A Life Lived in Reverence – Exceptional Roots
by Caroline Shapiro
On January 14, 1875, an extraordinarily unique man was born in an extraordinarily unique place. Albert Louis Philipp Schweitzer, the second child and first son of a Lutheran pastor and his wife, was born in Kaysersberg, Alsace, at the time a province of the German Empire. The year of Albert’s birth, his father moved the family twelve kilometers south to the town of Gunsbach, which would become Albert’s place of upbringing. Growing up in Alsace, Albert learned early on that life is far more peaceful and pleasant when religious factions learn to accept each other’s differences and coexist on equal footing. It would come as quite a shock to him that not everyone was as tolerant of each other as his Alsatian friends and neighbors had been.
Snippet of History: Following the bloody Thirty Years’ War, a destructive conflict between the Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe, Alsace was officially declared part of France in 1648 under the Peace of Westphalia. As a formerly-Protestant region now claimed as a Catholic territory, Louis XIV declared that the Lutheran pastors of Alsace must give over portions of their churches to Catholic worshipers, and even allocate hours on Sundays in which the entire church could be taken over by the Catholic priests to celebrate mass. A tactic designed to humiliate and prostrate his defeated enemies, Louis’ plan backfired, and the Catholics and Protestants of Alsace learned to put dogmatic differences aside and live peacefully together, equally sharing their places of worship.
As a child Albert not only learned from the religious teachings of his father; he also inherited a deep appreciation of nature from his mother, who used to take him for long meditative walks along the lake in the pristine valley where she grew up. Even as a young boy, Albert was independently inclined to apply the Christian precepts of kindness and nonviolence to all living things, not only to his fellow man. “It was wholly unreasonable to me,” he later recounted, “that in my evening devotions I should pray only for men.” At bedtime, after his mother had helped him say his prayers and kissed him goodnight, little Albert would secretly recite another prayer of his own composition: “Dear God, guard and bless everything that breathes; keep it from all evil and give it quiet sleep.” Even when his peers tried to engage him in the naughty and thoughtlessly cruel behavior of other little boys, Albert could not bring himself to abandon his conviction to nonviolence. On one memorable occasion, Albert sabotaged a friend’s plan to shoot down a bird with a slingshot by jumping up and scaring the flock away as the Sunday morning church bells rang. “And ever afterwards when the bells of Passion Week ring out,” Albert recalled, “I remember with moving gratitude how they rang into my heart at that time the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'”
“Only that man is truly ethical who feels the necessity of assisting all life that he is able to help, and who shrinks from inflicting harm upon any living creature.”
– Albert Schweitzer “Civilization and Ethics,” 1923
A Late-Blooming Prodigy
Young Albert’s preoccupation with nature and the outdoors made him completely inattentive to his studies, a source of ceaseless frustration for his well-educated parents. It was distressing to them that their son, the descendant of respected clergymen and schoolmasters, should be perfectly content to live the simple life of a swineherd. Hoping to instill some discipline, his parents sent Albert to the industrial town of Mulhouse to receive his secondary education. Albert pined for the beautiful lakes and grasslands of his home in Gunsbach, and at first resisted any attempts to make him conform to the restrictive standards of the schoolroom. However, gradually Albert did find one acceptable outlet for his creative, passionate, and adventurous spirit: music.
Studying the organ under Eugène Munch, Albert’s skills developed with alarming rapidity. Within a year he would be filling in for his own instructor at church services. His interest in musical theory also inspired a fascination with history, in particular its relationship to religion. His dedication to schoolwork improved, and he was able to finish secondary school with respectable, if not exemplary, marks. Albert’s musical talents sent him on his first trip to Paris, where he played for the French organist Charles-Marie Widor, who was so impressed by Albert’s skills that he agreed to take him on as a pupil free of charge.
“We must never permit the voice of humanity within us to be silenced. It is man’s sympathy with all creatures that first makes him truly a man.”
“Du Atlantis” magazine, 1932
Schweitzer Gets the Call
However, Albert was still exploring his options and interests; while he enjoyed music and wanted to continue his studies in that field, he still couldn’t help feeling that he had an even higher calling to attend to. He returned to Alsace and began college at the University of Strasbourg, where he studied theology, philosophy, and musical theory. There, in 1896 at the age of 21, Albert Schweitzer had an epiphany. It came during a lecture on the history of missions: how white settlers had decimated and colonized black countries, and how going to Africa to preach the Gospel was one way to make up for that damage. It was then that the true meaning of “expiation,” of repaying Jesus Christ for His death on the cross for the sins of mankind, became clear to Schweitzer:
“Proceeding to think the matter out . . . I settled with myself . . . that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity. Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus, ‘Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s shall save it!’ Now the answer was found.”
Schweitzer did not squander the nine remaining years he had allotted himself for the pursuit of scholarly and artistic endeavors. On the contrary, it seemed he rapidly accomplished within that short time frame everything a man of words and letters could hope to achieve in his whole life. He returned to Paris to study organ under Widor; he composed seminal works on Johann Sebastian Bach and Immanuel Kant; he received his Doctorate of Philosophy and became an ordained curate; he was awarded a permanent position as principal of the theological college of the University of Strasbourg; and he wrote and published The Quest of the Historical Jesus. But Schweitzer was a man of his word, a man of his heart, and above all a man of God. In 1905, at the age of 30, he resigned from his position at the University of Strasbourg and began preparations for his trip to Africa.
But Schweitzer was not simply content with preaching the word of Jesus Christ; he wanted to be of active service to the African people, and to provide them with something they desperately needed. For the next seven years he studied medicine at Strasbourg, and having completed his year of internship and his final thesis, received his degree in February 1913. One month later, along with his wife and nurse Hélène, he embarked with the Paris Missionary Society for Lambaréné, Gabon, a small nation on the west central coast of Africa which was then a French territory. There, using funds he’d raised himself from his organ concerts, he founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.
Being the only hospital for miles in a region sorely in need of medical facilities, 2,000 patients were treated by Schweitzer and his wife within the first nine months of their residency in Gabon, many of them traveling days on foot to reach the hospital. While providing aid for a wide variety of human maladies and illnesses – from injuries and malaria to parasites and heart disease – Schweitzer always made time for the nonhuman animal citizens of Lambaréné as well, providing sick creatures with the same care and medicines he gave his human patients. Soon the local people came to learn that they would receive payment for bringing injured animals to Dr. Schweitzer, whereas previously they would have ignored or killed the animals themselves. Schweitzer not only kept dogs, chickens, goats, and other domesticated species on the hospital grounds, but also antelopes, chimpanzees, and pelicans who benefited from his kindness and medical expertise.
“When so much mistreatment of animals continues, when the cries of thirsty beasts from our railway cars die out unheard, when so much brutality prevails in our slaughterhouses, when animals meet a painful death in our kitchens from unskilled hands, when animals suffer incredibly from merciless men and are turned over to the cruel play of children, we all bear the guilt for it.”
“Civilization and Ethics,” 1923
Reverence for Life
It was while toiling in Lambaréné in 1915 that Albert Schweitzer hit upon the philosophy that would make him a household name, establish him as a pioneer in the movement for animal protection, and win him a Nobel Peace Prize. In Schweitzer’s own analysis of Western philosophy, he found that most of the important thinkers left out nonhuman life entirely from their theories and absolutisms and only concentrated on the relation of one human to another. Schweitzer believed that there could be no truly complete ethic in the West if it was not inclusive of all living things. “The absolute and the universal belong together,” he proclaimed. “If there really is a fundamental principle of ethics,” Schweitzer postulated, “it must somehow refer to the relation of man to life as such in all of its manifestations.” Just as the universe is not made up only of humans, so Schweitzer believed that a universal “truth” could not by definition exclude nonhuman beings.
While traveling downriver to tend to the ailing wife of a missionary, Schweitzer’s mind suddenly struck on a simple three-word phrase: Reverence for Life. In Schweitzer’s concept of the universe, all living things – mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, insects, plants, fungi, bacteria – were united by their will to maintain that common status: to keep on living. “I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live,” he wrote. In translating this to an ethical viewpoint, he believed in the simplest terms that “it is good to maintain life and to promote life; it is evil to destroy life and to restrict life.” Those who are a part of the chain of existence have a duty and a responsibility to maintain and promote other life, and above all respect and cherish all other organisms’ right to exist. Reverence for Life. Such a simple philosophy; such a revolutionary idea.
Schweitzer first presented his theory of Reverence for Life – at that time the first doctrine by a Western ethicist to include nonhuman life in its core principles – at a series of lectures he was invited to give in Sweden. He would later flesh out his theory in his 1923 manuscript Civilization and Ethics and in his unfinished four-part Philosophy of Culture: The World-view of Reverence for Life.
As the World Turns
World War I was both a blessing and a curse for the Schweitzer family. As German citizens in a French colony, they were considered enemy combatants and, eventually, prisoners of war. In 1917 Albert and Hélène, both sick and weakened from tropical anemia, were shipped back to Europe and interned in France. Schweitzer used this time to work more on his philosophies; Hélène also gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Rhena. Although Schweitzer was now gaining fame and notoriety for his revolutionary writings, he returned to his beloved hospital in Lambaréné in 1924, leaving Hélène – who was now too sick with tuberculosis to travel – and his baby daughter Rhena behind. Schweitzer would remain in Africa until the end of World War II, after which he continued to traverse back and forth between his family and his hospital.
As one of the world’s preeminent advocates for living things, Albert Schweitzer was naturally concerned with the proliferation of nuclear weapons after their devastating use in World War II. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for both his humanitarian work in Gabon and his principle of Reverence for Life. He used the opportunity of his acceptance speech to urge the citizens of the world to reject war and nuclear weapons in his highly-lauded “The Problem of Peace” address. “It is my profound conviction,” he announced, “that the solution [of peace] lies in our rejecting war for an ethical reason; namely, that war makes us guilty of the crime of inhumanity.” In 1957 he helped to found The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and traveled the world speaking out against nuclear testing with his friends and fellow humanitarians Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell.
On September 4, 1965, at the age of 90, Dr. Albert Schweitzer died at Lambaréné, where he was buried by the river under a cross he made himself. His hospital carried on and expanded, as did his principles of respect for all species and Reverence for Life. A great thinker as well as a man of extraordinary action, Schweitzer’s legacy lives on in his ground-breaking ethical doctrine that all creatures deserve a safe place to live and grow in harmony on this planet.
For more information on Dr. Albert Schweitzer, we recommend the following resources:
Brabazon, James (2000). Albert Schweitzer: A Biography. 2nd ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Joy, Charles R. (1950). The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer: Jungle Insights into Reverence for Life. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press.
Association International de l’oeuvre du Dr. Albert Schweitzer de Lambaréné, www.schweitzer.org
Medical Research Unit of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, www.lambarene.org
The German Albert Schweitzer Center, www.albert-schweitzer-zentrum.de
Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), recipient of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life.”
Photo of Albert Schweitzer graciously provided by the
German Albert Schweitzer Center.
After a busy day at his hospital in Lambaréné, Dr. Schweitzer would allow the resident antelopes to lick his arms for the salt in his perspiration. “If [the antelopes] lick my arm well,” he explained, “I know I have done a hard day’s work.”
Photo of Albert Schweitzer graciously provided by the German Albert Schweitzer Center.
Dr. Schweitzer at Lambaréné with his wife Hélène and his favorite dog Tchu-tchu.
Photo of Albert Schweitzer graciously provided by the German Albert Schweitzer Center.