Albert Schweitzers Reverence for Life
Kurt Bergel published this article in The Humanist (6 : 31-34) in the spring of 1946, just after the conclusion of World War II. The reference to "the recent war" thus calls to mind the death and destruction of that devastating war, but the article speaks equally to war, peace, and ethical issues in our time.
Those who caused the recent war by their contempt for the dignity and life of man as well as those who have killed in order that these basic human values might be preserved, must now readjust themselves to a world at peace. The very things they have been taught to do in wartime will now again be considered crimes. In war life is no longer a value in itself. The soldier has been conditioned to desire the death of his enemy as much as the preservation of the life of his compatriot and ally. When the categories of friend and foe alone determine the value of life, a cynicism toward it will often become the permanent attitude of many people after the war. This will be especially true with persons who are mentally not well-balanced or who are not rooted in a philosophy or religion which places a definite value on life. Needed, therefore, is not only a psychological readjustment, but a more general re-evaluation and reaffirmation and for many it will be a first realization of basic human attitudes and philosophies.
It seems that on the threshold of peace Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary-physician, theologian, philosopher and musician, can very well become a guide to those who are able and willing to reexamine ethical fundamentals. Ever since the boy Schweitzer at the age of eight realized that Thou shalt not kill applied also to the birds he was just about to kill, Schweitzer has meditated on ethical principles and tried to live a life in accordance with the precepts he had arrived at. Ever since that experience, the question of life and death, which is so much in the forefront of our own minds, has been to him like the test problem of ethical philosophizing.
Schweitzers presentation of his own ethics in his book Civilization and Ethics (1923) follows a comprehensive survey and criticism of ethical thinking from Socrates to Bergson. He shows how and why no thinker of the past has offered a workable system of ethics. He finds the classical systems either too formal or too narrowly utilitarian. His criticism of Kant and others for limiting their systems of ethics to the relations between man and man instead of working out those between man and life as such, indicates the central position which life has in his thinking.
Schweitzers ethics starts with a great non possumus. We cannot base ethics and a philosophy of life on knowledge of the essence and meaning of the world. We do not have this knowledge. "In the world we can discover nothing of any purposive evolution in which our activities can acquire a meaning." However, we do not depend on knowledge of the world in erecting a structure of ethics. Schweitzer finds the cornerstone of this structure in the universal will to live which manifests itself in the world. Man is conscious of himself as "will-to-live in the midst of will-to-live." Reverence for life is the greatest demand of ethics. "Ethics is in its unqualified form extended responsibility with regard to everything that has life."
Schweitzers ethics is essentially religious. His language is theistic, but his emphasis is humanistic, concerned with the fulfillment of life here and now. In experiencing the universal will-to-live he recognizes Gods creative will in the world. "Reverence for life means to be in the grasp of the infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging Will in which all Being is grounded." In merging our own with the universal will-to-live and in trying to reconcile the universal will with itself we think and act in the spirit of ethical mysticism. Schweitzer certainly does not mean that the "will" is transcendent; it is immanent. The "Will" is, of course, impersonal and the term is used in a way similar to Schopenhauers use of the term; in Schweitzer it is almost synonymous with "drive."
It is one of Schweitzers great achievements that he includes the treatment of plants and animals in his system of ethics. We have merely to compare this with the role animals play in Descartes and Kants philosophies to appreciate the widening of ethical responsibility which our modern minds cannot help considering a progress. The individual, making decisions in his relations to plants and animals, is well guided by a remark of Schweitzers which connects ethical responsibility and realism most admirably:
"The farmer who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow to feed his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in thoughtless pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside, for he thereby commits a wrong against life without being under the pressure of necessity."
What this "pressure of necessity" demands of us in our concrete relations with other men is a harder problem. Our scale of values generally places animal life above plant life, and human life above both. But how about the conflict between human lives? The ethics of Reverence for Life requires man to respect and further life in others as well as in himself. The principle of equality is thereby founded in ethics. Yet only with a scale of values can the individual settle conflicting claims: the physician when deciding whether he should save the childs or the mothers life, a man when deciding whether he should save his attackers life or his own. And how about conflicts between life and truth? Schweitzer does not give a theory or scale of values. His is an ethics for mature individuals who can shoulder the responsibility of making decisions.
This strong sense of individual ethical responsibility which we find in Schweitzer is needed today. There is a good deal of pseudo-individualism which finds its expression in phrases like "I dont care . . ." and which does not conceal the growing collectivization of behavior patterns into which modern mass production and consumption has forced man. By confronting the individual with ethical problems without solving them for him, a system of ethics like Schweitzers is bound to perform an important task in the process of individuation. The future of civilization, I believe, depends upon the success of this process.
While working by day in his hospital on the edge of the jungle, Schweitzer has been writing by night the third and fourth volumes of his ethics, which will presumably apply the ethics of Reverence for Life to the civilized state. When life in all its forms is respected, all nations must have an equal right to live their lives. Schweitzer, born in Alsace, was reared in the atmosphere of a bi-national culture; his background and convictions have never allowed him to become submerged in narrow nationalism. Aggressive nationalism is possible only on a level on which one possessed of a national will-to-live has not yet become ethically aware of others like him. The timeliness of these ideas today does not have to be demonstrated.
The ethics of Reverence for Life corresponds to and dissociates itself from natural life in a significant manner. By making it an ethical precept to further the natural will-to-live, the ethical thinker affirms the positive value of creation in spite of all evil, just as in Jesus love of man an element of optimism militates against early Christian eschatological pessimism. But in the fight of all against all which pervades all nature we find the universal will-to-live in conflict with itself. At this point, man, in Schweitzers ethics, dissociates himself from nature. "In me the will-to-live has come to know about other will-to-live. There is in it a longing to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal."
Schweitzer holds a double position of cooperating with the creative will without accepting the destructive will. In this respect his teaching is clearly distinguished from that of other philosophers who developed a philosophy of life and who, by upholding the right of "superior" life, arrived at a philosophy that sacrifices biologically inferior life to the "fittest," to a supermans will to power or to a master race.
Life in Schweitzers thought is conceived primarily as a biological category. In the biological sphere life conflicts with life. Yet human beings transcend this sphere and in them life becomes conscious of other life and thus of conflicting wills-to-live. By recognizing each other as parts of the same universal will-to-live, they become reconciliated in the ethical precept of Reverence for Life.
The Christian attitude, according to Schweitzer, is "to live and act within the world as one who is different from the world." Christianity as interpreted and actually lived by Schweitzer, is devoid of the otherworldliness and defeatism of much that now passes for Christianity. Also, it lacks the authoritarian spirit of some Christian creeds, placing the center and responsibility for ethical thinking and living in the here and now in the inner autonomous individual rather than on the compulsions of external authority. It seems to me that a reaffirmation of this position, a true balance of spirit and nature (or ethical responsibility and realism, as we called it above), is exactly what is needed today. Racism and power politics have betrayed the spirit, whereas utopians, naive democrats and all sorts of people of good will have comfortably ignored the nature of man and nature in man. Only if we achieve a unity of idealism and realism can we hope to rebuild western civilization. Schweitzers philosophy as well as his life of service as a physician among the people of French Equatorial Africa can serve as a guide in achieving this unity.
|It seems that on the threshold of peace Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary-physician, theologian, philosopher and musician, can very well become a guide to those who are able and willing to reexamine ethical fundamentals.|
|Schweitzers ethics is essentially religious. His language is theistic, but his emphasis is humanistic, concerned with the fulfillment of life here and now.|
|It is one of Schweitzers great achievements that he includes the treatment of plants and animals in his system of ethics.|
|This strong sense of individual ethical responsibility which we find in Schweitzer is needed today.|
|Schweitzer holds a double position of cooperating with the creative will without accepting the destructive will.|
|Only if we achieve a unity of idealism and realism can we hope to rebuild western civilization.|