albert schweitzer: reverence for life

the other day i found a little post on resonant enigma’s about reverence. these words here are inspired by this; in fact,albert schweitzer it’s a slightly rewritten excerpt of a paper i wrote quite a few years ago in a course on environmental philosophy. here it is:

my great-aunt mathilde had lots of books, but two fascinated me particularly: a coffee-table book with the title the serengeti must not die by one of the grandfathers of german environmentalism, richard grzimek, and another one, also with lots of photographs, about albert schweitzer’s life and work in lambarene in equatorial africa. somehow the two are inextricably connected in my memory; what i realized just the other day is that they were both books about ecology.

it was this ecological aspect that moved me the most a few years later when, now a nine-year old, i saw a movie about albert schweitzer. it began with a re-enactment of little albert setting out to shoot birds with a slingshot on a beautiful spring sunday when suddenly the ring of the church-bells changed what he saw: those sparrows were sitting there in the tree, peacefully, chirping away – he had no business killing them, they were not there for his amusement, they were there in their own right, a beautiful manifestation of life.

albert schweitzer vowed never to kill an animal again, unless he needed to. and i, seeing this, was in awe, touched deeply by the magic of the transformation that took place for that little boy.

albert schweitzer – doctor, missionary, theologist, bach scholar, philosopher, organ builder, organ player, fundraiser, father and husband, not to mention nobel peace prize winner – was a typical dead white male. well-meaning as he may have been, he is a symbol of colonization, of white europeans patronizing africans, pressing upon them the dubious western values of rationality and progress. as a missionary, he also wanted africans to forgo their natural animistic religions and “superstitions”, to become civilized christians and pray to a foreign white god who doles out love and punishment according to a system that must have been quite incomprehensible to most of schweitzer’s prospective converts.

two very different perspectives on albert schweitzer. i would like to retain the first one. i would like to think that while he was indeed a patronizing patriarch, ruling quite autocratically over his little kingdom in lambarene, schweitzer also offers a philosophy of radical ethics that can inform us all. this philosophy is best summarized as “reverence for life.” in his book with the same title, reverence for life, he says

the ethics of reverence for life makes no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives … how can we know what importance other living organisms have in themselves and in terms of the universe? … to the truly ethical man, all life is sacred … he makes distinctions only from case to case, and under pressure of necessity, when he is forced to decide which life he will sacrifice in order to preserve other lives. in thus deciding from case to case, he is aware that he is proceeding subjectively and arbitrarily, and that he is accountable for the lives thus sacrificed … [he] stamps out life only from inescapable necessity, never from thoughtlessness. he seizes every occasion to feel the happiness of helping living things and shielding them from suffering and annihilation.

this taste of schweitzer’s philosophy is rounded out by his famous illustration:

the farmer who mows down a thousand flowers in his meadow, in order to feed his cows, should be on guard, as he turns homeward, not to decapitate some flower by the roadside, just by way of thoughtlessly passing the time. for then he sins against life without being under the compulsion of necessity.

reverence, sacredness, thoughtfulness, empathy, protection … interestingly, schweitzer never dissects exactly what these concepts mean. rather, as in the above quote, he gives many examples of how this worldview may be translated into everyday life and supplements this with glimpses of the circumstances in his own life that accompanied and motivated him to develop his philosophy.

there is an emphasis on emotional, personal and particular (as opposed to unemotional and universal) values and their expressions, for example:

the ethics of reverence for life is also thought not to be ‘reasonable,’ but irrational and enthusiastic. it marks out no intelligently determined boundaries for the sphere of obligation but places upon man the responsibility for all life which is within his reach and compels him to extend help to it.

however, schweitzer is far from endorsing irrationality on all fronts. what roles do reason, rationality, rationalism and their related concepts play for him then? as we have seen earlier, schweitzer was keen on ridding “primitives” of their superstitions. this he extends to his own faith, christianity, which he demands must be as accessible to reason as any other philosophy. furthermore, as can be seen from the metaphor of the farmer and the flowers, deliberate – rational – actions as opposed to thoughtless ones are central to his philosophy of reverence for life. taking all this into account, i think it could be said that schweitzer sees reason as a tool but does not subscribe to rationalism.

yet another important aspect of schweitzer’s philosophy is his rejection of anthropocentrism (i.e. that humans are crown and center of life on earth). he makes it very clear that there should be no hierarchical distinctions between different forms of life. if we did make distinctions, he claims, we would invariably make humans the standard against which life forms are to be measured and in this hierarchy would arbitrarily decide which life forms “are worthless and may be stamped out without its mattering at all. this category may include anything from insects to primitive peoples”.

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