Albert Schweitzer (14 Jan 1875 – 4 Sep 1965): Reverence for Life

BIOGRAPHIES, 11 Jan 2021

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

The human race must be converted to a fresh mental attitude, if it is not to suffer extinction… A new renaissance, much greater than that in which we emerged from the Middle Ages, is absolutely essential.  Are we going to draw from the spirit enough strength to create new conditions and turn our faces once again to civilization, or are we going to draw our inspiration from our surroundings and go down with them to ruin?  — Albert Schweitzer

January 14th was the anniversary of the birth of Albert Schweitzer and a special day at the hospital that he founded at Lambaréné. Alsatian wine would be served at lunch, and conversations over lunch would last linger than usual before everyone had to return to his tasks.  In 1963, when I was working for the Ministry of Education of Gabon and spending time at the Protestant secondary school some 500 yards down river from the hospital, I was invited to lunch for the birthday celebration.  As the only non-hospital person there, I was placed next to Dr Schweitzer, and we continued our discussions both on the events that had taken place along the Ogowe River and his more philosophical concerns.

I was interviewing Gabonese staying at the hospital on what they thought of schools, of school teachers, of their hopes for their children.  When Schweitzer was not busy writing, I would go sit with him and discuss.  Since many of the people who came from Europe or the USA to visit him would always say “Yes, Doctor, I agree”, he had relatively little time for them. But since I would say, “But no, you also have to take this into account…” he was stimulated and we had long talks.  On his basic position of reverence for life, I was in agreement, and I have always appreciated the time spent on the river’s edge.

As Norman Cousins has noted,

the main point about Schweitzer is that he helped make it possible for twentieth-century man to unblock his moral vision. There is a tendency in a relativistic age for man to pursue all sides of a question as an end in itself, finding relief and even refuge in the difficulty of defining good and evil.  The result is a clogging of the moral sense, a certain feeling of self-consciousness or even discomfort when questions with ethical content are raised.  Schweitzer furnished the nourishing evidence that nothing is more natural in life than a moral response, which exists independently of precise definition, its use leading not to exhaustion but to new energy.”

The moral response for Schweitzer was “reverence for life”.  Schweitzer had come to Lambaréné in April 1913, already well known for his theological reflections on the eschatological background of Jesus’ thought as well as his study of Bach.  As an Alsatian he was concerned with the lack of mutual understanding, the endless succession of hatred and fear, between France and Germany that led to war a year later.

Since Alsace was part of Germany at the time, Schweitzer was considered an enemy alien in the French colony of Gabon.  When war broke out he was first restricted to the missionary station where he had started his hospital and later was deported and interned in France.  He returned to Gabon after the First World War, even more convinced of the need to infuse thought with a strong ethical impulse.  His reflections in The Decay and Restoration of Civilisation trace in a fundamental way the decay.  He saw clearly that

the future of civilization depends on our overcoming the meaningless and hopelessness which characterises the thoughts and convictions of men today, and reaching a state of fresh hope and fresh determination.”

He was looking for a basic principle that would provide the basis of the needed renewal.  That principle arose from a mystical experience.  He recounts how he was going down river to Ngomo, a missionary station with a small clinic.  In those days, there were steam boats on the Ogowé, and seated on the deck, he had been trying to write all day.  After a while, he stopped writing and only watched the equatorial forest as the boat moved slowly on.  Then the words “reverence for life” came into his mind, and his reflections had found their core: life must be both affirmed and revered.  Ethics, by its very nature, is linked to the affirmation of the good.  Schweitzer saw that he was

life which wants to live, surrounded by life which wants to live.  Being will-to-life, I feel the obligation to respect all will-to-life about me as equal to my own.  The fundamental idea of good is thus that it consists in preserving life, in favoring it, in wanting to bring it to its highest value, and evil consists in destroying life, doing it injury, hindering its development.”

 Erfuct fur das Leben, — reverence for life — was the key concept for Schweitzer — all life longs for fullness and development as a person does for himself.  However, the will to live is not static; there is a inner energy which pushes on to a higher state — a will to self-realisation.  Basically, this energy can be called spiritual.  As Dr Schweitzer wrote

One truth stands firm.  All that happens in world history rests on something spiritual. If the spiritual is strong, it creates world history. If it is weak, it suffers world history.” The use of Schweitzer’s principle of Reverence for Life can have a profound impact on how humans treat the environment. Reverence for Life rejects the notion that humans can use the environment for its own purposes without any consideration of its consequences for other living things.  It accepts the view that there is a reciprocal relationship among living things.  Each species is linked to many others.”

Aldo Leopold in his early statement of a deep ecology ethic, A Sand County Almanac, makes the same point:

“All ethics so far evolved rest on a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts…The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, water, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.”

War and the potential of the use of nuclear weapons is the obvious opposite of reverence for life.  Thus, in the mid 1950s, when the political focus was on the testing in the atmosphere of nuclear weapons, Schweitzer came out strongly for an abolition of nuclear tests.  Some had warned him that such a position could decrease his support among those who admired his medical work in Africa but who wanted to support continued nuclear tests.  However, for Schweitzer, an ethic which is not presented publicly is no ethic at all.  His statements on the nuclear weapons issue are collected in his Peace or atomic war? (1958). The statements had an impact with many, touched by the ethical appeal when they had not been moved to action by political reasoning.  These protests led to the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which bans tests in the atmosphere — an important first step.

Schweitzer was confident that an ethic impulse was in all people and would manifest itself if given the proper opportunity.

“Just as the rivers are much less numerous than underground streams, so the idealism that is  visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased or scarcely released.  Mankind is waiting and longing for those who can accomplish the task of untying what is knotted and bringing the underground waters to the surface.”

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René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jan 2021.

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