Reverence for Life

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The phrase Reverence for Life is a translation of the German phrase: "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben". These words came to Albert Schweitzer on a boat trip on the Ogooué River in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), while searching for a universal concept of ethics for our time.

Schweitzer made the phrase the basic tenet of an ethical philosophy, which he developed and put into practice. He gave expression to its development in numerous books and publications during his life and also in manuscripts which have recently been published; the main work being his unfinished four-part "Philosophy of Culture" (German: Kulturphilosophie) subtitled: "The World-view of Reverence for Life". He also used his hospital in Lambaréné in Gabon (Central Africa) to demonstrate this philosophy in practice.

He believed that Reverence for Life is a concept that develops from observation of the world around us. In 'Civilization and Ethics' he expressed this in these words:

"Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil."

— Albert Schweitzer

James Brabazon (Author of the Biography of Albert Schweitzer) defined Reverence for Life with the following statement:

"Reverence for Life says that the only thing we are really sure of is that we live and want to go on living. This is something that we share with everything else that lives, from elephants to blades of grass—and, of course, every human being. So we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect, that we wish for ourselves."

— James Brabazon

Albert Schweitzer hoped that the ethic of Reverence for Life would make its way in the world on the basis of his explanation of it in his books and talks, the example of his life and the force of its own argument based on the depth of fundamental thought. To some extent this is taking place as is evidenced by the growth of the environmental movement. (The book Silent Spring, by Rachael Carson, which is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement,[1] was dedicated to Albert Schweitzer). Reverence for Life can also be seen in the explosion of ethical, charitable organizations of all kinds in many parts of the world.

The origins of Albert Schweitzer’s "Reverence for Life"[edit]

Dr. Albert Schweitzer believed that ethical values which could underpin the ideal of true civilization had to have their foundation in deep thought and be world- and life-affirming. He therefore embarked on a search for ethical values in the various major religions and world-views accessible to him, but could not find any that were able, unequivocally, to combine ethics with life-affirmation. It was not until two years after moving out to Gabon to establish the Albert Schweitzer Hospital that he finally found the simple statement which answered his quest.

In his autobiography "Out of My Life and Thought," Dr. Schweitzer explains this process.

"Having described how at the beginning of the summer of 1915 he awoke from some kind of mental daze, asking himself why he was only criticizing civilization and not working on something constructive.".[2] He relates how he asked himself the question:

But what is civilization?

The essential element in civilization is the ethical perfecting of the individual as well as society. At the same time, every spiritual and every material step forward has significance for civilization. The will to civilization is, then, the universal will to progress that is conscious of the ethical as the highest value. In spite of the great importance we attach to the achievements of science and human prowess, it is obvious that only a humanity that is striving for ethical ends can benefit in full measure from material progress and can overcome the dangers that accompany it.....

The only possible way out of chaos is for us to adopt a concept of the world based on the ideal of true civilization.

But what is the nature of that concept of the world in which the will to the general progress and the will to the ethical progress join and are linked?

It consists in an ethical affirmation of the world and of life.

What is affirmation of the world and of life?....[3]

For months on end, I lived in a continual state of mental agitation. Without the least success I concentrated - even during my daily work at the hospital - on the real nature of the affirmation of life and of ethics, and on the question of what they have in common. I was wandering about in a thicket where no path was to be found. I was pushing against an iron door that would not yield....[4]

In that mental state, I had to take a long journey up the river . . . Lost in thought, I sat on deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy. I covered sheet after sheet with disconnected sentences merely to concentrate on the problem. Two days passed. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase : “Reverence for Life”. [lang|de| Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben] The iron door had yielded. The path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the principle in which affirmation of the world and ethics are joined together!” [5]

-- Albert Schweitzer


According to some authors, Schweitzer's thought, and specifically his development for reverence for life, was influenced by Indian religious thought and in particular Jain principle of ahimsa (non-violence).[6] Albert Schweitzer has noted the contribution of Indian influence in his book Indian Thought and Its Development:[7]

The laying down of the commandment to not kill and to not damage is one of the greatest events in the spiritual history of mankind. Starting from its principle, founded on world and life denial, of abstention from action, ancient Indian thought - and this is a period when in other respects ethics have not progressed very far - reaches the tremendous discovery that ethics know no bounds. So far as we know, this is for the first time clearly expressed by Jainism.

It should not be overlooked, however, that as a child he felt deeply for the suffering of all the creatures around him. It beat upon him. He wrote, "As far back as I can remember I was saddened by the amount of misery I saw in the world around me. Youth's unqualified joie de vivre I never really knew...One thing especially saddened me was that the unfortunate animals had to suffer so much pain and misery....It was quite incomprehensible to me -- this was before I began going to school -- why in my evening prayers I should pray for human beings only. So when my mother had prayed with me and had kissed me good-night, I used to add silently a prayer that I composed myself for all living creatures. It ran thus: "O heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in in peace...." [8]

Schweitzer twice went fishing with some boys "because they asked [him] to" and "this sports was soon made impossible for me by the treatment of the worms that were put on the hook...and the wrenching of the mouths of the fishes that were caught. I gave it up...From experiences like these, which moved my heart....there slowly grew up in me an unshakeable conviction that we have no right to inflict suffering and death on another living creature, and that we ought all of us to feel what a horrible thing it is to cause suffering and death..." [9] The concept of Reverence for Life was incipient in Schweizer almost from birth.

This awareness effected him throughout his life, as when he would carefully, gently scoop a spider out of a hole it had fallen into before planting a crop there, to feed his patients and their families who also worked on the hospital farm. He wrote that, just as our own existence is significance to each of us, "[a creature's] existence is significant to it."[10] He wrote that "...my relation to my own being and to the objective world is determined by reverence for life. This reverence for life is given as an element of my will-to-live..." and this will-to-live existed in all creatures and was to be respected.[11]

As a child he was taught, and later as and adult taught his congregations the "fundamental truths of the religion of Jesus as something not hostile to reason, but, on the contrary, as strengthening them." [12] Many later thanked him, saying that this teaching had "helped them to keep their religion in later life." A great mind, he went through "heaps of books" which were piled so high he had to make aisles to get through them.[13] He studies the life of Jesus in a depth few have ever achieved. His own philosophy, which came to be encapsulated in the phrase Reverence for Life, had this bedrock in the Four Gospels of the New Testament.

In his book The Philosophy of Civilization, Schweitzer wrote, "Ethics are responsibility without limit toward all that lives....Love means more, since it includes fellowship in suffering, in joy, and in effort...[14] The contents of this book shows just how well-read Schweitzer was, having studied both ancient and more modern philosophers.

The Will to Live[edit]

The word ‘will’ in the sense of determination or firmness of purpose is rarely used today and therefore Schweitzer’s use of the word as translated from the German word ‘Wille’ may appear unfamiliar. However, it is a significant part of Schweitzer’s message. He held the view in the 1920s that people had largely lost touch with their own will, having subjugated it to outside authority and sacrificed it to external circumstances.

He therefore pointed back to that elemental part of ourselves that can be in touch with our ‘will’ and can exercise it for the good of all.

In Out of My Life and Thought Schweitzer wrote:

The most immediate fact of man’s consciousness is the assertion "I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live"

—Albert Schweitzer[15]

Affirmation of life is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live thoughtlessly and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to give it true value. To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will to live. At the same time the man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will to live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own.[....] This is the absolute, fundamental principle of ethics, and is a fundamental postulate of thought.

— Albert Schweitzer[16]

In his search for an answer to the problems posed by what was to him the obvious decline of western civilization, Albert Schweitzer was not prepared to give up the belief in progress which is so much taken for granted by people of European descent. Rather, he sought to identify why this ‘will to progress’ was seemingly going off the rails and causing the disintegration of European civilization.

He came to the following conclusion: (Out of my Life and Thought)

By itself, the affirmation of life can only produce a partial and imperfect civilization. Only if it turns inward and becomes ethical can the will to progress attain the ability to distinguish the valuable from the worthless. We must therefore strive for a civilization that is not based on the accretion of science and power alone, but which cares most of all for the spiritual and ethical development of the individual and of humankind.

—Albert Schweitzer[17]

Standing, as all living beings are, before this dilemma of the will to live, a person is constantly forced to preserve his own life and life in general only at the cost of other life. If he has been touched by the ethic of reverence for life, he injures and destroys life only under a necessity he cannot avoid, and never from thoughtlessness.

—Albert Schweitzer[18]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Josie Glausiusz. (2007), Better Planet: Can A Maligned Pesticide Save Lives? Discover Magazine. Page 34.
  2. ^ Out of My Life and Thought : An Autobiography. [Aus meinem Leben und Denken.] Albert Schweitzer, author. Antje Bultmann Lemke , translator. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 60th Anniversary Edition edition (June 11, 2009). p147. ISBN 0801894123
  3. ^ Out of My Life and Thought : An Autobiography. [Aus meinem Leben und Denken.] Albert Schweitzer, author. Antje Bultmann Lemke , translator. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 60th Anniversary Edition edition (June 11, 2009). p148.
  4. ^ Out of My Life and Thought : An Autobiography. [Aus meinem Leben und Denken.] Albert Schweitzer, author. Antje Bultmann Lemke , translator. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 60th Anniversary Edition edition (June 11, 2009). p154.
  5. ^ Out of My Life and Thought : An Autobiography. [Aus meinem Leben und Denken.] Albert Schweitzer, author. Antje Bultmann Lemke , translator. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 60th Anniversary Edition edition (June 11, 2009). pp154-55. Emphasis added. [This edition leaves out the original German phrase, so another edition needs to be cited as well which contains the German phrase as shown above.]
  6. ^ Ara Paul Barsam (2002) "Albert Schweitzer, jainism and reverence for life" in:Reverence for life: the ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the twenty-first century Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, ISBN 978-0-8156-2977-1 p. 207-08
  7. ^ Albert Schweitzer and Charles Rhind Joy (1947) Albert Schweitzer: an anthology Beacon Press
  8. ^ Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings, compiled by James Brabazon. p. 117-120
  9. ^ Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings, compiled by James Brabazon. p. 117-120
  10. ^ Reverence for Life: The Words of Albert Schweitzer. compiled by Harold E. Robles. Pub. Harpercollins; 1st edition (October 1993). ISBN 0060670983
  11. ^ The Philosophy of Civilization. Albert Schweitzer. Prometheus Books (March 1, 1987). ISBN 0879754036. p xv. See also this same topic of will-to-live in Out of My Life and Thought.
  12. ^ Out of My Life and Thought : An Autobiography. [Aus meinem Leben und Denken.] Albert Schweitzer, author. Antje Bultmann Lemke , translator. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 60th Anniversary Edition edition (June 11, 2009). p 28.
  13. ^ Out of My Life and Thought : An Autobiography. [Aus meinem Leben und Denken.] Albert Schweitzer, author. Antje Bultmann Lemke , translator. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 60th Anniversary Edition edition (June 11, 2009). pp 46 and 46.
  14. ^ The Philosophy of Civilization. Albert Schweitzer. Prometheus Books (March 1, 1987). ISBN 0879754036. p 317.
  15. ^ A. Schweitzer, Out of my Life and Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), 156.
  16. ^ A. Schweitzer, Out of my Life and Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), 157.
  17. ^ A. Schweitzer, Out of my Life and Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), 152.
  18. ^ A. Schweitzer, Out of my Life and Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press 1998), 236.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ara Paul Barsam (2008). Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-532955-4. 
  • Albert Schweitzer (1961). The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization. Unwin Books. 
  • Albert Schweitzer (1966). The Teaching of Reverence for Life. Peter Owen Limited. 
  • James Brabazon (2000). Albert Schweitzer, A Biography. Syracuse University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8156-0675-3. 
  • James Brabazon (2005). Albert Schweitzer, Essential Writings. Orbis Books, New York. ISBN 1-57075-602-3. 
  • Marvin Meyer & Kurt Bergel (2002). Reverence for Life, the ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the twenty-first century. Syracuse University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8156-2977-X.