Reverence for Life. I could leave it at that and be satisfied, because I find the phrase immediately gratifying. And it seems to sum up so many things so well. But I will attempt, anyways, to explain more of what Schweitzer means by this.
Ethics. Compassion. Valuing life—all of life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. That is what Schweitzer is aiming for. That is what he believes is necessary for civilization. We must get to a place where this is a necessity of thought, not just an occasional stirring. To get beyond a dogmatic formula where rules are pitted against one another, where conviction for ethics is neglected. Beyond a utilitarian or economical conception of ethics based on end or gain, where ethics looks for justification. Where each of us is grounded in valuing, preserving, and upholding life in whatever way possible and feel the responsibility within us to do it in whatever way we can. How do I get to a place where I remember that my life is precious, that life is precious, and yours is just as much as mine is?
There is something within the nature of our existence that gives us this. It is perhaps the most basic fact that knowledge can lead us to. It is not even dependent on thought, though thought always comes back to it, even starts in it: it is our existence. It is the mysterious urge that each one of us is born with, an urge towards life—our will-to-live. I am alive and I want to be alive. I feel the life within me and see life around me and am inspired by that. I need no justification for it. I move around because I mysteriously have some sort of urge to move about in this world. Where it came from, I do not know—it’s certainly not a given. What it means, I cannot tell. I simply live and want to live. I am thrown upon this world will an inexplicable forward urging will-to-live. Within this I have an inherent reverence for life within me, as I manifest this universal Will-to-live.
Schweitzer wants to cut the ties with interpretations of the world. The will-to-live, when it begins to think, gets pressed upon knowledge that Schweitzer says is without exception, pessimistic. It cannot be reconciled with knowledge. It lives in a world where it continues to move despite being in constant struggle with suffering and pain, with which it struggles until the day it dies. And the only thing that keeps it from giving into the pessimism which it finds, is an inherent repulsiveness to that thought. Knowledge brings us these facts, and if it is honest, perhaps only leads us back to this mystery. Previous thought had attempted to reconcile these and find some sort of explanation for this, but Schweitzer wants to ground ethics once and for all upon this will-to-live and separate it from interpretation of the world, because this will-to-live within us, this reverence for life that we have, can stand on its own.
This reverence for life becomes a sort of mystical dedication to this Will that manifests itself within us, to Being. Mysticism, Schweitzer says is what any world-view, if it is to satisfy thought, must begin with. But it must not be an abstract dedication to some Absolute, which becomes a death to ethics. It is an elemental mysticism, a mysticism of reality. When we devote ourselves to this infinite Being which manifests itself in infinite ways, I find meaning, Schweitzer says. I devote myself to life through this reverence for life. It becomes expansive, reaching beyond my own existence. I find that my life is valuable, that all life which we are all steeped within is valuable. And if I were honest, if I have my eyes open, I know that my life and my will, and that every will, is at odds with one another, and that my existence moves forward at the expense of others. Because of this I attempt, in whatever way I can find within me to dedicate myself to uphold life.
Here I will let Schweitzer speak some final words:
A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves one’s sympathy as being valuable, nor beyond that, whether and to what degree it is capable of feeling. Life as such is sacred to him. He tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, and takes care to crush no insect. If in summer he is working by lamplight, he prefers to keep the window shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table…
If he walks on the road after a shower and sees an earthworm which has strayed on to it, he bethinks himself that it must get dried up in the sun, if it does not return soon enough to ground into which it can burrow, so he lifts it from the deadly stone surface, and puts it on the grass. If he comes across an insect which has fallen into a puddle, he stops a moment in order to hold out a leaf or a stalk on which it can save itself.
He is not afraid of being laughed at as sentimental. It is the fate of every truth to be a subject for laughter until it is generally recognized. Once it was considered folly to assume that man of color were really men and ought to be treated as such, but the folly has become an accepted truth. Today it is thought to be going too far to declare that constant regard for everything that lives, down to the lowest manifestations of life, is a demand made by rational ethics. The time is coming, however, when people will be astonished that mankind needed so long a time to learn to regard thoughtless injury to life as incompatible with ethics. (pg. 311)
No one must shut his eyes and regard as non-existent the sufferings of which he spares himself the sight. Let no one regard as light the burden of his responsibility. While so much ill-treatment of animals goes on, while the moans of thirsty animals in railway trucks sound unheard, while so much brutality prevails in our slaughter-houses, while animals have to suffer in our kitchens painful death from unskilled hands, while animals have to endure intolerable treatment from heartless men, or are left to the cruel play of children, we all share the guilt…
We must never let ourselves become blunted. We are living in truth, when we experience these conflicts more profoundly. The good conscious is an invention of the devil…
The ethics of reverence for life guard us from letting each other believe through our silence that we no longer experience what, as thinking men, we must experience. They prompt us to keep each other sensitive to what distress us, and to talk and act together, just as the responsibility we feel moves us, and without any feeling of shyness. They make us join in keeping on the look-out for opportunities of bringing some sort of help to animals, to make up for the great misery which men inflict on them, and thus to step for a moment out of the incomprehensible horror of existence (pg. 319)
Reverence for life is an inexorable creditor! If it finds anyone with nothing to pledge but a little time and a little leisure, it lays an attachment on these… They demand that everyone of us in some way and with some object shall be a human being for human beings… Open your eyes and look for a human being, or some work devoted to human welfare, which needs from someone a little time or friendliness, a little sympathy, or sociability, or labour. There may be a solitary or an embittered fellow-man, an invalid or an inefficient person to whom you can be something. Perhaps it is an old person or a child. Or some good work needs volunteers who can offer a free evening, or run errands…. Search, then for some investment for your humanity, and do not be frightened away if you have to wait, or be taken on trial. And be prepared for disappointments. But in any case, do not be without some secondary work in which you give yourself as man to men. It is marked out for you, if you only truly will to have it…
Thus do the true ethics speak to those who have only a little time and a little human nature to give. Well will it be with them if they listen, and are preserved from becoming stunted natures because they have neglected this devotion of self to others…
But let neither judge the other. The destinies of men have to be decided in a thousand ways in order that the good may become actual. What he has to bring as an offering is the secret of each individual. But one with another we have all to recognize that our existence reaches its true value only when we experience in ourselves something of the truth of the saying: “He that loseth his life shall find it.” (pg. 323)
There is so much more. I could really quote the entire book. But I will share one final quote, the last words of the book, that gets back to the idea that this attitude of reverence for life was—despite perhaps sounding vague or general—he believed, the only complete ethic.
Kant published, with the title Towards Perpetual Peace, a work containing rules which were to be observed with a view to lasting peace whenever treaties of peace were concluded. It was a mistake. Rules for treaties of peace, however well intentioned and however ably drawn up, can accomplish nothing. Only such thinking as establishes the sway of the mental attitude of reverence for life can bring to mankind perpetual peace.