FROM ALBERT SCHWEITZER TO THE STUDENTS OF HASTINGS COLLEGE
[Translation by Mlle. Ali Silver with Doctor Schweitzer’s Assistance]
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, 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 Nietzche (1844 – 1900), who lived in Basel as a professor in Greek classical literature, were published at that time when I studied theology and philosophy in Strasbourg (1893 – 1900). In impressive words he opposed the ethical ideal of the notion of good and introduced the "will to power" as the true ideal of civilization.
Philosophy and religion were compelled to defend the ideal of good and 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 more truly creative, that we were occupied only with traditional thoughts 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 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 phenomenon 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 Gabôn, I thought constantly about the problem that 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 became 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 riverboat which had to tug two heavily-laden big boats. It was the dry season. It was difficult to find our way between the huge sandbanks.
I promised myself to concentrate, during these three days on the river, all my thoughts on the problem of a stronger and deeper ethic 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 ever to find 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 ethics that deal only with the relationship between human beings. This is only possible through ethics which make us reflect upon our relationship with all creatures. It is through these ethics that we come into spiritual relationship with the universe. Only these ethics can satisfy our thinking. Only these ethics 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 return to Strasbourg.
In Strasbourg I worked as a medical doctor in a hospital and did pastoral work again at the 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 Søderblom, 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 of these lectures my thoughts on civilization and ethics, he agreed. I could for the first time speak about that which had captivated my thought for years.
My ethics of Reverence for Life was a surprise for the audience. They showed a real interest in them. A deep friendship between Archbishop Søderblom 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 experienced that people have an ever-growing comprehension for the ethics of Reverence for Life. They accept it because it is natural and spiritual and because the ideal of humanity is vividly represented in it.
Because of its ideal of humanity these ethics are of historical importance in our times.
Through first-rate scientific technical progress we came into possession of atomic weapons which in a horrible way can destroy millions of people in a one-day war.
Because of the fact that we possess these weapons and consider their use, we have become, without being aware of it, inhumane in a way which did not exist before. Only through abolition of these weapons can we be freed from this inhumanity.
Political negotiations about abolition of atomic weapons have been carried on for years. They remain without result because these nations cannot have the absolute confidence in each other.
Only if a spirit of deepest humility awakens in people, an atmosphere will be created in which the abolition of atomic weapons can take place. The mutual trust, indispensable for this goal, will find its guarantee in this humane spirit.