Albert Schweitzer

Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.1

The publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 is frequently regarded as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. It was to Albert Schweitzer that Carson dedicated the work, and she opened her text using his above words.

'In terms of intellectual achievement and practical morality', Schweitzer has been described as 'probably the noblest figure of the twentieth century.'2 Born in 1875, he was brought up at Gunsbach in Alsace. His intellectual achievements span four major disciplines. He learnt the organ under Widor in Paris and eventually published J.S. Bach, le musicien-poète in 1905. He studied theology and philosophy at Strasbourg, Paris, and Berlin, and published major works of New Testament scholarship, most notably The Quest of the Historical Jesus (English translation 1910). In 1896 he made his famous decision to live for science and art until age 30 and then devote his life to serving humanity. Accordingly, despite his international reputation as a musician and theologian, he turned to medicine and qualified as a physician. In 1905 he resigned as principal of the theological college in Strasbourg and founded the hospital at Lambaréné in the heart of what was French Equatorial Africa.

By 1962 Schweitzer had already become a legend in his lifetime. Although his work in Lambaréné captured the public imagination, earning him the Nobel Prize for peace in 1952, Schweitzer considered that his most meaningful contribution, the one for which he most wished to be remembered, was his ethic of 'reverence for life'. Travelling slowly upstream in a tug-steamer—amidst the panorama of the tropical forest— on Gabon's Ogowe River, the 'unforeseen and unsought' phrase, 'reverence for life', 'flashed' into his mind. The phrase, simple as it is profound, unlocked for him the 'iron door' of ethical thought.

Although the concept of 'reverence for life' is now well known, it has been subject to a range of distortions, and it is important that we confront these in order to understand what Schweitzer meant by this term.

The first distorting lens is legalism. Contrary to many commentators, Schweitzer does not propound reverence as a new moral law but rather as 'ethical mysticism'. Ethical mysticism emerges out of reflection upon the 'will-to-life' (Wille zum Leben). 'The essential thing to realise about ethics', he writes, 'is that it is the very manifestation of our will-to-live.'3 His use of the term 'will-to-live' is derived from Arthur Schopenhauer, the principal advocate of the German Voluntarist school, who articulated the phrase in The World as Will and Idea (1819). Schweitzer follows Schopenhauer's conviction that 'the essence of things in themselves, which is to be accepted as underlying all phenomena', is 'will-to-live'.4 Whereas Immanuel Kant denied that the 'thing-in-itself' (his term for an 'object considered as it is independently of its cognitive relation to the human mind'5) was knowable, Schweitzer believed that the 'thing-in-itself' was the 'will-to-live' and readily ascertainable through the physiological makeup of animate phenomena. That which underlies all life—actually its very essence—is the will-to-live.

Schweitzer's metaphysics begins with the supposition that despite the diversity of individual things in the world, they all manifest the same inner essence. From a comprehension of oneself (the microcosm), one is able to acquire knowledge of the world (the macrocosm); the key to understanding the world is proper self-understanding. Schweitzer's argument largely rests on whether knowledge that originates from the inner experience of the will-to-live is more reliable than knowledge derived from empirical examination of the outer, physical world. The non-empirical quality of the will-to-live as the core self is a presupposition of his work. His view is that all empirical reality must, like himself, have an inner nature (will-to-live), and he uses this notion to offer a new account of the relationship between the self, the natural world and God.

It is from this reflection on the will-to-live that Schweitzer derives the ethic of reverence for life. Though he starts from the personal ('I am life which wills-to-live'), he goes on to assert the radical interdependence of all life. Each life 'wills-to-live' not in isolation, but 'in the midst of other wills-to-live'. This assertion is not as an ingenious dogmatic formula but rather a personal revelation:

Day by day, hour by hour, I live and move in it. At every moment of reflection it stands fresh before me. A mysticism of ethical union with Being grows out of it.6

This immediate, experiential identification of one's individual will-to-live (or life) with other life, and through life with Being, is the foundation of his ethical mysticism. Indeed, the mystical nature of the experience of reverence is implicit in the very word: 'reverence' (Ehrfurcht) implies 'awe', 'wonder' and 'mystery'.

The second distorting lens is inviolability. Many commentators have assumed that Schweitzer is proposing the moral inviolability of all life of whatever kind. It is true that he sometimes writes in such a way as to invite this misunderstanding. The ethical person, he maintains:

tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, and takes care to crush no insect. If in the summer he is working by lamplight, he prefers to keep the window shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table.

If he walks on the road after a shower and sees an earthworm which has strayed on to it, he bethinks himself that it must get dried up in the sun, if it does not return soon enough to ground into which it can burrow, so he lifts it from the deadly stone surface, and puts it on grass. If he comes across an insect which has fallen into a puddle, he stops a moment in order to hold out a leaf or a stalk on which it can save itself.7

At first sight the sheer practical impossibility of these injunctions presents itself. But what Schweitzer offers here are not rules but rather examples of what reverence for life may require in a given situation. Schweitzer's basic definition of the moral is that 'it is good to maintain and to encourage life, it is bad to destroy life or obstruct it'.8 Beyond this statement, he affords the reader only instances of the kind of action expected from one who upholds this ethic.

The third distorting lens is inconsistency. Since Schweitzer defines reverence as an 'absolute' ethic which enjoins 'responsibility without limit towards all that lives',9 it is perhaps not surprising that reverence is judged to entail inconsistency in practice. And Schweitzer himself has not escaped this charge. He notoriously captured fish to feed his sick pet pelican, engaged in a pre-emptive strike against poisonous spiders, and did not fully embrace vegetarianism until later in life. These apparent inconsistencies are made more glaring by his rejection of any moral hierarchy:

The ethics of reverence for life makes no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives. It has good reasons for this omission. For what are we doing, when we establish hard and fast gradations in value between living organisms, but judging them in relation to ourselves, by whether they seem to stand closer to us or farther from us? This is a wholly subjective standard. How can we know the importance other living organisms have in themselves and in terms of the universe?10

Some commentators have interpreted Schweitzer at this point as suggesting that no form of life should ever be destroyed and that all creatures from human beings to microbes should have the same moral standing. It is doubtful whether this was Schweitzer's intention. Rather what he is doing is rejecting here the long tradition of moral hierarchy which places humanity at the top of the pyramid of descending moral worth. Schweitzer would have admitted (as his personal examples demonstrate) that it is sometimes necessary to make choices between one form of life and another, but what he wanted to emphasize was the essentially subjective and arbitrary nature of these declarations.

Any time life is sacrificed or injured, either 'for the sake of maintaining [one's] own existence or welfare' or 'for the sake of maintaining a greater number of other existences or their welfare', one is no longer wholly 'within the sphere of the ethical'.11 In other words, killing may be 'necessary' but it can never be 'ethical' as such. When one is constrained by 'necessity', one must bear the 'responsibility' and 'guilt' of having injured life. 'Whenever I injure life of any sort', wrote Schweitzer, 'I must be quite clear whether it is necessary. Beyond the unavoidable, I must never go, not even with what seems insignificant.'12

Having clarified aspects of Schweitzer's thought, it is now possible to indicate some of his main contributions to the development of ecological consciousness.

The first and most important contribution concerns the mystical apprehension of the value of life. At the heart of many environmental controversies is the issue of value: whether beings outside of ourselves have value, of what kind, and why. What Schweitzer emphasizes is that the recognition and appreciation of the value of life is actually a mystical apprehension. This apprehension is 'primary' because all subsequent decisions and choices depend upon it. To understand Schweitzer at this point we do best perhaps to make a comparison with Plato. Plato describes philosophers in a democratic state as those who 'wrangle over notions of right in the minds of men who have never beheld Justice itself'.13 Likewise, Schweitzer would maintain that one can have no proper sense of oneself and others in the world unless, first and foremost, one has a sufficient sense of the value of Life itself. Everything depends practically upon this prior recognition of value.

The second contribution concerns service to life as practical mysticism. In contrast to most mystics, Schweitzer maintains that the goal of union with the Divine is achieved not through contemplation, but primarily through service to other life:

Ethics alone can put me in [a] true relationship with the universe by my serving it, co-operating with it; not by trying to understand it...Only by serving every kind of life do I enter the service of that Creative Will whence all life emanates.. .It is through the community of life, not community of thought, that I abide in harmony with that Will. This is the mystical experience of ethics.14

The phenomenon we call 'life', in short, is not something put here for our use or pleasure; we are part of 'life' (or as Schweitzer would say 'the will-to-live') and our role is to enhance and serve each and every manifestation of it.

The third contribution concerns the recognition of the tragedy of life in conflict with itself. Schweitzer is not a pantheist—that is, someone who thinks that the world is God or co-terminos with God. Indeed he is sharply critical of those who seek to deify the natural world as it is instead of recognizing its essentially tragic and incomplete nature. Schweitzer writes movingly of the world as 'the ghastly drama of the will-to-live divided against itself'.15 To affirm life and the value of life is not to affirm the parasitical and predatory aspect of nature itself. Schweitzer's own preaching is clearly eschatological—that is, he looks forward to a time when creation will be renewed and redeemed. His pioneering work in the field of New Testament scholarship—especially on the teaching of Jesus and Paul—emphasizes Jesus as an eschatological figure who will inaugurate 'the Kingdom', understood as the liberation of all creation from its present predation and suffering. Reverence for life was for Schweitzer 'practical eschatology'.

The fourth contribution concerns non-injury to life as the central ethical imperative. A man is truly ethical', Schweitzer writes, 'only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.'16 'The time is coming.. .when people will be astonished that humankind need so long a time to learn to regard thoughtless injury to life as incompatible with ethics.'17

Schweitzer regarded traditional philosophy which restricted ethics to human-to-human relations as spiritually impoverished. He was deeply critical of animal experimentation, opposed hunting for sport and eventually embraced a vegetarian diet. His hospital at Lambarene was a model of ecological responsibility: he went out of his way to preserve trees and flora, re-used every piece of wood, string and glass, and rejected modern technological developments which would have resulted in environmental degradation.

It is unsurprising then that Rachel Carson, and others, have found in Schweitzer an inspiration for a wider ecological ethic. When Carson received the Schweitzer Medal from the Animal Welfare Institute in 1963, she summed up her work in Schweitzerian-like terms: 'What is important is the relation of man to all life'.18 An inscribed photograph of Schweitzer (together with a letter of thanks for the dedication of Silent Spring) were encased, centre-stage, in her study. According to Carson's housekeeper, Ida Sprow, it was 'her most cherished possession'.19


1 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, New York: Houghton-Mifflin Company, p. v, 1962.

2 Magnus Magnusson and Rosemary Goring (eds), Chambers Biographical Dictionary, London: Chambers Harrap Publishers, p. 1314, 1990.

3 'The Ethics of Reverence for Life', p. 229.

4 The Philosophy of Civilisation, p. 236.

5 Ted Honderich (ed.), Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 871, 1995.

6 The Philosophy of Civilisation, p. 310.

7 Ibid.

10 The Teaching of Reverence for Life, p. 47, 1965.

11 The Philosophy of Civilisation, p. 325, reprint of New York: Macmillan, 1949.

13 Plato, The Republic, trans. F.M.Cornford, Oxford: Oxford University Press, VII.518, p. 232, 1969; emphasis added.

14 'The Ethics of Reverence for Life', p. 239.

15 The Philosophy of Civilisation, p. 312.

18 Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, London: Allen Lane, p. 440, 1997.

See also in this book


Schweitzer's major writings

Kulturphilosophie I: Verfall und Wiederaufbau and Kulturphilosophie II: Kultur und Ethik, Bern: Paul Haupt, 1923. Both volumes published together as The Philosophy of Civilisation, trans C.T.Campion, New York: Prometheus Books,


Aus Meinem Leben und Denken, Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1931; Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography, trans. A.B.Lemke, New York: Henry & Company, 1990.

'The Ethics of Reverence for Life', Christendom, I (winter), 1936.

The Teaching of Reverence for Life, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York:

Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965. A Place for Revelation: Sermons on Reverence for Life, trans. David Larrimore Holland, ed. Martin Strege and Lothar Stiehm, New York: Macmillan Press,


Further reading

Brabazon, James, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography, London: Gollancz, 1976. Clark, Henry, The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1962.

Ice, Jackson Lee, Schweitzer: Prophet of Radical Theology, Philadelphia, PA:

Westminster Press, 1977. Joy, Charles, Schweitzer: An Anthology, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1956. Linzey, Andrew, Animal Theology, London: SCM Press, 1994. Seaver, George, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind, London: A. & C. Black, 1947.

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  • hobson
    What does albert Schweitzer talks about eco justoce?
    2 years ago

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