Was Schweitzer a Mystic After All?

by Jackson Lee Ice

Dr. Ice is professor of religion at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 8, 1978, pp. 213-215. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Albert Schweitzer’s curious claims lead one to wonder what he means by mysticism and whether, in the face of being variously labeled “idealist,” “rationalist,” “existentialist” and “radical” free-thinker, he is a mystic after all.

What are we to make of a thinker who sets forth a philosophy of "ethical mysticism," and yet maintains that "all real progress in the world is in the last analysis produced by rational thought"? How are we to understand one who says: "Every world- and life-view which is to satisfy thought is mysticism," and yet states that "mysticism which exists for itself alone is the salt which has lost its savor"? What do we do with a writer who believes that "all profound philosophy, all deep religion, are ultimately a struggle for ethical mysticism," and yet asserts that "mysticism is not a friend of ethics, but a foe"? And what does he mean when he claims that "reflection, when pursued to the end, leads to a living mysticism, which is a necessary element of thought"?

These curious claims by Albert Schweitzer (in The Philosophy of Civilization [Macmillan, 1949]) lead one to wonder what he means by mysticism and whether, in the face of being variously labeled "idealist," "rationalist," "existentialist" and "radical" free-thinker, he is a mystic after all. Has he for some eccentric reason stretched the term beyond for some recognition? Or has he brought new illumination to a complex and frequently misunderstood subject?

Varieties of Mysticism

Schweitzer writes that the main goal of religion is "to attain spiritual unity with infinite Being." "We are not satisfied to belong to the universe only as physical beings," he stated in the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University in November 1934, but want "to belong to it also as spiritual critics"; we aim "at our spirit becoming one with the spirit universe." For "only in spiritual unity can we give meaning to our lives and find strength to suffer and to act" (Indian Thought and Its Development [Beacon, 1952], p. viii). This raises a crucial question: "How can I conceive of myself as being in the world and at the same time in God?" -- implying, of course, the further question: How can one attain such a unity? (Christianity and the Religions of the World [Doubleday Doran, second edition, 1939], p. 26). In traditional religious belief it is by some form of mysticism that humanity can achieve such a goal. Schweitzer apparently concurs; but what kind of mysticism does he propose?

Schweitzer notes two basic kinds of mysticism: "primitive" and "developed" (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle [Holt, 1931], p.1). The "primitive" concept of union with the divine is naïve and usually confined to superearthly forces placated to assure personal and group protection, power, healing and immortal life. It seeks participation in these suprasensuous powers by means of secret rites which include ecstatic dances, incantations, auto-hypnosis, mortification of the flesh and drug-induced trances. This type he also calls "magical mysticism. Its reoccurrence throughout history, and its reappearance in our time demonstrate its latent virility and chthonic appeal.

The "developed" form arises "whenever thought makes the ultimate effort to concentrate on the relation of personality to the universal." Moreover:

When the conception of the universal is reached and a man reflects upon his relation to the totality of being and to Being in itself, the resultant mysticism becomes widened, deepened, and purified. The entrance into the super-earthly and eternal then takes place through an act of thinking. In this act the conscious personality raises itself above that illusion of the senses which makes him regard himself as in bondage . . . to the earthly and temporal [Mysticism, pp. 1-2].

This type Schweitzer calls "intellectual mysticism," to be found among "the Brahmans, in Buddha, Platonism, Stoicism, in Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Hegel."’

Though there are many varieties of "intellectual mysticism" that have appeared "according to time and place," Schweitzer emphasizes two forms which are radically distinguished from each other: "abstract mysticism" and "ethical mysticism." The distinctions between the two are in his opinion crucial. The former (characterized also by the terms "God-mysticism," "passive" or "supra-ethical" mysticism) ends in world denial, affirms that Ultimate Reality is knowable, and asserts that one can, by means of special mental and spiritual powers, attain union with the Infinite. Ethical mysticism, on the other hand (also called "mysticism of actuality"), results in world- and life-affirmation, holds that the World-Spirit or God remains ultimately a mystery, and bases its incomplete view of the nature of things on an encompassing life view. This is the mysticism which he identifies with his philosophy of "reverence for life."

Overly Ambitious Claims

Mysticism has generally been associated -- and still is, unfortunately -- with the more dramatic types of transcendental, ascetic mysticism of the Eastern religions. Failure to recognize the appearance of other forms makes the task of understanding mysticism in general, and Schweitzer’s thought in particular, doubly difficult. If one has in mind only what Schweitzer designates as "abstract" mysticism, then he cannot be regarded as a mystic and may be accused of misusing the term. His mysticism is certainly not of the conventional kind, and his usage of the term entails none of the traditional characteristics. It does not involve any of the esoteric, theosophical or via negativa ways of knowing. It is not a matter of visions, ecstasies, revelations or occult experiences. There is no separate transcendental realm of Being with which we try to make contact; neither does Schweitzer believe in the identification of the self with the Infinite, nor regard the Absolute as the all-absorbing Reality and the self and world as illusory.

Specific criticisms of traditional mysticism offered by Schweitzer are most informative. "Abstract mysticism," he claims, is first of all purely an intellectual act, a symbolic relationship in which subjectivity converses with itself. Such heightened acts of contemplation lure the mind from the actual to the imaginative. "It becomes a pure act of consciousness, and leads to a spirituality which is just as bare of content as the hypothetical absolute" (Civilization, p. 302).

Second, instead of being a means, such mysticism mistakenly becomes its own ultimate goal. "The great danger for all mysticism is that of . . . making the spirituality associated with the being-in-eternity an end in itself. . . . It does not urge [one] born again to new life, to live as a new person . . . in the world" (Mysticism, p. 297). Third, if it remains consistent with its view of reality as transcendent and with its ideal goal of spiritual absorption, it inevitably results in a withdrawal from active participation in worldly affairs:

All attempts to extract living religion from pure monistic God-mysticism are foredoomed to failure. . . . God-mysticism remains a dead thing. The becoming-. one of the finite will with the Infinite acquires a content only when it is experienced both as quiescence . . . and at the same time as a "being-taken-possession-of" by the will of love, which . . . strives in us to become act [Mysticism, pp. 378-79].

Only by an outlook on life and the world which is active and affirmative can human beings hope to succeed in fulfilling themselves as well as their religious ideals.

Because this is true, "abstract mysticism" attains, in the fourth place, only to an ethic of passive self-perfection devoid of ethics. Hence, it is not ethical in the full sense at all; it is "supraethical":

How difficult it is for the intellectual mysticism of the being-in-God to reach an ethic is seen in Spinoza. Even in Christian mysticism . . . it is often the semblance of ethics rather than ethics itself which is preserved. There is always the danger that the mystic will experience the eternal as absolute passivity, and will consequently cease to regard ethical existence as the highest manifestation of spirituality [Mysticism, p. 297].

Finally, "abstract mysticism" claims too much; it is self-deceptive in asserting that it offers a way to attain to knowledge of Infinite Being. Despite its insistence on special transcendental ways of knowing, Schweitzer finds its claims too ambitious. Traditional mysticism freely recognizes the limitations of all worldly knowledge, yet does not with the same honesty admit the tentativeness of its own intuitive assertions. We are forced to face the sobering fact that in any ultimate sense "the World-Spirit and world events remain to us incomprehensible" (Indian Thought, p. 263). Indeed, our knowledge of the Universe as well as our role within it lead deeper and deeper into the impenetrable mystery of Being. To become united with the so-called World-Spirit in thought or spiritual absorption, however pure or transcendent, is impossible, for in reality we remain in ignorance of it.

In the face of these indictments, what kind of mysticism is it that Schweitzer believes can, and must, remain a requisite feature of a rational world view?

Relating to the Infinite via the Finite

We must, first of all, regard mystical experience and insight as a means, not as an end. Mysticism is a useful servant but a poor master. It must stand at the service of rational thought as a necessary or completing element in the search for an optimistic and ethical world view. "Mysticism," says Schweitzer, "must never be thought to exist for its own sake. It is not a flower, but only the calyx of a flower. Ethics are the flower" (Civilization, p. 304).

Epistemologically speaking, Schweitzer’s view of mysticism is in part synonymous with "creative insight," "intellectual vision" or "intuitive perception." He does not regard such experiences as contrary to reason. Even though Schweitzer, emphasizing the impenetrable mystery of existence which surrounds us, says that all deep thought which thinks itself out to a conclusion wades into the waters of the "nonrational." or of the mystical, he does not mean by this the irrational. His cognitive mysticism is similar to Tillich’s "ecstatic reason." While Tillich speaks of "controlling reason," "receiving reason" and "ecstatic reason" (as a form of the latter), Schweitzer speaks of "intellect," "elemental reason" and "mystic insight" (also a form of the latter). There is a striking similarity here, even to the agreement that ecstatic reason "completes" and does not necessarily contradict thought. Such an intuitive or ecstatic insight often possesses a compelling urgency that lends it the character of logical necessity; i.e., at times the vision seems to impress itself upon cognitive awareness with forceful cogency. This is what Schweitzer means. I am sure, by mystical insight’s being a necessary element of deep thought.

Second, according to Schweitzer we must shift the focus of mysticism from the transcendent to the immanent, from the mystery of the abstract to the mystery of the concrete. It is not the infinite which is truly mysterious, but the finite. "We must . . . abandon abstract mysticism, and turn to the mysticism which is alive" (Civilization, p. 304). Instead of becoming devoted to an abstract principle of Being or the Transcendent, we become devoted to the various concrete manifestations of Being as such and release our energies upon them. "It is only through the manifestations of Being, and only through those with which I enter into relations, that my being has any intercourse with infinite Being" (Civilization, p. 305).

Schweitzer’s ethical mysticism begins with a reflective observation of the finite world ("I am urge-to-life"), moves to an empirical generalization ("in the midst of other wills-to-live"), is made cosmic by an intuitive insight, which is the completing or mystical element of thought ("all is part of a cosmic or universal will-to-live"), and returns to the finite for experiential verification in ethical participation ("Ethics alone can put me in true relationship with the universe by my serving it, cooperating with it; not by trying to understand it. . . It is through community of life, not community of thought, that I abide in harmony... ["The Ethics of Reverence for Life," Christendom, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 1936)], pp. 233-34). Hence it is a mysticism not of the eternal but the transient, not of the infinite but the finite. It is a nature mysticism, or ethical vitalism imbued with spirituality. What he wrote of St. Paul can be said of himself: "In him mysticism is combined with a nonmystical conception of the world" (Mysticism. p. 4).

And last, the spiritual unity with Being which the mystic desires is for Schweitzer attained through giving expression to the natural proclivity within us of the will-to-relatedness, or love, and by becoming united in ethical concern with all forms of life in the world about us.

Schweitzer was firmly convinced that one of the shortcomings of all world religions is that they regard ethics as ultimately separated from spirituality, as is the general rule in Eastern religions, or as myopically identified with the total meaning of religion, as is the case generally in the West. In both instances,, religion suffers a loss: either spirituality or ethics goes begging, or one or the other is regarded as a mere appendage. To remedy this, Schweitzer’s own position asserts that the spiritual and ethical dimensions can be, and indeed are, inexorably bound together. He finds both naturally and logically united in his religious ethic of reverence for life. How is this so?

If I am inwardly made aware of the immediate and obvious fact that "I am will-to-live [which includes the will-to-love] amidst other wills-to-live" and I act upon this, my theoretical knowledge passes over into experiential knowledge. I feel a kinship with all existence (all is will-to-live), not abstractly, but existentially. If I then strive out of this instinctive reverence for life to be united with all Life, I fulfill at the same time both my will-to-human-relatedness and will-to-cosmic-relatedness; I am then rooted ethically as well as spiritually. "Our thought," says Schweitzer, "seeks ever to attain harmony with the mysterious Spirit of the Universe. To be complete, such harmony must be both active and passive. That is to say, we seek harmony both in deed and in thought" ("Ethics," Christendom, pp. 233, 234).

The uniting of oneself in ethical action to other life, when all life is seen under the aegis of the Cosmic or Universal Will-to-Live, is what Schweitzer calls "ethical mysticism."

To relate oneself in the spirit of reverence for life to the multiform manifestations of the will-to-live which together constitute the world is ethical mysticism - -the essence of which is just this: that out of my unsophisticated and naive existence in the world there comes, as a result of thought about self and the world, spiritual self-devotion to the mysterious infinite Will which is continuously manifested in the universe [Civilization, p. 79].

In this ethical becoming-one with all life, Schweitzer realizes the spiritual becoming-one with the Primal Source of Being to which all life belongs.

Hence the ethical and the spiritual are founded in the same reality, never to become separated again. We seek union with the same reality upon which the basic principle of the moral is grounded: the Life-Force which includes the will-to-relatedness or love. The proclivity toward devotion to others, expressed naturally in us as pity, sympathy and concern, is part of the same urge toward cosmic rooted-ness or union that we feel. "There is therefore," says Schweitzer, "dominant in it [reverence for life] a spirituality which carries in itself in elemental form the impulse to action. The gruesome truth that spirituality and ethics are two different things no longer holds good. Here the two are one and the same" (Civilization, p. 305).

We also realize, as a result of Schweitzer’s type of mysticism, that world- and life-negation or pessimism is now incongruous, and a purely passive spirituality or religious quiescence becomes impossible.

This then is what Schweitzer means by "ethical mysticism." It means that his ethical theory, and hence his religious philosophy in turn, has, by means of an encompassing or mystical insight, ontological significance as well as moral urgency and rational cogency.