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What is significant about Schweitzer's philosophy is that it is the human being's purpose to give life meaning, to bring ethics into existence. By recognizing and understanding the universal will to live and by having an attitude of reverence for all life, humanity will have transcendent meaning to live by.
Reverence for Life is not an absolute ethic because one recognizes that some life must be sacrificed in order to preserve other life, "but never without the realization that there is a great chain of life from which we are not separate, and that in the death of any life we too suffer a loss." This attitude towards the world eliminates the separativity between ourselves and others and emphasizes the interdependence that we all share. We realize our part in humanity and how our lives are integrated into the lives of those around us and beyond.
Schweitzer understood that ethics must ultimately be practiced on a personal level. An ethical person needs to ask herself how much of her life, her possessions, her rights, her happiness, her time and her rest may she keep for herself and how much she must devote to others. Schweitzer recognized that his life was not his own to do with as he pleased. He felt obliged to offer his life in service to humanity, taking for himself only that which was absolutely necessary and nothing more.
On the material level, Schweitzer was aware of the illusion of private property. Since we really own nothing, we have the responsibility of stewards or trustees, not of possessors or owners. Our freedom lies in how we administer these trusts. And on the social level, he believed that we do not actually possess social rights in the context of ethical living. We see ourselves as debtors repaying what we owe to humanity. The happier I am, the better my life has been, the more I owe in return. Also, I do not have the right to compete against my fellows if I succeed or advance at the cost of others. There should always be an inward concern for all human destinies.
Humility is an important aspect of Schweitzer's ethics. As an example of our lack of humility, he spoke of how we often use forgiveness for self-gratification. Ordinarily, when we forgive someone, we imply a subtle humiliation of him while expecting to be commended for our supposed righteous behavior. But an attitude of humility does not allow us to forgive in that fashion because we are aware of our own imperfections—the falsehoods, hatred, and arrogance—hidden in our hearts. Pardoning others is really an illusion, according to Schweitzer, because we cannot set ourselves apart from others to pass such a judgement. He saw the struggle against evil in the world to be, to a great extent, a struggle within our own being. Instead of judging others, we need to judge and transform ourselves. Schweitzer's life was a life of renouncement. When he gave up his successful and satisfying life in Europe to work as a jungle doctor, he demonstrated the importance of transcending the desire for personal benefits and rewards. Schweitzer knew that he had a calling to serve humanity. He felt very fortunate to have found such an ideal opportunity to express in a direct and concrete way his love for the world and his compassion for those who suffer. He was deeply thankful for his vigor and health and for the kindness and care that had been given to him. He returned these blessings through a humble offering of his life.
His humble work as a doctor in the African jungle symbolizes our need to participate, to expand our love, to renounce personal benefits, and to transform and offer our lives to humanity. His deep respect for all living creatures represents the need to respond to our highest aspirations and to recognize the world and our existence as expressions of the Divine.
Albert Schweitzer's life was an expression of divine love in the world. His inner devotion was expressed in a life dedicated to serving humanity and the world. He touched those near him by his kindness and his respect for everyone and everything. He touched the rest of the world as an eternal symbol, representing our deepest yearnings and highest aspirations.
Opening quotation from Albert Schweitzer, Reverence for Life.
References and recommended readings
On the Edge of the Primeval Forest.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936.
Out of My Life and Thought.
New York: H. Holt and Company, 1949.
The Philosophy of Civilization.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.
Pilgrimage to Humanity.
New York Philosophical Library, 1961.
Reverence for Life.
New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
Reprinted from Walking With Contemplation