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The Norman Transcript December 07, 2006 12:16 am — For The Transcript One of the joys of life is letting our minds ramble -- dream, create, speculate -- without the discipline of logic or the constraints of reality. It is mind which seems to distinguish us from other earthly creatures. We can remember, reflect and analyze. Animal psychologists may disagree, but remembering in animals is probably more a product of conditioning than it is the result of an active intellect. Reflection seems improbable since it involves direct application of mind to the meaning of past experience. That other creatures can analyze to a significant degree is minimal, although their ability to solve problems seems verified by experimental work with anthropoids as well as by observation. By contrast, it is human ability to use intelligence, contemplate the meaning of experience and analyze problems that represent our greatest competence and potential. We can do these things not only to survive but also to enjoy and enrich life. One of the finest intellectual tools we have is the capacity to frame questions and answer them. They can be questions having to do with survival or ones challenging imagination and illuminating richness of our existence. For example, even though the following two questions are arbitrary, subjective and possess no absolute answer they pose a stimulating reflective challenge. First, what is the most important book of the 20th century? And two, what is the most revolutionary idea stemming from these decades? Books flow from the presses by the thousands covering every conceivable subject. No one can sample them all, let alone read them. So selecting the most illuminating book of the 20th century is clearly a matter of private preference, individual taste as well as an accident of place and time. Some of us with a persistent interest in ideas, literature and society have been taken with Albert Schweitzer. His 1906 "Quest of the Historical Jesus" shook the foundations of Christianity -- at least in some seminaries and denominations. But his philosophical masterpiece, the "Philosophy of Civilization," seems less circumscribed, and analyzes the conditions making for world order. Controversial as the choice may be, this book gets our vote. One cannot appreciate "The Philosophy of Civilization" without understanding the life and commitments of Schweitzer. His father was a Lutheran pastor and he himself received a rigorous and systematic German education. He studied at a Gymnasium -- a classical secondary school emphasizing Latin and Greek, and then spent more than a decade at the University of Strasbourg. He received a doctorate in philosophy in 1899. What is truly distinctive about all this is that from his family through the university there is an emphasis upon moral responsibility, theology, philosophy and the nature of civilization. The result: Schweitzer resolved that when he reached the age of 30 he would abandon his career in music, theology and academia, giving himself to the service of humanity. He kept that resolve, studied medicine, and in 1913 moved to French Equatorial Africa where he and his wife spent their lives and talents ministering to the natives. Occasional fundraising forays and time in a French jail during World War I were his principal absences from self-appointed duties. When Schweitzer died in the autumn of 1964, his work was carried on by friends and his daughter. Schweitzer started writing "The Philosophy of Civilization" well before he left for Africa. An English edition was issued in London in 1932. Although not a pessimist, he was motivated by the conviction that our civilization is in a state of moral and social decay. Much of the disorder of modern life stems from the divergence between our moral concerns and the course of modern science. Schweitzer recognized that scientific progress is not automatic and that it must be guided by intelligence and a concentrated moral sense. He concluded the principal intellectual task of his generation was to develop a world-view based on careful moral reflection, one that sustains an ethical philosophy of civilization. A key assumption of Schweitzer is the belief that "the disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far
more developed materially than spiritually." This results in a "spirit of superficiality" running through our institutions and our habits of mind. We see this in churches, universities and political parties where the influence of money penetrates to depths that impair integrity. The ease with which money buys the talents of our leaders is distressing and culturally destructive. The problems of humankind are not likely to be solved until we seriously apply ourselves to ethics using our most rigorous intelligence to formulate its principles and apply them. As Schweitzer sees the problem, we must think our way to a clear sense of the connections among ethics, humankind and the intricate relationships of our complex social-physical universe. Understandably others will select other books for top honors in the 20th century. If we were choosing fiction, the choice would go to George Orwell's "1984," for he shows us how thin is the veneer of civilization and how easily we are corrupted by fear. "Lord of the Flies" would be a close second as it shows our primitive nature with frightening clarity. But in this voting booth Schweitzer's integrity, ethically focused thought and dedication to humanity earns "The Philosophy of Civilization" first place. As to the second question, what is the most revolutionary idea stemming from the decades of the 20th century, we have many stimulating choices. Medicine, space flight, engineering, economics and other fields can all make justifiable bids for first place. But it is difficult to see anything that requires us to recast our world, nothing more likely to transform our thinking, than the physics of Albert Einstein. Since Copernicus, Newton and the continuing revisions of classical mechanics, humankind has been challenged by explosive ideas, ratified by mathematics, that force us to re-think the structure of our universe, the nature of matter and the place and meaning of our existence in the vast scheme of things. Einstein makes us think as never before. Space and time are not separate. The brilliant Russian-born mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who taught at Konigsberg, Zurich and Gottingen, and whose work underpins Einstein's theory of relativity, observed in the first decade of the 20th century that space and time as separate phenomena are henceforth "mere shadows." Nor can there be an absolute reference point in the universe. Motion and location can be determined only in a specified frame of reference. And these are infinite. No frame of reference is necessarily preferable to any other; it all depends on the questions we are asking, the problems we are trying to understand and the location of the observer. Such questions as these help bring us face to face with fundamental ideas. They make us take a stand. And it is only with such confrontations that our true character comes to the fore. Then we can see who we really are and what we really believe. We see ourselves as capable of both prudence and imprudence. We see war for what it truly is: blind, irrational, brutal -- emotions out of control. We see what values are worthy of support. The short-sightedness of our generation with its limited political leaders, bureaucratic stumbling, its security agencies with their unaccountable budgets, its military aggression fostered by those who read so little, its vast and lethargic public asleep in the poppy fields of commercial entertainment, and its religion that committed moral hari-kari in the quest for political power and wealth -- all this will seem to many of our descendants a tragicomedy lending itself to decades of regret and to lamentations for what was lost and what might have been. Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. He writes monthly for The Transcript. Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.
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