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Dr Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

Albert Schweitzer, M.D., OM, (January 14, 1875 – September 4, 1965) was an Alsatian theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician. He was born in Kaisersberg in Alsace-Lorraine, a bilingual Romano-Germanic region which Germany returned to France after World War I. Schweitzer challenged both the secular view of historical Jesus current at his time and the traditional Christian view, depicting a Jesus who expected the imminent end of the world. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life",expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa).

Schweitzer was probably never completely vegetarian, as can be seen from the items below, though he expressed support for the ideals and we have some indications that he may have become vegetarian in the last few years of his life.

from the Souvenir Book of the 1957 IVU Congress in India:

Dr. ALBERT SCHWEITZER has achieved world fame in so many fields of activity, he cannot be catalogued in one. A great organist and interpreter, par excellence of Bach, all music lovers know him. A theologian who challenged the orthodoxy of his day, a philosopher who has delved to the depths of life, he forsook the world in which he had made a secure field to study medicine that he might devote himself to the service of humanity as a medical missionary. Because of the danger of heterodoxy, he was not supposed to teach but only heal and he did heal - souls as well as bodies. Alone he raised the money for most of the fine work he has done in French Equatorial Africa in his hospital in Lambarene. The Nobel Prize of Rs.1.56,000 was turned solely towards that work. When he first established himself, there was no doctor within five hundred miles.

JAMES CAMERON who lived with him in order that he might write a series of articles in the "News Chronicle" states : "The Doctor eats only fruits and vegetables - but considerably great quantities of mango, avocado, and soya bean, and above all, a specially huge species of boiled banana. The Doctor has no illusions about modern civilization and that is why he advocates a new one built upon Reverence of Life. He believes that modern civilization with its atomic bombs is based wrongfully on destruction of life."

DR. SCHWEITZER still performs as many as eight hundred operations a year. Half way through the eighties, he has been known to go seventy-two hours without sleep when one of his patients has been in danger. He has kept up his writing - twenty-four major works of philosophy, religion, ethics, and a survey of world problems are to his credit. An organ given him by those who loved him also claims his attention.

When anyone mentions his sacrifice, Dr. Schweitzer becomes impatient : "We must all die but when I can save a life from days of torture - that is what I feel as my great and ever new privilege... The greatest reward I know is when a patient takes my hand after awakening from an operation and says: 'I feel no pain.' "

His compassion is boundless. "Whenever I injure any kind of life, I must be quite certain that it is necessary. I must never go beyond the unavoidable, not even in apparently insignificant things. That man is truly ethical who shatters no ice crystal as it sparkles in the sun, tears no leaf from a tree ..."

  • Albert Schweitzer An Anthology (PDF 25mb) edited by Charles R. Joy, Boston, 1947. p.269: Slowly in our European thought comes the notion that ethics has not only to do with mankind but with the animal creation as well.

In Here's Harmlessness: An Anthology of Ahimsa, compiled by H. Jay Dinshah (founder of the American Vegan Society) are quotations by Schweitzer including the following: "I am conscious that flesh-eating is not in accordance with the finer feelings and I abstain from it whenever I can."

From The Vegetable Passion by Janet Barkas (New York 1975): "...Schweitzer was convinced of vegetarianism as an ideal of reverence for life and regretted he could not fulfil that goal as completely as he would have liked. In his later years, he became a more consistent vegetarian." - Barkas appears to have been give this information by "Anita Daniel, who shared many lunches and suppers with Schweitzer at his home in the village of Günsbach, Alsace".

A rather different view appears in the extract below from 'Olga - the memoirs of Olga La Marquise de St. Innocent' published in 1974. Olga was the wife of Woodland Kahler, President of IVU from 1960-71:

. . . in October of 1950 we . . . return to Paris.

Not long after we returned to Paris we met the famous Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Georges [the Kahler's 'adopted son'] by this time was doing busts, and I proposed to Dr. Schweitzer that he sit for a portrait in sculpture by my protégé, Georges. The bust would be four times lifesize. Dr. Schweitzer consented and asked us all to come and stay in his village of Günsbach in Alsace. Georges, Woody [Woodland Kahler], and I drove down and stayed for three weeks in 1951, a few months before Schweitzer received the Nobel prize. We had already put into practice Schweitzer's admirable phrase, "respect for life." [English was not her first language...] Although Schweitzer himself, unlike Mahatma Gandhi, did not always practice what he preached, he nevertheless greatly influenced the course of our lives.

Every day the doctor played Bach for us on an organ in the village church. First he would sit on a stone wall outside the church and change his shoes. He always brought with him a white linen bag containing a pair of old fashioned, worn-out lace shoes with very thin soles which enabled him to feel the wooden pedals of the organ. After this ritual we would enter the church and he would invite me to sit next to him on the organ bench and turn the pages of his music. One day the dowager Queen of Belgium arrived, and on that day it was she who turned his pages. Woody and I often lunched or dined with Schweitzer and his wife. He always ate with gusto - veal cutlets, steak, or chicken - whatever was put before him. In spite of the fact that he had invented that wonderful phrase, "respect for life," those cutlets from the little dead calf got no respect from Schweitzer. During those meals we would ply him with all sorts of questions about his philosophy and his work, until finally he said, with a twinkle in his eye, "Do not try to know the unknowable."

Schweitzer considered himself French, but his looks, his manners, his education, were all thoroughly German and he spoke German to perfection. He impressed me as being a good man, a hard-working man, a man to be admired for his comparatively clean life, but not to be compared with Gandhi. Gandhi not only spoke about respect for life, he put it into practice in his own daily living. During our stay with Schweitzer, I went snooping around the little town of Gunsbach talking with old women who sold vegetables, and with other such gossip-mongers who had known Albert Schweitzer all their lives. They told me interesting tales about Schweitzer's over ardent courtship of his wife , about his forced marriage to her, and about many other intimate details of the Reverend Dr. Schweitzer's private life.

When at length the bust of Schweitzer was finished in clay, we took it back to Paris in our car and had it cast in bronze. Afterward, through our friend the Monacan ambassador to France, Georges sold the bust to Prince Rainier who was a great admirer of Schweitzer.

Extracts from 'My Life and Thought', Schweitzer's autobiography, first published in German in 1931, translated to English in 1933 by C. T. Campion. These extracts from the 2nd edition (with a new chapter) 1954; pp141-143:

[referring to September 1915 in Africa as Schweitzer was planning his book on the Philosophy of Civilization] Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset . . . there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase 'Reverence for Life'.

. . .To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will-to-live.

At the same time, the man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life as his own. He accepts as being good: to preserve life, to raise to its highest value life which is capable of development; and as being evil: to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life which is capable of development. This is the absolute, fundamental principle of the moral, and it is a necessity of thought.

. . . A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as that of his fellowman, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help. Only the universal ethic of the feeling of responsibility in an ever-widening sphere for all that lives - only that ethic can be founded in thought.

. . . The world however, offers us the horrible drama of Will-to-Live divided against itself. One existence holds its own at the cost of another: one destroys another. Only in the thinking man has the Will-to-Live become conscious of other will-to-live, and desirous of solidarity with it. This solidarity however, he cannot completely bring about because man is subject to the puzzling and horrible law of being obliged to live at the cost of other life, and to incur again and again the guilt of destroying and injuring life. But as an ethical being he strives to escape whenever possible from this necessity, and as one who has become enlightened and merciful to put a stop to this disunion (Selbstentzweiung) of the Will-to-Live so far as the influence of his own existence reaches. He thirst to be able to preserve his humanity, and to be able to bring other existences release from their sufferings.

from the Epilogue, pp206-7:

The ethic of Reverence for Life is found particularly strange because it establishes no dividing-line between higher and lower, between more valuable and less valuable life. For this omission it has its reasons.

To undertake to lay down universally valid distinctions of value between different kinds of life will end in judging them by the greater of lesser distance at which they seem to stand from us human beings - as we ourselves judge. But that is a purely subjective criterion. Who among us knows what significance any other kind of life has in itself, and as part of the universe?

Following on such a distinction there comes next the view that there can be life which is worthless, injury to which or destruction of which does not matter. Then in the category of worthless life we come to include, according to circumstances, different kinds of insects, or primitive peoples.

To the man who is truly ethical all life is sacred, including that which from the human point of view seems lower in the scale. He makes distinctions only as each case comes before him, and under pressure of necessity, as, for example, when it falls to him to decide which of two lives he must sacrifice in order to preserve the other. But all through this series of decisions he is conscious of acting on subjective grounds and arbitrarily, and knows that he bears the responsibility for the life which is sacrificed.

I rejoice over the new remedies for sleeping-sickness, which enable me to preserve life, whereas I had previously to watch a painful disease. But every time I have under the microscope the germs which cause the disease, I cannot but reflect that I have to sacrifice this life in order to save other life.


Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace. - The Philosophy of Civilisation

The quiet conscience is an invention of the devil. - The Philosophy of Civilisation

Any religion or philosophy which is not based on a respect for life is not a true religion or philosophy. - Letter to a Japanese Animal Welfare Society, 1961

In modern European thought a tragedy is occurring in that the original bonds uniting the affirmative attitude toward the world with ethics are, by a slow but irresistible process, loosening and finally parting. - Out of My Life and Thought

The human spirit is not dead. It lives on in secret . . . It has come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind. - Nobel Peace Prize address: The Problem of Peace in the World Today

Our civilization lacks humane feeling. We are humans who are insufficiently humane! We must realize that and seek to find a new spirit. We have lost sight of this ideal because we are solely occupied with thoughts of men instead of remembering that our goodness and compassion should extend to all creatures. Religion and philosophy have not insisted as much as they should on the fact that our kindness should include all living creatures. - Letter to Aida Flemming, 1959

It is our duty to share and maintain life. Reverence concerning all life is the greatest commandment in its most elementary form. Or expressed in negative terms: "Thou shalt not kill". We take this prohibition so lightly, thoughtlessly plucking a flower, thoughtlessly stepping on a poor insect, thoughtlessly, in terrible blindness because everything takes its revenge, disregarding the suffering and lives of our fellow men, sacrificing them to trivial earthly goals. - Reverence for Life


It is man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him truly a man.

When I help an insect out of his troubles all that I do is attempt to remove some of the guilt contracted through [humanity's] crimes against animals.

That's my private ant. You're liable to break its legs. (to a ten year old boy.)

Happiness? That's nothing more than good health and a poor memory.

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 slaughterhouses... we all bear guilt. Everything that lives has value as a living thing, as one of the manifestations of the mystery that is life.

various extracts from 'Memoirs of Childhood and Youth':

As long as I can remember, I have suffered because of the great misery I saw in the world. I never really knew the artless, youthful joy of living, and I believe that many children feel this way, even when outwardly they seem to be wholly happy and without a single care.

I used to suffer particularly because the poor animals must endure so much pain and want. The sight of an old, limping horse being dragged along by one man while another man struck him with a stick he was being driven to the Colmar slaughterhouse - haunted me for weeks.

This was a horrible proposal [that the eight year-old Albert join a friend in killing birds with a sling] . . . but 1 dared not refuse for fear he would laugh at me. So we came to a tree which was still bare, and on which the birds were singing out gaily in the morning, without any fear of us. Then stooping over like an Indian on the hunt, my companion placed a pebble in the leather of his sling and stretched it. Obeying his peremptory glance I did the same, with frightful twinges of conscience, vowing firmly that I would shoot when he did. At that very moment the church bells began to sound, mingling with the song of the birds in the sunshine. It was the warning bell that came a half-hour before the main bell. For me it was a voice from heaven. I threw the sling down, scaring the birds away, so that they were safe from my companion's sling, and fled home. And ever afterwards when the bells of Holy Week ring out amidst the leafless trees in the sunshine I remember with moving gratitude how they rang into my heart at that time the commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

Very little of the great cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty, therefore, are not so much strong as widespread. But the time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Let us work that this time may come.

various extracts from 'Civilization and Ethics'

What is the nature of this degeneration in our civilization and why has it come about? . . The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually. Its balance is disturbed . . . Now come the facts to summon us to reflect. They tell us in terribly harsh language that a civilization which develops only on its material side, and not in the sphere of the spirit . . . heads for disaster.

The ethic of Reverence for Life prompts us to keep each other alert to what troubles us and to speak and act dauntlessly together in discharging the responsibility that we feel. It keeps us watching together for opportunities to bring some sort of help to animals in recompense for the great misery that men inflict upon them, and thus for a moment we escape from the incomprehensible horror of existence.

I must interpret the life about me as I interpret the life that is my own. My life is full of meaning to mc. The life around me must be full of significance to itself. If I am to expect others to respect my life, then I must respect the other life I see, however strange it may be to mine. And not only other human life, but all kinds of life: life above mine, if there be such life; life below mine, as I know it to exist. Ethics in our Western world has hitherto been largely limited to the relations of man to man. But that is a limited ethics. We need a boundless ethics which will include the animals also.

A man is really ethical only when he obeys the constraint laid on him to aid all life which he is able to help, and when he goes out of his way to avoid injuring anything living. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves sympathy as valuable in itself, nor how far it is capable of feeling. To him life as such is sacred If he goes out into the street after a rainstorm and sees a worm which has strayed there, he reflects that it will certainly dry up in the sunshine if it does not quickly regain the damp soil into which it can creep, and so he helps it back from the deadly paving stone into the lush grass. Should he pass by an insect which has fallen into a pool, he spares the time to reach a leaf or stalk on which it may clamber and save itself.

The man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own.

The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another, even the lowliest creature; to do so is to renounce our manhood and shoulder a guilt which nothing justifies.

It is the fate of every truth to be an object of ridicule when it is first acclaimed. It was once considered foolish to suppose that black men were really human beings and ought to be treated as such. What was once foolish has now become a recognized truth. Today it is considered as exaggeration to proclaim constant respect for every form of life as being the serious demand of a rational ethic. But the time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognized that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics. Ethics is in its unqualified form extended responsibility to everything that has life.