This post relays objective and subjective knowledge of an essay by Albert Schweitzer on his theory of “reverence for life.” To view the essay, click here.
Albert Schweitzer, a German philosopher, developed a theory he called “reverence for life” which was based off of a philosophical view called biocentrism. Biocentrism is a view which holds that all living things, from the microorganism to humans, have inherent value. This view is supported by the belief that the value stems from the evolution of a common biological matter into the different species that we are today. Schweitzer expands this view into his theory by introducing the idea that all living beings have value simply because they have the will-to-live, or a “yearning for more life.” This will-to-live is said to exist even when the being does not have the wherewithal to understand or communicate it to others. The idea of reverence for life really hit Schweitzer while he was watching a beautiful sunset in Africa during a mission trip. His mind was able to conceive this theory because of the peacefulness and oneness he felt with nature in the moment.
For humans to understand what it means to have reverence for life, they must understand first that humans and other living beings have a solidarity in all things, mainly suffering. With life comes inevitable struggle, pain, and death. To connect with other non-human beings, it is essential to achieve a sense inner freedom. In order to attain this freedom, one must practice self-sacrifice and self-surrender. Attaining inner freedom also very much requires us to completely surrender everything that we are in order to understand who we are and what value we hold. This is not an easy task, as it means denying oneself of necessities and pleasures that inevitably harm others.
The ethic of reverence for life calls us to have a keen awareness to the results of our actions and make compromises to do less harm. To maintain the inner freedom and move on to living as connected and equal beings with all other living creatures, we must be always willing to forgive others so that no malice or weight burdens relationships that should flow with peace. Living in an eternal state of surrender and peace can be difficult since we are flawed beings, so to make this doable, it is helpful to develop an “impulse to sincerity towards oneself.” A very difficult aspect to reverence for life, is that although it is known that the theory calls for maintenance of self-sincerity and compromising to act in a way that causes to harm to all life, there no acknowledgment of “relative ethic.” The harm caused by satisfying needs to sustain one’s own life is still evil and unjustified, even though one has made a compromise to cause less harm.
When reading Schweitzer’s passage about the experience that led him to the realization of his theory, reverence for life, I could feel the emotions he was feeling, because I, too, have felt them. Throughout my life, I have had euphoric experiences where I felt so alive and connected to nature. As a child, these feelings typically occurred on beautiful summer evenings as I chased lightening bugs (or fireflies) after a long day of running and playing in the woods with my siblings and neighbors. I could not identify the source of this feeling until I grew to be a little older and felt these connections not only with the nature, but with humans of foreign lands. I know that Schweitzer speaks of how we should value non-human lives for their own sake, but my experience was slightly reversed. My value for the world and all of its plants and animals allowed me to see the beauty and value of humans.
When I was 17 years old, I went on my first mission trip to a poor village in the Dominican Republic that is very close to the Haitian border. On this trip, my life was completely changed and I knew love for the first time. With this love, I began to see the world from the point of view that I had never had before. Through that I developed an “impulse to sincerity” towards myself. I learned to completely surrender myself to a plan that is much greater than my miniscule existence. As my love for humanity has grown, my old love for all life has developed and been made stronger. I have become more aware of my actions and how they affect others. I have begun to live and love more intentionally.