Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life

Peter H. Samsom, Minister, The First Unitarian Church of San Diego, California

Some years ago a number of distinguished scholars and men of letters were asked to name those whom they considered to be the all-round geniuses of world history. The consensus settled upon three names: Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, and Albert Schweitzer. The first two are likely to be received without surprise or question by literate people. But who is this Albert Schweitzer?

Until fairly recently, Schweitzer's audience has not been large, but it has been undergoing a rapid expansion of late. Several biographies of him have appeared in the past few years, together with both popular and scholarly books about his work and anthologies of his writings. Ironically, the people closest to him, the natives of Africa, will never read a word of these works.

To a world deeply immersed in power politics, memories of war and fearful talk of more war, torn by group hatreds, suspicious of the exact pigmentation of a man's mind, the life and thoughts of Albert Schweitzer come with a steadying, healing word that helps to reestablish confidence in the human spirit and the life of reason — confidence in the deep resources of human nature as exemplified by this man and his boundless expectations of humanity — and faith in a way of life and an attitude toward mankind which he has been quietly practising in an obscure corner of the world while the men of force and fear have been shouting that this vision is an impractical dream, not for this world. It is significant and thought-provoking that this steadying word should come today, not from one of the world's leading statesmen, nor from the head of any of the world's salvation schemes, not from a topflight philosopher in one of our great universities, nor even from a columnist whose thought steers the outlook of millions of readers. No, this quiet word comes from an almost unknown man doing an unheralded job in a forsaken spot far from the highways of civilization. It is perhaps symbolic that the man being hailed today as one of our great world citizens lives in a settlement on the Ogowe River in French Equatorial Africa, where he runs a little hospital, and writes often through the night on a study of our civilization and where it is going. This is a most humble setting for the magnitude of the greatness that is being attributed to Schweitzer. What manner of man is this?

What will probably most fascinate people about Schweitzer is that, at the age of thirty, he held an acknowledged position not only as a great concert organist and organ builder — but also as a theologian, philosopher, historian, preacher, and as the world's number one authority on the music of Bach. And having attained this amazing degree of all-round competence in half a dozen major fields of human achievement, he deliberately relinquished his honors to go to Africa and heal natives in the jungle. This young man literally had the world at his feet. Wealth, position, fame were his if he had cared to have them. But contrary to the accepted code of our world, he turned his back on the success he could have had, and embarked on a new venture about which he knew nothing except that suffering human beings needed someone to go and do it. His was no sudden decision; he had been making up his mind to it for years. When he was twenty-one he relates:

I resolved to devote my life till I was thirty to the office of preacher, scientist and musician. If by that time I should have done what I hoped in science, music and the church, I would take the path of immediate service to my fellow-man.

A native of Alsace, born as it were between two great nations, he was not exposed as a child to extreme nationalism. The son and grandson of schoolteachers and ministers, music ruled his world even as a child. At nine we find him playing the organ in church, and as a youth pursuing his music studies under the tutelage of the great organist Charles Widor. Soon he became an organist of distinction himself, and wrote a definitive study of Bach in French. Finding the job of translating it into German impossible, he sat down and wrote a completely new book about Bach in German. It is almost certain that, whatever his other claims to greatness, Schweitzer is one of the most varied geniuses of our time. No other man holds such rank in so many fields. Mastery in one area was only the beginning for this versatile young man. Already in his teens he developed what he termed "a fascination for the mastery of a subject in which I had no talent." He would read everything he could lay his hands on and would often study through the entire night. Soon the lines of his interest became plain. At the age of twenty-four, he had earned two doctorates, in philosophy and in theology.

His religious thinking was marked by an impatience with ecclesiastical doctrine. He soon moved in a definitely liberal direction in his concern for a more realistic understanding of the character and place of Jesus in religion. [image]At the age of twenty-six, he wrote a brief but highly original work on the life of Jesus, published under the title The Quest for the Historical Jesus. This book made a sensation in 1911, for in it he worked out a new theory on the life and mission of Jesus, which became eventually one of the leading lines of interpretation among modern scholars. But it is noteworthy that his devotion to what we now know to be the facts about Jesus as a product of his particular age, subject to the limitations of that era, did not prevent Schweitzer from being deeply struck by the spirit of the man Jesus. Especially did he ponder Jesus' precept "Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall save it." This insight proved to be the turning point of Schweitzer's entire life. Since his early youth, a deep impression had been made on his mind by a statue by Bartholdi in the village of Colmar. The statue depicted a French admiral with a Negro figure crouching at his feet, and the yearning gaze and haunting sadness of this Negro face became part of Schweitzer's outlook on humanity, and turned his thoughts again and again to the misery of the people of Africa.

To him it seemed obvious that he with his abilities and talents beyond the average should give of his talents to serve those in the world who had suffered the most and had the least chance to help themselves. It seemed, he says, "only simple justice that the white man should share with his black brother the fruits of science." So he decided to give the rest of his life directly to humane service.

It is an uncomfortable doctrine that the true ethic whispers into my ear. You are happy, it says. Therefore you are called upon to give much. Whatever more than others you have received in health, natural gifts, working capacity, success, beautiful childhood and harmonious family circumstances, you must not accept as being a matter of course. You must pay a price for them. You must show more than an average devotion to life.

Learning that he could serve as a missionary only if he accepted the narrow dogmas of certain religious groups, he resolved to go to Africa as a physician, and settled down to the terrific task of securing a medical education. He completed a normal seven-year course in three years, financing himself by organ concerts and lectures the while, then sailed for Africa. His friends were shocked and angry: "Why should he go there to serve mankind? Why not in Europe, where his roots were?" We can recognize only that his decision was grounded deeply in his own personality. His dominant motive was his vivid sense of humanity, his sense of a strong ethical imperative that he as a white man of exceptional abilities must help to atone for centuries of wrong done by the white race against the black.

The story of his superhuman forty-year effort in the jungle is too well-known to need recounting here. What does this great man, so truly noble in his manner of living, believe about our world in which he occupies such an unusual place and to the needs of which he has given such a high measure of devotion? In his writings of a generation ago, and in recent public utterances, Schweitzer emerges as a fundamental, searching critic of our modern civilization, its ways of thinking and believing and acting. When a recent visitor asked him "A generation ago you wrote that it is now clear that the suicide of civilization is in progress — do you still feel this way?" Schweitzer replied:

When I wrote that, the clouds of impending collapse were gathering. The storms now, in the middle of the twentieth century, are sundering our civilization. . . . In all the assemblies of men, on all the continents, men are still talking aimlessly in terms of purely material, physical things and forces, of old alliances in new forms. In this direction there is no hope for mankind. In these discussions there is no vision. There are few if any signs that a new ethical era is dawning, and only in such an era can civilization survive. . . .

But for all the apparent pessimism of these forebodings, Schweitzer is not a man without hope. To his mind there is nothing inevitable or predestined about the collapse he warns us of. "There is this one hope. We must return to the main road from which we have wandered." And what is this road? It was the road marked by the central, fundamental idea of Humanity.

The great moment in the history of civilization was the moment when the concept of Humanity as a whole emerged. In the West, this was the product not of Plato or Aristotle, but of the Stoics. In the East, it was in Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, Lao-tse that the concept of humanity as a whole was central. They did not speak of the Chinese alone, they spoke of mankind. To my mind this whole promising trend of thought came to its climax in the Rationalism of the eighteenth century. Since then, the world has slipped back into darkness. How few are the deeds done in the name of humanity as a whole!

Perhaps a word of comment and disagreement is in order at this point. We can wholeheartedly agree with Albert Schweitzer in his enthusiasm for the basic idea of humanity, without necessarily agreeing with him that his ideal has gone into eclipse since the eighteenth century. On the contrary, it may be nearer the truth to say that it has become one of the most powerful concepts of our time. It is the very existence of this concept today that helps to make the present threats of war and the fragmentations of humanity so intolerable to increasing numbers of thoughtful men and women, to whom the idea of humanity is one of the most deeply real things they know. We have here, in Schweitzer's pessimism about the humane ideal in our world, one possible result of his physical separation from the world of men and current thinking. Isolated as he is from vitalizing contact with the best minds of his age, it is only natural that he should be somewhat unaware that in every land today there is growing this inarticulate but powerful realization that the world's salvation lies in the unity of the human race politically, economically and spiritually.

But with his spirit and intent we can vigorously agree, and underlying his conviction of humanity is his distinctive philosophy with which his name has become increasingly linked, the concept of Reverence for Life. This is the principle upon which his philosophy of civilization is based. He describes Reverence for Life as

the ethic of Jesus brought into philosophical expression, extended into cosmic form and conceived of as intellectually necessary. . . . Let a man once begin to think about the mystery of his life and the links which connect him with the life that fills the world, and he cannot but bring to bear upon his own life and all other life that comes within his reach the principle of Reverence for Life, and manifest this principle by ethical world- and life-affirmation expressed in action. Existence will thereby become harder for him in every respect than it would be if he lived merely for himself. But at the same time it will be richer, more beautiful, and happier. It will become, instead of mere living, a real experience of life.

Schweitzer possesses a deep and abiding faith in the ability of man to achieve a higher and more widespread use of his reason than he has ever done before. His enthusiasm finds special application in his views of religion. "We need a society, a faith, a church that respect and exalt the individual, calling forth all the powers of ethical thought and devotion innate within him. The churches for the most part today decry unhampered thinking. Dogmatism has taken the place of the pursuit of truth." Schweitzer has long emphasized that what he calls "liberation from the Middle Ages of today" will be much more difficult than that which freed the peoples of Europe from the first Middle Ages. The struggle then was against external authority. Today, the task is for the great mass of individuals to reclaim their spiritual heritage, and so to regain the privilege they have renounced, of thinking as free personalities.

When Christianity becomes a traditional belief, it loses its relationship to life and to the spirit of the time, and loses the capacity of assuming a new form adapted to a new world-view. If the debate between tradition and thought falls silent, Christian truth suffers, and with it Christian intellectual integrity. Christianity cannot take the place of thinking, but must be founded on it.

There is so much that is striking about this great yet humble man that we are tempted to stand in admiration and say merely "How is it possible that one man could do and achieve so much?" But this is to miss his real significance for all of us and for his time. We have much to learn from a man such as he, much in the way of renewed confidence in what a man can achieve when he sets his heart and mind on a broad, humane ideal, and devotes to it every undivided ounce of his varied energies and talents. We certainly have much to learn from the cultivated, sensitive perception of one who, serving humanity selflessly while he stands off from the main currents of our force-ridden industrial society, gives us a necessary perspective on ourselves and our taken-for-granted ways which he sees more clearly than we are leading us to destruction.

Even to know that such a man exists in our time is an inspiration and a challenge. Not only does he have the rare faculty of combining qualities we seldom find together in one man — deep scholarship and simple speech — intellectual honesty and religious devotion — the realism of a scientist and the imagination of a poet. But we find in him a living religion at its best, not divided into separate compartments, with this for God and this for man. "His religion is like a seamless robe," writes a biographer of Schweitzer. "Mind, soul, heart and hand are together. He knows no barriers between life and thought and faith, no sterile distinction between religion and ethics. His life is his faith, and his faith is his life."

It is fitting, and perhaps even ironic, that these deeply serious warnings of Schweitzer's about the dangers that infect our civilization should come from a man whose whole personal life is an act of faith in human civilization. When he speaks of "the ethical foundation that is lacking in our life, even when in other directions creative and intellectual forces of the strongest nature are at work," he is not speaking of any abstract, academic ideal conceived in the isolation of a private study, limited to appearance in print in books. When such a man as Schweitzer speaks of ethical foundations, he is putting into words the very thing his whole life has been devoted to making a practical reality where he feels it is most needed.

The most serious question we can — and must — raise about Schweitzer's ideal and example as a program for mankind is so obvious that it seems hardly necessary to mention it. What we have in mind is not at all the conventional objection we so often hear to Schweitzer as an example, the usual criticism that his ideal is impractical because it involves tearing ourselves up by the roots and going off to some distant and doleful spot to pour ourselves out for the benefit of mankind. Naturally this is impossible for most people, and the prospect of a world largely populated by missionaries is not an entirely attractive one. Schweitzer simply chose this way of life and this locality because they seemed compelling to him.

But underlying this superficial objection is a more serious one we cannot sidestep: the almost complete individualism of Schweitzer's solution. His is a lofty, magnificent ideal, to which he hopes men and women in ever larger numbers will come to devote themselves, the ideal of reverence for life and all the ways of thought and action which flow from it. But as a program for humanity it remains a purely individual solution, rather than a broadly inclusive social program. It requires for its fulfilment the conversion and regeneration of countless individuals before its effect can be felt on the world as a whole. It is an ideal with immense attractiveness for many people, for it gives them a point at which to begin. But having begun, and even having gone further and realized it for one's self, what then? And can the world in its present state of terrific pressure between gigantic social alternatives wait until enough of mankind is converted to the noble philosophy of Albert Schweitzer to make possible a different alignment of the social forces in the world?

But having said this, let us be reasonably fair and not criticize a thinker simply because he fails to solve all the world's problems while attempting to solve some of them. We have learned enough in our survey of leading historical thinkers to realize that we can look to none of them for a complete recipe. Actually, the most that any thoughtful interpreter of mankind's history can do is to draw a picture of the past as it looks to him, and then indicate the points at which he feels it is most important for people to place their energies and devote their best thinking. Let us by all means give Schweitzer full credit for his magnificent achievement in both propounding a solid philosophy and embodying it beautifully in his own practical life — and also for affording his troubled age a clear ray of hope.

There is a world of difference between the academic pessimism of a Spengler and the creative, hopeful pessimism of a Schweitzer. One is grounded in an abstract, mechanical system of rigid thought which automatically prescribes downfall and doom to all man's highest effort. The other is grounded in a working experience of actual life among people, and is coupled with a profound, almost mystical devotion to what seems to the thinker the deepest reality of human life. For while Schweitzer does see us drifting away from reason, humanity and reverence for life, he insists that the drift is not fore-ordained and the cause is not hopeless.

To his fellowman in every walk of life, and to the mind of his time, Schweitzer utters a challenging, strengthening word of confidence — a word rendered more meaningful than most of its kind because it is uttered from the midst of a life completely devoted to the ideals he believes in. "I have great confidence in the incalculable forces of the spirit. The future depends on them. If these spiritual forces are brought into play, the world's future will be improved."

(From Sunrise magazine, September 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)

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