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  • Writer's pictureChapman Chen

Albert Schweitzer's Reverence for Animal Life. By Dr. Chapman Chen

Updated: Feb 9

Summary: According to Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), every living being has a soul or a will to live, including both humans and other non-human creatures, and God is the "infinite will to live." He chastises traditional mainstream theology for neglecting non-human creatures. His ethical principle, "reverence for life," extends to animals and even plants, and constitutes our spiritual bond with God, combining God's negative command not to kill and Jesus' positive command to love (cf. Barsam 2008). Schweitzer, however, thinks that killing is sometimes inevitable in life, but it can only be committed out of absolute necessity and with reverence.

1. Who's Albert Schweitzer?

Albert Schweitzer was an Alsatian theologian, physician, philosopher, and organist, with three doctorates in philosophy, theology and medicine respectively, who was awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize for Peace for his philosophy of "reverence for life" and tireless humanitarian work, especially his charitable medical services in equatorial Africa.

In 1899, Schweitzer became a deacon at the Church of Saint Nicholas in Strasbourg. In 1901, he became provisional Principal of the Theological College of Saint Thomas, from which he had just graduated, and in 1903 his appointment was made permanent.

2. A Common Will to Live

According to Albert Schweitzer, every living creature has a soul or a will to live, including both humans, other non-human animals and even plants. And God is the ultimate or "infinite will to live" (Schweitzer 1950: 305).

For Schweitzer, 'the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness is that "I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live '' (Schweitzer 1950: 310).

And he does not limit the will-to-live to humans; it is discernible in "the flowering tree, in strange forms of medusa, [and] in the blade of grass" (Schweitzer 1950: 282). Concretely: "Everything, accordingly, which meets me in the world of phenomena is a manifestation of the will-to-live" (Schweitzer 1950: 237).

2.1. Plants do NOT have a Central Nervous System

In my opinion, Schweitzer should have distinguished animals as from plants in terms of the ability to feel pain. Schweitzer himself repeatedly draws attention to "the cry of the Fellowship of those who bear the Mark of Pain." The members of this Fellowship are "Those who have learnt by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean" (Schweitzer 1922: 124-25). In a passage from his autobiography, he speaks again of his sensitivity to this Fellowship of pain:

Only at rare moments have I felt really glad to be alive. I cannot help but feel the suffering all around me, not only of humanity but of the whole of creation. I have never tried to withdraw myself from this community of suffering. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain that lies upon the

world. (Schweitzer 1990: 237)

However, Schweitzer fails to make it clear that although this Fellowship of pain includes not only humans but also other animals, it does not cover plants. For plants, unlike animals, do not have a central nervous system. They may have some sort of response to dangers, but it is not pain that can be acutely felt. Meanwhile, fruits are for spreading seeds and therefore expected by the mother plant herself to be eaten by animals. And if you pluck the leaves of a plant, it normally won't kill it. Contrariwise, if you tear away the limbs of an animal, she will either die or at least suffer immensely (cf. Dekic n.d.).

So much the more, animal farming is a grossly inefficient way of producing food for humans. According to Vaclav Smil (2014), Distinguished Emeritus Professor from the University of Manitoba, it takes 25 kg of feed (mostly corn and soy) to produce 1 kg of beef, 9.4 kg for 1 kg of pork, and 3.3 kg for 1 kg of chicken meat. So if we really want to save plants from unnecessary destruction, we should go vegan all the more.

3. "Man" is No "Lord" above All Other Creatures!

Schweitzer's discourse attacks the theological rationale for neglecting and undermining non-human creatures. He contends that it is not true that only humans have an immortal soul and that they are thus the lord of all creatures; but that only God is the Lord of all creatures.

One thinks less about what we ought to be toward the poor creatures than again and again about how one can make the most of the difference between man and them: 'You have an immortal soul (note 1). The animal does not. An unbridgeable chasm lies between us,' as if we really knew something about it. (Schweitzer 1988:24)

"We reject the idea that man is 'master of other creatures,' 'lord' above all others (note 2). We no longer say there are senseless existences with which we can deal as we please." (Schweitzer 1965:174).

His concept of ultimate liberation draws on both Old and New Testament visions of universal deliverance. His view of the kingdom of God originates from his understanding of "the prophet Isaiah" (11:6-9) who announces "the Lord will save the world", as well as St Paul's "marvelous passage" (i.e. Romans 8:22) that "speaks of the longing of the whole creation for early redemption" and flaunts "his deep sympathy with the animal creation and the natural world" (Schweitzer 1988:32).

4. Reverence to Life and Union with God

Essentially, Schweitzer holds that "in loving self-devotion to other life we realise our spiritual union with [God]" (Schweitzer 1936:264).

5. Reverence to Life Combines Two Commands

Schweitzer's ethical principle of reverence for life combines God's negative command not to kill -- "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13 KJV) -- and Jesus' positive command to love -- "Love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22: 39 KJV). Both commands, from Schweitzer's perspective, include both human- and non-human animals (and even plants).

5.1. Thou Shalt not Kill!

Schweitzer regards the proclamation of the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (note 3), as one of the most crucial events in the incorporeal history of humanity (see Schweitzer 1936: 80 and Hesse 1971: 123-27) .

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 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. (Schweitzer 1950:310)

5.2. Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself

In his interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Schweitzer endeavors to enlarge our conception of neighbour to cover non-human creatures (note 4).

What is the sort of love toward God which compels us to be kind to others? What does love for our neighbour mean?... The presupposition of morality is to share everything that goes on around us, not only in human life but also in the life of all creatures. (Schweitzer 1969:118-119)

6. Is Killing ever Permissible?

Nonetheless, Schweitzer concedes that sometimes killing is unavoidable, but it should be done only out of absolute necessity and with reverence. For example, Schweitzer would not kill mosquitoes while in Europe, where mosquitoes are only annoying, but would do so while in Africa, where potentially Malaria is spread via mosquitoes. In such circumstances, encountered with two evils, we have to choose the lesser though a lesser of two evils is still an evil. Of this tragic aspect of life Schweitzer (1988: 55) is fully aware: “For the ethical person there is no such thing as a good conscience, but always only battle with oneself, doubting and questioning.” (See also Hartmann, 1932: 76.)

Another example. Hunting for entertainment and imprisonment of innocent animals in zoos are both unnecessary and disrespectful to life (Eisendraht 1951:218; Schweitzer 1998:236; Seaver 1963:102).

7. Was Schweitzer Vegan?

Frankly, action speaks louder than words. If a philosopher's or theologian's actions should contradict his/her proposition, then he/she is not going to be very convincing. That's why people are naturally curious to know whether Schweitzer, who promulgated reverence for all lives, was himself vegan or not.

It turns out that Schweitzer was not a vegetarian in his earlier life. For example, in 1950, biographer Magnus C. Ratter commented that Schweitzer never "commit[ted] himself to the anti-vivisection, vegetarian, or pacifist positions, though his thought leads in this direction" (Ratter 1950:179).

Further, Olga La Marquise De St. Innocent (1974), the wife of Woodland Kahler, President of International Vegetarian Union from 1960-71, reported that when she and her husband visited Schweitzer and stayed in his village of Günsbach in Alsace in 1951, "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."

Nonetheless, biographer James Bentley (1992) has written that Schweitzer became a vegetarian after his wife's death in 1957 and he was "living almost entirely on lentil soup."

8. Conclusion

Although Albert Schweitzer did not become vegan until the last years of his life, he is still ground-breaking in relation to traditional theology in that his writings extend the reverence for life, in terms of God's commandment "thou shalt not kill" and Jesus' command to "love thy neighbour as thyself", to animals.


1. Schweitzer is definitely right in pointing out that not only humans have an immortal soul. The Biblical Hebrew word, נֶ֫פֶשׁ‎ nephesh (soul) is translated "life" or "creature" in most English versions of the Bible when applied to animals, e.g., Genesis 1:20, 1:21, 1:24, 1:30 KJV. Whereas it is often translated accurately when applied to humans, e.g., Genesis 2:7 KJV (cf. Antipas 2014). The same with רוּחַ‎ ruach (spirit), e.g., "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts... they have all one breath [ר֫וּחַ ruach (spirit)]; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast" (Ecclesiastes 3:19 KJV). The significance of animals having a soul and a spirit lies in its implication that humans and animals are equal before the Creator, that animals are our neighbors; and we are supposed to follow Jesus' commandment and love them (Matthew 22:39), instead of abusing and murdering them.

2. It is certainly praiseworthy that Schweitzer should "reject the idea that man is 'master of other creatures,' 'lord' above all others". So many theologians, e.g., St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, have misinterpreted the word "dominion" in Genesis 1:28 (KJV) as "lordship". "Dominion" there actually means not domination or despotism but "stewardship" (Linzey 2016; Chen 2021) and "protection" (Halteman 2007), because 1. In Gen. 1:29, humans were given a vegan diet; 2. In Gen. 2:15 NIV, humans were instructed by God to "take care of" the Garden with all the animals in it; 3. God made His covenant with not only humans (Noah and his descendants) but also animals (Gen. 9:8-17); 4. God has compassion for all creatures (Psalm 145: 9). 5. Animals are our folk (Gen. 1:30). 6. Christ always sided with the marginalized (Matthew 25:40 NIV); 7. Jesus died at least partly for animal liberation. (Mark 11:18); 8. Via Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, God reconciled himself to all groaning creatures and offered them hope of redemption (Colossians 1:19-20).

3. By eating animals, one breaks the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill". For, as put by Reuben Alcalay (1981), one of the greatest contemporary linguists cum author of The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary, the 6th Commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13 KJV; Matthew 19:18 KJV) means "any kind of killing whatsoever." The original Hebrew, he points out, is לֹא תִּרְצָח Lo tirtzakh, which requires us to stop ourselves from killing any sentient beings altogether (see Rosen 2004:87).

4. Animals are our neighbours by reason of the commonality of possessing a living soul, the shared ability to suffer, and their physical proximity to us. In the first creation story, God gave not only humanity (Genesis 2:7) but also every non-human animal a living soul:-

"And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so." (Genesis 1:30)

Hebrew for the phrase "life" in the verse above is "nephesh chayyah", which is mistranslated as "life" in most English versions of the Bible. However, in reality, nephesh means soul and chayyah means living. In other words, God did give the animals a living soul when He created them.

By reason of this commonality of possessing a living soul the animals are also our brothers and sisters to be loved by us (Farians 2009).

Also, animals are apparently proximal to us. They live side by side with us. They are literally neighbors of us, just that we frequently destroy their homes and chase them out of their living habitats.

Moreover, Jeremy Bentham (1789) pointed out that it is animals' ability to suffer rather than their rationality which made them our neighbors:-"The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"


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