Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought

Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought

Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought

Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought


Albert Schweitzer maintained that the idea of "Reverence for Life" came upon him on the Ogowe River as an "unexpected discovery, like a revelation in the midst of intense thought." While Schweitzer made numerous significant contributions to an incredible diversity of fields - medicine, music, biblical studies, philosophy and theology - he regarded Reverence for Life as his greatest contribution and the one by which he most wanted to be remembered. Yet this concept has been the subject of a range of distortions and misunderstandings, both academic and popular. In this book, Ara Barsam provides a new interpretation of Schweitzer's reverence and shows how it emerged from his studies of German philosophy, Indian religions, and his biblical scholarship on Jesus and Paul.

By throwing light on the origin and development of Schweitzer's thought, Barsam leads his readers to a closer appreciation of the contribution that reverence makes to current ethical issues. Whereas previous commentators have focused on "reverence for life" as a philosophical ethic located in that tradition, this book demonstrates that it is in fact Schweitzer's theology that provides the hitherto undiscerned foundation for his ethic. Even among those who herald Schweitzer as the one who brought "reverence" to Christianity, there exists a tendency to underemphasize how his thinking also developed from his pivotal encounter with Indian religions. As Barsam shows, it is impossible to grasp the nature and the significance of Barsam's contribution without addressing that link.

Life-centered ethics - in the broadest sense - have continued to flourish, yet Schweitzer's pioneering contribution is often overlooked. Not only did he help establish the issue on the moral agenda, but, most significant, he also provided much sought after philosophical and theological foundations. Schweitzer emerges from this critical study of his life and thought as a remarkable individual who should rightfully be regarded as a moral giant of the twentieth-century.


The figure of Schweitzer has shadowed me since childhood. Amidst the medical accessories in my father’s study, pride of place was given to Le Grand Docteur’s photograph above the mantelpiece. As a child, I recall being awed by Schweitzer’s fierce countenance, notably his bushy moustache and piercing eyes. Only later could I begin to read, let alone understand, the words which appeared below: “Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of the moral.”

Little did I know that years later, when I moved to Mansfield College, Oxford, I would inhabit the small study where Schweitzer penned those very words. It is there he delivered the Dale Lectures on “the struggle for the ethical conception of the world in European philosophy,” later published as The Decay and Restoration of Civili zation and Civilization and Ethics (parts I and ii of the Philosophy of Civilization). Schweitzer used this study to compose his scripts in German, which he later delivered in the lecture room, across the quad, in French. Thus Schweitzer’s ethic of reverence for life was first publicly articulated in an academic context at Mansfield College.

During the subsequent five years, I pored over Schweitzer’s work and followed his footsteps to Europe and Africa—aided, I should add, by occasional interludes provided by the organ in Mansfield Chapel (which Schweitzer himself played during his visit in 1922). in the process, Schweitzer became an indispensable companion and mentor.

As I immersed myself in Schweitzer, I became increasingly dismayed by the range of misunderstandings both of his life and of . . .

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