverence for Life, for all life forms. The animals that were sheltered at the hospital were not accidental, but were essential to Schweitzer's idea that the good is whatever promotes life, evil whatever harms it.
Was Schweitzer's attitude toward the Africans, "Yes, I am your brother, but I am your elder brother", racist? If Schweitzer called the Africans "children of nature", it was because that was what the Africans living at that time and in that place were, younger brothers. They were human beings with ideas and ways of life that made working with them extremely difficult for a doctor, and he did not always keep his temper with them. But Schweitzer never claimed that they somehow were "children" because of their race rather than because of their primitive condition.
The expression 'child of nature' contrasts with 'child of civilization'. It was not originally meant in a deprecating way. Bartholdi's statue at Colmar, which Schweitzer used to visit as a youth, was an idealization of "the African" in the manner of Rousseau's "noble savage", who was a "child of nature" -- i.e. a human being who lived as Nature intended mankind to live -- not the artificial product of civilization (which was what the European was claimed to be). However, later 'childlike' (in the sense of 'natural') came to suggest 'childish'. From Schweitzer's point of view, what the Africans were not was Alsatian farmers and artisans. From the European point of view, they simply did not live the way the Europeans wanted them to.
But on the other hand, it could not be as simple as the Africans simply telling the Europeans to go home. Because as a young African told Schweitzer, "Here, among us, everybody is ill" (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest & More from the Primeval Forest p. 26). The people lived in a primitive, pre-scientific way, ruled by inviolable traditions, unable to help themselves in so many ways:
It is the disastrous lot of Equatorial Africa never to have had at any time either fruit-bearing plants or fruit-bearing trees. The banana stocks, the manioc, the yam, the potato, and the oil palm were introduced from their West Indian islands by the Portuguese, who were [thus] the great benefactors of Equatorial Africa. In the districts where these useful products have not been introduced, or where they are not well-established, permanent famine prevails. (ibid. p. 48)
Harsh words ... in context
There follow three comments, quoted by a British journalist, from 1953. They were made "in the context of the upper Ogowe". (Brabazon, p. 432-4)
[Schweitzer delayed going to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, saying] "I can't go yet. If I do these lazy brutes will never get their houses built. And they need them so badly!"
The houses were for a new leprosy village. (Schweitzer had told the leprosy sufferers that he would never send them away, that they could stay at his hospital for the rest of their lives if that was what they wanted. There was also an orphanage at the hospital, the children of which were educated by the near-by Protestant and Catholic missions' schools.) Here is the background to the journalist's snippet:
Most of my time now goes in building a village for my 280 leper patients. The old village of bamboo huts had rotted and there is no point in building the huts up again. I must build other and more permanent accommodation, and more comfortable too. I have to be with the lepers all the time, because they will obey no one but me, and if I were not there they would do nothing....As soon as I leave the building site work stops. It is quite disheartening. The result is that I have to be there as overseer for weeks and even months on end. During the difficult levelling of the site, when hundreds of cubic metres of earth had to be excavated and carried away, I stood there weeping inwardly at having to do such stupid work.... One of these buildings is already finished, and the lepers are happy at being half-way decently accommodated at last. But this doesn't make them work any more the willingly, and they have to be urged and driven the whole time. (Letter, 18 September 1953, quoted in Picht, p. 144)
Schweitzer was never able to finish many of his books. There was too much work (including "stupid work") to do at the hospital, and he was exhausted by it. At the age of seventy-nine, he was up at six o'clock in the morning and often did not go to bed before midnight. He may have loved the people he had gone to Africa to serve, but he did not romanticize their condition.
Untutored African development
"They have citizens' rights now, but no citizens' responsibilities. They destroy most things they touch.... You ask whether the indigène can ever develop to responsibility without us, and the answer is No, they cannot. Others disagree. The United Nations Trusteeship Commissions and so on -- they think in terms of politics. Do they ask who plants the trees that the African can eat, who bores the wells that he can drink? No, they say, How are we progressing to self-government? Self-government without resource, without thrift? Democracy is meaningless to children!" (Brabazon, op. cit.)
"I am a man of limited experience," he said. "A man must occupy himself with what he knows and lives among." (ibid.)
How is one to decide whether or not a statement is racist? Now you owe me a definition of 'racist'. We are offended by Schweitzer's statements when he speaks of "the black man's innate love of spending" and "the temptations to defraud and to drink", which dangers "haunt every native so closely" (On the Edge ... p. 83). But suppose Schweitzer replied, "I was there: I served the peoples of the Ogowe district for fifty years. I am telling you what anyone who lived there might. Your notions about the natives are sentimental [You have a picture of how you think they "must" have been, as Rousseau had with his picture of "the noble savage"]; mine are based on a lifetime of experience"? (Of course if Schweitzer had written "the primitive man's" rather than "the black man's", this question would never arise. But how far Schweitzer generalized about the whole of Africa based on his own "limited experience", that is to say based on his own small corner of Africa, I don't know, and so I don't know if he went too far.)
(Note that although I have not quoted any of the many statements in which Schweitzer praised the human qualities of the Africans he had met, it is not because he did not also speak and write that way. [Note 2])
Frederick Franck revisited Lambaréné in 1961 and his book from that time yields further observations about how Schweitzer saw the Africans and what he hoped for for them.
When Gabon became an independent state in 1960, all but two of its first cabinet members had been born at Schweitzer's hospital. The vice-president, later president of Gabon, gave the government eulogy at Schweitzer's funeral; that was in September 1965. (Marshall, Poling (1971), p. 216, 306)
Schweitzer was not an ideologue; he was not a dogmatic thinker [he was not a bigot]: he adjusted his ideas to fit the facts as he found them (just as Myson had said in 600 B.C.): e.g. he constructed his hospital in a way that was welcoming to his African patients at that time and place, to their ideas and ways of life, rather than to what would have been European preconceptions about how a hospital ought to have been constructed.
Dr. Margaret van der Kreek, who was a doctor at Schweitzer's hospital, called it "a jungle village with a clinic" [Note 3]: it was a village on the local African model; only the medical practices and medicines were European.
Schweitzer was open-minded, the first requirement [i.e. this belongs to a definition] for which is honesty, a willingness [to admit that you may be -- and indeed are -- wrong and] to accept the facts as you find them, and to change your ideas when the facts change (as e.g. Keynes did in economics ["Keynes was a philosopher, meaning that he worked in the spirit of philosophy -- (of constant revising)"]).
Schweitzer may have had limitations as a human being; he often lost his patience with the Africans [I wonder if a man who was not motivated by love could ever have had the patience that he did have] when they were not conscientious either as patients or workers (Everyone who was physically able was made to work at the hospital). His attitude toward them was paternalistic (authoritarian, patriarchal) because that was the attitude he thought required at that time and place. (It should be asked in the spirit of "question everything" if paternalism is necessarily bad. A synonym for 'paternalistic' is 'fatherly'. In any case, Schweitzer was a hospital administrator, not a colonial governor. [Note 4)
... how closely connected are [Equatorial] Africa, fatigue, and nervous irritation. (On the Edge ... p. 161)
Photograph below: Louise Jilek-Aall, Working with Dr. Schweitzer (1990), between p. 96 and 97, circa 1961.