Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.
Since it is National Be Kind to Animals Week (May 1 – May 7), it is a great time to discuss the importance of Albert Schweitzer and his influence on the animal welfare community. His ideas significantly influenced the work of Rachel Carson, one of the first modern environmentalists, who wrote Silent Spring. A man far ahead of his time in this regard, as a boy he always loved animals and felt compassion for their suffering. In this way, he is similar to Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty, another pioneer of the animal rights movement. The following anecdote is an excellent example that demonstrates his depth of feeling and compassion. In his biography by James Brabazon, Schweitzer tells the story of what happened one day when he and a friend went out to shoot birds with a sling shot when he was about eleven years old. The young Albert did not want to lose face with his friend who owned the weapon, but Albert scared away the birds because he felt bad about hurting them. As a child, he had the strong sense that all animals have a strong will to live just as human do. Born on January 14, 1875 in Kayersberg in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, now France, but then part of the German Empire, he was a reflective boy who had an innate sense of justice.
Albert Schweitzer developed a philosophy which he called a “Reverence for Life”, for which he received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize; he considered this philosophy his greatest contribution to mankind. Schweitzer thought that Western civilizations were decaying as a result of the abandonment of their ethical foundation, namely the affirmation of and respect for life. Reverence for life was an essential part of Schweitzer’s personal philosophy which he hoped would be made known throughout the world by means of his books, talks and through his own example.
A vegetarian, his ideas were influenced by the Eastern philosophy of Jainism. Jains, primarily located in India, extend the practice of nonviolence not only towards other humans but towards all living beings. For this reason, vegetarianism is a hallmark of Jain identity, with the majority of Jains practicing lacto vegetarianism. If there is violence against animals during the production of dairy products, veganism is encouraged.
Schweitzer, a “Renaissance Man”, was one of the most well-rounded and enlightened people of his generation. He is mostly remembered for his work in Africa as a missionary and doctor. In addition to being a theologian, philosopher, professor, organist, and physician, he wrote several books.
In his own words he describes the budding idea of Reverence for Life that was percolating in him even as a child. “It was unreasonable to me–this was even before I had gone to school–that in my evening devotions I should pray only for people. So when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me goodnight, I used secretly to add another prayer which I had myself composed for all living creatures: Dear God, guard and bless everything that breathes; keep them from all evil and let them sleep in peace.” Unlike so many children who begin their lives with a caring heart, Albert Schweitzer did not lose his capacity for love and concern when he became an adult. His empathy was all-encompassing, and led to a lifetime of service to all forms of life.
In his autobiography, Schweitzer wrote that when he was twenty-one he woke one morning with the thought that because he had been so blessed in a world of so much suffering and sorrow, he must give something in return. “So with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside the window, I decided that I could justify living my life for scholarship and art until I was thirty.” But he promised himself that after thirty, he would devote his life to the service of others.
Dr. Schweitzer believed that whatever path of service is chosen, compassion and concern for all creatures must be incorporated into that service. Reverence for Life leaves no breeding ground for cruelty. It is a “boundless ethic” which includes all beings regardless of race, religion, or species.