ALBERT SCHWEITZER: REVERENCE FOR LIFE – A UNIVERSAL ETHIC
By René Wadlow
January 14 was the anniversary of the birth of Albert Schweitzer and was a special day at the hospital that he founded at Lambaréné, Gabon. Alsatian wine would be served at lunch and conversations over lunch would last longer than usual before everyone had to return to his tasks. In 1963, when I was working for the Ministry of Education of Gabon, and spending time at the Protestant secondary school some half-mile down river from the hospital, I was invited to lunch for the birthday celebration. As the only non-hospital person there, I was placed next to Dr. Schweitzer, and we continued our discussions both on the events that had taken place along the Ogowe River and his more philosophical concerns.
We would often discuss his interest in the classic authors of Chinese philosophy. I had been an undergraduate research assistant of Professor Y. P. Mei at Princeton. Mei was the professor of Chinese philosophy in the Philosophy Department and in many ways a philosopher himself. He had been president of a university in China during the Second World War and had moved to the USA after the end of the civil war in 1948.
Although the bulk of Albert Schweitzer’s philosophical reflection concerned the German philosophical tradition −Kant, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche − he was drawn to the founders of Chinese Taoism − Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu and the champion of universalist ethics, Mo-tzu.
In Schweitzer’s writings he often contrasted Indian and Chinese philosophical thought − the two major traditions of Asia. For Schweitzer, Indian thought was dualistic, there is on the one hand matter, and on the other spirit. He saw Indian thought a fundamentally pessimistic concerning the world and matter. In Indian thought, the spirit is both higher and in a sense more ‘real’ than matter. The aim of an individual is to detach himself from matter and unite with the spirit. As he wrote, “Their world-view is pessimistic-ethical, and contains, therefore, incentives only to the inward civilization of the heart, not to outward civilization as well.
For Schweitzer, the Chinese view, in its Taoist form at least, was optimistic with the complete integration of spirit and matter. The Tao, which is both the source of all things but also the motor of all action, is not separate from material creation but is fully embodied in the material world and within each individual. Thus ethics are grounded in the nature of the universe as well as in the nature of humanity. An element that attracted Schweitzer to Taoist thought was its ethical standards which encompass all persons. The Middle East religious systems which have spread worldwide started with Zarathustra who is the foundation of Middle East religious thought. His approach was taken over by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Middle East philosophical approach divides people into the “saved” and the “unsaved”. The saved are one’s brothers toward which there is an agreed upon ethical framework and the unsaved who are cast out, unclean and toward whom other ethical standards prevail. This good-bad, light-darkness is incorporated into the structures of the universe where there is a constant struggle between the forces of light and those of darkness.
This division between the saved and the unsaved was eliminated by the Stoics, especially the later Roman Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius where the concept of a universal ethic for mankind comes into sight. However, in the chaos of ideas in the late Roman Empire, Christianity emerges victorious with its idea individual redemption. Thus there is a return to the saved and the unsaved, between those who will live in the Kingdom of God and the others.
Only Chinese thought holds the seeds for a universal approach, but Chinese thought was clouded for a long time by the weak eco-political position of China. China’s current rise is too recent and too mixed with different ideological positions to become a champion of the universal ethic of Taoist thought. Moreover, the poetic formulation of much of Taoist writings makes its comprehension difficult for many.
Albert Schweitzer’s reverence for life which accepts that there is reciprocal relationship among all living things may be the closest to a Taoist philosophy easily understood worldwide, a philosophy needed for a deep ecology ethic.
Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.