Reverence for Life was (is) the big one. I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live. What impressed me was not that he said it, but that as far as I could see he lived it. But back then there was no as far as I could see. In that automatic qualification you see the cynicism of old age. I should have deleted it, but I leave it in as a warning to all, not to let it happen to you. Back then there never was - or could have been - any doubt. Maturity with its attendant scepticism came much later - though not where Albert Schweitzer was (or is) concerned. Others may know differently, but if so, it will take a lot to convince me. Heroes should remain unblemished. Few have.
One saying of his that I used often to trot out may well be apocryphal. It concerns an occasion when he was playing the big organ in some cathedral - I forget which - and a remark made to someone who had had the temerity to suggest that he had made a mistake. His reply was brief and to the point: that God does not hear the wrong notes. It worried me, though, at the time, for it occurred to me that so far as my hymn singing was concerned God would be hearing absolutely nothing from me.
After Reverence for Life it was the range of his learning and his accomplishments that most impressed: theologian, organist, philosopher and doctor-surgeon, the last an application of his philosophy, the dedication of his life to the missionary hospital at Lambaréné in the Gabon which he established and where he then remained, apart from the Bach organ recitals he would give to raise funds for his work. His erudition still impresses, but now as then it is his reverence for life that I come back to - and that comes back to me. I never did think it a practical stance for me, nor, for that matter, for the man on the London Omnibus - as they used to be fond of saying back then - but it was right for him, he lived it, and in living it he proclaimed it to the world and proclaimed along with it something of what had gone wrong with the world's take on life.
He is probably best known for his work at Lambaréné and for another of his books The Quest of the Historical Jesus, emphasising the humanity of Jesus. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Given the state of our planet now, and its dwindling biodiversity, it seems to me that reverence for life is exactly the philosophy that is needed for its salvation. Much is spoken about developing our capacity for awe and wonder in the face of nature, but that does not quite go far enough. Reverence suggests dimensions that are missing when only awe and wonder are on the menu. And so for the purposes of this post I am stressing Schweitzer's philosophy of reverence. There are, as I have hinted, at least three other major aspects to his life and work. I may post on one or more of those at a later date. This, I think, is enough for now.
What follows I have taken from the The Association International de l'oeuvre du Dr. Albert Schweitzer de Lambaréné website whose aim is to further Schweitzer's work and which has links to other pages and sites with more information, details of books and museums and facilities for making donations to his on-going work.
The following words by Albert Schweitzer are excerpted from Chapter 26 of The Philosophy of Civilization and from The Ethics of Reverence for Life in the 1936 winter issue of Christendom. If you want to have more text about the "Origin of Reverence of Life"
I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live. As in my own will-to-live there is a longing for wider life and pleasure, with dread of annihilation and pain; so is it also in the will-to-live all around me, whether it can express itself before me or remains dumb. The will-to-live is everywhere present, even as in me. If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds true whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.
In me the will-to-live has come to know about other wills-to-live. There is in it a yearning to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal. I can do nothing but hold to the fact that the will-to-live in me manifests itself as will-to-live which desires to become one with other will-to-live.
Ethics consist in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do my own. A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself has ended. Whenever my life devotes itself in any way to life, my finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one.
An absolute ethic calls for the creating of perfection in this life. It cannot be completely achieved; but that fact does not really matter. In this sense reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It makes only the maintenance and promotion of life rank as good. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances, it condemns as evil. True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy. But the principle of reverence for life is nonetheless universal and absolute.
Such an ethic does not abolish for man all ethical conflicts but compels him to decide for himself in each case how far he can remain ethical and how far he must submit himself to the necessity for destruction of and injury to life. No one can decide for him at what point, on each occasion, lies the extreme limit of possibility for his persistence in the preservation and furtherance of life. He alone has to judge this issue, by letting himself be guided by a feeling of the highest possible responsibility towards other life. We must never let ourselves become blunted. We are living in truth, when we experience these conflicts more profoundly.
Whenever I injure life of any sort, I must be quite clear whether it is necessary. Beyond the unavoidable, I must never go, not even with what seems insignificant. The farmer, who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside, for he thereby commits a wrong against life without being under the pressure of necessity.
There is nothing I can add to that.
Schweitzer's hospital at Lambaréné