The Ethics of Reverence for Life: A Letter from Dr. Albert Schweitzer (2003)
Introduction by Elinore Barber
It has been my good fortune to count as a personal friend and mentor Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the philosopher, theologian, medical missionary, and musician whom Henry Luce, publisher of Time/Life, described in the early 1950s as "the outstanding man of the century." Doctor Schweitzer's concept of "Reverence for Life," which greatly influenced philosophical thought in both the West and the East, encapsulated his conviction that human beings will never achieve ethical maturity until they begin to extend to other forms of life the same reverence that they hold (or should hold) for one another.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s it was my pleasure to present a number of lectures and concerts, the fees for which were sent to Doctor Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa to help construct and sustain a leper colony there, which was a part of his 700-bed hospital for native patients. During those years I lectured on Doctor Schweitzer and his project for two different State Meetings of the Church Women of Nebraska. After hearing of the great need for assistance, these women – who represented all of the parishes and dioceses of the various Protestant and Catholic churches in the state – elected to take on a three-year sewing project for Doctor Schweitzer's African Hospital.
Doctor Schweitzer himself supplied the patterns for the four items most urgently needed: a simple short-sleeved blouse and a wrap-around skirt for the native women, a fifty-five-inch-long, three-inch-wide sheeting strip equipped with twenty-inch cotton twill tapes on either end, and eye patches knitted from fine cotton thread. The latter two items were used to cover the sterile bandages with which medications were applied to the lepers' lesions. In this way the bandages could be kept clean. The bandage covers made by the Church Women could be sterilized and reused many times.
Over the three-year period the Church Women sewed more than 700,000 of these items – materials whose total weight, including containers, amounted to more than a ton. According to French colonial law, each shipment made to Africa had to be itemized, packed in new boxes made of one-inch-thick wood, banded with three-quarter-inch metal strips, and addressed in black ink to "Hôpital Doctor Albert Schweitzer, Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa."
For more than three years the prepared supplies came into our basement at 219 University, where students from Hastings College joined Ms. Dorothy Tirrell and me on Sundays for all-day counting and packing sessions. Employees of the Dutton-Lainson Company would pick up the materials, take them to their factory, create wooden boxes for them, encircle them in steel banding, address them, procure boxcar space for shipping to the coast, and secure ship-hold for their journey to French Equatorial Africa. Support for Doctor Schweitzer's hospital was truly a community affair.
Because of the many work hours that Hastings College students put into this project, I asked Doctor Schweitzer if he might write an open letter to "college students" – but addressed to Hastings College students in particular, giving them the background for the discovery and development of his "Reverence for Life" philosophy. His response was the handwritten document now displayed, along with a photograph of Doctor Schweitzer, on the west wall of the second floor reading room in Perkins Library. I know of no other group of students so honored by one of the world's great humanitarians.
As a "man of many parts", he was an ethicist of note, a formidable theologian, a specialist in tropical medicine, an accomplished organist, and an aficionado and well-known biographer of Bach, Doctor Schweitzer would be pleased to learn that his reflections did, in large part, furnish the inspiration for this and subsequent collections of essays on the theological exploration of vocation. His letter, reproduced below, introduces some of the ethical issues that will be considered by the Hastings College community in the years ahead.
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For Elinore Barber
Affectionately, Albert Schweitzer
To the Students of Hastings College: Albert Schweitzer
I have written several books in different realms, theology, philosophy, music. I was occupied with the historical investigation of the life of Jesus and the teachings of the apostle Paul, as well as with the essence of the music of Bach, the Indian philosophers, and the philosophy of Goethe and Kant. But I saw as my real calling the search for the fundamental problems of our civilization.
This was due to the fact that the writings of Nietzsche (1844-1900), who lived in Basel as a professor of Greek classical literature, were published at the time I was studying theology and philosophy in Strasbourg (1893-1900). In impressive words he opposed the ethical notion of the good and introduced the "will to power" as the true ideal of civilization. Philosophy and religion were compelled to defend the idea of the good, and they did so with zeal. But I had the impression that it was a lame defense, not profoundly convincing.
I came more and more to the conviction that spiritually we were no longer truly creative, that we were occupied only with traditional thought and did not live in a time of real spiritual progress.
From 1900 on, I was occupied with a work criticizing those times. Its title was Wir Epigonen. Besides all my other occupations, I gathered material for this work and made drafts. These drafts I took with me when, in the spring of 1913, I went to Equatorial Africa to establish a hospital in Lambaréné at the mission station which had been founded in 1872 by the American missionary, Dr. Nassau. The spirit among these missionaries was agreeable to me. They were French missionaries. The Americans had left the station in 1893 because they could not keep the mission schools. The French colonial government demanded in 1892 that the missionaries should teach in the French language. As a result, the mission was taken over by the French and Alsatian missionaries.
The First World War started in August 1914. Because I was of German nationality at that time (being an Alsatian), I and my wife were imprisoned in our house. African soldiers were our guards. I was not allowed to go to my hospital and, being a prisoner, I was unable to do my daily work there. And so, I decided to set to work on Wir Epigonen, the work which kept my mind occupied for a long time. I worked on it without being disturbed, from early morning until late at night, day after day. While at work the thought came to me, "why a work of mere criticism?" Where the catastrophe of a war had taken place, it seemed to me that constructive work had to be done. The war was a consequence of the lack of strength in our civilization. So we had to be occupied with a future, deeper, and stronger culture. This work, dedicated to the search for a new civilization, I called Kultur und Ethik.
Now I had found a new direction. Also, when, after some time, I was given permission as a prisoner to resume my work in my hospital and to move freely in Gabon, I thought constantly about the problem of how our culture is incomplete because the deeper ethical spirit is lacking. No true spirit of humanity was contained in it and this was the reason why nations were fighting against each other in wars which were becoming more and more horrible.
Could there possibly be an ethic stronger than the present one which could give civilization a truly ethical character? This was the question I had to deal with.
In September 1915, I was obliged to travel three days on the Ogowé River in a small river boat which had to tug two heavily-laden big boats. It was the dry season and it was difficult to find our way between the huge sandbanks. I promised myself that during these three days on the river I would concentrate all my thoughts on the problem of a stronger and deeper ethics which might inspire a really humane spirit in our culture. I did so, but without result. I became more and more discouraged.
On the evening of the third day, when we were not far from our destination, I had lost the energy to keep myself concentrated on the problem. I lost hope of ever finding the solution. Suddenly the words, "reverence for life," flashed upon my mind. I did not remember ever having heard, read, or used these words before.
I realized at the same moment that these words contained the solution which I had not been able to find until then. It became clear to me that a total and deep spirit of humanity cannot be founded on an ethics that deals only with the relationship between human beings. This is only possible through an ethics that makes us reflect upon our relationship with all creatures. It is through this that we come into spiritual relationship with the universe. Only this ethic can satisfy our thinking. Only this ethic can have the strength to give culture an ethical spirit.
It was now possible for me to write the book about civilization and ethics.
My wife and I were transported to Europe in October 1917, to a prisoners' camp in the Pyrenees. After some time we were removed to another camp near the town of St. Remy de Provence in the South of France. In these camps I had to care for the sick, but there was always sufficient time left to work on my manuscript, Civilization and Ethics.
The book was finished when we were exchanged for French prisoners in Germany in the middle of June 1918, and we were allowed to remain in Strasbourg.
In Strasbourg I worked as a medical doctor in a hospital and did pastoral work again at St. Nicholas Church, just as I had done in the times before my departure for Lambaréné.
In the last days of 1919, I received a cable from the Archbishop Nathan S¿derblom, who in his position as Rector of the University of Uppsala invited me to deliver a series of lectures there in June 1920. When I proposed as a subject for these lectures my thoughts on civilization and ethics, he agreed. I could for the first time speak about that which had captivated my thoughts for years.
My ethics of reverence for life was a surprise for the audience. They showed a real interest in the idea. A deep friendship between Archbishop S¿derblom and me grew in those days.
Not long afterward I had other opportunities to deliver lectures on civilization and ethics at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Copenhagen, and Prague. The German edition of Kultur und Ethik was published in 1923. The English edition followed afterwards.
I returned to Lambaréné in February 1924. During later sojourns in Europe, I had the opportunity to lecture again on civilization and ethics at various universities.
In the following years I found that people had an ever growing comprehension for the ethics of reverence for life. They accepted it because it is natural and spiritual and because the ideal of humanity is vividly represented in it. Because of its ideal of humanity, this ethics is of historical importance in our time.
Through first-rate scientific technical progress we have come into possession of atomic weapons which in a horrible way can destroy millions of people in a one-day war. Because we possess these weapons and consider their use, we have become, without being aware of it, inhumane in a way that did not exist before. Only through abolition of these weapons can we be free from this inhumanity.
Political negotiations about the abolition of atomic weapons have been carried on for years. They remain without result because these nations cannot have absolute confidence in each other. Only if a spirit of deepest humility awakens in people will an atmosphere be created in which the abolition of atomic weapons can take place. The mutual trust indispensable for this goal will find its guarantee only in this humane spirit.
[Translation by Mlle. Ali Silver with Doctor Schweitzer's assistance]