Vii issue 1 2009 Journal for Critical Animal Studies

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The grand design that Schweitzer pursued was misguided, but the means he chose to pursue it left a legacy of good. Schweitzer’s larger-than-life quest for a boundless ethic was itself driven by the love and compassion that he had once tried to go beyond; and these led him to perform a lifetime of individual services to his fellow living beings at great personal sacrifice. He healed the sick and comforted the bereft of all races and species. Doing the right deed for the wrong reason is not always, as T. S. Eliot would have it, the greatest treason. More often than not, it is the only way that we poor, deluded human beings manage to do some good in spite of ourselves. It is not in our grand designs that we triumph, but in the small works that we perform in pursuit of them, because it is in these small works that compassion and love are best able to exert their force in the world. Works that are small in scope often have the greatest effect on the lives of those toward whom they are directed. Grand designs are rarely achieved, and when they are, they tend to be destructive, witness the French and Russian revolutions. Grand designs defeat themselves. Small works endure.

Even if Schweitzer pillaged his own reputation as a modern day saint by his support for the European colonial enterprise, his half century of treating the sick, injured, and aged of the Ogooue basin, and his half century of protecting and preserving the nonhuman life that he found all around him in equatorial Africa, are examples of the greatness of soul in its purest form—the greatness of small works. Albert Schweitzer devoted his life to the service of those who suffer, without regard to any factor beyond their suffering. And after all is said and done, his life and work—even with their provincial shortcomings and quaint overreachings—point the way toward the very philosophy of love and compassion for all sentient beings that he had once tried to go beyond.

Perhaps our final assessment of Albert Schweitzer should be this: He was the hero of a modern Greek tragedy who scaled heights denied to lesser mortals until he was brought low by hubris. But in Schweitzer’s case, it was not hubris on behalf of himself or his own achievements, but blinding pride in a Europe that was unworthy of his devotion. Albert Schweitzer was better than Europe, but his failure to realize that has diminished him forever.

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