"Reverence for Life" at Lambarene in Albert Schweitzer's Last Years

A Speech By Walter Munz
Translated by P. M. Marxsen

Delivered at:

Colloquium: The Ethics of "Reverence for Life"
November 18-19, 2005
Marc Bloch University-Strasbourg II
Faculty of Protestant Theology of Strasbourg

We've been approaching the topic of "Reverence for Life" from a variety of different perspectives this weekend. To me, "Reverence for Life" seems to be the height of human thought, if not a spiritual center of gravity toward which our questions about ethics converge and, at the same time, a center from which all the "golden rules" of human conduct emanate. I've listened to the diverse presentations of this colloquium with joy and curiosity. As a Gabonese would say, "I was thirsty for [the refreshment of] seeing you, hearing you, and understanding you. Now that I have seen and heard you, I am glad to be among you.

My contribution here will be to share my experience of how "Reverence for Life" was felt in the daily life of Lambaréné. This attitude of "reverence" was barely discussed, but it was there in the melody and temperature of the place, part of the humid air, of the entire atmosphere in which we breathed and worked. Some men and women who lived there as I did on the banks of the Ogouuwé, would raise a protest at this point. They would say that I have taken considerable poetic license and am much too idealistic. Yes, it is quite clear that Lambaréné was a living place where everything existed, good and evil, just like anywhere else. But for me, I always felt that "Reverence for Life" was the spirit of the place.

"Reverence for Life" is expressed in nearly all of Dr. Schweitzer's life story. I believe it could be said that Schweitzer lived in a mystical fashion with regard to "Reverence for Life," just as he lived in a mystical fashion as a follower of Jesus. His life was that of a monk and a philosopher. He lived in two dimensions: as a theologian, he meditated on God; as a philosopher, he meditated on what he called the "ultimate will to live" or, in German, "undenlichen Willem zum Leben." Schweitzer was not only bilingual because of his Alsatian origins, he was also bilingual in his spiritual impressions and expressions. He was touched and moved by Jesus and by the philosophy of "Reverence for Life."

Everyone knows that the Doctor gave himself without reservation to his human brothers and sisters, and that he also admired and cared for plants and animals. For Schweitzer, "Reverence for Life" grew out of his awareness of the interaction of all life. With resolve, Dr. Schweitzer turned away from what Gotthard Teustch called "anthropozentrische Binnenthik," or "anthropocentric thinking," a set of ethics limited strictly to humankind. Schweitzer thought and acted as an advocate for all creatures: human, animal, vegetable and also for the life force that has no name. Among such inexpressible life forms I would count the world of Nature, of climate, of the infinite space that is so vital to all of the Earth and the Universe.

"Reverence for Life" first evokes a biological and physical meaning. But just as important, it seems to me, is the spiritual dimension of Schweitzer's philosophy, which is characterized by a sense of astonishment before the miracle of life, "Staunen vor dem Wunder des Lebens" in German. The ancient Greeks understood the notion of wonder expressed in the word Thaumazo that is at the heart of the meaning of the German expression "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben." And finally, less philosophical but more down-to-earth is the "respect" or "reverence" that I must have before the spiritual life of my neighbor, [a way of thinking] that leads to tolerance. I still hear the Doctor's words when faced with someone difficult. He would always say in Alsatian, "Weisch, mir mien ne ewe vertraje," which means, "You know how it is, we have to bear this." His point was to tolerate and accept the other person.

The Limits of "Reverence for Life"

Now, I want to tell you about a few situations in which I observed Albert Schweitzer coming to terms with the limits of applying "Reverence for Life" as an imperative in all situations. First of all, I'll share a quote on this subject from his book, Civilizations and Ethics [included within The Philosophy of Civilization]:

Whenever I disturb a life, regardless of what it may be, I must be sure that it is necessary to do so. I must not go beyond the inevitable, even if it seems insignificant. The peasant who, in his meadow, has cut down a thousand flowers to nourish his cows must take care, when he heads home, not to casually decapitate a flower along the edge of his path. For in so doing, he would be acting against the life of a being without the force of necessity.
In this context, I'll take the liberty of citing the two first examples in my book, Albert Schweitzer in the Memory of Africans, that Professor Jean Paul Sorg, who is present here, translated into French.

First example: Too Many Cats

There were many cats at the hospital, and quite a few dogs as well. Eventually, there were too many. We could no longer allow their number to grow naturally and save the lives of all the little ones. We tried to keep the females in heat closed in during the mating period, the space we had for this was insufficient for gathering all of them and it became necessary to resolve to limit their number by force.

I was not fully aware of this problem until the day when, during the siesta when most of us were resting in our rooms, I observed Schweitzer walking down toward the river with a sack made of jute over his shoulder. I followed him and observed from a distance, without making my presence known. Arriving on the riverbank, the Doctor crouched down, plunged his hand into the sack, and took out a tiny wriggling creature, seized it in his hands with vigor, and hit the little head against the trunk of a tree. Then he tossed the body out up in the air and into the river. He repeated this several times. And when the sack was empty, he retraced his steps back to the path and climbed up slowly toward his house.

That evening I asked Dr. Schweitzer about what I had seen. He responded, "You know, it is a cruel necessity. It has to be done. Alas, I could not ask anyone else to carry out this sad task."

Second Example: Rabies at the Hospital

This story is quite different from the first one but also "tragic," if that word isn't too strong and weighted with significance. The hospital campus was always frequented by a few horseshoe bats or "flying dogs," as we used to call them. They especially appeared during the mango season. These large bats, whose wingspan was nearly two feet, flew around the tops of the mango trees and pierced the night sky with their brief but resounding barking sounds. In small numbers, these animals were welcome objects of curiosity.

But one year, they arrived by the thousands and installed themselves in the treetops of all the palms along the banks of the Ogoowé. There, pressed against each other, they remained folded inward all day long, holding on with their claws, heads down. Nevertheless, the branches of palms bent beneath their weight and certain ones on the lower part of the trees began to crack. Toward the evening, all the bats left their shelter, taking off together, all at once, so that their massive shadow darkened the sky for a few moments. Thus, for us, they became a real scourge that frightened us. The sight of them was heart-stopping and we felt invaded, as if struck with a curse. And there was no way to chase them away, only the hope that one day this mob would leave by itself as, inevitably, the food they were seeking in the area would become scarce.

It was in the wake of this invasion that an epidemic of rabies took hold of the territory around the hospital. Several cats and dogs displayed characteristic symptoms: a loss of balance, foaming at the mouth, a need for isolation, unconsciousness, and paralysis. Two dogs became terribly aggressive, attacking and trying to bite anything that moved, actually biting two patients, before dying miserable deaths themselves. We then learned that patients had also been aggressively nipped by some of the bats in flight.

The situation had, thus, become more dangerous for everyone, men and beasts, at the beginning of 1965 when Schweitzer delegated the medical responsibility of the hospital to me. For me, the solution was clear. I spoke with the Chief Physician for the region of Lambaréné and got in touch with General Jauliac, who was in charge of the Public Health Service at Libreville. Via telegraph, I received this response: "The urine of the horseshoe bats contains the rabies virus. When this urine penetrates an open wound of a dog's skin, there will be a transmission of the virus." (And I can't tell you how many of our dogs had ulcers around their ears!) Continuing, Jauliac said, "The bites are therefore contagious. Kill all the dogs on campus and procure enough anti-rabies vaccine to treat everyone who has been bitten."

Armed with this advice and a heavy heart, I went to find Albert Schweitzer in his room. He asked me if I too considered these measures necessary. "Yes, Doctor," I replied.
"And Tschütschü and Caramba?" he asked. (These were the names of the Doctor's own two dogs.)
"Yes Doctor, them too."
Then, without further questions or comments, he said to me, "You will call the police from Lambaréné. It's for them to carry out this task."

Third Example: The End of a Pregnancy

This is the first time I am telling this story in public. Until now, I have kept it as a secret, something held back as a result of my sense of personal and professional discretion. As I struggled with the dilemma of sharing this or not, I struggled with the question during a recent telephone conversation with Madame Rhena Schweitzer, the daughter of the Great Doctor. (She was, moreover, very happy to hear of this colloquium on "Reverence for Life" and asked me to convey her greetings.) Rhena and I, we agreed that I should bear witness today sincerely and with conviction regarding what my lived experience. My testimony is not intended to place Albert Schweitzer among those who insist on the right to or the prohibition against ending a human pregnancy. The decision must always be an individual one.

One day in 1963, a 22 year-old European woman, who was employed by the hospital, came to me and confided that she feared she was pregnant after one incidence of undesired intercourse with a man who was passing through the area. Her suspicion was confirmed by my exam and the desperate young woman begged me to help her end the pregnancy. We met and discussed the situation several times. And I came to the conviction that ending the pregnancy in this case would be a minor evil if I took the totality of the life of this woman into consideration. I told her that I wanted to seek the advice of Albert Schweitzer. And so we two, the old Doctor and the young one, had a face-to-face discussion about it. The Doctor asked me what I thought. He listened, reflected on my response, and said: "Okay, you must do it." That evening, I performed the procedure with the help of our midwife and a nurse anesthetist.

In Summary

In the face of necessities that are clearly recognized as such, Schweitzer always displayed resolve without allowing himself to be imprisoned by principles, even his own principles. As a free man, he examined all aspects of a problem, applied the solution that made sense, and refused to generalize in an abstract fashion.

To bend beneath a principle without question indicates an absolute loyalty. And yet such an attitude can also serve to exempt oneself from personal responsibility, or excuse oneself from carrying the heavy burden of personal decision-making; and this difficult freedom belongs to the dignity of humankind. Subjecting himself to the supervision of a principle, something that would be a kind of fundamentalism, was never the objective of Albert Schweitzer, neither in religion nor in philosophy nor in medicine nor in daily life. Profoundly obligated to his values, but never enslaved to them, Albert Schweitzer was a free man.

Dr. Munz has a book available (in German) from Swiss publisher Huber titled Mit dem Herzen eines Gazelle und der Haut eines Nilpferds. A French version is expected.

Click here to return to the Albert Schweitzer Page.