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Thursday, 27 November 2008

What the World Needs Now

Some weeks ago now (08.11.08, actually) I was skimming through The Guardian -Weekend Section with a view to mentally planning my weekend reading when my eye was caught by a profile of Zoe Heller and by the following remark attributed to her: If I could bring one thing back to life I'd choose Marlon Brando. I wondered briefly who or what I would choose to resurrect, given the rather daunting responsibility of that option. I say briefly because the answer came unbidden and at once. it was as though it was waiting in the wings to come on stage at the moment it was called: Albert Schweitzer. no doubt at all in my mind, then or now. Probably my first hero. Almost certainly my first real hero. I know that I have blogged before about this or that hero of mine, but they were mainly heroes for a time or of a particular activity. This man was - and is - a giant among them. This man is not just for Christmas or for this or that wee interest. This man is for real - which, considering that he was neither artist nor poet, is quite something. (He could turn a powerful phrase or two, though!) But I have to admit that he has not always sprung immediately to mind as he did a week or so ago. He has tended at times to become partially buried beneath my more recent concerns and passing whims. Furthermore, I can no longer trot out yards of his philosophy or reams of his sayings as once I did. Some might say that is because his day has gone. I disagree. The fault lies here, with me. Even so, there are some words, sayings - mantras almost - that still break through the preoccupations of the now to remind me of those golden, heady days when I was young and innocent enough to have heroes that were heroes to me according to every meaning of the word.

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


Shadow said...

thank you for your enlightenment. he was a remarkable man. i knew a bit about him, living is south africa he pops up in history lesson. now i know more...

S. A. Hart said...

Albert Schweitzer is an excellent choice. I wonder whom I would select if I had the opportunity to "bring back someone"....I'm sure it would be someone who had the spiritual and philosophical depth of Schweitzer. He was truly an amazing man.

Dave King said...


I always thought it strange that he never once appeared in a history lesson at school. He was surely worth a mention.


one of the few to whom it is possible properly to apply superlatives, I think.

Femin Susan said...

Congratulations....Your posting is very interesting...Keep writing.. Welcome to my blog...

hope said...

I think reverence is the sibling to "respect". So much of that seems to have been lost in the world, with people more in tune with self than others.

What a really nice post to read on the day I'm suppose to be giving Thanks. So, here's "thanks" to you Dave.

Marion McCready said...

Very interesting, dave. I'm afraid I've never heard of him but will certainly look him up now!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I remember him well, Dave - we are about the same age and he was a very real presence during our childhood and adolescence wasn't he? Somehow those heroes don't seem to be around any more - there are so many virtual heroes for young people that they don't seem bothered with the real ones - there seems to be a cynicism around which wasn't there when we were young (can you hear the violins playing?)

Art Durkee said...

Interesting synchronicity. I was just re-reading Frederick Franck's book "To Be Human Against All Odds." Franck worked as a doctor under Schweitzer for a few years, before going on to become a man of similar stature, and one of my own heroes. Both of them are heroes to me, actually. If you've never encountered Franck's memoirs of Schweitzer in his writings, I recommend them. The older man was a hero to Franck, one of three he discusses in "To Be Human" with awe and reverence.

I like how the Universe conspires to throw these things together.

Anairam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anairam said...

We learnt about Schweitzer at school, but I have never read anything of his, so I really appreciated the quote you have posted here, Dave. Wise words. Regarding his two-fold definition of being an ethical person: I have always found it easier to measure myself (if that is the correct expression) in terms of the "shrinking from injury" bit, but I find it incredibly hard to judge how I am doing on the bit about "to help all life which [one] is able to assist". When have I helped enough? How much should I feel comfortable about having when so many around me have nothing? I am by no means rich, but I have a house and a 2nd hand car and some money in the bank. I live in a society where the gap between haves and have-nots is HUGE. How much should I help? And give? Of time and money?I live in a semi-permanent state of guilt...

Dots said...

Brilliant thoughts.. thanks for sharing.. couldn't help reading the comments.. and will take the liberty of commenting on Anairam's... nothing is ever enough, if you start measuring... see this life is not enough for all one wants to do... the trick is in making most of your life and making a difference in other's lives.. helping, sympathy for others never comes with a quota... I don't think there is limit to helping others.. it is a continuous process... just as you live your life, help whoever you can in living their's... (my thoughts totally)

Dave King said...

Femin Susan

Welcome aboard and thanks for taking the time out to comment. Hope to see much more of you.


Thanks for that, though I wonder if the relationship between respect and reverence is not the other way around. (Subject for some gry debate, maybe!)


You confirm what I had thought: he's dropped off the radar - but he'll repay time taken to make his acquaintance, I am sure.

Weaver of Grass,

I think you have put it exactly: he was a real presence. There is a lot oc cynicism... I wonder if that is because today's heroes tend towards the trivial.


Thanks for the steer. No, I have not read Franck. I will certainly look him up. Yes, it is fascinating the way these thin gs conspire.


You put your finger on the nub of the problem which has too often been used to marginalise his work: what do you do about the life that would destroy yours, germs, for example?


I totally agree with your thoughts, but again: if you follow Schweitzer's thought to its logical conclusion, what about the virus? That, too, is life - and all life damages some other life-form, does it not?

Rachel Fox said...

You've made me want to learn more about him, Dave. A message well passed on!

Dave King said...


There's a lot to get into, a fascinating man.

Lucy said...

It's wonderfully clear his writing isn't it?

I know a little of him, from schooldays, and in fact we read a short passage by him at our wedding, which we'd found in an anthology, which was very much about respect, respecting one another's integrity and privacy of body and mind. Again, it was lovely lucid stuff...

Very passioanately written, Dave.

McGuire said...

Never heard of him until now. Nice discovery. I'm quite taken by him. His spirituality and his 'secularism'. We seem to be dominated today by Christian Fundies and Athiest Fundies. Albert Schweitzer is quite a welcome rationalist, like a splash of cold water to the face.

Glad I disocvered him through you.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I always come late with my comment.
I have in my study a pencil drawing which is an original portrait of Albert Shweitzer made by a Dutch Jew who lived in New York and wrote marvellous books on Buddhism, Venice and other subjects his name was Frederick Frank. I met him in Venice in my wife's bookshop in the '80's and in a bar one evening we became friends, he needed a typewriter and lent him mine. You can find information and photo of him on the internet, one of his heroes was Albert Shweitzer.

Conda Douglas said...

This is a wonderful post for us in the U.S. who have been practicing gratitude the last couple of days--Schweitzer is a fascinating man--who has much to teach the modern world. He is much needed now.

Thanks for the post, Dave!

Dave King said...


Okay, please disregard my last reply. I can only attribute it to another senior moment. I have no idea now what I was thinking of! Apologies and thanks.

Dave King said...


What an inspired idea, to have a reading from him at your wedding! Widh I'd thought of that!


I do agree: it seems to be wall-to-wall fundies these days. A splash of cold water in the face puts it exactly, I think


That is a fascinating tale. Many thanks for the tip. I will surely look him up.


Couldn't agree more. He seems to be regarded in some quarters as old hat, but if anything he is even more needed now than he was in his day.

Anonymous said...

This is clearly an inspired write, Dave. I'll be following that link to more Schweitzer for sure. He may be on to something with the 'will-to-live', but I think there is a bit of a leap to the ethical conclusion. That's just me being a trouble-maker though. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating account of a figure well-remembered from childhood. In my youth he had the same kind of vigorous grand-old-man status as was accorded to Bertrand Russell.

Dave King said...

Absolutely - some would say it is the leap of faith, I guess.

A good comparison. I had been searching in my mind for one, but did not think of him. Thanks for that.

Lucas said...

Many thanks for this marvellous quotation. It does indeed come as a timely reminder of the need to take a step forward in the direction of reverence for all life, not just for the world, also for the day to day moments of our movements within it.
It is also a rem on another level: I have a book in which Albert Schweitzer declares Bach and the age of Bach as an example in history when Passion, Reason,Science and Art worked together in unison. I now cannot find the book (although it is the middle of the night - not a good time to look for things). It has been a very good time to read this post.

Dave King said...


Welcome and many thanks for the comment. Schweitzer's musings on Bach do sound fascinating. One of the things to come out of writing the post and comments I have received since - has been the re-discovering of aspects I had forgotten.

Art Durkee said...

Schweitzer's books on Back, and on Goethe, remain timely. His insights are timeless.

Tess Kincaid said...

I adore Albert Schweitzer and thoroughly enjoyed this post, as well as your blog! Mind if I add you to my blogroll?

Dave King said...


I must admit that I have not read a lot by him on Goethe, but as to those on Bach, I agree absolutely.


Very pleased to hear that you got something from it. Just as pleased for you to add my name to your blogroll. Thanks for that

Janice Thomson said...

A truly remarkable man in many ways - a beacon of light so to speak for me personally. Thank you for this reminder of a great mind.

Dave King said...


As a blast from the past for me, too, whenever I am reminded of him and what he meant to me - and still does, though, alas, intermittently.