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.

14 responses to “Albert Schweitzer and The Teaching of Reverence for Life”

  1. dadaharm says :


    I do love the word digusie in the first section.
    I presume it is a canadian fusion of disgusting and disguise 😉

    Googling it, showed that is indeed a very common word on the internet.
    Not only canadians use it.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    It is faith my friend,that is the result of the soul nearness from its source that ignites the love for serving others,no matter near or far are those others. At age 65 he returned to Germany to take his degree in medicine to be more of service to those deprived people. He refused to take the noble prize because he did not want to pollute the divine reward by human mundane reward. He knows his divine mission in life irrespective of the labels. Ever since I have come to know him he become one of my example in this transitory life. Every things are symbols pointing to serving him, through serving his creations,the one who put every thing in the service of this ungrateful humanity. It is only the grateful few that save us from the wrath of god and keep the ship running. It is a personal journey in communal context, without mixing or separation. Thank you for remembering this good soul in a world that has forgotten its soul, to give us a chance to pay tribute.

  3. mikemackd says :

    I recall reading Time magazine back in 1963 (I was but a callow youth: forgive me!!) when it wrote a hatchet job on Albert Schweitzer, rather like the one that Christopher Hitchens later performed on Mother Theresa. That article is available online for a fee if anyone wants to read it; I didn’t. It’s called “Africa: Albert Schweitzer An Anachronism”, dated Friday, June 21, 1963. As I recall, It pointed out his paternalism, and particularly his lack of modern hygienic practices etc. Essentially, it pointed out that he had feet of clay. Well, doh.

    There is an obituary of him online from the NYT at:

    Coincidentally, Schweitzer was mentioned by Mumford in a book called ‘In the Name of Sanity” (1954, HBJ), in a passage I encountered while researching I.W.’s question about individuality. I didn’t post it then, but might as well now as it refers to both individuality and reverence for life:

    We have failed to understand the forces that threaten our existence, because the dominant philosophy of life — the pragmatic philosophy upon which everyone habitually acts — has failed to do justice to man’s condition and his unique character. By cutting off the superego, and deliberately mutilating a good part of it, modern man has blocked the path of his own development. In pursuit of objectivity and certainty, we have elevated the object and depressed the subject: that is, our very selves. This means, we have depleted man’s faith in his own creativity and in his relation to those inner forces that prompt man to project a destiny for himself not given directly by external nature or by his own animal or historical past. By treating religion and morality as if they were illusions, we have succumbed to the most childish of illusions: that man can protect himself against malice and mischance, against evil and perversity, without concerning himself with the meaning of existence and without seeking a higher goal than mere survival. On the way back to reality we will have to reverse this process: instead of freezing our feelings, emotions, values, wishes, dreams, we must utilize them deliberately, under a more comprehensive personal control: self-confident, self-reliant, self-directing.

    Unless we are prepared, then, at every moment to consider the nature and the destiny of man, unless we realize that he has little reason for existence except as the vehicle of an ideal self and an ideal future that transcends this existence, we cannot be trusted with the cosmic powers that are now in our possession, indeed we will only stultify and defeat ourselves with much smaller powers.

    Though these convictions are deeply embedded in every classic religion, they are not to be identified with any single revelation: indeed the existing cults and creeds in the West have all-too-plainly suffered the same erosions and corruptions as the rest of Western society. In the face of much greater threats than colonial domination, no general awakening comparable to that promoted by Gandhi in India has yet swept over our civilization: the voice of an Albert Schweitzer, summoning us to reverence for all life, still has the hollow sound of a voice uttered in an empty hall. How, indeed, can we do reverence to life if we have forgotten half its manifestations, in ourselves: if we grovel before the image of Caliban, and if we turn our backs to Prospero, denying the reality of ideals and depriving ourselves of the ability to give ideal forms to realities?

    What I am saying comes finally to this: we will not summon the political will and intelligence to control the powers that we have unleashed outside us, unless we develop the potentialities that exist within us, and project new goals that lie beyond us. Neither the release of the id nor the extension of the province of the scientific automaton are a prudent response to the situation man now faces: or rather, both of them, if uncorrected by the intervention of the feeling, evaluating, loving, life-directing elements in the personality, will probably bring the whole long effort of human history to a catastrophic close, like that foretold in the Norse myth of Ragnarok: the end of the world, marked by the conquest of the gods by the giants.

    UNQUOTE (pp. 225-227).

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      Scott, this post and your dream of fish post makes me curious about your thoughts on diet.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Given that I’m on a farily restricted diet owing to my kidney problems, I’m not the best person to ask about dietary rules. Mine are rather severe given my condition. But I wouldn’t otherwise have any recommendations except to listen to your body and what it needs. I eat very little in the way of animal protein — turkey or shrimp is basically it, and in very small amounts (5 oz a day at most). The bulk of my diet is vegetable-based otherwise. As it is, I think most people eat way too much animal protein.

        Reverence for life doesn’t specify veganism or vegetarianism as a duty. There used to be this habit at tables of saying grace and thanking the animal for its sacrifice. That also expresses reverence for life.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          There used to be this habit at tables of saying grace and thanking the animal for its sacrifice.
          Very interesting.

          I attended a showing of The Last of the Mohicans ( a reprehensible movie), with my then… unfortunately, short-lived…boyfriend (who was part Apache); and when it came time to thank “the Great Spirit” for its “sacrifice” of the dear for the nourishment of its benefactors, he proclaimed: “Bullshit! A Native American would never thank the ‘Great Spirit’ for the animal’s sacrifice. He would thank the animal!”

          Go figure.

  4. mikemackd says :

    Scott, for me at least the link you gave’s no good.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    LOL.You’re link doesn’t work either. Apparently the site does not allow links. You have to do a google search on his name, “Schweitzer” and “Nietzsche”. But that McGill site refuses links.

    Not very many people are going to want to read a 207 page PhD dissertation anyway.

  6. mikemackd says :

    Chasing up on this led me to an online archived book of Mumford’s called “The Transformation of Man” (1957, London, George Allen & Unwin). There, Mumford had this to say about Schweitzer:

    “Yet in isolated persons, like Albert Schweitzer in the present day, like Peter Kropotkin or Patrick Geddes in an earlier day, and Goethe and Emerson even earlier, the kind of self that the moment demands has actually been incarnated. Schweitzer, for example, has transcended the specialisations of vocation and nationality and religious faith. In deliberately choosing an uninviting region in Africa as the seat of his life-work, and the ministry of medicine as a means of translating his Christian ethic into practice, he sacrificed the opportunities that his special talents as theologian, musician, and philosopher seemed to demand. Seemingly under the most hostile conditions, he has demonstrated the possibility of actualising a unified personality; and the course of life he chose, which involved the heaviest of renunciations, has proved richer in its fruits than one that would have conformed to more orthodox patterns of Old World culture” (p. 190).

    The quote is within Mumford’s vision of what one world would look like. He was holding Schweitzer up as an early example of what Mumford’s “one world man” might look like. You may recall that I expressed strong reservations about Mumford’s talk of a “world government” several months ago, when I first heard of him having voiced it. He explains what he meant in this work, from pp. 143 to the book’s end at p. 192.

    I haven’t read that explanation yet. I’ve just downloaded it and embarked upon the reformatting of the relevant pages. His explanation covers 10,000 words – far too long to post here – so if anyone else is curious about what he had to say, the work is at:

  7. Charles Leiden says :

    Albert Schweitzer also wrote an major book on Jesus, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (English translation). His “reverence for life” was an idea that my mother talked about to us growing up in the day. He was an accomplished pianist who played an old out of tune piano where he lived. There are many selfless humans living and acting in the world.

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