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Albert Schweitzer: Reverence for Life Albert Schweitzer: Reverence for Life
by Rene Wadlow
2013-01-14 10:03:49
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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 Schweitze

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 being 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 I do myself.  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.”


Rene Wadlow
, President and Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens


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Emanuel Paparella2013-01-14 12:46:48
What an inspiring life indeed. In my opinion, Schweitzer undoubtedly belongs in the pantheon of other great modern ethical masters: Gandhi, King, Kant, Einstein, just to mention a few. The genius of an Albert Schweitzer is his having fully grasped the assumption of the Socratic ethical project launched 24 hundred years ago, that the unexamined life is not worth living and that he, not unlike Socrates, could be a facilitator and unleash the ethical potentials of human kind (i.e., be a midwife) via a simple concept: reverence for life. He did not wish to reinvent the wheel and was quite conscious that spiritually we needed to go back to the future so to speak and revisit Christ’s wise injunctions on what makes a human life fulfilling and meaningful, hence his great interest in the study and investigation of the historical Christ and the philosophy of history.

Leah Sellers2013-01-14 21:05:37
Dear Ms. Rene,
Thank you for venerating
Dr. Schweitzer.
I have always Loved and Admired this man. Well, not always, but at least since I was a wide-eyed little seven year old girl.
In second grade, my teacher had our class read and discuss a wonderful story about the works, ponderings and wanderings of Dr. Schweitzer.
I remember one part of the story in particular (apart from all of the human lives he improved and helped to save). One day, he had his driver unexpectedly stop their automobile dead in the middle of the dirt road they were traversing.
The driver followed Dr. Schweitzer out of the auto, and stopped with him by the hood of the vehicle. He found Dr. Schweitzer staring down at the ground at a large and very long line of African Ants scurrying from one side of the road to the other.
Dr. Schweitzer looked up at his driver and announced that they had plenty of time to get to where they were going. That All Life was Precious, and that even the Ants of Jungle had a Right to Life and that they would wait for the Ants to complete their road crossing before they would continue their journey.
That part of his story had a profound affect/effect on me, because I had always had others make of my believing that very same thing. That all Life is Precious. That All Life is to be Honored, Respected, Protected, Nurtured and Sustained. That Everything upon our beautiful blue-green gemstone of a Planet, Earth is Interconnected and Sacred.
Dr. Schweitzer was a kindred Spirit, and gave that young seven year old the Courage of her already felt and acted upon Convictions.
I have Loved and deeply Admired Dr. Schweitzer from that very poignant Moment In Time on.
Thank you for Sharing him so beautifully with Everyone else, and for evoking such wonderful Memories and Feelings within the not so young version of that little wide-eyed seven year old girl - ha !

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