Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a renowned musician, theologian, philosopher, and medical doctor in Africa. He wrote extensively about his ethic of Reverence for Life, which he believed to be the answer for the development of humanity and for the creation of an ethical civilisation. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his humanitarian work. After his death, a remembrance service was held for him at St. Paul’s cathedral, and he was referred to as the Saint of Lambarene for leading a life devoted to humanity.

Schweitzer was born in the Alsace. His academic excellence enabled him to obtain two doctorate degrees by the time he was thirty years old, in philosophy and theology.  Alongside his studies, he worked as a church pastor and as a professor at Strasbourg University. He also studied under the famous organist Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, wrote seminal books on the works of J.S. Bach and gave acclaimed organ recitals. 

But none of this fully satisfied him. He wanted to find a way to serve humanity beyond his academic career. Therefore, in 1905, aware of the dire need for medical care in Africa, he enrolled at medical school to undertake his third degree. In 1913, at age 38, Schweitzer and his wife, Hélène Bresslau, opened a hospital in Lambarene, Gabon- then a province of French Equatorial Africa. He devoted his life to providing health care as a jungle doctor for people who did not otherwise have access to modern medical treatment. As well as giving concerts to raise funds for his hospital he also continued to write about his ethic Reverence for Life. 

Reverence for Life

Discovery of the ethic

In 1915, Schweitzer was travelling up the Ogowé River at sunset. He was lost in thought about the spiritual crisis of civilisation that had brought about the First World War. The boat passed a herd of hippopotamuses and gazing at this incredible scene, Schweitzer had a sudden realisation. The phrase, Ehrfurt vor dem Leben (Reverence for Life), came to him.

Throughout his studies, Schweitzer had continually searched for an ethic whose truth was unarguable and not based in abstract reasoning. He wanted an ethic capable of being used as ‘a living philosophy of the people’, so that it could become the foundation for an ethical life. He wanted to find an ethic that was intuitive and accessible to all. On the Ogowé River he found it- Reverence for Life. 

What does Reverence for Life mean?

What Schweitzer experienced on the boat whilst looking at the hippopotamuses was a sudden deep feeling of awe and wonder for being in wild nature and realising that all life is equally valuable and connected. Reverence for Life is an ethic that says that all life is valuable and for humans to fully feel and comprehend this truth they must engage in deep contemplation. It is only in deep thought that a person can establish an inner profound reverence for all life.  

“I call humanity to the ethic of reverence for life. This ethic makes no distinction between a more valuable life and a less valuable life, between a superior life and an inferior life. It rejects such a distinction, because accepting these differences in value between living beings basically amounts to judging them according to the greater or lesser similarity of their sensitivity to ours. But this is an entirely subjective criterion. Who among us knows what significance the other living being has for itself and for the whole? The consequence of this distinction is then the idea that there are lives without value, whose destruction or deterioration would be permitted.” Schweitzer, 1964, Mein Wort an die Menschen

To have an attitude of Reverence for Life means that we would never destroy any form of life unless we judge it absolutely necessary and always try to enhance and support life wherever possible. A truth of human existence is that we are alive and want to go on living and we share this will-to-live with everything else that lives – from elephants to blades of grass. Schweitzer believed that the principle, ‘I am life that wants to live, surrounded by life that wants to live’, needs to be held in every person’s conscience so that we extend the same respect to other lives as we give to our own. 

How did Reverence for Life influence Schweitzer?

From 1915, Reverence for Life was the foundation for all his thought and action. But he did not want to only write about his new ethic he wanted to live it and put it into practice. He was convinced that setting an example was the best way to demonstrate Reverence for Life to others. He said, ‘example is not the main way to influence others. It is the only way.’ He ran the hospital in Lambarene in the spirit of Reverence for Life and showed that it worked as an ethic in practice. He said, ‘I made my life my argument.’

The hospital cared for thousands of people and animals alike. Schweitzer pioneered jungle medicine and regularly performed life-saving surgery. Animals such as dogs, goats and monkeys were allowed to live at the hospital and Schweitzer built a stable for sick animals. The animals lived alongside the humans in harmony. Plants were also treated with the same level of respect. Schweitzer cared for the palm trees that grew in the central courtyard at the hospital by transporting soil to spread at the base of the trees to protect their roots, which were being damaged by the foot traffic of all the people at the hospital.

His hospital was a manifestation of all aspects of the ethic of Reverence for Life as it cared for all life equally and created the conditions for individuals to develop their inner selves. He believed that society should allow individuals to be fully awake, by which he meant not limited to narrow ideas and thinking but with the time and freedom to contemplate the elemental questions of the meaning of life. An organisation run with the ethic of Reverence for Life creates the conditions in which the creativity and originality of individuals can emerge and allows the freedom for deep thought to take place. It is only by making these conditions possible that an individual can come to the inner realisation of Reverence for Life for themselves. 

In his major philosophical work, The Philosophy of Civilisation, Schweitzer laid out what he saw as the key problems with society that are hindering the development of the ethical individual. In Chapter II of The Decay and Restoration of Civilisation he identified five problems, summarised as:

1.People are experiencing a lack of material freedom which reduces their freedom of thought.

2.People are overworked and have therefore lost time for mental reflection.

3.People are not able to completely develop their personality and skills because of the specialisation of work.

4.People are experiencing disconnection because of the increase in impersonal interactions with each other.

5.People are being forced to subordinate their personality and ideas to an increasingly organised and controlling society. 

“The man of today pursues his dark journey in a time of darkness, as one who has no freedom, no mental collectedness, no all-round development, as one who loses himself in an atmosphere of inhumanity, who surrenders his spiritual independence and moral judgement to the organized society in which he lives.” Schweitzer, 1923, The Philosophy of Civilisation Volume I

Schweitzer used his hospital to demonstrate how to develop an institution that tackles these problems. Patients were treated and by relieving their health issues and allowing their minds and bodies to be free of pain they were able to think freely. Schweitzer believed that when our minds are not taken up with matters of survival, we are free to think about higher ideals. Staff and patients were required to work at the hospital, but they were not overworked. The jobs they undertook gave them a purpose and sense of meaning, so that many patients asked to continue working at the hospital after they had recovered. Many employees were able to fulfil their vocation here, there was a carpentry workshop on site to make furniture and sewing machines that the staff used for tailoring but also for creative endeavours, such as making outfits for staff costume parties. The hospital was a thriving community where people from different countries, speaking different languages lived together. At the same time, patients were free to come and go, to lead their lives without having their customs disrupted.

How to live the ethic of Reverence for Life?

Behind the phrase, Reverence for Life, lies much more than ecological thinking. It is about valuing all life and caring for plants, animals and humans equally. It is also about encouraging the individual to think deeply and freely. 

“Without deep contemplative thought, people can be convinced by ideology and doctrine. A world that has adopted true Reverence for Life will encourage the individual to venture out into the turbulent waves of the big questions surrounding our spiritual relationship to the world as a whole.” Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilisation Volume III, published in 1999, translated by Percy Mark in 2020

A society guided by Reverence for Life will allow the individual to balance deep inner work with action. An ethical individual is like a tree that grows deep roots that probe down into the base layers. The roots nourish the tree and provide the fuel for producing fruit

How does Reverence for Life UK work with the ethic?

Reverence for Life UK aims to support projects that are guided by this ethic. Following in Schweitzer’s footsteps we look for ways to develop projects that tackle the problems he identified and allow the conditions for the development of the ethical individual. 

We see that there are five ways to tackle the five problems he identified:

1.Improve the material freedom of people, lift them out of poverty and ill health so that their thoughts are not consumed with matters of survival and can focus on higher ideals. 

2.Strive to reduce overwork and build time and space into the working life to allow for deep contemplation. 

3.Create jobs that give people a purpose and sense of meaning. Create institutions that allow for the creative expression of individuals and the development of their personality. 

4.Create communities that allow people to develop connections and have meaningful interactions with each other.

5.Create organisations that support the individual and encourage independent thinking. 

We believe that if these conditions are created it will lead to a society where life flourishes and is respected. Actions such as caring for animals and creating environmentally sustainable farms are an extension of the ethical individual. To fully express the ethic of Reverence for Life in practice we must therefore focus on both aspects of the ethic. Not harming life unnecessarily and enabling individuals to achieve their highest potential. 

Reverence for Life UK is a registered charity in the UK. Charity No.1197043
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