Reverence for Life and Ahimsa by George Paxton

For a few decades around the middle of the 20th century Albert Schweitzer was one of the best known human beings in the world, or at least in that large part of the world influenced by Christianity.  Today he is rarely mentioned.  Yet much of his thought is worth studying and his key concept of reverence for life links him to Gandhi’s interpretation of ahimsa.

Schweitzer was known in his lifetime for his creativity in a number of fields. Born in Alsace in 1875 (thus only a few years younger than Gandhi) he had German nationality due to Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war  of 1871 but in 1918 he acquired French nationality due to France retaking Alsace at the end of the Great War.

Albert’s father was a pastor in the Lutheran church in Kayserberg and his mother’s father had also been a pastor.  Albert was a dreamy boy who did poorly at school but did display an early musical talent, something that ran in the family especially organists. When he reached his fourteenth year ‘the spirit of enlightenment’, as he described it, came upon him and henceforth he applied himself with great diligence. As well as school subjects he took lessons with distinguished organists in various parts of Europe and later wrote a book on the music of Bach.  He also studied the construction of organs in different cities showing his practical side.  His university studies included philosophy and theology and he wrote a critical dissertation on Kant’s philosophy for his doctorate.  He also made a study of the life and thought of Jesus as related in the New Testament which resulted in a book The Quest for the Historical Jesus which was one of the most important scholarly works on the subject. He became a pastor but he was obviously destined for a distinguished career in university teaching and research.

However he was not satisfied with this prospect.  He felt he was very fortunate in his life and so he must give something back in gratitude for this – some form of practical service to his fellow human beings.  He eventually settled on training in medicine in order to go to Africa to help those without access to a medical service.  This plan was not greeted with enthusiasm by friends and family but he had made up his mind.

Years of more study lay ahead and he had to find a way of getting to Africa. The Paris Mission Society, which had missions in Africa, was a possibility but they were suspicious of his critical approach to the Bible.  Eventually he was given their support but only if he agreed not to preach and stick to the practice of medicine which he agreed to do.  And so in 1913 he set sail along with his wife Helene, who had trained as a nurse in order to be useful in the hospital they were to build.  The destination was Lambarene in French colonial Gabon.  Schweitzer was to spend the greater part of his long life of 90 years working there in the jungle although Helene’s poor health meant that she had to spend much time in Europe.

Schweitzer – philosopher of civilisation

While Schweitzer made important contributions to music as performer and musicologist as well as biblical scholarship his most important intellectual contribution in his eyes was his study of civilisation and what was the distinguishing mark of civilisation, which was not its level of scientific knowledge or artistic expression or economic development but its ethical attainment.  After much thought and study he came to the conclusion that the core concept of ethics was reverence for life.  The words came to him on the River Ogowe in 1915 – “there flashed upon my mind unforeseen and unsought the knowledge that the idea of reverence for life is the basic principle of goodness”.

Schweitzer has this description in The Ethics of Reverence for Life (1936):

Thus if we ask , “What is the immediate fact of my consciousness ?”  …. we find the simple fact of consciousness is this, I will to live.  Through every stage of life, this is the one thing that 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.


What shall be my attitude towards this other life which I see around me ?  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 know that it longs for fulness and deepness of development as deeply as I do myself.

One can see that this idea embraces not only human beings but other life forms. Thus we can see the similarity to Jainism with its extreme avoiding of harming of other life.  However Schweitzer claims that ahimsa originated not from compassion but in the desire to keep the person undefiled from the world.  The Jains gave up animal sacrifice, meat eating, hunting and wild beast fights and even tried to avoid stepping on small insects and other creatures on the ground. The monks wear a cloth over their mouths so that they will not breathe in tiny flying creatures.  The Jains avoid farming and tend to be in business or professions that do not obviously involve killing.  Gandhi was himself influenced by this Jain philosophy while realising that it was impossible to avoid all killing.

Gandhi’s ahimsa

Gandhi’s adoption of nonviolence or ahimsa as one of his two great principles – satya or truth being the other – involved a broadening of its meaning to include compassion or love (agape) a concept prominent in the Christian tradition. Gandhi criticised his fellow Indians for their lack of compassion to the cow even although they are horrified by deliberate killing.  When he gave permission for a suffering calf to be euthanised he was fiercely attacked by orthodox Hindus for doing so.  Gandhi also showed his realism in permitting the killing of rabid dogs, of poisonous snakes, and of monkeys stealing the precious harvest of poor farmers – although he also encouraged the avoidance of killing such animals as far as possible.

In his study of civilisation and ethics Schweitzer uses two expressions which give two contrasting orientations, namely, world and life-affirmation and world and life-negation.  In Buddhism, and indeed the Indian religions generally, he sees world and life-negation predominating; this contrasts with the Chinese philosophies which he sees as world and life-affirming.  Christianity was for most of its history world and life-negating but at the time of the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment it became transformed into world and life-affirming.  In the case of Gandhi, although the Indian tradition  of ahimsa was originally negative (keeping pure from the world) he transformed it into active nonviolence at the service of the world.  Schweitzer expresses this in Indian Thought and Its Development (1936):

The fact that Gandhi has united the idea of Ahimsa to the idea of activity directed on the world has the importance not merely of an event in the thought of India but in that of humanity.  Through him the attention of ethics is again directed to a fact which had been too much neglected: namely, that the use of force does not become ethically permissible because it has an ethical aim, but that in addition it must be applied in a completely ethical disposition.

This is the end and means issue.  Gandhi is convinced that the means used to achieve a particular end must be compatible with it.

Gandhi’s and Schweitzer’s politics

A contrast between the two is their attitude to politics.  Gandhi became involved in political life in his early 20s when he encountered discrimination between the European and Indian population in South Africa.  As a result of belonging to the colonised population Gandhi developed a more active political programme involving nonviolent struggle (satyagraha) which continued throughout his life.  Schweitzer on the other hand was much less political until late in life and consciously so. Unfortunately because of his experience of working for and with uneducated Africans in a jungle setting he developed a patriarchal attitude to Africans in general.  Gandhi had a similar outlook when he first arrived in South Africa but he abandoned it fairly quickly whereas Schweitzer retained this stance even into the post-Second World War period and this was, I believe, his greatest weakness.

Schweitzer was however drawn into active politics late in life following the development of the nuclear age.  He was persuaded, after studying the effect of ionising radiation, to publicly campaign for the ending of nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere.  In this he joined many distinguished scientists including the American chemist Linus Pauling and Albert Einstein. He went further in the later 1950s when he came out publicly for nuclear and general disarmament. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and spent some of the money on corrugated iron roofs for his hospital.

An interesting similarity between the two men is that both travelled third class on the railways. Schweitzer’s motivation, I believe, was that he could thus save money for spending on his hospital.  The hospital was partly funded from his organ recitals and lectures in Europe and America and partly by others fund-raising for him.  Gandhi’s motivation was to keep close to the people and was also part of his belief that he should live as simply as possible especially as most Indians were very poor.

Both men shared a belief that life should include physical labour, not just mental, Gandhi taking up spinning; he also took a great interest in hygiene and nursing. Schweitzer not only directed the construction of buildings and roads in his hospital but did much of the construction itself.

With regard to diet Schweitzer was much less scrupulous than Gandhi.  The latter was a vegetarian from birth and became a vegan until in middle age his health was badly affected and he took to drinking goat’s milk which restored him to good health. In spite of Schweitzer’s ethical belief in reverence for life it seems he did not become a full vegetarian. This does seem curious when Schweitzer believed it was wrong to thoughtlessly destroy a plant or flower.  In practice both men acknowledged a hierarchy of life forms with the less developed if necessary being sacrificed for the higher.

As we have seen Schweitzer was well aware of Gandhi but I do not know if Gandhi was aware of Schweitzer and they almost certainly developed their central ethical concepts independently.  Although their two concepts were very similar they arose differently: the Indian concept of ahimsa (non-killing) grew wider in scope with time until Gandhi identified it with compassion or love; for most of Christianity’s existence compassion was a central concept which however only embraced non-human life at a late stage in its development – with the concept of reverence for life Schweitzer gave rational support to this. In a sense the two ideas evolved in different directions to reach a similar all embracing ethical idea.

Schweitzer concludes his The Ethics of Reverence for Life:

This, then, is the nature and origin of ethics.  We have dared to say that it is born of physical life, of the linking of life with life. It is therefore the result of our recognising 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.        

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