The Ethics of Reverence for Life
In 1936 Albert Schweitzer published this article in the periodical Christendom (1 : 225-39), as a general discussion of the ethics of Reverence for Life. The article rehearses many familiar aspects of Reverence for Life. Particularly noteworthy in this article may be Schweitzers statements about the Spirit of the Universe and his anecdotes about ethical geese, monkeys, and sparrows. Also reprinted in Henry Clark, The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer (Boston: Beacon, 1962,) 180-94, the article is reproduced here with the permission of the World Council of Churches (http://www.wcc-coe.org).
In the history of world thought we seem to be met by a confusion of antagonistic systems. But if we look closely, we see that certain essential laws of thought are to be discerned. And as we trace them, we see a certain definite progress in this bewildering history. In fact, there emerge two main classes of problems. To begin with, we see certain facade problems, important looking, but not really connected with the main structure. Questions as to the reality of the world and the problem of knowledge belong here. Kant tried in vain to solve the essential questions by busying himself with these scientific, facade problems. Admittedly they are intriguing, but they are not the real, elementary matters.
We are concerned with the other problems, the essential ones. As we know life in ourselves, we want to understand life in the universe, in order to enter into harmony with it. Physically we are always trying to do this. But that is not the primary matter; for the great issue is that we shall achieve a spiritual harmony. Just to recognize this fact is to have begun to see a part of life clearly.
There is in each of us the will to live, which is based on the mystery of what we call "taking an interest." We cannot live alone. Though man is an egoist, he is never completely so. He must always have some interest in life about him. If for no other reason, he must do so in order to make his own life more perfect. Thus it happens that we want to devote ourselves; we want to take our part in perfecting our ideal of progress; we want to give meaning to the life in the world. This is the basis of our striving for harmony with the spiritual element.
The effort for harmony, however, never succeeds. Events cannot be harmonized with our activities. Working purposefully toward certain ends, we assume that the Creative Force in the world is doing likewise. Yet, when we try to define its goal, we can not do so. It tends toward developing a type of existence, but there is no coordinated, definite end to be observed, even though we think there should be. We like to imagine that man is natures goal; but facts do not support that belief.
Indeed, when we consider the immensity of the universe, we must confess that man is insignificant. The world began, as it were, yesterday. It may end tomorrow. Life has existed in the universe but a brief second. And certainly mans life can hardly be considered the goal of the universe. Its margin of existence is always precarious. Study of the geologic periods shows that. So does the battle against disease. When one has seen whole populations annihilated by sleeping sickness, as I have, one ceases to imagine that human life is natures goal. In fact, the Creative Force does not concern itself about preserving life. It simultaneously creates and destroys. Therefore, the will-to-live is not to be understood within the circle of Creative Force. Philosophy and religion have repeatedly sought the solution by this road; they have projected our will to perfection into nature at large, expecting to see its counterpart there. But in all honesty we must confess that to cling to such a belief is to delude ourselves.
As a result of the failure to find ethics reflected in the natural order, the disillusioned cry has been raised that ethics can therefore have no ultimate validity. In the world of human thought and action today, humanitarianism is definitely on the wane. Brutality and trust in force are in the ascendant. What, then, is to become of that vigorous ethics which we inherited from our fathers?
Knowledge may have failed us; but we do not abandon the ideals. Though they are shaken, we do not turn from them to sheer skepticism. In spite of being unable to prove them by rational argumentation, we nevertheless believe that there is a proof and defense for them within themselves. We are, so to speak, immunized against skepticism. Indeed, the classical skepticisms were, after all, puerile. That a truth cannot be proved by argument is no reason why it should be utterly abandoned, so long as it is in itself possessed of value. Kant, trying to escape from skepticism, is a pre-indication of this immunity. In intent, his philosophy is great and eternal. He said that truth is one of two kinds: scientific and spiritual. Let us look to the bottom of this; not by Kants method, however, since he was often content with naïve reflections on very deep questions. We shall avoid his way of seeking abstract solutions, and distinctions between material and immaterial. Instead, let us see that truths which are not provable in knowledge are given to us in our will-to-live.
Kant sought to give equal value to Practical and Theoretical Reason. More, he felt the demand for a more absolute ethic. It would, he thought, give new authority to spiritual and religious truth, thus making up for the loss involved in not being able to verify these truths by knowledge. This is the very heart of Kants gospel, being much more important than anything he taught about space and time. But he did not know where to find the new ethic. He only gave a new, more handsome, and more impressive facade to the old. By his failure to point out the new ethic, he missed the new Rationalism. His thought was on too narrow a basis.
The essential thing to realize about ethics is that it is the very manifestation of our will-to-live. All our thoughts are given in that will-to-live, and we but give them expression and form in words. To analyze Reason fully would be to analyze the will-to-live. The philosophy that abandons the old Rationalism must begin be meditating on itself. Thus, if we ask, "What is the immediate fact of my consciousness? What do I self-consciously know of myself, making abstractions of all else, from childhood to old age? To what do I always return?" we find the simple fact of consciousness is this, I will to live. Through every stage of life, this is the one thing I know about myself. I do not say, "I am life"; for life continues to be a mystery too great to understand. I only know that I cling to it. I fear its cessation death. I dread its diminution pain. I seek its enlargement joy.
Descartes started on this basis. But he built an artificial structure by presuming that man knows nothing, and doubts all, whether outside himself or within. And in order to end doubt, he fell back on the fact of consciousness: I think. Surely, however, that is the stupidest primary assumption in all philosophy! Who can establish the fact that he thinks, except in relation to thinking something? And what that something is, is the important matter. When I seek the first fact of consciousness, it is not to know that I think, but to get hold of myself. Descartes would have a man think once, just long enough to establish certainty of being, and then give over any further need of meditation. Yet meditation is the very thing I must not cease. I must ascertain whether my thoughts are in harmony with my will-to-live.
Bergsons admirable philosophy also starts from such a beginning. But he arrives at the sense of time. The fact of immediate consciousness, however, is much more important than the sense of time. So Bergson misses the real issue.
Instinct, thought, the capacity for divination, all these are fused with the will-to-live. And when it reflects upon itself, what path does it follow? When my will-to-live begins to think, it sees life as a mystery in which I remain by thought. I cling to life because of my reverence for life. For, when it begins to think, the will-to-live realizes that it is free. It is free to leave life. It is free to choose whether or not to live. This fact is of particular significance for us in this modern age, when there are abundant possibilities for abandoning life, painlessly and without agony.
Moreover, we are all closer to the possibility of this choice than we may guess of one another. The question which haunts men and women today is whether life is worth living. Perhaps each of us has had the experience of talking with a friend one day, finding that person bright, happy, apparently in the full joy of life; and then the next day we find that he has taken his own life! Stoicism has brought us to this point, by driving out the fear of death; for, by inference it suggests that we are free to choose whether to live or not. But if we entertain such a possibility, we do so by ignoring the melody of the will-to-live, which compels us to face the mystery, the value, the high trust committed to us in life. We may not understand it, but we begin to appreciate its great value. Therefore, when we find those who relinquish life, while we may not condemn them, we do pity them for having ceased to be in possession of themselves. Ultimately, the issue is not whether we do or do not fear death. The real issue is that of reverence for life.
Here, then, is the first spiritual act in mans experience: reverence for life. The consequence of it is that he comes to realize his dependence upon events quite beyond his control. Therefore he becomes resigned. And this is the second spiritual act: resignation.
What happens is that one realizes that he is but a speck of dust, a plaything of events outside his reach. Nevertheless, he may at the same time discover that he has a certain liberty, as long as he lives. Sometime or another all of us must have found that happy events have not been able to make us happy, nor unhappy events to make us unhappy. There is within each of us a modulation, an inner exaltation, which lifts us above dependence upon the gifts of events for our joy. Hence, our dependence upon events is not absolute; it is qualified by our spiritual freedom. Therefore, when we speak of resignation it is not sadness to which we refer, but the triumph of our will-to-live over whatever happens to us. And to become ourselves, to be spiritually alive, we must have passed beyond this point of resignation.
The great defect of modern philosophy is that it neglects this essential fact. It does not ask man to think deeply on himself. It hounds him into activity, bidding him find escape thus. In that respect it falls far below the philosophy of Greece, which taught men better the true depth of life.
I have said that resignation is the very basis of ethics. Starting from this position, the will-to-live comes first to veracity as the primary ground of virtue. If I am faithful to my will-to-live, I cannot disguise this fact, even though such disguise or evasion might seem to my advantage. Reverence for my will-to-live leads me to the necessity of being sincere with myself. And out of this fidelity to my own nature grows all my faithfulness. Thus, sincerity is the first ethical quality which appears. However lacking one may be in other respects, sincerity is the one thing which he must possess. Nor is this point of view to be found only among people of complex social life. Primitive cultures show the fact to be equally true there. Resignation to the will-to-live leads directly to this first virtue: sincerity.
Having reached this point, then, I am in a position to look at the world. I ask knowledge what it can tell me of life. Knowledge replies that what it can tell me is little, yet immense. Whence this universe came, or whither it is bound, or how it happens to be at all, knowledge cannot tell me. Only this: that the will-to-live is everywhere present, even as in me. I do not need science to tell me this; but it cannot tell me anything more essential. Profound and marvelous as chemistry is, for example, it is like all science in the fact that it can lead me only to the mystery of life, which is essentially in me, however near or far away it may be observed.
What shall be my attitude toward this other life? It can only be of a piece with my attitude towards my own life. If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fulness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.
This is the absolute and reasonable ethic. Whether such-and-such a man arrives at this principle, I may not know. But I know that it is given inherently in the will-to-live. Whatever is reasonable is good. This we have been told by all the great thinkers. But it reaches its best only in the light of this universal ethic, the ethic of reverence for life, to which we come as we meditate upon the will-to-live. And since it is important that we recognize to the best of our ability the full significance of this ethic, let us now devote our attention to some commentaries upon it.
Our first commentary: The primary characteristic of this ethic is that it is rational, having been developed as a result of thought upon life.
We may say that anyone who truly explores the depths of thought must arrive at this point. In other words, to be truly rational is to become ethical. (How pleased Socrates would be with us for saying this!) But if it is so simple a matter of rationality, why has it not long since been achieved? It has, indeed, been long on the way, while in every land thought has been seeking to deepen ethics. Actually, whenever love and devotion are glimpsed, reverence for life is not far off, since one grows from the other. But the truth of the matter is that thought fears such an ethic. What it wants is to impose regulations and order that can be duly systematized. This ethic is not subject to such bounding. Therefore, when modern thought considers such an ethic it fears it, and tries to discredit it, by calling it irrational. In this way its development has been long delayed.
Again, it may be asked if this sort of meditation is not definitely that of civilized rather than primitive men. The primitive man, it may be argued, knows no such reverence for life. To this I must agree, having associated with primitive people in my work in Africa. Nevertheless, it remains true that the primitive person who begins to meditate must proceed along the same path. He must start with his own will-to-live, and that is certain to bring him in this direction. If he does not reach a point as far along the way as we do, that is because we can profit by the meditations of our predecessors. There are many great souls who have blazed sections of the trail for us. Proceeding along that way, I have led you to this conclusion: that rational processes, properly pursued, must lead to the true ethic.
Another commentary: What of this ethic? Is it absolute?
Kant defines absolute ethics as that which is not concerned with whether it can be achieved. The distinction is not one of absolute as opposed to relative, but absolute as distinct from practicable in the ethical field. An absolute ethic calls for the creating of perfection in this life. It cannot be completely achieved; but that fact does not really matter. In this sense, reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It does not lay down specific rules for each possible situation. It simply tells us that we are responsible for the lives about us. It does not set either maximum or minimum limits to what we must do.
In point of fact, every ethic has something of the absolute about it, just as soon as it ceases to be mere social law. It demands of one what is actually beyond his strength. Take the question of mans duty to his neighbor. The ethic cannot be fully carried out, without involving the possibility of complete sacrifice of self. Yet, philosophy has never bothered to take due notice of the distinction. It has simply tried to ignore absolute ethics, because such ethics cannot be fitted into tabulated rules and regulations. Indeed, the history of world teachings on the subject may be summarized in the motto: "Avoid absolute ethics, and thus keep within the realm of the possible."
We have already noted that Kant did postulate and demand an absolute ethics as the foundation for a spiritual ethics. He knew it must be more profound than what is just and reasonable. But he did not succeed in establishing what it was. All he did was label ordinary ethics "absolute." Consequently, he ended in a muddle of abstraction. As Descartes said, "Think," without telling what to think, so Kant demanded, "Observe absolute ethics," without elucidating what the term involved. The ethics he proposed could not be called absolute in matter of content. His "Practical Ethics" proved to be simply the good old utilitarian ethics of his own day, adorned with the label, "absolute." He failed by not thinking far enough. To justify the name, absolute ethics must be so not only in authority, but in matter of content as well.
Another commentary: Reverence for life is a universal ethic.
We do not say this because of its absolute nature, but because of the boundlessness of its domain. Ordinary ethics seeks to find limits within the sphere of human life and relationships. But the absolute ethics of the will-to-live must reverence every form of life, seeking so far as possible to refrain from destroying any life, regardless of its particular type. It says of no instance of life, "This has no value." It cannot make any such exceptions, for it is built upon reverence for life as such. It knows that the mystery of life is always too profound for us, and that its value is beyond our capacity to estimate. We happen to believe that mans life is more important than any other form of which we know. But we cannot prove any such comparison of value from what we know of the worlds development. True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy. But the principle of reverence for life is none the less universal.
Ordinary ethics has never known what to do with this problem. Not realizing that the domain of ethics must be boundless, it has tried to ignore any absolute ethic. But when its boundlessness is realized, then its absoluteness is more plain. Indian thought recognizes this, but it limits its effectiveness by making ethics negative. The characteristic attitude of Indian thought is less a positive reverence for life, than a negative duty to refrain from destroying. This comes about through a failure to appreciate the essential illusory nature of an ethic of inaction. Nor has European thought been free from that same illusion. The great works on philosophy and ethics in recent years have all tried to avoid absolute ethics by concentrating on a type which should apply only socially. But when reason travels its proper course, it moves in the direction of a universally applicable ethic.
Another commentary: A universal ethic has great spiritual significance.
Ordinary ethics is too narrow and shallow for spiritual development. Our thought seeks ever to attain harmony with the mysterious Spirit of the Universe. To be complete, such harmony must be both active and passive. That is to say, we seek harmony both in deed and in thought. I want to understand my ethical activity as being at the service of the Universal Spirit.
Spinoza, Hegel, and the Stoics show us that the harmony of peace is a passive harmony, to which true philosophy leads us, and towards which religion tries to lead us. But this does not suffice, since we want to be at one in activity as well. Philosophy fails us here because of too narrow an ethical basis. It may seek to put me in relation to society, and even to humanity at large (although contemporary philosophies are in some instances directed only towards the relationship to a nation or a race). In any case, no philosophy puts me in relationship to the universe on an ethical basis. Instead, the attempt is made to take me there by knowledge, through understanding. Fichte and Hegel present such an intellectual philosophy. But it is an impossible path. Such philosophies are bankrupt. Ethics alone can put me in true relationship with the universe by my serving it, co-operating with it; not by trying to understand it. This is why Kant is so profound when he speaks of practical reason. Only by serving every kind of life do I enter the service of that Creative Will whence all life emanates. I do not understand it; but I do know (and it is sufficient to live by) that by serving life, I serve the Creative Will. It is through community of life, not community of thought, that I abide in harmony with that Will. This is the mystical significance of ethics.
Every philosophy has its mystical aspects, and every profound thought is mystical. But mysticism has always stopped with the passive, on an insufficient basis, as regards ethics. Indian, Stoical, mediaeval, all the great mysticisms, have aimed at achieving union through passivity. Yet every true mysticism has instincts of activity, aspiring to an ethical character. This fact explains the development of Indian mysticism from the detachment of Brahminism to modern Hindu mysticism. Mediaeval mysticism, in the same way, comes in its great exponent, Eckhardt, to the point where it longs to comprehend true ethics. Failing to find the universal ethic, it has commonly been content to exist with none. But in the universal ethic of reverence for life, mystical union with the Universal Spirit is actually and fully achieved. Thus it is proved to be indeed the true ethic. For it must be plain that an ethic which only commands is incomplete, while one which lets me live in communion with the Creative Will is a true and complete ethic.
In what sense is this a natural ethic; and how does it stand in relation to other explanations of the origin of ethics?
There have been three general classifications of ethical origins. The first is a spiritual interpretation. We find in Plato, Kant, and many others, the assertion that ethics comes out of an inherent, insubstantial, given, sense of duty, which has its source in our own power of reason. Through it, we are told, we see ourselves bound to the immaterial world. The exponents of this view believed that they had thus given great dignity to ethics. But there are difficulties in the way of accepting this view. It bears little resemblance to our own ethical sense; and we cannot see how it can be carried into our lives in this world in which we live.
The second classification comprises the intellectual theories of ethics. Here we find such philosophies as those of the Stoics, and Laotze. This group claims to see ethics in the natural world, and concludes thereby that whoever is in harmony with the universe is by that fact ethical. Now, this is a grand theory, and it is based on a profound realization that one who is truly in such harmony must be ethical. But the fact remains that we do not in deed understand the Spirit of the Universe. Therefore, we cannot draw any ethics from such an understanding. Consequently, these theories of ethics are pallid, and lacking in vigor. What they really amount to is a negative quietism, which has been tinged with ethics.
The third classification consists of three kinds of natural ethics. There is, to start with, the suggestion that ethics exists within our very natures, waiting to be developed. It is argued that we are primarily composed of egoism, but that we nevertheless have an inherent selflessness. Altruism, as we know it, is thus simply exalted egoism. Man is assumed to get his greatest fulfillment in society; wherefore, he must serve it, sacrificing his own wishes temporarily. But such an explanation is childish.
Next, comes the sort of natural ethics which is said to exist in mans nature, but is incapable of being developed by the individual himself. Society, so the theory runs, has worked out a system of ethics in order to subject the individual to its will. Centuries of such exalting of society have had beneficial results, but it is mere delusion to imagine that that is native to us which has actually been created by society. But observe how childish this is also. I grant that society has its place in ethics, but the fact remains that I have individual as well as social relationships, and society simply cannot be responsible for the ethic which determines my dealings in the individual sphere.
The third type of natural ethics was expounded by Hume. It admits that ethics is a matter of sentiment, but explains that it is given in the nature of man, for the sake of preserving his life. Thus, in the late eighteenth century, came Humes teaching that ethics is natural, while in the same period came Kants realization that it must be absolute.
To explain that ethics is a matter of feeling, prompted by our own hearts, Hume called it sympathy. The capacity to understand and live others lives in our own is, he said, what makes us developed individuals. In this, he was joined by George Adam Smith. They were headed in the right direction, too. If they had properly explored sympathy, they would have reached the universal ethic of reverence for life. But they stopped on the very threshold of their great opportunity, because they were dominated by the contemporary dogma that ethics is concerned only with the relationship of man to man. Therefore, they twisted sympathy to mean only a relationship between like kinds. Spencer and Darwin did the same thing in their time, putting ethics on the basis of the herd. This brought them to the explanation of non-egoistic action as arising from herd instinct. What Darwin failed to see is that the herd relationship is more than this superficial sort of instinct. He did, it is true, catch a glimpse of the possibility of sympathy extending beyond the range of man and society. But he concluded that it was just a high development of the herd instinct!
It is only when we break loose from such traditions that we find sympathy to be natural for any type of life, without any restrictions, so long as we are capable of imagining in such life the characteristic which we find in our own. That is, dread of extinction, fear of pain, and the desire for happiness. In short, the adequate explanation of sympathy is to be found rooted back in reverence for life.
But let us inquire into this sympathy more closely. On what foundations does it exist? What is its natural explanation? To answer these questions, let us ask ourselves how we can live the life of another being in our own lives. In part, we depend upon the knowledge received through our senses. We see others; we hear them; we may touch them or be touched by them. And we may then engage in activities to help them. In other words, there is a natural, physical aspect to the matter which anyone must recognize. But what compels all this?
The important thing is that we are part of life. We are born of other lives; we possess the capacities to bring still other lives into existence. In the same way, if we look into a microscope we see cell producing cell. So nature compels us to recognize the fact of mutual dependence, each life necessarily helping the other lives which are linked to it. In the very fibers of our being, we bear within ourselves the fact of the solidarity of life. Our recognition of it expands with thought. Seeing its presence in ourselves, we realize how closely we are linked with others of our kind. We might like to stop here, but we cannot. Life demands that we see through to the solidarity of all life which we can in any degree recognize as having some similarity to the life that is in us.
No doubt you are beginning to ask whether we can seriously mean that such a privilege extends to other creatures besides man. Are they, too, compelled by ethics? I cannot say that the evidence is always apparent as it may be in human instances. But this I can say, that wherever we find the love and sacrificial care of parents for offspring (for instance) we find this ethical power. Indeed, any instance of creatures giving aid to one another reveals it. Moreover, there are probably more proofs than we might at first think. Let me tell you of three instances which have been brought to my attention.
The first example was told me by someone from Scotland. It happened in a park where a flock of wild geese had settled to rest on a pond. One of the flock had been captured by a gardener, who had clipped its wings before releasing it. When the geese started to resume their flight, this one tried frantically, but vainly, to lift itself into the air. The others, observing his struggles, flew about in obvious efforts to encourage him; but it was no use. Thereupon, the entire flock settled back on the pond and waited, even though the urge to go on was strong within them. For several days they waited until the damaged feathers had grown sufficiently to permit the goose to fly. Meanwhile, the unethical gardener, having been converted by the ethical geese, gladly watched them as they finally rose together, and all resumed their long flight.
My second example is from my hospital in Lambarene. I have the virtue of caring for all stray monkeys that come to our gate. (If you have had any experience with large numbers of monkeys, you know why I say it is a virtue thus to take care of all comers until they are old enough or strong enough to be turned loose, several together, in the foresta great occasion for themand for me!) Sometimes there will come to our monkey colony a wee baby monkey whose mother has been killed, leaving this orphaned infant. I must find one of the older monkeys to adopt and care for the baby. I never have any difficulty about it, except to decide which candidate shall be given the responsibility. Many a time it happens that the seemingly worst-tempered monkeys are most insistent upon having this sudden burden of foster-parenthood given to them.
My third example was given me by a friend in Hanover, who owned a small café. He would daily throw out crumbs for the sparrows in the neighborhood. He noticed that one sparrow was injured, so that it had difficulty getting about. But he was interested to discover that the other sparrows, apparently by mutual agreement, would leave the crumbs which lay nearest to their crippled comrade, so that he could get his share, undisturbed.
So much, then, for this question of the natural origin of the ethic of reverence for life. It does not need to make any pretensions to high titles or noble-sounding theories to explain its existence. Quite simply, it has the courage to admit that it comes about through physiological make-up. It is given physically. But the point is that it arrives at the noblest spirituality. God does not rest content with commanding ethics. He gives it to us in our very hearts.
This, then is the nature and origin of ethics. We have dared to say that it is born of physical life, out of the linking of life with life. It is therefore the result of our recognizing the solidarity of life which nature gives us. And as it grows more profound, it teaches us sympathy with all life. Yet, the extremes touch, for this material-born ethic becomes engraved upon our hearts, and culminates in spiritual union and harmony with the Creative Will which is in and through all.
|As we know life in ourselves, we want to understand life in the universe, in order to enter into harmony with it.|
|What, then, is to become of that vigorous ethics which we inherited from our fathers?|
|The essential thing to realize about ethics is that it is the very manifestation of our will-to-live.|
|I cling to life because of my reverence for life. For, when it begins to think, the will-to-live realizes that it is free.|
|Here, then, is the first spiritual act in mans experience: reverence for life.|
|Resignation to the will-to-live leads directly to this first virtue: sincerity.|
|This is the absolute and reasonable ethic.|
|The primary characteristic of this ethic is that it is rational, having been developed as a result of thought upon life.|
|In point of fact, every ethic has something of the absolute about it|
|Reverence for life is a universal ethic.|
|A universal ethic has great spiritual significance.|
|In what sense is this a natural ethic; and how does it stand in relation to other explanations of the origin of ethics?|
|the adequate explanation of sympathy is to be found rooted back in reverence for life.|
|The important thing is that we are part of life. We are born of other lives; we possess the capacities to bring still other lives into existence.|
|God does not rest content with commanding ethics. He gives it to us in our very hearts.|