Albert Schweitzer and The Teaching of Reverence for Life
Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) — an antithetical type to the merely mean-spirited and petty-minded of the “New Normal”. I recall hearing his name as a very young boy as being someone who had done something quite extraordinary (or perhaps aberrant in some people’s judgment). I was too young then to appreciate what that was. Then, later on in university, his name came up again in the context of controversies and debates over self-interest and altruism as a characteristic feature of “human nature”, with some cynically-minded arguing that what is called “altruism” is merely, and always is, some form of digusie or masquerade for self-interest.
You don’t hear Schweitzer’s name mentioned much any more (likewise the name Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was useful to power as a critic of the spiritual desolation of the Soviet Union but became persona non grata when he became a critic of the West and of the spiritual desolation of consumer capitalism as well).
Since my university days, I’ve been toting around an unread short 63-page booklet published by Schweitzer entitled The Teaching of Reverence for Life. “Reverence for Life” is the foundation of Schweitzer’s ethos and outlook. Something I read in O’Donohue’s Anam Cara made be stop and dig out Schweitzer’s booklet, finally confronting the legacy of Albert Schweitzer after all these years, for it is actually the first thing I have ever read by him, and before his name and its meaning dissolves in the mist and fog of “post-historic” consciousness.
If Schweitzer’s name was honoured then, it seems it was less for his teachings of reverence for life, and how he lived that teaching, than it was the seemingly extraordinary fact that a polymath and a doctor with a successful career and all the comforts of civilisation (a “bourgeois” for all appearances) would forgo all that for the sake of service in “deepest, darkest Africa”. It wasn’t that long ago that Africa was still referred to as “The Dark Continent”, an attitude held by most Westerners towards Africa and which was best illustrated in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. Africa was still — and only a couple of generations ago too — the exotic, mysterious, and a little bit scary terra incognita, every bit the equivalent of those unknown and no-go zones on old medieval maps that were inscribed with the words “here be monsters!” — realms of the most fantastical archetypal beasts and quasi-humanoids that the medieval imagination could muster. All those beastiaries were displaced onto Africa, (and now from Africa into the unknown zones of outer space).
(Maps are interesting for that reason, in that they are symbolic maps, too, of the psychic structure, drawing boundaries between the conscious and unconscious, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the strange or alien, or realms that correspond to Castaneda’s “tonal” and “nagual” modes of perception).
Something similar occurs with the name “Albert Schweitzer”. It’s a symbol. Few people, I suspect — even if they know the name “Albert Schweitzer” — associate that name with the teaching of reverence for life, and until I read The Teaching of Reverence for Life, (or the essay “The Ethic of Reverence for Life“). I only knew of Schweitzer’s ethics mostly from hearsay myself. Schweitzer’s name thus offers plenty of opportunity for “projection”.
Why does Schweitzer’s name stand out in history (or at least used to stand out) as something exceptional or extraordinary? Well, because Schweitzer wasn’t the exemplar of the “common sense” view of human nature as being motivated always and everywhere by the pursuit of the self-interest. Schweitzer abandoned a life of “miserable ease” (as Nietzsche would call it) for a life of service, hardship, and danger, perhaps because it was precisely in such circumstances of living dangerously that Schweitzer felt most alive, and in which his ethos of reverence for life could flourish. (There is a lengthy online PhD dissertation by David Goodin comparing Nietzsche’s life philosophy and Schweitzer’s ethic of reverence for life, in fact. I’ve yet to read it myself).
It must be said that it is this feeling for life — for an abundance of life — that underlies Jesus saying that: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath” (Matt: 13:12), for did he not say that he is come “that they may have life, and they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)? Matthew 13:12 makes no sense (or a perverse kind of sense) without reference to John 10:10.
The summation of Schweitzer’s ethos is this: “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 and to hinder life is evil.” This is key also to Nietzsche’s Life Philosophy, for likewise the question for Nietzsche is not so much “what is its value for me?” as “what is its value for life“. Those who have interpreted Nietzsche’s philosophy as one of “egoism” or “self-aggrandisement” have gotten Nietzsche completely wrong in that respect. Nietzsche was no admirer of egoism, as some have made him out to be.
When one lives from the “vital centre”, as Jean Gebser referred to it, dichotomies of altruism versus self-interest become all quite meaningless.
It’s a peculiar thing, though, that while people may honour (or pay lip-service) to the name “Albert Schweitzer” as a great “humanitarian” (or duck and dodge the whole issue) many of those same people will dismiss the meaning of Schweitzer — his “humanitarianism” and his ethos of “reverence for life”, along with those who seek to follow Schweitzer in that ethos and practice of reverence for all life — as even “unrealistic” or as belonging to nothing more than “political correctness” or “Leftism” today. But, as Pope Francis recently remarked too: “duplicity is the currency of the day”. Few have the honesty or courage, for that matter, to admit this duplicity — that while they may pay lip-service to someone like Schweitzer, they totally empty the name “Schweitzer” of all positive meaning by doing the very evil that he acted against.
Some cynics, of course, will suggest (with a modicum of truthiness perhaps) that a medical “missionary” like Schweitzer was just the thin edge of the wedge of imperialism and colonialism. “The cross follows the sword” as is said, and that is certainly one of the main reasons that Christianity is in the desolate and deplorable state it is in today. But I don’t think this charge sticks with Schweitzer since his “religion”, as such, was reverence for life and not some dogma or creed or mere symbolic belief. Like William Blake, he knew that “All that lives is Holy”. And if Nietzsche could be said to have had a “religion” also, it would be called “reverence for life”, and respect for that which enhances the value and power of life. In effect, what Schweitzer refers to as respect and reverence for the “will-to-live” in beings pretty much corresponds to what Nietzsche calls “will-to-power” as a general “force” or principle operative in the cosmos itself. In other words, an intuition, if not a realisation, of that which neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor herself discovered and experienced as “the Life Force Power of the Universe”, and as something indistinguishable from herself.
“Service” is, essentially, serving that “Life Force Power of the Universe”. And this is, I hold, the essential meaning of the name “Albert Schweitzer” and his teaching and ethos of reverence for life. And if we truly hold that “no man can serve two masters” without becoming duplicitous, then one must decide between the “vital centre” or “Life Force Power of the Universe” or the “teaching of reverence for life” and the “death economy” of Lewis Mumford’s “Megamachine” or Yablonski’s “robopathy”.
Schweitzer is worthwhile engaging with for that reason, as the counterpoint to the “death of Nature” and the Megamachine.