The philosophy of reverence for life

In his Kulturphilosophie, Albert Schweitzer makes an alarming observation, almost an outright condemnation of Western thought:

Here I set out to write the tragedy of the Western worldview. […] I have felt more and more strongly the need to look into the depths of Western thought and ask it this question: what is the quality of spiritual life that it set out to achieve, and what has it achieved? What remains of the constructive performance of our philosophy when it is stripped of its shiny finery? What solid food does it have to offer us when we ask it to provide us with the basic foundations that can serve as a starting point for our race through life as men of action preoccupied with constantly deepening the meaning of existence? […]  
It has not succeeded in finding an ethical and affirmative formulation that is universally convincing and perpetually irrefutable. Our philosophy has never been able to do more than align unstable and temporary fragments of the ideal it dreamed of: hence also the fragmentary and unstable nature of our civilisation. 

This observation, which Albert Schweitzer made at the time of the First World War, came on top of the questions that had tormented him since childhood about all the suffering that afflicts living creatures everywhere in the world. As a child, Albert Schweitzer confessed that after praying with his mother for all mankind, he secretly added a prayer for everything that breathes…

For Schweitzer, Western philosophy has abandoned the world when it needed it most, and is no longer concerned with the future of our civilisation. The over-organisation and hyper-specialisation of society have had the effect of stifling the originality and creativity of individuals, who are increasingly demoralised.

The synthesis of Western and Eastern world views

In Indian thought and its development, Albert Schweitzer brings together Western and Eastern world views, from Christian religions on the one hand, and Indian and Chinese religions on the other. Both were sources of inspiration for him, but both also had their limitations. While European thinkers developed a morality based on action and kindness towards one’s fellow man, the Indian religion is unfortunately concerned only with the behaviour of human beings towards each other. As far as the universalisation of devotion is concerned, European thinkers show, in Schweitzer’s view, a “backward mentality”. On the other hand, Indian and Chinese thinkers have independently reached the same conclusion that ethics should be extended to all living beings, but the sage of Eastern religions refrains as much as possible from interacting with the world, in favour of meditation, which should enable him to free himself from it. Of course, he refrains from doing harm to any living being whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean he does good.   

village-hôpital de Lambaréné au Gabon

Reverence for life

What Schweitzer called “reverence for life” was intended to be a synthesis of these two great systems of thought: we must be benevolent, striving through our actions in the world to improve the lot of the beings around us, whether they be humans, animals or plants. Schweitzer didn’t just want to write or preach this new ethic, he wanted to put it into practice, convinced that setting an example is not the best way to influence others, but the only way!  

Of all the possible ways of putting this ethic into practice, Albert Schweitzer chose, improvised as he put it, the hospital-village of Lambaréné in Gabon. It was founded by him and his wife Hélène Bresslau in April 1913.

Two years later, in September 1915, he came up with the phrase “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben” (reverence for life).

Every life is sacred

Schweitzer’s fidelity to his ethics, which on several occasions made him an uncomfortable man, can be seen throughout his work. In a letter to Oskar Kraus in 1923, he wrote: “Yes, dear friend, and you can all strangle me if you like, but I will never recognise objective differences in value between living beings. Every life is sacred! “Sacred’ means that there is nothing above it that would be superior, just as no other speed can be added to the speed of light. Differences in value are therefore only subjective; we establish them on the basis of certain practical necessities, but apart from these they have no meaning. The proposition that all life is sacred cannot be surpassed. In this respect I am and always will be a heretic. It’s a question of principle, one of those questions that goes right down to the foundations of our conception of the world. I really pity you for having a friend like me.”   

Albert Schweitzer médecin

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. Depending on the circumstances, by worthless life we mean insects or primitive peoples.

In 1964, at the other end of his life, in his 90th year, here is an extract from the message he wished to leave, in “Mein Wort an die Menschen”.

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